Re: Unraveling the Trump Phenomenon

Depending on who you are, Donald Trump proved his seriousness as a candidate as long ago as last summer, although I think many of us came to it later than that. For me, it was back in February when Donald Trump handily won the Republican primary in South Carolina. My thoughts on what signaled the end of Donald Trump as a curio or a cheap amusement in my mind are documented in a similarly titled post, “Unraveling the Trump Phenomenon.” My hypothesis in late February was that Donald Trump had won over a largely white, largely male, largely middle-aged demographic of people with less education than I have; he had done that, I presumed, by selling them a bill of goods that made them nostalgic for their own relatively uncomplicated pasts. I wasn’t entirely wrong; “Make America Great Again” is a straightforward way of proposing just that. I would propose that America has changed only superficially since the 1980s, the presumably glorious bygone era that Trumpism pines for, but what do I know. I’ve only seen two episodes of Cheers on Netflix, and I’m pretty sure that Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Clayton Kershaw would have done absolutely fiendish things to the Majors in the mid-’80s. (I read books, though. That counts for something, maybe.) Yet I, like many other would-be commenters in this unknowable political space, was too arrogant and too self-congratulating to be wise.

What I was most wrong about in February, back when I was so sure that Marco Rubio – or barring him, Ted Cruz – would capture the Republican nomination even if it came down to a contested convention, was that nothing bad had happened to Trumpists. More than once I cast Trumpists in the light of people to whom nothing bad has ever happened, people who could (and would!) complain about caviar and champagne if given the chance. I realize now, many primaries and caucuses and thinkpieces and hot takes and yelling heads after the South Carolina contest, that it’s not true. The Trumpists exist in greater, more diverse numbers than I could have dreamed of in February, much less August. They are not a monolithic group with a monolithic experience. I made a mistake that I would have been embarrassed to make as a nineteen-year-old breaking into the English major: I thought of Trump supporters as one organism with many heads, the American Hydra made manifest in flyover country. Dealing with Trumpists as if they’re a group no more diverse than a vintage film noir is a massive mistake. Donald Trump has created a possibly unique coalition of voters; that is, they possess an unpredictable quality. They are everywhere. They are all around us. And their frustration is not some Klan Lite variety, as I had previously imagined; there’s something to the fact that many Trumpists have undergone serious, perhaps life-changing, troubles because of the Recession or globalization. (Most of us who don’t work for Goldman Sachs have shared those troubles.) Maybe the ever-increasingly automatized nature of manufacturing informs many Trumpists far more than his expansive racist imbroglio does. I don’t know, and frankly I’m not sure anyone else does either; it’s past time to admit that.

In Cabaret, Brian wonders openly if people like Max understand the potential threat of the Nazis. Max is nonplussed. They’re thugs, he says. They will take care of the Communists, and then cooler heads will prevail; the Nazis are a tool that the Weimar Republic can control for its own benefit. Not long after this conversation, Max and Brian have witness a young Nazi rile up an entire beer garden into a rousing chorus of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.” Brian leans over to Max and says, wryly, “Do you still think you can control them?” Max’s half-smile is his only answer; one imagines millions of average Germans half-smiling their way into the Holocaust and the Second World War.

Another thing I’ve thought about recently, even before I watched Inside Job for the first time the other night, is the root cause of the Reagan/Thatcher axis that created a new world order in the global economy. Austerity, tax cuts at the highest levels of income, the death of Glass-Steagall, massive deregulation, the loony promise of trickle-down economics (truly the post-nasal drip of high finance), and increased income inequality that threatens to topple a system that venture capitalists have been paying Jenga with since the ’80s. It’s not surprising to me that in the 1980s, after forty years of Keynesian economics provides safety nets for bastions of the free market, like the United States and Britain, people got used to it. People took it for granted. People who had gotten fat on the dole, or at least on the security of Keynesian economics in practice, reacted viscerally to ’70s stagflation. For people in their twenties, thirties, even forties, the economy had never been so bad. How else to explain it but too much spending? How else to fix it but by cutting spending? And instead of wondering, like Dwight “balanced budget despite the Interstate Highway Act and the Korean War” Eisenhower if the world economy had not changed significantly (‘sup, OPEC), or if government spending had been radically misplaced (lookin’ at you, the Vietnam War), people decided the problem was that same economic system which had worked for them for four decades. Keynesian theory is hardly perfect – there’s a reason they make post-Keynesian theory anymore – but there’s no doubt that it’s a darn sight better than a $700 billion bailout organized in a matter of days to combat the most aggressive financial crisis since the Crash, caused by the same genus and species of greed that initiated the Great Depression.

