In the HBO movie Game Change, John McCain intones, “There is a dark side to American Populism. Some people win elections by tapping into it.” Articles on Donald Trump (or “Donald Drumpf” if you prefer) and the meaning of his incredible, rule-breaking campaign tend to be a trifle schizophrenic: they point out how he has defied all Beltway logic but then assure the reader the system will correct itself and his improbable crusade will be snuffed out by the forces of reason and sobriety — soon.
I was one of many who assumed that the “rules” would somehow start working again and the brash upstart would be dispatched by defeats in the early primaries. When Donald Trump lost to Ted Cruz in Iowa, I thought some version of the Bradley Effect was in play and the pollsters had been misled by the fervour of Trump’s supporters and ratings-driven skewed media attention. It’s an old narrative: Someone who “fires up the crazies” does well on the stump before turning into a pumpkin on Election Day — which is why we don’t hear much about people like Herman Cain or Michelle Bachman anymore.
Not this time. Victories in New Hampshire and South Carolina, the traditional “firewall” against anti-establishment candidates, followed. Trump went on to dominate Super Tuesday and the awful reality became clear: the Orange One is on course to become the Republican nominee for President.
“Awful”, that is, for the Grand Old Party. Some Democrats are salivating at the prospect of taking back the House and the Senate in an anti-Trump-inspired landslide in November. Conservative pundits and party elders dismissed Trump’s candidacy as an oddity and wrinkled their patrician noses for a few weeks. Then their scorn deepened into annoyance before turning into outrage and, finally, fear. Repeated attempts to throw up “establishment” candidates failed and senior voices in the GOP now seem to think the tempestuous mogul’s success foretells the End of All Things — or at least the End of All Things Republican.
As a Democrat, at least in the United States of Cyberspace, I thoroughly enjoyed the Right’s discomfort at the damage Trump was doing to the Republican brand. I sniggered at agonised editorials and revelled in the “lamentations of their women” as the Right seemed unable or unwilling to confront its own role in creating Trump: the seven-year-long tantrum that started before the confetti at Barack Obama’s inauguration was swept up. And here was the biggest baby of them all ready to soil the Conservative diaper on national television and Twitter. I thought back to years of legislative obstructionism, fake scandals and ridiculous rhetoric, from Birtherism to the “Latte Salute” to almost everything said on Fox since January of ’09.
Trump seemed like an unbound Golem, a clumsy animated figure of clay capable of great industry and greater destruction: America’s Julius Malema. From his bizarre announcement and mention of Mexican “rapists” (how quaint does it seem to be offended by that after the last nine months?) to his haphazard approach to policy to his overt racism (I’m not bothering to include a hyperlink here), Trump has rampaged across the American imagination and established a base no one knew existed that has propelled him to the front of a field that once included 17 candidates.
He’s done so with an eccentric blend of bluster, hate-mongering and spectacle that reflects his experience in Reality Television and his ability to manipulate the Right’s political Id. He’s survived gaffes that should have killed his chances, including an endorsement from the Ku Klux Klan, and pundit after pundit has tried to explain why they misread his rise. Some trace his origins to populists like George Wallace, others to George W Bush, the first occupant of the Oval Office to openly and successfully flaunt his lack of gravitas.
Bush trumpeted his pugnacious brand of ignorance but was always the Fortunate Son of a Noble House, a privileged prep boy who inherited the keys to the kingdom — or rather got his father’s Supreme Court appointees to hand him the keys in their shamefully partisan decision to stop the Florida recount in 2000. His shtick was reminiscent of one of Dostoyevky’s Simples: an innocent with whom you would want to share a beer. Of course Dubya would reject such a comparison as fruity elitism, so the more apt metaphor could be Adam Sandler’s persona in virtually all his movies: the affable fool who somehow gets a job far beyond his intellectual abilities who then manages to unravel the world’s problems with an empty head, a gawky smile and a can-do attitude. Bush was as easy to “mis-underestimate” as Trump, but Dumb sells in the new Republican Party.
This brings me to Sarah Palin, the original Game Changer, whose intellectual frailties are well documented. It’s easy to see her as simply a continuation of the Bush obliviousness combined with homespun folksy charm, but I think it was Barracuda Sarah and not Trump who first let the Violence Genie out of the bottle in October of 2008. Bush and Dick Cheney reserved their bloodlust for foreigners, but Palin’s period of “Goin’ Rogue” evoked overt racist and nativist tropes and public threats, however cagily worded. Palin established a clear distinction between “Real Americans” and the rest of the nation of 330-million people.
