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Bunga Bunga Billionaire Nation

'An inchoate sense that the world is falling apart' is behind the Trump phenomenon

Ladies and gentlemen, from the Howard Stern Show, the odds-on favorite to be your Republican Party nominee for president, Donald Trump, in a long 1997 interview with shock-jock Howard Stern, in which he discusses, among other things, how he avoided sexually transmitted diseases, how he could have had Princess Diana, whether or not he masturbates and … well, watch the whole thing, but beware, it’s very NSFW.

Prior to Trump, it was impossible to imagine a presidential contender with this kind of thing in his past. [UPDATE: I mean a video of this kind of trashy discussion. — RD] Can you imagine the fun Democrats would have mining Trump’s endless vulgar statements for attack ads? As we now know, though, this is not a bug with Trump, but a feature. People either don’t mind it, or they appreciate how Trump just doesn’t give a rat’s rear end what people think of him. Watch that Howard Stern interview, and it’s easy to see Trump as an American version of Silvio Berlusconi, the “bunga-bunga” billionaire elected to office in Italy, in part because all his traditional party opponents were seen as weak and ineffectual. A friend and reader of this blog e-mails:

In one of your articles you ask if Trump ever loses.

Depends on what you call losing.

To some, he loses huge, but  they don’t notice it really.

For most people, they don’t take the big risks because the big thing they are afraid to lose is popularity. They are afraid of losing the pats on the backs, the flattery, and the crap of human sentiment, and when I say “crap” of human sentiment, I do not mean human sentiment is crap. I mean, human sentiment that runs on emotion of whether I like you today because you kissed my a*s or not and gave me what I wanted and told me what I wanted to hear is crap. It’s nothing, and, yet, people are afraid to lose it. They are afraid of being criticized, not getting enough “likes” on their Facebook page, and being the bad guy. They are afraid to rock the boat because someone might suggest tossing  them overboard. And if we are honest about it, those people are pandering to the populace because they have neither a solid moral compass or any real idea of who the hell they really are. They need the populace to talk to them because they need the populace to dictate identity.

Trump does not give a rat’s rear end about any of the above  because he is none of the above.

He knows who he is. He knows what he stands for. He has a clear compass point for where he is and where he wants to go, and he doesn’t need anyone telling him he is right. And, if he gets tossed overboard, he’ll find another way to swim. He simply does not need the populace to be himself, and because of that, he bets big, and he wins big.

Does he ever lose? Actually, he loses big, too. He loses popularity because people don’t like his drive, his disinterest in others’ opinions, his unwillingness to bend to cater to others’ emotions or insecurities. The thing is, Trump doesn’t care because that isn’t a loss to him. He is looking beyond that. To other people, that is the greatest loss they can imagine, and it becomes their prison.

You and I both know a person cannot do great things without pissing off the general masses and their opinions. For most people, that is too much risk to take. For Trump, it never crosses his mind.

Look at the people shaping our world right now and think of how many think like Trump. How many are willing to rock the boat because they believe they are here for bigger purposes than popularity? Look at Franklin Graham and how outspoken he has become on hot topics. Is he Trump? Not yet, but politics is Trump’s realm, and we all know politics, not God, is America’s foremost religion now.

Rod, there is a lot to learn from Trump, not just in business or politics, but in the drive for what is worthy losing and what cannot afford to be lost…and fiercely we must be willing to battle for what we cannot afford to lose.

Now, we’ve all been talking about how almost nobody saw Trump coming. We’ve been talking about why people are drawn to Trump, and what the GOP Establishment failed to understand about itself. There are lots of theories going around, but I have not seen a Unified Theory Of Trump emerge yet — one that gets to the core of the Trump phenomenon.

Trump’s missing the final Fox debate before Monday’s Iowa caucuses seems to have paid off for him, as he has increased his lead over Ted Cruz, his nearest rival. Unless Trump can’t get his people to the caucuses on Monday night, he’s going to win Iowa, and he’s well ahead in the next two primary states, New Hampshire and South Carolina. If he wins all three, that will be an unprecedented feat.

Ron Brownstein says polling reveals the big new divide in the GOP: class. More:

The most consistent dividing line in responses to Trump is education. That was a telling differentiator in 2012, too: Romney won voters with at least a four-year college degree in 14 of the 20 states, but he carried most non-college voters in just ten of them. But this time the class divide has widened to become the race’s central fissure.

