Donald Trump is all surface. And some—repeat, some—of his support comes because surface politics are far more appealing to people who get excited by politicians but know little about politics; people who love hypotheticals but pay no attention to actualities. These are the people who say things like, “Immigrants are ruining America,” and then, when asked how, reply, “Because they are.” These are people who say things like, “Hillary Clinton should be in jail,” then, when asked why, say, “Because of that thing.” And they can hardly be bothered to notice when a person uses a lot of words but says absolutely nothing, much like ole’ Donald, who promises something “terrific” to replace Obamacare, who says he’ll get rid of Common Core because “it’s a very bad thing.” Specifics are something that have been sadly missing from elections for a while now, in all democracies, but Donald takes it to new levels. He’s the vacuum cleaner salesman who promises the “cleanest carpets.”
But what about those of us who dig a little deeper? What about my brethren who like their politics with a touch of coherence, a sprinkle of acumen? Well, we get to feel superior, which is fun for a while but eventually just becomes worrisome. And we get to joke. We joke because we have to. How else do you deal with what we are seeing? Before this election, we only suspected that Americans knew nothing of their own history, now we know for sure. Before this election, we knew that America had a bigoted past, we were just unsure how bigoted is its present. The racists who support Trump may not know their history, but they sure are good at representing it.
It is hard to describe what Donald Trump makes me, and people like me, feel. There is plenty of literature out there for Trump supporters to read to better understand all that is wrong with the man, most of it historical, some of it sociological, but it was their disinterest in literature that got them supporting him in the first place. Trump himself has never read it, so why would they? For that matter, why am I even writing this? Why should I expect them to show any interest in learning what they actively don’t want to? You wouldn’t ask a vegetarian to go fishing with you.
Well, I’m going to write it anyway. Anything to feel some sanity in an insane moment. For the idea that Trump might be elected is as crazy as the man is. Trump remains, as he has been all along, an open and committed enemy of liberal democracy and constitutional republicanism, and yet he is at most a few polling points from power. Indeed, we can be confident that, whatever the play of the polls this week, we will certainly arrive at next Tuesday with Trump retaining at least the chance that any candidate of one of our two major parties always has—a real one, with much depending on things that happen outside anyone’s control, often at the last minute, and in ways that cannot now easily be envisioned. Those are the stakes, and they legitimately make me nervous. Back in 2008, us liberal minded people wanted Obama to win because we were depressed by the preceding eight years; today, we want Hillary to win because, assuming a Trump victory, we are terrified by the next eight years. And the two feelings are incomparable. 2008 was a superficial want; 2016 is a devastating need. And this coming from a person who has never felt as though political figures are as directly impactful as people make them out to be. As George Freidman once wrote, “The finest statesman ruling Iceland will not dominate the world; the stupidest ruling ancient Rome could not undermine its power.” Once upon a time I believed you, George. I’m finding it much harder today.
Come, the skeptic alongside or within us protests, surely this account is at least a little hysterical, or exaggerated. Can Trump really be that bad? And would he truly be unguarded by constitutional constraints? For haven’t we heard all this, or something too much like it, before? It has been a convention of our quadrennial liberal pieties, after all, to insist that this election is the one that uniquely matters, with repeated spectres of looming apocalyptic authoritarianism often (and perhaps too carelessly) invoked. People said the same things about Goldwater in 1964, and about Richard Nixon in that grim year of 1968. Even Ronald Reagan, now as comforting an American icon as Ozzy Osbourne, was greeted in the summer of 1980 with fearful warnings about the dangers of putting the nuclear button in the hands of a shallow and untested actor. The country survived. Hell, the country thrived. Can the oafish and absurd Donald Trump really be worse?
Well, if one lesson liberals learn from 2016 is to be more discerning about the difference between bad policies and constitutional crises, between falling rain and onrushing meteors, it will surely be salubrious for them, and for us all. But, in truth, this time is different. Barry Goldwater worked within, and respected, all the norms of democracy—during his time as a senator, he and J.F.K. were not only friends across the aisle but talked of barnstorming together in 1964.
“Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” may not be a slogan all can embrace, but (to sound like Walter Sobchak, in “The Big Lebowski”) at least it’s an ethos—something to respect and debate, to argue over. The condition of the country in 1968 was surely worse than it is now, and Nixon had an inner life more paranoid than even now is quite believable—but he was also a normal politician who had followed a normal path, and when, in fact, his anti-democratic tendencies were revealed, he was expelled by the same constitutional order that he had betrayed. One never thought to have to say this in his praise, but Richard Nixon accepted the system that distinguished itself by ejecting him. And Ronald Reagan, whatever anxieties he awoke in the year of his election, could point credibly to his time as a successful two-term governor of our largest state. Meanwhile, the true previous American demagogues—Joe McCarthy and Huey Long and George Wallace—never captured the Presidential nomination of a major political party. Back then, Americans were at least smart enough to not let that happen.
Donald Trump is not normal in any of these ways, and yet we continue to treat him as though he were. Those of us who warned last spring that he was being underestimated and normalized by a sinister process of gradual acceptance of the unacceptable turned out, tragically, to be right. Trump is not normal. Nothing about him is. One need only look at his rallies, track the rhetoric they offer and the vengeful orgy of hatred and misogyny and racism they induce, to see just how different he is. His followers are not, shall we say, there to root on their favored libertarian in his pursuit of free-market solutions to vexing social problems; they are there to scream insults and cry havoc on their (mostly imaginary) enemies, to revel in the riot of misogyny and racism that Trump has finally given them license to retrieve from the darkest chapters of our past. (“Not politically correct” means openly brutal to minorities and women.) A ten-year-old screams, “Take that bitch down!” to laughter. One need only track the past month’s series of outrages, each quickly receding into the distance, to recall that he has done not one but almost innumerable things that in any previous election would have been, quaint word, “disqualifying.” His Twitter assault on the former Miss Universe was followed by his confession and boasts of being a sexual predator, which were followed by the confirmation of numerable women that, yes, indeed, he is a sexual predator—met only by his snarling denials, none of them the least bit convincing, and the familiar big-lie technique of insisting that their stories have been “debunked” when they have not even been effectively denied.
