The campaign by Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump has become so bizarre that J. BROOKS SPECTOR has been searching for a cinematic explanation. He thinks he may have found one.
Over the past several months, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has bobbed and weaved, ducked and dived on his ideas, plans, promises and personal behaviour. And that doesn’t count more deliberate genuflections towards lying or more generalised, knowing misstatements of truth. His campaign, as befits a man whose stock in trade as a real estate developer was to buffalo, browbeat and bludgeon his erstwhile business opponents, has taken on precisely that tone. As his campaign moved from the primaries to the convention and then the general election phase, he has increasingly shifted into a universe where the facts are simply a modest inconvenience – as befits his lengthy experience as a pitchman for a faux university teaching real estate speculation and his starring role in a reality television show.
Actually, watching, listening and reading Trumpean pronouncements on anything – and trying to figure out which way he is headed in any given sentence, or from which publication on the supermarket checkout line scandal sheet rack he has picked up his statistics, facts and analysis – has become an exercise in futility. Just give up. Forgetaboutit. There really isn’t much point to it when facts are irrelevant to the rhetorical bombast.
This has become true, regardless of whether it has been his rants about the gigantic tsunami of urban crime and the death and destruction visited upon the police across the nation, the millions of Mexican rapists clambering over the border barricades to destroy the sanctity of American women, those nefarious Chinese and their devious ways of destroying American industry, or the government officials who have sold off their nation like a biblical “mess of pottage”.
And here we are not even going back to his “leadership” on that derisive and disruptive campaign to demand the president’s long form birth certificate to prove Obama was born in the hospital where the hospital said he was born, rather than as a secret Kenyan Muslim Manchurian candidate of a baby. And put aside the trail of racial discrimination charges hanging over family-owned/built apartments in New York City, his multiple business bankruptcies, his failure to reveal his tax returns or respond to the growing mound of charges that in his normal business practice he stiffed subcontractors in his construction projects. And this does not include the highly anomalous tax relief he suddenly gained from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, or even his strange buddy-buddy relationship with Vladimir Putin (and hints that there have been some very interesting loans from or purchase agreements of Trump-built apartments by Russian oligarchs that have been motivating such ties).
No, put aside all of this because Donald Trump no longer inhabits the same universe as the rest of us. He is no longer bound by the rules we must live by. Instead, his reality is what he says it is – rather like Lewis Carroll’s playing card queen who tells Alice that a word can mean whatever she chooses it to mean and that as queen she has managed to believe impossible things all the time. Ultimately, it is simply impossible to swallow everything anything he says any more.
And so we may be forced to fall back on fiction or cinema for understanding this phenomenon of how lower middle-class white men fearful for the future of their jobs have signed on to support a (self-confessed) billionaire builder who stiffs construction workers, pays virtually no taxes, has serial marriages to Central European immigrants, and who continues to sign up, sequentially, increasingly bizarre campaign managers.
Take that last point under consideration for a moment. The vicious, temperamental Corey Lewandowski (the man who defended Trump’s worst excesses during the primaries) was eventually replaced by Paul Manafort as the primary season rolled to its conclusion. Manafort got to explain away the shambles of the GOP convention and the blow-up over Melania Trump’s purloined speech. (Well, actually she did the purloining of Michelle Obama’s own speech eight years earlier, but who’s really keeping score any more in the Trumpean alternative universe?)
But then Manafort was reported to have been a bagman for some unsavoury Russian oligarchs and a gaggle of nasty Ukrainian pols. Once that public unravelling began to dog the Trump campaign, Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conroy in turn replaced Manafort. Conroy is a veteran political operative and a whiz at polling, but given the unruly nature of the Trumpean narrative on the campaign trail, Conroy, despite her exalted status, has basically taken on the task of being Trump’s “body man” and the aide delegated to whisper into his ear the 21st century equivalent of imperial advice, “Remember, Caesar is mortal”. How well she is doing is left up to readers’ imaginations. However, this Bannon fellow is another thing entirely, someone unique in mainline political annals.
Until his anointment, Bannon was the editor of Breitbart News. Now, I’ll bet there isn’t one South African reader in a hundred thousand who has any idea what Breitbart is. In simple terms, it is a key “ground zero” news service and website for the “alt.right” movement. And if that latter item also seems unfamiliar territory, think of that alt.right movement as having its antecedents in the paranoid right that was part and parcel of the John Birch Society and the Goldwater campaign of 1964, but modified most recently by the Tea Party movement, white supremacists, neo-isolationists, and a whole host of other malignant eddies.
Or, as The Los Angeles Times explained it all a few days ago, and worth quoting at length:
“Hillary Clinton attacked Donald Trump on Thursday for his cosy relationship with a new political movement, the Alternative Right, or Alt-Right. The Alt-Right rejects American democracy as did the American communists of the 1930s and the New Left of the 1960s. The main challenge to our way of life today now comes not from the radical left, but the Alt-Right. Starting in the 1960s, anti-Semites, overt racists, and John Birch Society adherents were cast out of the political mainstream. These outcasts lay low for a while, but they didn’t just disappear. Now their ideological descendants are trying to take over the Republican Party (as well as the country). The Alt-Right supports the mass deportation of undocumented immigrants and protectionist trade policies. It opposes feminism, diversity, gay rights, globalism, gun control and civil rights.
“But it is the underlying ideology of the Alt-Right, rather than its controversial policy positions, that is truly sinister. Alt-Right thought is based on white nationalism and anti-Americanism. The Alt-Right holds, in essence, that all men are not created equal, and that as racial equality has displaced white dominance, America has declined and no longer merits the allegiance of its white citizens. Alt-Right leaders, unlike Neo-Nazis or KKK supporters, are intellectually and rhetorically sophisticated. Jared Taylor, editor of the American Renaissance website, holds degrees from Yale and the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris. On his site, Taylor published ‘An Open Letter to Cuckservatives’ — the Alt-Right’s insulting term for moderate conservatives — laying out his beliefs.