From the start, Trump has performed better in polling among Republicans without a college degree than among those who hold a four-year or post-graduate degree. Across the broad range of recent national and early state surveys, Trump consistently attracts about 40 percent of Republicans without a college degree—a remarkable number in a field this large. (The three latest Marist polls put him at 42 percent with them in Iowa, 41 percent in South Carolina and 36 percent in New Hampshire.) His performance among those with degrees is usually more modest: around 25 to 30 percent in most surveys.

Trump’s success at connecting with the economic and cultural anxieties of blue-collar whites largely explains why he hasn’t been damaged more by his disputes with groups that usually function as the gatekeepers for conservative support, from the Fox News Channel to National Review. Voters at Trump rallies are often quick to acknowledge he isn’t a typical Republican, or a classic conservative. Yet they don’t see his deviations from party orthodoxy as disqualifying because they view him as championing them against forces they view as threatening—from special interest influence in Washington to rapid demographic change. “I come out of a traditional Republican household,” said Tom Cotton, a retired law enforcement officer from Grinnell, Iowa, who attended a Trump rally in Marshalltown last week. “And let’s face it—he’s not a traditional Republican. But I truly believe he will give it everything he’s got to get things going again.”

Remember that line of populist Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards I posted not long ago? The one in which Edwards explained the mystery of why certain social and religious conservatives in Louisiana voted for him, despite his reputation as a womanizer and a crook?

“With me, the people know the butter might be rancid, but it’s going to be spread on their side of the bread.”

There you go.

New York magazine has a passage from its reporting on Iowa and New Hampshire voters that really resonates. Emphases below are mine:

This attraction to strength seems to be connected to an inchoate sense that the world is falling apart. The voters we spoke to were concerned about a lot of potential threats — terrorist, economic, and cultural — and hoped that a strong president would protect them from dangers within as well as from abroad. Voters said they no longer felt free to be themselves in their own country — policed in their speech, unable to pray publicly or even say “God bless you” when someone sneezes. “Everything’s so p.c.,” said Priscilla Mills, a 33-year-old hospital coordinator from Manchester. “And then the second you do say something, you’re a racist.” Trump, who had 21 percent of the vote in our small sample, has capitalized the most on the political-correctness grievance, which is likely to surface in the general election no matter who becomes the nominee.

The culture wars clearly aren’t defined along the same lines that they used to be. Almost everyone we spoke with said they were pro-life, but few talked about restricting abortion as their main issue. And gay marriage barely even registered as a cause for concern. “I feel like I don’t wear a black robe, so I don’t have the right to judge anybody,” said Tina Vondran, 49, of Monticello, Iowa.

Certainly, there were voters turned off by the polemical style of the more extreme candidates. And 48 percent were still undecided as of late January. But their leanings, which crisscrossed ideological positions, seemed to confirm the conventional wisdom that the GOP-primary voter is more motivated by mood than by policy. “Donald Trump has the best tagline of all, ‘Make America great again,’ ” said Rubio backer Russell Fuhrman of Dubuque, Iowa. “The country just seems to be in a severe decline. Insecurity’s so high; pessimism and political correctness are running rampant. It’s sad.”

More motivated by mood than policy. That’s an important insight. The people can’t really put their finger on what’s wrong, but they sense — correctly, in my view — that something is very seriously wrong. Trump gives them a sense that the problem is the Other (Wall Street, immigrants, et alia), and that by force of will, he will set things aright. It is way, way too easy to explain Trump away by saying he’s a scapegoater. He may well be that, but he’s not entirely wrong about how the architects of our economy in finance, industry, and in government, have worked against the interests of very many Americans just like them.

And this reaction against political correctness? Don’t you think these people know perfectly well that they and their values are despised by the cosmopolitans who run media, academia, the political parties, and so on? Boston University professor Stephen Prothero had an insightful remark on Facebook:

[The] Democratic Party also to blame, by ignoring the cultural concerns of working-class white voters. Bernie Sanders addresses their economic concerns, but he and HRC ignore their cultural concerns–their worry about losing their jobs to undocumented immigrants; their fear of terrorism. Trump addresses their economic concerns also by pledging to tax Wall Street traders (as Bernie has promised). But he speaks to their fears and their sense of not being heard or “protected.” Those of us who live in our white liberal bubbles in Boston or the Bay Area don’t see these people. They are like “dark matter” to us, pulling on the gravitational force of US politics but largely invisible. But now not so much.

