“All cruel people describe themselves as paragons of frankness.” ― Tennessee Williams
In what is starting to resemble a Doonesbury comic strip (to be fair, G. B. Trudeau was accurately portraying The Donald far back in the ’80’s, including a Presidential campaign, but I don’t believe the Pulitzer-Prize winning satirist meant his strip as an instructional manual) Donald Trump recently announced he would no longer be “nice.”
This is hard to imagine as “not satire.” To cite just a few instances, the Cheeto Shitgibbon has mocked a disabled reported, encouraged assaults on protesters, suggested POW veteran Senator John McCain was not a war hero because he got captured, expressed misogynistic rhetoric at Megyn Kelly (as well as other women over his “career” in the public eye), dismissed a Gold Star family’s sacrifice, and ejected a mother with her crying baby from his rally. And so far he’s been nice?
The most recent outrage has Donald Trump encouraging the assassination of his political rival, Hillary Clinton, by the easily stirred hornet’s nest of the 2nd Amendment paranoid fringe. And yet, as of this writing, he still has his party’s nomination and apparent support.
Is there a condition classified as “Aggressively Obtuse”? Because if there isn’t, let’s invent it right now and apply the label where it fits; it certainly seems to define the hard-core Trump supporter but let’s be honest, it is not limited to that (disturbingly) large group. We’re all a little guilty since we are all invested to some degree in a political ideology. And more and more, in American life, we seem unable – or unwilling – to distance our identity from our representation. We’ve been encouraged to wrap our religion, political party, region, and personal identity into the same image so that a perceived assault on one is an assault on the totality of our ego.
This was foreseeable; not just the Trump candidacy but Trump as the Republican Nominee. The trajectory of the last 30 years of GOP political machinations led to this. It was the cult of personality and image over substance, the pandering to the religious extreme; stoking the fires of resentment and racism; capitalizing on fear and insecurity amid the stagnant wages of voodoo economics and the widening gap between rich and poor; the evaporation of the middle class; systemic racism and sexism and bigotry; the Gerry-meandering of congressional districts; the Jim Crow-level Byzantine voter ID laws; and the unapologetic celebration of meanness, wielded like a cudgel. Donald Trump is the titular head of an ugly ideological boil: swollen, angry, red, and tender, ready to burst. He embodies the worst of us and of society, in that sense.
So Trump’s contemptuous and belittling brand of public discourse is hardly revolutionary; but it is the most concentrated, overt form of the petulance that has dominated the Republican party since the ascension of a black man to the White House.
How the ‘Stupid Party’ Created Donald Trump
“That is what comes of living in a petty community.” – Keirkegaard
The Republican Party wasn’t always about the stupid. Max Boot, in the NY Times, asserted that “There is no evidence that Republican leaders have been demonstrably dumber than their Democratic counterparts” – yet he also makes it clear that by embracing the anti-intellectual label, they’ve played to that demographic: the un- or under-educated, the ideologically marginalized, the bitter ones who were born “promised” more. The ones who feel their privilege slipping away with each consensus that shows a larger Hispanic population and a smaller Anglo one. The ones convinced that somewhere someone with darker skin has any advantage at all. They fly the Confederate flag, claiming “Heritage, Not Hate,” but we all know the heritage is steeped in hate, the blackest tea, one bitter and brimming over the delicate lip of that white china cup – which is why they are so afraid. They want to build a wall to keep out rapists and drug dealers, blissfully unaware that a wall isn’t consciously porous and won’t let maids and gardeners slip through. They want to freeze immigration and set up a program of “tag and release” of Muslims in this country (Note: they don’t really want to release them). They want to jail “Crooked” Hillary and they want to run NATO like a loan shark and they want to Make American Great Again, really really great, hugely great, so great…by which they mean predominately and preferentially White again.
And because they are rooted in fear, they are vulnerable to the appeal of someone who appears strong.
Authoritarianism is a term political scientists use to describe a worldview that values order and authority while distrusting outsiders and social change. When threatened, those who lean toward authoritarianism look for and respond to “strongman leaders” (think Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Putin) who typically have a simple, forceful style and an un-nuanced view of problems and solutions. Sound familiar?
Trump’s appeal is rooted in authoritarianism. People who tend toward an authoritarian bent like his unapologetic self-celebration; they find comfort in the aura of supreme confidence he projects. But, like most “strongman” leaders, his narcissism makes him very dangerous. He perceives issues in a black and white (and not-so-subtle black vs. white) approach that suffers no doubt and tolerates no appearance of compromise. The strongman has all the answers, he can do what is necessary, and he won’t be stopped. It’s a con-job, a conflation of comic book hero and patriarchal father figure, and it’s effective. He struts around like Mussolini, replete with facial tics and absurd posturing, an impatient bully with a penchant for cruelty and avarice. And yet his followers see a hero in his swagger and his promise to save them from the America that is coming by restoring the America they felt entitled to since birth.