“In the letter, Taylor denies the notion that ‘the things you love about America… are rooted in certain principles.’ Rather, ‘they are rooted in certain people.’ That is, white people: ‘Germans, Swedes, Irishmen, and Hungarians could come and contribute to the America you love,’ Taylor says. ‘Do you really believe that a future Afro-Hispanic-Caribbean-Asiatic America will be anything like the America your ancestors built?’ White nationalism is more important than inalienable rights because ‘even when they violate your principles, white people build good societies. Even when they abide by your principles, non-whites usually don’t.’
“Richard B. Spencer of the National Policy Institute, who went to the Universities of Chicago and Virginia, is openly anti-American. In an interview last July with the New York Times, he said: ‘America as it is currently constituted — and I don’t just mean the government; I mean America as constituted spiritually and ideologically — is the fundamental problem… I don’t support and agree with much of anything America is doing in the world.’ He despises ‘cuckservatives’ because ‘we’ve recognised the bankruptcy of this ideology, based on “free markets”, “values”, and “American exceptionalism”. ’
“In short, this new strain of reactionary thought goes beyond the garden-variety racial prejudice of yore — which certainly was bad enough — to a root-and-branch rejection of American 21st century values. The Alt-Right represents the first new philosophical competitor to liberalism, broadly defined, since the fall of Communism…. So the Alt-Right has an audience — and in Trump, it has a candidate. Trump’s rants about Mexican rapists charging across the southern border, his attacks on an American-born judge of Mexican descent, and his calls to ban Muslims from entering the country, are all in line with Alt-Right ideology. Accordingly, Alt-Right organisations made robocalls for Trump in the Iowa, New Hampshire and Utah primaries.”
And it is to this dark, ugly philosophical landscape that Donald Trump went to find his newest campaign ideas man. Bannon, and, oh yes, there is also Roger Ailes to help out. Ailes was the godfather of Fox News Television, until he was driven out as an outed sex pest. Still earlier in his career, Ailes had been the crucial link in the creation of Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign as presenting to the nation the “New Nixon”. Until he was booted out of Fox News, he had made sure Trump had all the access he wanted to Fox News broadcasts and its eager audience of acolytes. In this long, devious career, then, Ailes has served as something of a bridge between the old right and this alt.right world.
Now the Trump campaign language is increasingly littered with the detritus of alternative versions of his pledges on the “beautiful, big wall” and the ending of Mexican immigration (his original starting point for his assault on the presidential candidacy), wildly varied versions of anything approaching a tax and revenue plan, labelling his opponent a bigot because her party has a long, sustained relationship with minority communities even as Democratic mayors haven’t solved racial prejudice, racial income differentials, crime, or Plato, Aristotle and Descartes’ “mind-body problem”. Well, okay, not that last one, perhaps. But, if his traction with voters continues to slump, expect even more outrageous charges – especially in the run-up to the first presidential candidates debate on 26 September at Hofstra University near New York City – and maybe even during the debate itself.
Ultimately, pinning down the Trumpean narrative to specifics has become a mug’s game – and maybe it isn’t really worth the trouble any more. We know that it will keep changing – for the worse. The further behind he falls in the national polling – and most importantly in polling in the key battleground states – over the next month and a bit, the more outrageous his tales will be. This is, of course, absent a blow-out over Clinton in the three presidential debates or an actual, substantive wounding of Clinton over her eponymously named foundation’s gifting and influence practices, or the actual identification of a real text from one of those private server e-mails proving she gave away the nation’s defence secrets for a gift to her foundation for combatting HIV/Aids.
Eventually, I confess I have become worn out trying to keep track of the Trumpster’s policies and their cycles and epicycles, like a weird political version of those increasingly desperate efforts by followers of Ptolemy to explain simultaneously the motions of the planets and maintain the earthcentric model – in the face of Copernicus and Galileo’s ideas. Instead of political thinking, I think one needs to look more to the science-fiction and horror genres of contemporary cinema for real clues. And after careful consideration and much research, I conclude that the Trumpean phenomenon closely parallels the frightening Joe Dante flick, Gremlins.
In a short plot description for those who don’t remember the story or who have never seen the film, it goes like this. Struggling inventor Randall Peltzer visits a Chinatown antique store in search of a Christmas present for his son. He encounters a small furry creature, a mogwai (Cantonese for “monster”). The store owner’s grandson secretly sells the creature to Peltzer, but with the admonition that while bright light will kill the mogwai, one must also take care never to let it get wet or be fed after midnight.
Inevitably, things go very wrong. The creature gets soaked, it is fed after that witching hour, and, soon enough, increasingly horrific, monstrous creatures are spawned from the original cute pet. While the truly horrific ones are eventually defeated, in the final moments of the film, Peltzer’s son tells film audiences that if things start going seriously wrong in their own houses, they should check carefully because “there just might be a Gremlin in your house”. Right now, what seemed at first to be a curious, bombastic but funny, quirky, entertaining candidate has now morphed into something very different, spawning and being abetted by a wave of increasingly angry, bottom-feeding “agents provocateur” that have thoroughly denatured and demeaned the American political system. And now it is going to be damned difficult to find some bright sunlight sufficient to kill off all these appalling creatures. DM
Photo: Members of Virgil’s White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan begin a late-night cross lighting ceremony on private property in Dungannon, Virginia, USA, 11 June 2011. EPA/JIM LO SCALZO
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