I swear to kate, this blog was not supposed to be entirely about the election, and certainly not all about Trump, but as this nightmare becomes a reality, it is hard to avoid. It’s obvious to most of the country that Donald Trump is the worst, but it is still important, I think, to point out exactly why.
I know this sounds like apocryphal Pauline Kael, but I have yet to talk to a single human who isn’t disgusted by what’s happening, and who doesn’t feel fairly sick thinking about candidate Trump, or god help us, President Trump. (They are obviously out there, of course. And there are a lot of them. They are the angry revenant of the original American character, one that predated and outlived the Revolution.) But what about it is exactly so sickening? I think it can be broken down into two main groups.
- His platform, such as it is, which combines three horrifying planks in a way that is essentially unique in both American history and in the current world.
- The fact that it is Donald goddamn Trump.
A Uniquely Trumpian Combination of Awfulness
Let’s start with the first, which is maybe (but only maybe) more important. The three main planks (which are connected and which overlap, but still can be distinguished) are:
- An appeal to racism and xenophobia
- The anti-democratic proto-fascistic strongman aura
- The raw know-nothing idiocy of any of his proposals.
We talked about the historic roots of the first part yesterday. It’s a nationalist campaign, like the kind rising in France, in Greece, in Bulgaria, and other places, due to shifting ethnic and religious groupings and exacerbated by the Syrian refugee crisis. America, which has always weirdly considered itself immune not just to history and geography, but also to extreme movements, is feeling the same strange frequencies. It isn’t just illegal immigration, though that’s the most extreme manifestation: it’s the whole shift away from white America. It’s no different from what’s happening in France, with some of the same reactions (an angry loud minority being stirred up).
The second part isn’t entirely unique in American history, but Trump is closer to power than anyone else who has run as a strongman. The appeal of him isn’t what he’ll get done, but of course that he can get them down. It’s not a coincidence that he admires Putin. (Putin, of course, has a lot of elements of racism and xenophobia in his campaign).These kind of leaders have an appeal, which is why they are able to run a country. It’s saying all the institutions are corrupt, and I won’t fix them- I’ll break them entirely and let the country be run through my will. History is full of this. America has flirted with it at times, but it has never gone this far.
The third, the dumbshow of his whole campaign, is where he begins to separate himself. Even when he gives a vaguely populist and straightforward (and possibly effective) talk on the economy, as he did last night, he’s not offering any plans except that he’ll fix it. That’s been the whole appeal, and it has horrified anyone who has thought about it. (Benjamin Wittes at Lawfare thinks his combination of know-nothingness, bluster, and ego is a legitmate national security threat, and it’s hard to argue). There isn’t a single policy past “win”.
That Trump is all three of these things is what makes him unique. The racism and xenophobia of, say, the hideous LePen clan of France are not exactly anti-democratic and not authentically fascist. They want to manipulate the system to make it harder on Muslims, but there isn’t a strongman carrying the National Front forward. They also have a serious platform which touches on a lot. It’s mostly disagreeable, but they have long worked through legitimate politics.
Normal dumbshow politicians also aren’t generally outright authoritarians. Even the ones with the vaguest plans pretend to follow a Constitutional order.
Putin also has plans. He is very serious about what he sets out to do, and it isn’t just “win so much your head will spin.” As much as you should never begin a statement with “even Hitler”, even Hitler was serious and had policies. (Do I have to say I don’t think Trump is as bad as Hitler?) Trump is fundamentally unserious, outright racist, appeals to the worst, and presents himself as savior through force of will. In that combination he is unlike any contemporary politician, and his Presidency would result in an outright disaster.
Because It’s Donald Trump
Here’s what makes it double sickening. If a know-nothing demagogue came from nowhere and was a serious candidate, with a good shot at getting the nomination of one of our only two parties, and who had with him a violent mass of angry reactionaries who treat him like a king, it would be terrifying. We’d be wondering what happened, and would feel sick about it. The only thing that makes it worst is that it’s Donald Trump.
It’s Donald Trump! This is personal, but I have had a hatred and loathing for him literally as long as I can remember. He seemed this grotesque and obscene figure when I was growing up in the 80s, before I even knew what those words meant. There was just something about him that made my skin crawl. I hated that Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous show, which was the quintessence of that decade, and even if he wasn’t on it, he swirled in my childish conscience of the avatar of something ugly. It helped of course that Bloom County and Doonesbury constantly panned him, and in doing so, just made him part of this 80s-era miasma. He was mixed in with a wordless wonder at the end of nature, as farmland in the area became townhomes, and what were small towns became strange exurbs- the reactionaries in which are the basis of his current strength.
That’s sort of the point. He was the pinnacle of the worst of the 1980s, of the greed and opulence that marked our return to traditional values. In the 1990s, he was an avatar of cheating wealth, floating through a pointless time, opening and closing casinos, taking advantage of a game that was, for once and all, rigged toward the rich. In the 2000s he dominated the heightened idiocy of our reality age, all artifice and fake drama obscuring the disasters below our feet. And then of course in this decade he has been our preeminent birther, and the leader of the paranoid and hateful brigade.
In short, he’s been at the forefront of what has been the worst in American culture for four decades. He’s represented what is greedy and vulgar and dirty and stupid, what is fake and pompous and overblown and artificial. His glamour has always been the dull and lifeless sex of hostage porn, the weeping simulacrum of something beautiful. Whatever the American dream is, he’s been buying it on the cheap, packing it into something gaudy and worthless, and selling it at a profit. And now he might represent one our parties, and even if he doesn’t, even if they stop him, he has a following, and in a real way has already won.
So yeah, it’s not just what this guy is doing. It’s that it’s this fucking guy.