A Hopeful Conundrum
Yet, strangely, it’s possible the Donald could achieve something he claims: uniting people. Many high-ranking Republicans have defected, saying they cannot support Donald Trump, with some placing country over party affiliation and vowing to vote for Hillary Clinton. This list includes members of the Republican National Security Community. Life-long Republicans are abandoning the party, perhaps rightly feeling that in embracing Trump it has abandoned the values and ideas it once heralded. And significantly, no living former U.S.President from either party had endorsed The Donald for the job they once held.
So the pageant isn’t going well. The Republican National Convention in Cleveland, which Trump promised would be magnificent, was instead a poorly-executed, Dystopian nightmare of fear-mongering and rabble-rousing that ended with a dictator’s promise to fix everything he declared broken. Despite its ugly tone, Trump got a small convention bump, but he has since stumbled publically amid gaffes and questionable alliances.
The Democratic National Convention, by comparison, seemed steeped in traditionally Republican themes of American optimism and patriotism amid an excess of balloons. Hillary Clinton rode away from the convention with a substantial lead and she hasn’t relinquished it. Trump is falling in the polls. Or perhaps more accurately, Clinton is gaining. Because those who had been on the fence, thinking of Trump as a vote for a business approach to governing or a protest against politics as usual (or just out of habitual hatred of Clinton), have had to come to terms with the temperament of the man who has gained the Republican nomination for the highest office in our country. And they’ve seen, if they are honest, a bully, a tantrum-prone child, a vindictive and petty dictator who doesn’t care to be informed or held responsible.
Perhaps the most damning display for Trump was his unconscionable response to Khazir Khan’s profoundly personal speech at the DNC. The father and mother of a Muslim American soldier killed in Afghanistan, the Khan’s grief was palpable at the tribute to their son. And any semi-sentient human being with an ounce of empathy would have honored the family’s sacrifice by, at a minimum, remaining silent. The Donald could not, questioning instead whether the wife was “allowed” to speak and essentially dismissing the father’s complaints about his anti-Muslim rhetoric and responding to the accusation that he had “sacrificed nothing and no one” by equating success with sacrifice. The Bi-partisan group VoteVets released a statement denouncing his treatment of the Khan family and calling for a public apology with the somber rebuke, “Ours is a sacrifice we would never want you to know.” Trump and team scrambled for damage control and Trump was momentarily contrite – until advocating assassination of political opponents got him in trouble again. Campaign staff shake-ups cannot stop the bleeding of a candidate who cuts himself daily. The electoral math looks like a route.
But it’s a long time till November.
Planning for Failure
Trump’s statements, his plans, and policies (or lack of same) are getting more scrutiny, and the outright misrepresentations and occasional revisionist history by both him and his campaign staff are getting (gleefully) fact-checked in real time. But as Trump has met more rigorous scrutiny of his words and actions, the artifice has begun to crumble (it was always weak cement holding this structure together). It is already evident in Trump’s complaints of media bias. Now the same media who, early in the primaries when he was thought not to have a chance at the nomination, gave him softball questions and free advertising, are his enemy and as “crooked” as Hillary. He puts the two in collusion with his proclamation that if he loses the election it can only be due to a rigged system abetted by the press. The rumblings of discontent run through his supporters, who eye reporters with open contempt and hiss displeasure at their presence at campaign rallies. They are prepared to have this election stolen from them, no matter the final numbers in popular or electoral votes. They seem even eager for it to happen.
Trump’s forecasting is, I’m convinced, his simple attempt to avoid the narcissistic injury that would result from losing (Loser!). But it is also further evidence of his danger; he does not see the ramifications of his actions beyond his own desires or needs. He baits his crowd for blood sport but he will walk away and claim innocence because he was not present when the killing started.This inability to appreciate the power a leader’s words have, and how they can inspire action of the best but also the most heinous kind, is to me the most frightening aspect of Trump’s candidacy: the way he relentlessly fails to hold himself accountable is evident in his career as a businessman where he claims only success and avoids responsibility for any failures; in his reflexive denial of what he said, or what he meant when it is proven that he said it, or what we should think of him despite what he said or meant. Accountability is an important measure of the office of the President, and Trump appears fundamentally unable to meet that demand.
Don’t get me wrong: those who love Donald Trump do so blindly. No nuance allowed. They are personally invested and will not desert him over perceived failures at the art of politics but will instead love him all the more. He will maintain a core of support. I worry that those polls showing large leads for HRC will encourage too many people to skip voting or “vote their conscience” in protest of Hillary, the system, etc., giving Trump, whose supporters WILL SHOW UP, the victory.
Donald Trump has gotten this far based largely on the cultivated anger and fear of people who feel the slow erosion of their social position and perceive any progressive change in values as an assault on their way of life. But his candidacy is the culmination of years of divisive, anti-intellectual, fear-based politics. Trump is the evidence of a festering, malignant tumor. If left untreated, it will consume the body politic and we’ll reach a point where the only action we can take is to involve Hospice and hold dying Liberty’s hand.