As you can probably tell, I have recently started to become skeptical of the idea that the system is to blame for the rise of Trump, that voters who are frustrated with the status-quo have been magnetically pulled the “different” microphone. My new fear is that Trump isn’t an alternative to the status-quo, he is the status-quo, at least within the dark recesses of American minds. It has become almost an essential piety, even among his opponents, that a special pathos clings to his supporters, who know not what they do, but are themselves victims of forces larger than they. The misérables of the postmodern period, the dispossessed of the globalized planetary era, his supporters are not really the “racists” they are thought to be—and if they indulge in the blind hatred of his message it is only because their alienation from mainstream America, and their increasing hopelessness in the face of job losses and meaningful occupation, makes them vulnerable to a demagogic ideology. They embrace from ignorance and misplaced hope rather than from shared hatreds.
The trouble with this view is that, while Trump has his share of disaffected white working-class voters, the correlation between Trumpism and economic discontent is a false one, as has been demonstrated many times. One particularly detailed and persuasive example appeared on Vox: “Trump support was correlated with higher, not lower, income, both among the population as a whole and among white people. Trump supporters were less likely to be unemployed or to have dropped out of the labor force. Areas with more manufacturing, or higher exposure to imports from China, were less likely to think favourably of Trump.”
Even if the correlation were minimally robust, the notion that belonging to the largely fluid category “the white working class” puts one in special possession of virtue is, in a polyglot, cosmopolitan country, absurd. The white working class built unions and raised children and fought wars—and lynched black people and supported Joe McCarthy. Sometimes those attitudes could be held together in a single personality. No group is invulnerable to bad causes. We should have no hesitation in calling deplorable attitudes deplorable, but do it without imagining that those who hold them are deplorable people. They can be wrong without being bad. And, in any case, it would be good to balance the endless hand-wringing about the pathos of the Trump voter with some countervailing sense of the pathos, still larger, of the Clinton voter: the Latina motel cleaner in Nevada or the single mother in Brooklyn. No category of voters in a democracy is especially virtuous, none immune from evil.
Louis Menand once said, “The biggest single error, and the most tragic, that ‘progressive’ or liberal thinkers made in the twentieth century was to imagine that ethnic grievances could be reduced to economic grievances, and that if the aggrieved could be made to see their ‘true’ class position the grievance would go away, the nationalism, or racism, would vanish. It never has.” Trump’s supporters demand our attention and deserve our empathy—but that doesn’t make the ideology they so feverishly share any less toxic or dangerous. And the notion that they have no agency or choice is the truly condescending one. (The reality, more hopeful, is that the views behind such grievances do not get out-argued; they just evolve out of us. The most encouraging of the poll-borne truths may be that Trump’s support drops among those younger than thirty, of whatever racial or ethnic or educational background.)
The mistake in the analysis lies deeper, perhaps—in the assumption that only a strange and traumatic sequence can have made this happen. What can be causing Trumpism? We ask, and seek for an earthquake, or at least a historical oddity or a series of highly specific causal events. The more tragic truth is that the Trumpian view of the world is the default view of mankind. Bigotry, fanaticism, xenophobia are the norms of human life—the question is not what causes them but what uncauses them, what happens in the rare extended moments that allow them to be put aside, when secular values of toleration and pluralism replace them.
It is a touching thing that Oscar Hammerstein had his people sing, apropos racial prejudice, that “You’ve got to be carefully taught.” Alas, as poor Oscar would have realized if he had stopped to think about the events that had led all those American soldiers and sailors to the South Pacific in the first place, you don’t have to be carefully taught to hate. The Hitlerians and the Japanese militarists hadn’t been carefully taught; they rushed to their lesson in the face of all evidence. Human groups, particularly those fuelled by religious fanaticism or the twentieth-century equivalent, blind nationalism, always tend toward exclusion. To eliminate the tribal instinct may be impossible, but to raise the accidental practice of pluralism to a principle is what enlightened societies struggle to accomplish. And they have.
It just turns out to be a horribly hard triumph to sustain. Along comes 1914, or 1933—or, God forbid, 2016—and the work comes crashing down. What really needs explaining is not why the Trumps of the world come forward and win. It is why they sometimes lose.
I once read an article (forgive me, I forget its author) about the divide in virtue that separates us from Shakespeare, making the point that Shakespeare believed in fate, order, and forgiveness, whereas we believe in history, justice, and compassion, and that, superior though our moral progress may seem, there are bitter truths in the old trinity. For, as Shakespeare would have grasped at once, there is no explaining Trump. He is one of those phenomena that rise regularly in history to confound us with the possibility—and black comedy—of potent evil: conscienceless, cruel and pathologically dishonest. That evil magnetizes followers of all kinds is another permanent truth. Over-explaining its rise is as foolish as pretending that it can be easily defeated. The threat it makes to an order that, however imperfect, is worth sustaining and defending reminds us of that order’s fragility. As to forgiveness, much will be demanded, even if the best happens—or the worst, at least, is avoided.