Here’s how we got in this horrible mess.
As Donald Trump swept four more states on March 17, he did something you never see a presidential candidate do: He actually named huge corporations — Apple, Pfizer and other wardens of our Silicon Valley and Big Pharma cages — as ripe for discipline by government. Once again, he upstaged both parties’ political establishments’ hypocrisies, without any proof that he would or could actually curb offshore tax evasion and outsourced jobs. What he has done is expose our political system’s illegitimacy and unsustainability as no nominee has done since 1932.
Many observers of the 2012 Republican primary debates remarked that the cacophonous chorus line of presidential hopefuls resembled a large troupe of clowns piling out of a tiny car in the circus. Sure enough, once they’d mounted the stage, Newt Gingrich proposed that Americans colonize the moon. The late Ron Paul retorted that the only justification for such a venture would be “to send all the politicians up there.” Most candidates really did seem to have come from the moon as they prattled on about putting people’s money back in their pockets and rewarding their heroism in Iraq as many in the television audience faced declining incomes, home foreclosures and the war’s lies and wounds, and the attendant perversities erupting into American civic and social life.
This year, the Republican clown show became a freak show that may introduce the horror show of Trump vs. Clinton. Trump has said he’ll be more “presidential” after the primaries, but Nathan J. Robinson, editor of the new Current Affairs magazine and Harvard doctoral student, believes that only Bernie Sanders could restore both credibility and sanity to Democrats and to the election itself. Robinson, who happens also to be a brilliant mimic, imagines his way into Trump’s mind and mouth in a confrontation with Clinton as follows:
“She lies so much. Everything she says is a lie. I’ve never seen someone who lies so much in my life. Let me tell you three lies she’s told. She made up a story about how she was ducking sniper fire! There was no sniper fire. She made it up! How do you forget a thing like that? She said she was named after Sir Edmund Hillary, the guy who climbed Mount Everest. He hadn’t even climbed it when she was born! Total lie! She lied about the emails, of course, as we all know, and is probably going to be indicted. You know she said there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq! It was a lie! Thousands of American soldiers are dead because of her. Not only does she lie, her lies kill people. That’s four lies, I said I’d give you three. You can’t even count them. You want to go on PolitiFact, see how many lies she has? It takes you an hour to read them all! In fact, they ask her, she doesn’t even say she hasn’t lied. They asked her straight up, she says she usually tries to tell the truth! Ooooh, she tries! Come on! This is a person, every single word out of her mouth is a lie. Nobody trusts her. Check the polls, nobody trusts her. Yuge liar.”
Never mind that “When PolitiFact was choosing its ‘lie of the year,’ it found that all its real contenders were Trump statements — so it collectively awarded his many campaign misstatements the ‘lie of the year’ award,” as Nicholas Kristof noted. The cumulative effect of Trump’s torrent of accusations is The Big Lie technique perfected in modern times by Joseph Goebbels, adapted in America by Joseph McCarthy.
“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and my supporters wouldn’t leave me,” he has said, as if he were a 10-year-old playing King of the Hill, and although he probably won’t shoot anyone, his boasts and insults have shot new holes in the liberal democratic fabric of dialogue and trust. He is separating words from deeds more brazenly than most folkloric American political snake-oil salesmen and sleazy senators ever did, leaving words more empty, deeds more brutal and those of us who try to put words on things more breathless than ever before.
Let’s all try to catch our breath and look at what he’s doing to public discourse; at how he has exposed a vacuum in what most Americans once thought of as trustworthy political, cultural and civic-minded business leadership; at how that leadership default has hurt Republican voters whom it had thought was its base; and at how these voters’ loss of trust is metastasizing into a syndrome of resentment as toxic as racism or McCarthyism but more diffuse and free-floating, no longer confined to old scapegoats, and unlikely to be repaired or put into remission, much less reversed, even if Trump’s campaign implodes tomorrow and he’s exiled to Corsica.
The Derangement of Democratic Discourse
Trump’s behavior has highlighted the difference between what children say and do on playgrounds, where they rough out rules for civility and cooperation, and what grown-ups are supposed to have learned and become committed to do to make a society work. The difference between Trump’s kind of free speech and kind that actually enhances freedom isn’t a legal one but a psychological and cultural one: Adults understand that what the Constitution rightly protects legally, civil society rightly modulates and anyone who lowers adult public conversation to the level of “So’s your Mom!” is dragging us all down.
Trump’s brand of discourse is even worse than that of the playground. When he said that he could shoot someone without losing public support, he certainly excited the roiling horde of “militia” members, authoritarian police, enthusiasts of “Stand Your Ground” and “Concealed Carry” laws and border walls, mass shooters (who in their derangement are sometimes attuned more acutely to the subliminal signals a society is sending.
