(I wrote this essay in mid-October (October 17, according to the timestamp on the file) and meant to publish it then. But I neglected to pay the hosting fees for my web site, and it got taken down. So now the piece will have to serve as a belated artifact of a troubled time.–NW)
I don’t expect this to change anyone’s mind or make one jot of difference, but I’ll post it here nonetheless, as a record of my response to an unusual historical moment.
I don’t think Donald J. Trump should be president.
The problem with Donald J. Trump isn’t that he turned American electoral politics into another form of reality television. Electoral politics was already a form of reality television. That’s why Trump got as far as he did.
The problem with Donald J. Trump, in my view, isn’t that he has bad policies. He has no policies at all–only evil dreams and noxious fantasies that might one day coalesce into bad policies, under the influence of capable minions.
The problem with Donald J. Trump isn’t that he’s a fascist. Anyway, I don’t think so. I’ve never been quite sure what that word is supposed to mean.
The problem with Donald J. Trump isn’t that he’s racist, or sexist, or xenophobic. He often seems to be all those things–even goes out of his way to seem as xenophobic and sexist as possible. But as any good liberal can tell you, racism, sexism, and xenophobia are endemic in our society–as they are, I suspect, in all societies. So why beat up on Trump?
Finally, the problem with Donald Trump isn’t that he failed in business, or that he was born rich, or that he looks odd, or that he’s inarticulate. Lots of people have those problems.
No, the problem with Donald J. Trump is, quite simply, that he’s Donald J. Trump: so far as it’s possible to tell (and when can we ever tell for sure?) a petty, irresponsible, and vindictive man.
I don’t think Donald Trump feels much personal enmity toward blacks, or Mexicans, or the Chinese, or even Muslims. He says cruel things about these groups because people cheer when he does so, and Donald Trump likes it when people cheer.
I don’t think Donald Trump cheats and bilks his business partners because he’s greedy in the ordinary sense. I think he does it because it’s an easy power play. (“And what if I don’t pay ya, huh? Watcha gonna do about it, sue me?”) Donald Trump likes to feel powerful.
I do think Donald Trump has nasty views towards women, but I don’t think they fully explain his behavior. He goes out of his way to demean and degrade women not because he believes–in any coherent, disciplined way–that they’re inherently inferior, but because it makes him feel like a big man. And Donald Trump likes being a big man.
Finally, I don’t think Donald Trump wants to become president because he has a serious interest in controlling immigration, or fighting terrorism, or righting trade imbalances, or curtailing foreign adventurism, or negotiating with Russia, or anything else. He wants to become president because “That’ll show ’em!”
Some people say: “Sure, Donald Trump has personal flaws. But he listened to a part of the electorate that others overlooked. He gave voice to their concerns, at least some of which are legitimate. Shouldn’t we take those concerns seriously?”
To which I say: “I’m quite ready to take such people and their concerns seriously, so long as they’re divorced from the vain and spiteful figure of Donald J. Trump.” Seeing people support Trump makes me think they’re not especially serious–that they’re more interested in having someone channel their rage than in bringing about meaningful changes.
Some people say: “Sure, Donald Trump’s a buffoon. But isn’t that a good thing? Imagine what a competent person might do in his position! Shouldn’t we support Trump’s doomed candidacy now, as a clever way to short-circuit the rise of a fiendishly capable demagogue down the line?”
To which I say, “This is too sophisticated for me. All I can say for sure is that Donald Trump is an awful candidate, who seems to be awful in his own special way. Let’s deal with other bad candidates as they come.”
Some people say: “Yes, Donald Trump’s amoral, but the only real alternative is Hillary Clinton, and isn’t she just as bad? She played fast and loose with state secrets. She feels a raging sense of entitlement. She sold out our people in Benghazi. She curries favor through a corrupt foundation and countless back-door deals. She pretends to be a brave feminist, but rode to power on the coattails of a lecherous husband. She cozies up to bankers, supports reckless wars. How can we ever choose between such wicked candidates?”
I think Clinton’s faults have been exaggerated, but what does it matter? We’re talking about Donald J. Trump. If people think Clinton’s a terrible candidate, they shouldn’t vote for her. I don’t think they should vote for Trump either.
It’s rare in politics to be faced with such a stark moral question–a choice that speaks not to differing party affiliations, differing policy preferences, differing institutional loyalties, or even different beliefs, but to basic questions of morality and conduct. Watching Donald J. Trump over the past year, I’ve been reminded often of an early childhood memory. I must have been about seven or eight at the time, and I was playing in the schoolyard with some toys and a green caterpillar. A group of boys came to taunt me, squashed the caterpillar, and smeared its oozing remains over my toys.