“Real Americans” are white, conservative and angry. They see themselves as marginalised by the March of History, no longer lords and masters of a country they consider theirs. Their sense of victimisation is fed by sources like Fox News (with talking points like the “War on Christmas” and “Black Lives Matter activists cause cop-killings” and members of the Tea Party, including politicians. Sharon Angle suggested “Second Amendment remedies” to losing elections while Palin’s website depicted unpopular Democrats in crosshairs and urged her supporters, “Don’t retreat. Reload!” — until Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords got shot in the head and five people died in Tucson, Arizona in 2010.
The tragedy pushed most of the openly violent rhetoric out of sight until it emerged in the new coalition formed behind the demagogue from Manhattan. Now the hatred of the Other is gleefully embraced and incidents of violence against protesters (particularly from BLM) have become more frequent and extreme at Trump rallies. Not since Palin’s vainglorious attempt to seize the initiative by depicting Obama as unAmerican have we seen such a physical demonstration of the distinction between “Real” and “Other” Americans, or between the “winner and losers”, to cite Trump.
And it is time to cite the garish Strongman. He tentatively condemned the first attack on an immigrant last August by his supporters, but (possibly emboldened by electoral success and surging crowds) has since replaced that lukewarm position with enthusiastic encouragement to his fans to mete out rough justice to anyone who dares to protest, cover or even attend his events. Trump has promised to fund the defence of anyone arrested for exercising this option and enthusiastically eggs them on.
“Get him outa here. Throw him out,” could be interpreted as ambiguous, if you were feeling particularly charitable or disingenuous. But “knock the crap outa him, wouldya?” provides very little rhetorical wiggle room, and the candidate’s admission that “I’d like to punch him in the face” exposes the identity of his movement: angry white people who want to “make America great again” — for them.
Trump blusters, “You know what they used to do to guys like when they were in a place like this?” while a black protester is removed from a venue. I don’t think that “guys like that” means “protester”, or that “a place like this” means “high school gymnasium”. Trump was lamenting the fact that a black man could intrude into a white space and suggested that he would like to turn back the clock to a halcyon time when such folk would “now their place”. When he says, “See, in the good old days this didn’t use to happen, because they used to treat them very rough. We’ve become very weak,” we have to consider for whom those old days were “good”.
This toxic blend of nostalgia and bravado escalated in Chicago last Friday when clashes between supporters of Trump and Bernie Sanders caused the tycoon’s campaign to cancel an event. Trump lambasted “our communist friend”, adding a few days later, “Be careful, Bernie, or my supporters will go to yours!” Combining this unsavoury development with the also deplorable propensity of some on the Left to violently ignore the Constitution, one might consider the situation to be volatile and disturbing.
But as it is with All Things Trump, there is always the question: does any of this matter? Isn’t he just a political freak, the last kick of the dying horse of White Privilege? It’s easy to forget that victory in the Republican Primaries, which requires the support of the Base, is a very poor indicator of success in the General Election, which requires the support of the Centre. My nightmare, before he faded, was faux-centrist Senator Marco Rubio, who could compete in the all-important swing state of Florida possibly joined by Governor John Kasich, who could wrap up Ohio. Then an upset or two in places like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania and all bets would be off. That was my nightmare.
Trump is not. His rallies are nightmarish: gaudy displays of racism, aggression and stupidity, but I don’t believe that he has a chance in November. The America that gives Modern Family seven seasons and five consecutive Emmys simply can’t elect Trump, can it? The leftward shimmy every successful Republican candidate has to do after the convention would be impossible for Trump to execute after he stakes out the Far Right. So the system will correct itself and his improbable crusade will be snuffed out by the forces of reason and sobriety — soon. Oh, wait.
John Oliver says, “Donald Trump is America’s back mole: It may have seemed harmless a year ago, but now that it has gotten frighteningly bigger it is no longer wise to ignore it.”
In the abstract and in terms of principle, he is correct: the rise of such racially charged bellicosity bordering on fascism should horrify us all. But if it horrifies voters in Florida and Ohio too, then Donald Trump is the greatest gift to Progressivism in America since Franklin D Roosevelt, John F Kennedy or Jon Stewart. This is an unusually important election in that it will probably decide the balance of the US Supreme Court for a generation. Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s retirement seems imminent and it would follow Antonin Scalia’s death to make this a “winner takes all” race to the White House.
And it could be defined by a cartoonish figure who embodies that dark side of American Populism. Who wants to build a wall, ban Muslim immigration and commit war crimes. Whose comical endorsement by Palin makes sense when we consider her the inadvertent author of his thuggish persona. As Woody Harrelson’s Steven Schmidt says of Palin’s game-changing run: “It wasn’t a campaign. It was a bad reality show.”
Donald Trump has clambered out of the television set and into our reality. DM