All of this is true. But what’s also true, I think, is that people are fooling themselves if they think electing a strongman is going to save us. Dante Alighieri fantasized about a strongman coming to sort out the godawful mess that was Italy in the 14th century, but I think he told truer than he knew in Purgatorio XVI, on the terrace of Wrath. When the pilgrim Dante asked Marco the Lombard why the world back on earth is in such a mess, Marco answered him by saying, in effect, If you want to fix the world, first fix your own heart.

It sounds like a greeting card sentiment, but it’s not. Did you hear this story on NPR this morning, about the “collapse of parenting”? A psychiatrist and family physician has a new book out talking about how parents today are setting our kids up for failure by catering to them, giving them what they want, not what they need. And we have created a culture in which we tear down parents who try to do the right thing. Dr. Leonard Sax, the author, told NPR:

So, for example, one mom took the cell phone away because her daughter’s spending all her time texting and Snapchatting. And the daughter didn’t push back. And her friends were like “Oh, you know her mom’s the weird mom who took her phone away.” The real push back — and this is what surprised this mom — came from the parents of her daughter’s friends, who really got on her case and said, “How can you do this?” and this mom told me that she thinks the other parents are uncertain, unsure of what they should be doing and so that’s why they’re lashing out at her — the one mom who has the strength to take a stand.

Why would moms do that to the disciplinarian mom? Sounds like they’re doing it to assuage their own bad consciences. This is the kind of thing that politics cannot fix, this degraded parenting culture. Years ago, a friend of mine who worked as an elementary school teacher in a school filled with impoverished kids used to go to these kids’ houses after school to meet with their parents (or rather, almost always, the parent; there were no dads in these houses). He said over and over, it was the same thing: the TV was on all the time, blaring loud, and the mother was completely checked out. It was chaos externally, and (therefore) chaos inside these kids. My friend finally became so overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem, and the unwillingness of the parents to lift a finger to change the course of their children’s lives, that he quit teaching and went into another line of work. He saw no hope there.

Look, I’m not saying that policy (economic and otherwise) has nothing to do with this “things fall apart” situation we find ourselves in. It does. But there’s a lot more going on here, at every level of our society, from top to bottom. The center is not holding. Trump is not the cause; Trump is the effect. If he becomes president, maybe some things will change for the better, but if he threw out every illegal immigrant, built a wall between the US and Mexico, reformed the financial system and did everything he promised to do, We The People would still have massive problems governing ourselves, in our private lives.

From Brad Gregory’s history The Unintended Reformation, this reflection on what happens to us when we give up, or only pay lip service to, the religious beliefs undergirding the foundation of our democracy. Emphasis below is the author’s:

Overwhelmingly, through [churches] and their families [early Americans] learned their moral values and behaviors. Tocqueville saw this clearly in the early 1830s, and the most prominent nineteenth-century American Catholic intellectual, too, the convert Orestes Brownson, was from the mid-1850s keen on the way in which such remarkably empty rights could be filled with Catholic content. The American founding fathers intuited, for their own time, how a novel ethics of rights could assume without having to spell out or justify the widespread beliefs that socially divided Christians continued to share notwithstanding their divergent convictions. What they could not have foreseen was what would happen to an ethics of rights when large numbers of people came to reject the shared beliefs that made it intellectually viable and socially workable. They could not have imagined what would happen when instead, intertwined with new historical realities and related behaviors, millions of people exercised their rights to convert to substantially different beliefs, choosing different good s and living accordingly. Only then, especially after World War II and even more since the 1960s, would the emptiness of the United States’ formal ethics of rights start to become visible, the fragility of its citizens’ social relationships begin to be exposed, and its lack of any substantive moral community be gradually revealed through the sociological reality of its subjectivized ethics. Civil society and democratic government depended on more than deliberately contentless formal rights. But what would or could that “more” be, and where would it come from, if religion no longer provided shared moral content as it had during much of the nineteenth century?

We are living out the answer to that question, and will be living out for the foreseeable future.The American people are right to sense that things are falling apart, but they misunderstand the ultimate sources of the disorder. This country needs new and better political leadership; that is undeniably true. But at best, it would only solve part of the problem, and not even the most important part.  More than anything right now, this country needs a new and quite different St. Benedict.