It was the first time I thought seriously about human cruelty. Those boys had killed an innocent creature for the purpose of soiling something I loved, and they had done it only to savor the thrill of humiliating me. I marveled at the petty meanness of the act, wondering why anyone would be so gratuitously nasty. I still don’t know why, not really, but I’ve come to recognize that vindictive urge in myself, to be wary of it in others, to see it as an ineradicable element of human nature–the temptation to assert power through inflicting pain.
This seems to me to be the governing urge of Donald Trump’s personality. He needs to feel big by making others feel small. Does he need anything else, want anything else, value anything else in this world? Sometimes I wonder. It’s common to include the word bully in a long list of Trump’s defects: a bully, a blowhard, a racist, a fearmonger, an ignoramus, and on and on.
I say the word bully covers it. Donald J. Trump is a bully and nothing more.
I doubt Trump really hates Mexicans or immigrants. He attacks them because people want him to attack them, and Trump has a bully’s affinity for angry mobs.
I doubt Trump really hates Muslims. He attacks them because they’re a vulnerable group in America, and Trump has a bully’s instinct for preying on the weak.
I doubt Trump believes women should be second-class citizens. He insults and assaults them because he enjoys seeing them humiliated. All chauvinists are bullies at heart.
I doubt Trump traffics in conspiracy theories because he finds them intellectually appealing. He believes them because they gratify his ego, because he suffers from a bully’s limitless sense of persecution.
And so it goes. The disdainful treatment of business partners, the systematic exploitation of the needy, the red-faced railing against elites, the obsession with attacking allies and humiliating supporters, the vengeful feuds with disabled people and sick children and grieving parents, the lawsuits, the mood swings, the disconnected litanies, the short attention span …
If we could listen in on Trump’s interior monologue, I imagine we’d hear something like this.
… SHOW EM ALL. OH, I’LL SHOW EM. THEY’RE ALL AGAINST ME. WHY ME? I’M AN OKAY GUY. A GREAT GUY. BUT THEY’RE ALL OUT TO GET ME. SUCH AWFUL PEOPLE. TRYING TO HUMILIATE ME. I’LL HUMILIATE THEM! I’LL PROVE IT. I’LL BE THE BEST. THEN THEY’LL SEE. LIARS, TRAITORS, CHEATS, PLOTTERS … OH, I’LL SHOW EM. I’LL SHOW EM GOOD …
Forever and ever, in an endless stream.
This is what accounts for Trump’s strange magnetism. Most people are complex in their motives. But Trump is surreally simple. It’s all wounded pride, all day, all night. And this is what justifies the comparisons to Hitler, who came from a different culture, championed different beliefs, pursued different goals, wanted different things–who was, in short, a very different political figure–but had the same genius for fathomless resentment.
In George Orwell’s often-quoted words:
[Hitler’s] is a pathetic, dog-like face, the face of a man suffering under intolerable wrongs. In a rather more manly way it reproduces the expression of innumerable pictures of Christ crucified, and there is little doubt that that is how Hitler sees himself. The initial, personal cause of his grievance against the universe can only be guessed at; but at any rate the grievance is here. He is the martyr, the victim, Prometheus chained to the rock, the self-sacrificing hero who fights single-handed against impossible odds. If he were killing a mouse he would know how to make it seem like a dragon. One feels, as with Napoleon, that he is fighting against destiny, that he can’t win, and yet that he somehow deserves to.
Trump has become a lightning rod for the outraged suffering of the masses because, like all great revolutionary figures, he embodies and concentrates their pain. It’s a truism that bullies are in pain–pacing the carpet at 3 AM, brooding on real and imagined slights, lashing out in every direction, smothering a sourceless hurt with gold and spectacle and comfort food. In a bully’s mind, he’s the real victim–a conviction that can always be justified, because we are each of us small and frail and the world is full of terrors.
That’s why the proper response to Trump’s erratic presidential campaign is not gleeful disdain or bitter rage, but sorrow and concern. Only profound pain could make a man act this way, raving and posturing like an abused child. And only deep distress could lead millions of people to turn to him.
I suspect Trump’s followers would say something like this in response.
“You make us sound like fools or bad people, but that’s all wrong. For decades, we’ve been crushed, abused, insulted by elites. They take jobs from our towns, money from our accounts, food from our tables, land from under our feet, and what do they do with it? Either keep it for themselves, or throw it away overseas. Which would be one thing, if they were actually helping anyone. But no, the rest of the world is a mess, too. So they rob us here at home to pay for their meddling in other countries. Poking their nose into everyone’s business, never doing anyone any good.
“You think we don’t know how it works? That it’s all a mass of lies, hypocrisy, insider dealing, payola? The banks pay the lobbyists, the lobbyists pay the politicians, the politicians lie, the media spins the lie. Same as it ever was.
“But that’s not the worst of it. Hell, there’s always been rich and poor. Always been corruption, always been incompetence. Everyone knows that.
“No, the worst is the insult. The mockery. The unimaginable contempt. Because apparently it’s not enough for rich people to take what’s ours. Not enough for them to interfere in our business. Not enough for them to go and pull the same trick on others, bossing folks around and screwing things up, everywhere across the world.
“No, no, they have to put you down while they’re doing it. Act like they’re the great shining heroes, everyone else is depraved and sinful. Go on TV, make fun of our food, our hobbies, our teeth, our culture, our speech. Try to say anything about it, they call you a racist. Ask to be left alone, they call that oppression. They fill the airwaves with their propaganda, come into our communities with their armies of regulators, tell us how to talk, how to act, what to feel, what to think, how to raise our kids, heck, even where to take a piss, then they try to make out like we’re the authoritarians.
“Oh, they want it all. Not only our property, not only our rights, but our freedom, our pride, faith, our dreams. You look for comfort in the house of the Lord, they call you a bigot. Look for solace in the past, they call that bigotry too. Look for comfort in the arms of a lover, they tell you everything you do is sexist. Buy a gun to hunt or defend yourself, the president of the nation’ll go on TV to insult you.
“It’s not even consistent. They’re all for women’s rights, till it comes to offending Muslims. They’re all for respecting Muslims, till they feel like pulling strings in the Middle East. They’re all for messing around in foreign countries, till it comes to actually stopping terrorists–then, suddenly, they get cold feet. They go on and on about how much black lives matter, but they’re the ones who let black neighborhoods go to hell. Instead of fixing that problem, what do they do? Come out in defense of rioters and criminals, celebrate rabble-rousers and hatemongers. They persecute the cops who are trying to clean up the streets, pal around with big-money types who helped cause the problem, glorify criminals in songs and movies, then try to blame the whole mess on people with hardly an ounce of real power. It’s our fault, they say, because of ‘privilege.’ Meanwhile, they’re sitting in their TV studios, their lecture rooms, their corner offices, raking in the big bucks for putting other people down.
“They come up with ideas–about sex, faith, family–that would seem crazy and offensive to just about anyone on the planet–anyone in history–then act like you’re a monster if you don’t fall in line. Hell, they act like you’re a monster even if you do fall in line, so what’s the point? They treat millions of people as backwards, superstitious, ignorant, wrong, then say in the same breath how you have to respect other cultures. So, what, it’s fine when they do it? No matter what you do or say, they got a word or phrase–implicit bias, structural racism, ethnocentrism, cultural appropriation, unexamined sexism, ‘echoes of anti-semitism’–to explain how it’s evil and foolish and depraved. Like the old witch hunts–confess you’re a bigot, or we’ll condemn you for denying your bigotry. So why not just give in and carry that cross? Yeah, I’m politically incorrect–screw you.
“They act so smart and enlightened and educated … it’s all about education, they keep saying, everyone’s got to get educated … then all they seem to want to teach is how bigoted and stupid and wicked they think everyone is. Jack up tuition, let standards go to hell, stifle speech, sell out their intellectual heritage, that’s all fine, so long as they get to stand at the head of the class, preaching shame and hatred to anyone who comes in the room.
“You listen to these people, you read what they write, you see the contradictions, you watch them on TV, mugging and smirking and cracking their jokes–you look at the hypocrisy, the unbelievable hypocrisy–and after a while, you realize what it’s all about. Not justice, like they say. It’s not about money. It’s got a lot to do with power, sure, but what doesn’t?
“No, what it’s really about is sneering and jeering. Sneering at people who grow their food, clean their toilets, take away their trash. Jeering at people who fight to protect them. Sneering at cops, at parishioners, at ordinary folks who respect tradition. Even sneering and jeering at each other, because there’s nothing they respect, no one they’ll spare, nothing they really hold sacred except their own invincible smugness. Any excuse, any justification’ll do, so long as they get to feel superior. That’s what being an elite means these days: making money off sneering and jeering at people who do honest work.
