The Atomic Trump
From Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts On The Nature of Mass Movements (1951):
Those who would transform a nation or the world cannot do so by breeding and captaining discontent or by demonstrating the reasonableness and desirability of the intended changes or by coercing people into a new way of life. They must know how to kindle and fan an extravagant hope. It matters not whether it be hope of a heavenly kingdom, of heaven on earth, of plunder and untold riches, of fabulous achievement or world dominion.
… For men to plunge headlong into an undertaking of vast change, they must be intensely discontented yet not destitute, and they must have the feeling that by the possession of some potent doctrine, infallible leader or some new technique they have access to a source of irresistible power. They must also have an extravagant conception of the prospects and potentialities of the future. Finally, they must be wholly ignorant of the difficulties involved in their vast undertaking. Experience is a handicap. The men who started the French Revolution were wholly without political experience. The same is true of the Bolsheviks, Nazis and the revolutionaries in Asia.
It is impossible to imagine that a man as trivial as Donald Trump can offer anything resembling hope, and therefore meaningful change. Here is a public figure who goes to pieces when a female TV host asks him to defend his crude past remarks about women. The only people who look at Donald Trump and see hope are writers for The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live.
And yet, there is something fascinating about Trump’s popularity on the Right. I notice in the comments on this blog and elsewhere by his fans often fall back on the belief that the Republican Party is composed of dodos, squishes, and sellouts, and that only a courageous truth-teller like Donald Trump, neither beholden to or bowed by anyone, can set matters aright in Washington.
To be clear, I am not an admirer of the Republican Party, and I understand why people are frustrated with it. I share some of those frustrations. To look at the 2016 field of GOP presidential candidates is not quite the same thing as Shakespeare’s Henry V reviewing his troops on St. Crispin’s Day. As many of you know, I am a conservative who left the Republican Party and registered as an Independent.
But I am perplexed as to why so many on the Right think that it is only the weakness or perfidy of the GOP that keeps things they want to see from happening. Maybe it comes from the belief that conservatism cannot fail, but can only be failed. That is, maybe it is a kind of religious conviction in the metaphysical verity of conservatism. In once researching the Islamic radical thinker Sayyid Qutb, I read that fanatics gathered around him believed that the entire world would be Islamic if not for Satan’s wiles. Allah wills for all of humanity to submit to him via the religion of the Prophet. The fact that the sweep of the Muslim armies across the former lands of Christendom was halted can only be explained by the weak faith of the Believers. If only they believed more strongly, and fought harder, they would have prevailed, because Allah was with them.
That’s no doubt overstated, but I am genuinely confused by what these Trumpian true believers think is possible in Washington. The Republicans control the legislative branch (and in the Senate, not by much). They do not control the executive branch. There is this thing called the Democratic Party, that cannot be gotten around. Plus, not every Republican, or Republican-leaning voter, agrees with the hard core on orthodoxy and orthopraxy. For example, it is by no means self-evident that the Republican Party should shut down the US government as a means of getting its way in a legislative dispute. To many people, even conservative people, that is no way to run a government.
Nor is it clear to others — moderates, independents, and some conservatives — that the Republicans can be trusted in power. Look at the Iraq War, for example. Or look at the conditions of states (like my own) that have been governed by Republicans for some time. To be distrustful of GOP power does not require one to trust Democratic power. In fact, skepticism of both parties makes sense, though in the voting booth, one has to choose the lesser of two evils.
What accounts for the appeal of a Trump figure, I think, is exhaustion with the dispiriting trench warfare of national politics. Both parties spend fortunes on tectonic efforts to gain territory, but little happens. Sometimes there’s a significant victory for one side — Obamacare, for example — but it comes at such a cost, and it is so far from what its backers hoped for, that it doesn’t seem like much of a triumph. So things go back and forth, uninspiringly, and folks get frustrated. This is completely understandable, even moreso when you consider that neither party offers a compelling governing vision, in the sense that Roosevelt and his heirs did for the Left, and Reagan and his heirs did for the Right. We seem to be in a miserable Nixon-Carter period, in which the best we can do is to muddle through.