People are certain that shocks to the status quo will be managed in such a way as to maintain the status quo; it’s hard to realize what’s around you until it disappears. I believed the former was true until recently, and I think many Democrats are still caught up in that fallacy; the latter is a far more accurate representation of Trumpists than the one I came up with in February.

The appeal of Donald Trump has never been his policy, because Donald Trump has no policy. What he says about people of color, or people with a different national origin than his, or about Hillary Clinton, or about the Iran nuclear deal, or the Affordable Care Act, or whatever else, is not policy. Policy is arranged and laundered; Donald Trump, although he is a far cannier speaker than I think most people give him credit for being, is not there for thoughts. He is there to speak feels. That’s an opinion I’ve had since the beginning, and I referenced it at the beginning of my first “Unraveling” post. I used to treat that ability with a tasty sarcasm, and I’m not willing to do that anymore. It is too potent. Donald Trump’s policy is to hold a mirror up to the people who come to his rallies or who wear his merchandise and to tell them it’s not their fault. Whatever “it” is seems to change almost at random, but whatever it is, it’s not on them. It’s on someone else. It’s on the liberal elites who continue to discount him, as if trying to pin “Dangerous Donald” is a sobriquet that will Daisy Girl Trump into oblivion. It’s on the media, on people like Andy Borowitz who seem to be acting stupidly on purpose. It’s on Barack Obama and his Cabinet. It’s on Congress. It’s on Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, too, and probably on Megyn Kelly. Pinkos as well as party regulars, feminists and free trade fetishists are all fair game for the blame, the “it.”

Trump’s gameplan works. The object of blame could be anyone, really, because at least the Trumpists are not forced to blame themselves for whatever the problem is. And why should they! This is the sick genius of Trumpism: it’s not any Trumpist’s fault that things are suboptimal. Blame Hank Paulson, or blame David Petraeus, or blame George W. Bush, or blame Ronald Reagan, each of whom bears a million times more burden for the problems that affect ordinary Trumpists than any ordinary Trumpist can bear. The central tenet of Trumpism is an endless pull string declaiming, “Somebody’s poisoned the water hole!” The issue with Trumpism is not that someone else is to blame; the issue is, of course, the someones who are receiving that condemnation, and those someones are overwhelmingly the powerless, America’s closest analogues for subalterns. I’m not on board the “Trump is Hitler” train, but the double stock of raging nationalism and “someone else screwed you over and I’m going to point you in the direction of historically marginalized groups” is hard to shake off once you’ve seen it in both men. Neither one of those barrels requires any reasonable proof, nor does either one require empirical evidence. Nationalism is something that bursts in your chest, and betrayal is something that roils in your gut. What Donald Trump provides is an emotional head rush that previously was only bestowed upon political diabetics by the folks at Fox News or the angry people on talk radio. But you couldn’t vote for Bill O’Reilly or Howard Stern. You can vote for Donald Trump. And as he points the mirror at his audience, what they see is not so much themselves as it is what used to surround them. They see the past – the past that probably owed more to Keynes and Galbraith than they could understand even if they immersed themselves in the literature – and they compare it to the present – an Ozymandias-like testament to Milton Friedman – and they only know that what was is not as good as what is and that what could be is smiling and wearing the red hat which implores and commands simultaneously: “Make America Great Again.”

Trumpists are consistent. A thing of Trump is a joy forever for them, and they hold onto their devotion with the kind of one-track fervency one rarely sees outside of model train collectors and fundamentalist Christians. But they are not dumb. They are not ignorant. They are not shortsighted. They are not different from anyone else, except that they support Donald Trump and someone else supports Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton or Gary Johnson. Trumpists are the same as anyone else; as much as goodthinkful liberals and conservatives alike want to make Trumpists into 21st Century Yahoos, that is a gross mistake. (And for the record, the people making that kind of judgment aren’t Houyhnhnms either.) Like many other people who were dismissive and wrongheaded, I’ve had to adjust.

I don’t know how to yank off the emotional pull that Donald Trump has created, the yen that only he can satisfy. My guess is – and this is my plea to all my goodthinkful friends and sympathizers – that trying to “reason” with Trumpists (as if non-Trumpists were the gatekeepers of reason in the first place: who died and made you Rene Descartes?) will only create further resentment, and if we aren’t Trumpists, we should not presume ourselves wiser. The Trumpist is neither stupid nor ignorant; s/he is merely set in a way. Somehow, and it is probably emotionally, non-Trumpists must apply some kind of jackhammer to unsettle them.

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