“And you call us the bullies? Take a look! Those are the real bullies–the Ivy League kids and their power-player parents, rigging the rules, hoarding the big bucks, writing speech codes, all so they can flaunt how much contempt they have for ordinary folks. They have the money. They have the platform. They have the power. They own the culture, and they make–and waste–billions of dollars trying to force it on other people around the world. They’ve stomped us all into the ground, and still they insist on kicking dirt into our faces. Because nothing will ever be enough for them–nothing less than total control, total domination, total humiliation for the millions of people they find ‘deplorable.’
“So go ahead, call Donald Trump a bully. But he’s fighting back against the bigger bullies–the cheats and hypocrites whose actions have proven they stand for nothing, value nothing, believe in nothing, but the joy of sneering and jeering at those who don’t fight back.”
I see a lot of truth in that indictment. (I wrote it, after all.) Yet I can’t help but sympathize with the people it indicts: the women and Blacks and Native Americans trying to claw free of a history of persecution, the gay and transgender people seeking intimacy and privacy in the face of punishing conventions, the immigrants struggling to find a place in a society built around European culture, and yes, even the elites, the financiers and journalists and consultants and politicians, who are struggling to build careers and do good work in a system of complex entanglements and distorted incentives.
So here we are, with the country trapped in a cycle of insults and grievances, everyone feeling bullied, everyone claiming to have been disrespected and victimized, and Donald Trump, avatar of outrage, standing at the center of the storm.
I wonder constantly how we came to this point, this national obsession with resentment and persecution.
Is it something that happens to all pluralistic societies? Are cultural differences inevitably magnified into existential threats?
Is it a product of rapid societal change: the old guard persecuted by the new guard, the new guard by the old?
Is it a result of growing inequality, with every member of society squeezed between a shrinking group of wary elites and an envious, less fortunate multitude?
Is it a perennial problem exacerbated by technology, now that every personal assertion is inundated by a flood of digital dissent?
Is it something subtler–a crumbling of our communities, a retreat from religion, a loss of contact with nature and soil, a decline of trades and handicrafts and creative work, a substitution of electric gossip for personal encounters, an affection for hi-tech spectacle over the sober study of the written word?
Or is there something simpler, more fundamental at work? Few people on either side of the current cultural clash would say that I myself belong to the ranks of the persecuted. Yet I’ve always felt, in some basic way, that the world is against me, largely for reasons inaccessible to everyone else: because I’ve always been lonely, because I’ve always doubted myself, because other children were often cruel to me–in the corners of dimly remembered playgrounds, years ago.
It’s so easy to feel bullied. So easy to look online, at the news, at our presidential debates, and find echoes of remembered taunts and attacks. So easy, really, that anyone can do it, tallying up the private wounds that every psyche inevitably suffers. Has there ever been a public figure as easily triggered as Donald Trump–icon of inherited advantage, obvious author of his own misfortunes, who nevertheless sees himself a maltreated underdog?
For a man with such power to carry it so gracelessly, cultivating such bitter paranoia in himself and others, for a presidential candidate to embrace the bully’s logic that an injured ego justifies any act, is atrocious. Does he have any honor, any decency, any character?
True, Donald Trump has spoken out against certain evils in our society–above all, the haughty insularity of the upper classes. But the moral gravity of this complaint is vitiated by Trump’s monstrous behavior and appalling motivations. He taints every issue he broaches with his viciousness, his lewdness, his transparent selfishness. Our country is divided, wounded, hurting. We need leaders of probity and dignity to help mend those divisions, not cynical opportunists who profit by exacerbating them.
At a time of evident crisis, when it’s our shared duty to nurture what is best in ourselves–patience, charity, sympathy, reflection, and consideration–Donald Trump represents all that’s worst in human nature. He provokes people into frenzies of hot-tempered judgment. He revels in greed, emulation, dishonesty. He jumps to conclusions, derides learning and wisdom. He sees empathy as error, compassion as weakness. He feeds on apathy, discord, and distrust.
His public words and actions conform to a crude philosophy: that the bully’s way is the only way. Don’t think, don’t hesitate, don’t get soft. Never admit error, never confess a sin, never trust anyone, never show concern. Never let anything hold you back. Just hit, hit hard, and keep on hitting.
In behaving this way, in promulgating this sick mindset, Donald Trump betrays everyone who deals with him. He teaches his supporters that they have to become bullies to overcome the indignities they’ve suffered. And, being a bully himself, he encourages enemies to see his supporters as bullies, too, and thereby to become bullies themselves.
It’s a temptation that should always be resisted. I don’t know the best response to the problems our society is facing. But I’m certain that Donald Trump’s toxic cocktail–rage, resentment, mockery, and haste–is the worst possible response to any crisis, ever.