My barstool theory (one that conveniently mixes two different world wars) is that Donald Trump answers the desire among the frustrated Right for an atomic bomb, a superweapon that can instantly transform the battlefield. No politician who actually wants to govern the United States can afford to carry on like Trump. Trump has never been elected to any office, not even to the sewer board. The skills it takes to run a corporation, and the skills it takes to run one’s mouth, are very different from the skills it takes to succeed in politics, especially in a diverse pluralistic country like ours. People on the Right today get all nostalgic for Ronald Reagan, and forget how despised he was in his time, and his failures.
Look, I share a significant portion of the political pessimism of the frustrated Trump supporters. I don’t blame them one bit for being underwhelmed by the Republican Party and its 2016 offerings. But I would say to them (and to myself, because I am often a frustrated idealist) that a temperamental conservatism seeks incremental change, within the world of the possible. True, moribund institutions need to be shaken up from time to time, and the reinvigoration of American conservatism, and its chief political embodiment (the GOP), would be most welcome. But this is going to require patient work, which is not something most of us are cut out for. The gentle cynicism of someone like me is not much help, admittedly, but neither is the kind of shallow hotheadedness that finds its expression in supporting a cartoon figure like Donald Trump. If Trump supporters got their way, the defeat that would overtake the Republican Party would be like what will hit the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
Yet it’s easy to see why the far-left Corbyn is likely to be elected party leader. Watch this short clip from a UK radio interview with the four contenders for Labour’s top slot. It’s not the same thing as the Trump effect. Corbyn is actually an experienced parliamentarian, a serious politician, and a self-effacing man — none of which Trump is. What people like about him, it appears, is that he speaks his mind, and is not a product of handlers. This is part of Trump’s appeal, don’t you think?
But being able to give voice to one’s passions and frustrations is not the same thing as being able to get something done. This is why if I were a Tory, I would seek the intercession of the Blessed Margaret Thatcher that Labourites choose Corbyn. If I were an American liberal, I would
pray send positive vibrations into the universe for Trump’s continued success. He is no atomic bomb, but a monumental firecracker. Still, the desire for a superweapon to decisively change the dynamics of this war of attrition is meaningful, even if Trump will flame out and be forgotten soon enough. It comes not from hope, but from despair.
One might have thought Rand Paul would be the outsider-insider of the 2016 field. Hasn’t worked out that way, has it?
UPDATE: Douthat on the Donald and decadence. It’s not really about immigration, says Douthat, and Trump is no Marine Le Pen or Nigel Farage. Excerpt:
Of course Latin America isn’t the only source of U.S. immigration, and Africa’s demographic surge will probably have repercussions for American in-migration and domestic politics as well. But still I’m doubtful that the issue would play quite the same role in a real populist-nationalist upsurge that it has in Europe; it would have to be subsumed into broader fears about American economic and geopolitical decline – the (defensible and bipartisan) sense that while our very existence may not be at stake, our public institutions are in decay, our military can’t win wars, our leaders are corrupt, and in every other way we simply aren’t the America (!) that we have traditionally imagined ourselves to be.
That this argument would be expressed and championed, at present, by a magnificent specimen of decadence like the Donald – a coarse much-married Richie Rich-cum-crony capitalist who boasts about bribing politicians and exploiting bankruptcy laws to enrich himself – is perhaps an irony, or perhaps simply the way that these things inevitably go (as the Berlusconi example suggests). The best way to think of Trump, it seems to me, is as a parody of a send-up of how Americans like to imagine themselves. But perhaps a decaying imperium simply conjures up the critics it deserves.
The “send up” he refers to is this gloriously unironic Cadillac commercial. I think the Venn diagrams of the audience motivated by this commercial, and Donald Trump’s backers, must form a perfectly overlapping circle: