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US 2016: Donald J Trump and the ripping of GOP’s heart

As the American presidential election winds to its weary and outrageous conclusion, the temporary ascendency of Donald Trump has finally driven J. BROOKS SPECTOR close to apoplexy.

Popeye the Sailor is that world-famous cartoon figure who was routinely treated to calumnies and insults – usually at the hands of his perpetual nemesis, that overbearing, brutish, blustering, braggart, Bluto – in virtually every one of his animated adventures. Finally, as the action in each cartoon reached its denouement, in utter frustration, Popeye would yell out, “I’ve had all I can take; I can’t takes no more!”

At that moment, he would rip open a can (okay, a tin for you South Africans) of spinach, scarf the whole thing down in one gulp, and with that dose of spinach that would give him the necessary nutrients to turn into an early version of “the Hulk”, he would be sufficiently empowered to give Bluto his just desserts, one more time.

There are just two weeks left in this, the wildest, most bizarre US presidential election since 1860. Thank God. Yes, that earlier election eventually led to the end of slavery, true, and that was excellent; but to accomplish that also required a four-year civil war that killed hundreds of thousands of people because of the very bad attitudes of some extremely intransigent folks south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Still, it must be now obvious that virtually no Republican politician ever watched a Popeye cartoon in his or her respective childhoods – and they probably all hated their spinach too. If they had, they would have known that sometimes you just have to deal with the bullies. Shifting our metaphors slightly, it also seems that damn near every one of those Republicans continued to play the fiddle in a near-unconscious haze while their particular Rome was spread out before them, being consumed by a blazing conflagration.

Nearly two years ago, the GOP’s grey-beards and its elected top dogs could have met at some luxurious and very comfy country club, like they used to do up until a generation ago, and reached agreement on who was next in line to become their champion in the upcoming presidential election, rather than turn their machinery over to some trumped-up mountebank. The old joke was that Republicans had coronations, while Democrats had civil wars and that kept the Republican party one of stability and made the Democrats the avatars of social, economic and political change. A kind of balance prevailed and things usually stayed among the sane folks.

Sure, there would be some primaries for the Republicans and there might be a maverick or rebel on occasion who would challenge the party’s conventional favourite, but that would almost always be sorted out before any real infighting began in earnest. Win some, lose some, but if you were a supporter of the GOP, you usually ended up with someone like Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole and GHW Bush, and the temple wasn’t burned right down to its foundation stones in the process of picking the party’s next champion.

But this time around, however, the GOP grandees averted their glance to this messy business, and they nurtured a field of more than a baker’s dozen of no-hopers to bite and scratch among themselves, only to end up grinding each other down to molecular dust. In the meantime, Donald Trump came in and stole the family jewels, the furniture and, eventually, even the party’s wallpaper.

But let’s get real here. A buccaneer real estate developer, throughout his life, after being bankrolled by dad, Trump has been a peripatetic party shopper, social climber, and serial bankruptcy court visitor. He has more in common with that proverbial “flim-flam man”, wickedly portrayed by George C Scott in the 1967 film by the same name, or perhaps even a more flamboyant version of Mark Rich, creator of Glencore, than he has ever resembled a real political thinker of any depth or nuance.

What he did do, however, and very successfully at that, was to find a way of appealing viscerally to a reservoir of largely white, largely older, lower- and middle-class voters who were convinced the country was being handed over to those teeming brown people (or worse) by those sneering, smart-alec rich folks, the scheming career politicians, and their eager camp followers in the media and academia. Listening carefully to his shtick, one could be forgiven for believing that if one could just adjust the lenses slightly, one could finally see all those frightening connections between all those bad hombres and their evil designs. In the dark, it would resemble a room filled by subtly iridescent spider webs.

But Trump’s genius, and let’s admit it, it got him this far, despite a nearly continuous series of gaffes or worse that would have landed anyone else right on the scrap heap of history, was to marry those potent anxieties with the media savvy of that nasty tribe of gollums who live in the shadow universe of the internet-based alt.right and the broadcasters from the fanatically right-wing talk radio smorgasbord.

It wasn’t enough to play on the anxieties of those who increasingly felt the elites looked down on them and ignored their pains – real or psychic. To get this far, it was also necessary to give life and a voice, via the denigrated mass mainstream media, of all those dark, bigoted conspiracies from the alt.right. Mixed together with the showmanship learnt from a striver’s life among the towers of Manhattan and from serving as the centrepiece of his creepy reality TV show, The Apprentice, Donald Trump mesmerised millions into believing that voting for him would finally give them, the voiceless, a full-throated roar. With that, the country would be taken back from all those others, and just in time. This was the last chance. In his marketing catch phrase, he, and they, would “make America great, again.”

Eventually, though, a candidate in one of the major parties in American politics must be part of a two-party race festooned with debates and eager fact checkers, and that nasty business of actually providing some substance to all the glib blather. It is one thing to consign a Bobby Jindal or Jeb Bush to history. It is another thing entirely to take on the ultimate policy wonk in the person of Hillary Clinton and beat her at that game. Accordingly, the decision was taken that if Trump couldn’t beat her on substance, policy depth, or complexity and nuanced argument, he would just have to do it through drawing on the habits learnt through a lifetime of sneering at women, bullying everyone, and insisting that whatever he said was true, just as long as he said it enough times in a sneering voice that sounded like the cutting of glass with a diamond-edged blade.

Okay, okay, Hillary Clinton isn’t the perfect candidate. She has, on occasion, skated close to the ethical edge, what with that troublesome private e-mail server, for example. But, and this is important, she has been in the public eye for more than three decades and despite all the mud tossed her way, no one has actually managed to show what real harm any of her purportedly disastrous moves actually produced.

Those e-mails? Let’s get real here. They contained diplomatic gossip. Benghazi? Does anyone really expect she would have, all by herself, somehow called in the Seventh Cavalry, the 101st Airborne Division or a flotilla from the US Mediterranean Fleet to rescue four men holed up and already under attack in a makeshift refuge in a provincial town in a disintegrating Libya? Support for the second Iraq War? Hmm. Like she was the only one who supported it, based on some fatally corrupted evidence propounded by George W Bush and company? (Inconveniently, her opponent also supported it, as did his party.) Support for free trade? Hmm, yet again. True, to conform to the nation’s supposed mindset – fuelled in part by that Trumpean alternative universe – she has trimmed her support for free trade somewhat, but still, this has come with the realisation that the nation’s future is with trade with the world, not walls against it. And besides, free trade has been, for generations, a prime directive of the Republican Party – and only recently among Democrats.

On the other side of the ledger, there is Clinton’s long experience in dealing with the reality of international troubles and with long-standing American allies. There is her espousal of progressive measures on infrastructure building, education for tomorrow’s economy, improvements in job re-skilling, increasing the minimum wage level, and enhancing medical aid coverage to those Americans still outside the tent. Ultimately, there is her desire to include as many as possible, rather than drive them outside the charmed circle. Finally, unlike Donald Trump, she can call upon legions of practised, experienced, knowledgeable advisors and subordinates who are not bedazzled by imaginary dragons or unicorns. He has an increasingly renegade retired general and some bond traders.

Over 50 years ago, the distinguished historian, Richard Hofstadter, had written the definitive essay – “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” – on the kinds of behaviour someone like Donald Trump has been feeding on in the political realm. It is worth quoting at some length.

As Hofstadter described the phenomenon, “One of the impressive things about paranoid literature is the contrast between its fantasied conclusions and the almost touching concern with factuality it invariably shows. It produces heroic strivings for evidence to prove that the unbelievable is the only thing that can be believed. Of course, there are highbrow, lowbrow, and middlebrow paranoids, as there are likely to be in any political tendency. But respectable paranoid literature not only starts from certain moral commitments that can indeed be justified but also carefully and all but obsessively accumulates ‘evidence’. The difference between this ‘evidence’ and that commonly employed by others is that it seems less a means of entering into normal political controversy than a means of warding off the profane intrusion of the secular political world. The paranoid seems to have little expectation of actually convincing a hostile world, but he can accumulate evidence in order to protect his cherished convictions from it.”

He goes on to explain that such an approach begins with certain broad, defensible judgements, by reaching back to historical examples of other nativist populist movements in America’s past. “There was something to be said for the anti-Masons. After all, a secret society composed of influential men bound by special obligations could conceivably pose some kind of threat to the civil order in which they were suspended. There was also something to be said for the Protestant principles of individuality and freedom, as well as for the nativist desire to develop in North America a homogeneous civilisation. Again, in our time an actual laxity in security allowed some Communists to find a place in governmental circles, and innumerable decisions of World War II and the Cold War could be faulted.”

Hofstadter added that such approaches lean on the observation that this alternative universe is usually much more coherent than the real one, full of all that booming, buzzing confusion. As he wrote, “The entire right-wing movement of our time is a parade of experts, study groups, monographs, footnotes, and bibliographies. Sometimes the right-wing striving for scholarly depth and an inclusive world view has startling consequences: Mr Welch [the originator of the right-wing John Birch Society], for example, has charged that the popularity of Arnold Toynbee’s historical work is the consequence of a plot on the part of Fabians, ‘Labour party bosses in England,’ and various members of the Anglo-American ‘liberal establishment’ to overshadow the much more truthful and illuminating work of Oswald Spengler.” Now, does this have any resonance with Trump’s well-established bromance with one Vladimir Putin?

Moving into psychological evaluations, Hofstadter notes, “this paranoid style is not confined to our own country and time; it is an international phenomenon. Studying the millennial sects of Europe from the 11th to the 16th century, Norman Cohn believed he found a persistent psychic complex that corresponds broadly with what I have been considering – a style made up of certain preoccupations and fantasies: ‘the megalomaniac view of oneself as the Elect, wholly good, abominably persecuted, yet assured of ultimate triumph; the attribution of gigantic and demonic powers to the adversary; the refusal to accept the ineluctable limitations and imperfections of human existence, such as transience, dissention, conflict, fallibility whether intellectual or moral; the obsession with inerrable prophecies… systematised misinterpretations, always gross and often grotesque.’ ”

Hofstadter concludes, “a mentality disposed to see the world in this way may be a persistent psychic phenomenon, more or less constantly affecting a modest minority of the population. But certain religious traditions, certain social structures and national inheritances, certain historical catastrophes or frustrations may be conducive to the release of such psychic energies, and to situations in which they can more readily be built into mass movements or political parties. In American experience ethnic and religious conflict have plainly been a major focus for militant and suspicious minds of this sort, but class conflicts also can mobilise such energies. Perhaps the central situation conducive to the diffusion of the paranoid tendency is a confrontation of opposed interests which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable, and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political processes of bargain and compromise. The situation becomes worse when the representatives of a particular social interest – perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealisable nature of its demands – are shut out of the political process. Having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions, they find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed. They see only the consequences of power – and this through distorting lenses – and have no chance to observe its actual machinery…. We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.”

And if this be so, going forward, the real danger is most likely not a Donald Trump victory. If the polls are accurate (okay, okay, there is that small voice whispering, “Remember Brexit, remember Brexit”), Donald Trump will never sit in the Oval Office of the White House; he will never run for the presidency again; and his party – or, rather, the one he hijacked away from an older Republican establishment – will soon be scourged by a defeat of historic proportions. Perhaps this will be enough to force Republicans – or at least those not already fatally infected by Trumpism – to reconsider how they must relate to the multi-hued American population and its desires and wishes in the future, rather than dwelling in that imaginary, halcyon world of the cinematic but fictional character, Andy Hardy, where everything was nice, normal, stable and very white and middle class.

But what the Trumpean ascendency within the GOP will also have done, regardless of its ultimate electoral success in 2016, and this may be its most serious danger, is that it will have given life, right out in the sunshine, to a belief that insidious hidden forces have fully rigged the American polity, and conspired somehow to have stolen it away from real Americans. On November 9, then, where will those people who continue to believe in this go politically for their new home, and who will make a grab for their support in the future? DM

Photo: US Republican candidate Donald Trump looks on at the start of the final Presidential Debate at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, 19 October 2016 EPA/JIM LO SCALZO

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