Ranting like his offends not only the decorously and well-organized rich but also the more “liberal minded,” because he “cares nothing for reproaches that he is a criminal or a guttersnipe…. Where [he] knifes his opponents is by disarming them with a cynicism and stabbing them with a morality, [H]e twists and turns, flatters and gibes, lulls and murders. ….He raves about ‘the brutal and rude unscrupulousness of the parliamentary panders.’ He calls them job-hunters scoundrels, villains, rascals, criminals. He screams that ‘in comparison with these traitors to the nation, every pimp is a gentleman.’”
Not only that, “he boasts of his tricks: ‘Take me or leave me, my object, the resurrection of the … people, is so much more superb than any contrary principle that to bridle me with morals or sentiment is to lose…”
This plausible elaboration of Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again!” could have been written by any discerning observer of his methods. It wasn’t George Will or Tom Friedman who wrote these particular words, however but the writer Francis Hackett, in a forgotten but still-arresting book, “What Mein Kampf Means to America,” which he published in April 1941, when many Americans still excused The Leader’s demagogic vitality, vulgarity and brutality and when many American businessmen even thought they could still make deals with him.
It was the German people, not the American, whom he sought to resurrect, and he may have been something of a brute and a clown. But after all, Americans rationalized, Herr Hitler is taking on the greater scourge of bolshevism and shaking up the corrupt, old European conceits and arrangements that have clung to power even after causing the Great War and the Great Depression.
If Trump were only a little more grandiloquent, he might justify his demagoguery by adding that “all great movements are movements of the people, are volcanic eruptions of human passions and spiritual sensations, stirred… by … the torch of the word thrown into the masses, and are not the lemonade-like outpourings of aestheticizing literati and drawing room heroes.” Ah, but those words were written by Adolf Hitler himself, in “Mein Kampf,” in 1926. Is that really surprising? When Trump commingles racist nationalism with what sounds like socialism by promising both a wall to keep out Mexican rapists and a cornucopia of “jobs, jobs, jobs” and full healthcare for Americans, he reminds you that “Nazi” was an acronym for National Socialism.
Trump is not and never will be Hitler. Drawing historical analogies is a dangerous game. But it would be just as dangerous to ignore history’s cautions unless one is bent on repeating its follies. To understand why the difference between Trump’s understanding of freedoms of speech and entrepreneurship and the kind that American civic-republican civil society would nurture if they weren’t being eviscerated by markets, contrast Trump’s claim that “he gets things done” while lesser people dither with the following insightful, poignant observation about civil society that “SPHealy,” an online commenter, posted beneath something I wrote in 2007.
“Back in the playground days we used to play basketball with whoever was on hand: 2-on-2, 3-on-2, 7-on-6, whatever. And people would rearrange and switch sides as needed to keep things even and fun. We were quite competitive and loved to win, but we were playing against our neighbors and schoolmates who were not necessarily our friends (and might even have been our enemies) but with whom we knew we needed to maintain at least non-destructive relationships for 7 or 8 more years.
“The problem is that such a system requires that all parties have a fundamental allegiance to getting along, and specifically to handling losses without developing longstanding brutal grudges. If a small group had ever gotten together and made an agreement to subvert the system and behave destructively in a coordinated manner, they could have done a lot of damage before the rest of us figured out what was happening – and then our only alternative would have been to terminate the system. If trust had been destroyed it could not have been replaced. Strong as our Constitutional system is, I don’t think it was ever intended to resist a large-scale, long-term, tightly-organized effort to subvert it from within.”
Many elite conservative efforts have been large-scale, long-term and tightly organized, all the more so when competing with other conservative efforts. But Trump has torn off their decorous, civic-republican covers and agendas and exposed them as the myopic and destructive maneuverings of plutocrats. It takes one to know one, and they loathe him, but they deserve him, and everyone knows it. They’ve never been able to reconcile their pious claims to uphold virtuous, patriotic, ordered republican liberty with their lust to ride tides of casino-like financing and predatory marketing that are dissolving republican virtues and sovereignty, tides that Trump himself rides as deftly as they do. He just doesn’t pretend that he isn’t riding them.
Nightmares of the Elites
Stunned by the sheer audacity of hopelessness in his insults and boasts, political and business leaders have finally become alarmed. Fashionable though it was only weeks ago to disparage Trump’s early victories by remarking that no one has ever gone broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people, it’s obvious now that Republican and Democratic elites are going broke by underestimating the angry, embittered intelligence of millions of Americans who’ve voted for Trump so far and the millions more who would do so in a general election.
Whether or not they’ll keep flocking to him, they’re deserting both political parties and the airless ideologies of the think tanks and their journals, whose directors cast the voters as fools and blame one another for his rise: The day after Mitt Romney condemned Trump, the New York Times editorial board, which loathes Trump, condemned Romney, and The Wall Street Journal, which loathes Trump, too, ran a column by former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal charging that he is really a creation of President Obama.
