Now that Trump has all but won the Republican nomination, we can see what should have been obvious all along. Any explanation of Trump’s success is, really, a postmortem. For such a man to have gotten so far, something in America must have died, failed, collapsed. But what?
Those who say they understand Trump’s success claim for themselves an unsavory distinction. They have a special insight, in effect, into what is worst in American culture.
See this Slate article by Leon Neyfakh. Back in March, Neyfakh rounded up a group of people who saw the Trump tsunami coming. They’re a motley crew in some respects. But they offer a surprisingly consistent interpretation of Trump’s good fortune.
From the beginning there have been three main views of the Trump phenomenon: an optimistic view, a pessimistic view, and a cynical view.
The optimistic view is that Trump is an ugly but necessary corrective to the Republican party’s punishing laissez-faire policies. Sure, his campaign is racist and Trump himself is a shallow fraud. But those are side effects. The racism and vulgarity are really outlets for class discontent. Throw a bone to the poor whites who are falling behind, and the worst of the Trump surge will drain away.
The pessimistic view is that it all comes down to racism. Economic and class issues are just a cover for old-fashioned bigotry, against Mexicans, against Muslims, against blacks, and against Obama, who’s always been a lightning rod for reactionary rage. Again, Republicans brought this on themselves, with dog-whistle politics, the Southern Strategy, Willie Horton tactics, etc.
I call this a pessimistic take because racism is nastier than populism. But it does have its upside. It suggests Trump won’t win the general election, and that future Trumps won’t win any elections. There won’t be enough bigoted whites to do the job.
And so we come to the cynical view, which holds that all this is just idle intellectualizing, the usual humbug of elites overthinking a problem. It’s not the economy, stupid–or race, or foreign policy, or intra-party warfare, or anything else. Trump is rich, famous, and entertaining. And for most people, that’s enough.
There are different strains of the cynical view. One says that Trump is a product of social media, thrust into the national spotlight by babbling boobs on Twitter, whose die-hard adulation forced the mainstream media to take him seriously.
Another strain says the opposite, that Trump is a product of the mainstream media themselves, whose hunger for viewers, readers, and profits led them to cozy up to his carnivalesque campaign.
Yet a third strain says that the media has nothing to do with it. Trump supporters are incorrigible authoritarians, triggered like lab rats by irrational fears.
Finally, I think we can add in a fourth strain, that of the cynical Trump supporter, who says, essentially, “Sure, Trump’s a macho blowhard. So what? Macho blowhards are awesome!”
That’s more or less the view expressed by Neyfakh’s gallery of Trump harbingers. These men have different personal reactions to Trump. Some admire him. Some oppose him. Some are coy about their feelings. But they all agree that policy, racial, economic, or otherwise, has little to do with his success.
Chris Cillizza goes by the polls. Mike Cernovich sees Trump as the return of the patriarchy. Howard Stern praises–what else?–Trump’s ballsy attitude. Scott Adams talks about mass hypnosis.
What they concur on is that the so-called fundamentals of politics (i.e. actually running the country) have little do with presidential elections. It’s just a big personality contest–or rather, a negative personality contest. The person with the worst personality wins.
Technology, celebrity, personality … in the end, this all comes down to one idea: that most people are simply too stupid to deserve a say in politics. That’s far from a new notion. It’s probably the oldest political theory around. As Andrew Sullivan argues in his New York magazine essay, the ancients feared that common people, the demos, would be so gullible, so fearful, so narrow-minded, that they’d end up electing a dictator to lead them. Democracy would lead to tyranny.
The American experience seems to contradict that fear. The country has always had a strong ruling elite, but never an outright dictatorship. Is that changing?
One herald of political collapse is a swift uptick in anti-elitism, usually mixed with violent anti-intellectualism. When disempowered people get angry, they vote not according to their interests, but to their resentments. The Jacobins, the Nazis, the Hutus of Rwanda, and communists the world over seized on legitimate mass frustrations that they channeled into hideous retributions.
The U.S. isn’t close to violent revolution. But America’s brand of celebrity politics is hardly more encouraging. The guiding assumption is that voters will cleave to candidates who remind them of themselves, voting according to their vanity. Since most voters are unfit for office, this creates a kind of reverse meritocracy. The main qualification for office is a total lack of qualifications.
A hallmark of both forms of populism–wrathful anti-elitism, mindless celebrity worship–is that they’re immune to critique. Any reasoned critique of anti-intellectualism is an example of the trait under attack. Any critique of a cult of personality is seen as an attack on the cult’s members. No form of debate can be effective, because in the eyes of the discontented, debate is what got us into such a mess in the first place. Too much snooty thinkin’ and pretentious fiddle-faddle. What we really need is action, action, action!
This problem is worse on the Right, but hardly unique to the Right. What’s to be done? How do you reason with someone who thinks reason itself is wicked?
It’s worse than that. Trump isn’t just unreasonable. He’s cruel, vain, dishonest, greedy, arrogant, inconstant, and impulsive. He parrots religion for cynical purposes. He mocks the unfortunate. He tramples on the weak.
Politics, they say, is all about emotion. But Trump is spiteful, boastful, petty, and cruel? When did those become charming emotions?
Trump is successful, yes. But he’s successful as a schemer, a bullshitter, a manipulator, a self-promoter. That’s what he says about himself: that he’s a great wheeler and dealer. Forget about what your Daddy taught you. Forget about honest toil, paying your dues, all that old-fashioned bunk. Glad-handing, braggadocio, loopholes, and lawyers, that’s the Trump recipe for success.
Here’s a writer who argues that Trump voters are looking for dignity. Trump? Dignified? This isn’t Mr. Smith goes to Washington. This is Bluto the sailor goes to Washington.
Heck, Trump isn’t even consistent in his hatreds. He walks them back whenever it suits his purposes. We’re talking about a man who doesn’t even have enough backbone to be a principled bigot.
It’s as if the American electorate drew up a list of bad character traits, then set out to find the one person who embodies them all. What are we to make of a country that turns morality upside down?
My fear is this. Voters see contemporary life as one giant American Idol competition, and Trump as the guy who walks onstage and spits in Simon Cowell’s eye. You don’t really care who did it. You’re just glad it happened.
We’re told our country is a meritocracy, but everyone knows that’s baloney. Trump is a tool for puncturing the illusion, a man who has no merits whatsoever, but gets ahead all the same. He’s like a giant turd lobbed at Washington. No one likes him very much. Few people would raise their children to be like him. But he sends a message.
You think this is fair system, folks? Well, take that.
“The truth hurts,” says one Trump supporter. Maybe he’s right.