Who are the fools here? Trump is a fraud and a demagogue, but none of these handwringers has faced his or her own side’s complicity in the casino-like financing, omnivorous marketing, and other modulations of greed that have made his demagoguery alluring by pumping distress and heartbreak into American life. Nor has either side grasped history’s cunning well enough to understand the irony that it’s a premiere financier of casinos and an omnivorous self-marketer who is approaching the threshold of the presidency.
Narcissistic and opportunistic though Trump’s political heterodoxy is, it has shredded the credibility of conservatives who fantasize about restoring the capitalism of William McKinley, let alone that of Adam Smith and John Locke, and it has sucked the wind out of the sails of leftists who fantasize that a precariat-proletariat will rise again.
Trump, of course, is pumping something still worse. He’s no Hamilton or Madison, struggling to devise an order capable of balancing wealth-making with power-wielding and truth-seeking. He’s no Lincoln, envisioning a new birth of freedom, no Teddy Roosevelt birthing a “new nationalism” more ecumenical and progressive than anything Europe ever dreamed of, and no FDR cobbling together a New Deal. The problem is that none of the claimants to any of these legacies seems fit to dive into the abyss Trump has opened and face the demons in it and in himself. Instead, the other candidates have been pirouetting at the edge of the abyss, putting on clown shows and freak shows.
Hence the eruption of public rage against these would-be Good Shepherds and the consultants and scribbling minions who’ve widened the abyss. Neoliberals thought they could triangulate between right and left and restore order to America along Singaporean, state-capitalist lines with democratic grace notes. But, in Trump’s hands, “Right before our eyes, like something on the screen, the vast social fabric [of the republic] has crumbled…. On its ruins, with the speed of a world’s fair, [he] and his confederates have run up a political front of startling and provocative modernity… [His movement’s] hand has been so much quicker than the democratic eye, and for his violence we have so little precedent.”
Again, this is Hackett in 1941, but American elites have been clearing the ground unwittingly for Trump’s great encampment, as Romney was doing by calling millions of Americans “takers” in 2012 and “suckers” last week. Takers and suckers some of them may be, but many are also shrewd, angry, bitter, and desperate. Although he was right enough to call Trump a fraud, Romney and his cohort would have to become a lot less fraudulent themselves to discredit him or whoever his successor will be if he implodes. He’s an all-too American carrier of a chronic dysfunction that was lathered into our economic and social foundations and that cracked the country open in 1860, when the Whig Party collapsed amid a no-longer deferrable dispute over slavery and states’ rights, and in 1929, when the Republican classical economic and political liberalism that “translates pretty easily into… a sanction for popular impatience with governmental restraints on greed,” as the late historian Edmund Morgan put it, brought the country pretty close to implosion as fascism was rising in Europe.
Trump is only the match lighting the tinder that many of us have prepared – the Clintons and the Chuck Schumers among us as much as the Bushes and Mitch McConnells, the “lemonade literati” of the prestige magazines as much as the Dinesh D’Souzas and Pat Buchanans. We should stop flattering ourselves long enough to understand why so many fellow citizens are willing to gamble so pathetically that Trump will deflect the torrentially marketed civic mindlessness and malevolence that’s groping them, goosing them, intimidating them, bamboozling them, indebting them, surveilling them, and, in so doing, imprisoning them.
Reckoning with this hard reality in the conservative National Review’s symposium “Against Trump,”R.R.Reno, editor of the conservative religious magazine First Things, noted that the people Romney dismissed as “’takers’ with no future in the global economy” made him the “failed candidate” that Trump calls him now.
“They suspect, rightly,” that the Chamber of Commerce will sell them down the river if it adds to the bottom line,” Reno adds. “I suppose that that’s the reason for [Trump’s] popularity… The middle class consensus in America has collapsed. This is the most important political and social earthquake since World War II. The conservative movement’s leadership isn’t up to the challenge, and a good number of voters are willing to gamble on Trump’s bluster.”
Reno stops short of acknowledging that the “middle-class consensus” owed a lot to massive public support for homeownership, to vigorous government regulations that supported union organizing and restrained the animal spirits of bankers, brokers, and campaign donors, and to the G.I. Bill and other extensive public funding of universities. From the 1970s on, Democratic as well as Republican elites seduced Americans into surrendering those supports bit by bit. Although there were valid reasons (such as global and technological upheavals) to re-work some protections and let go of others, there were far too many corrupt and destructive reasons, too.
The reckoning we’re experiencing, although it’s being distorted frighteningly by Trump, is about what political and business leaders on both sides of the aisle (and the Atlantic) deserve. At Hilton Head and Davos, they tell one another, sometimes with stagey caveats and sighs, that recent meltdowns prove that most people aren’t capable of self-government and need to be ruled or finessed. But the meltdowns prove that elites cannot even rule themselves, let alone anyone else.