Donald Trump believes, in the words of journalist Andrew Sullivan, that, “indecency can win in America. His election strategy is built on the notions that cruelty can be popular and liberal democratic norms are dead.” That’s quite a statement. I agree with it. Trump, like Nigel Farage in the UK, is banking on riding the waves of nativism, buoyed up by the undercurrents of fear and racism, which have always been present in American society, but which are finding particularly potent expression in a day and age when we are reaching a century-high peak in foreign-born citizens and the percentage of white children in the United States has been falling steadily since the 80’s.
Trump is in no way a leader, never has been. But he was able to capture lightning in a bottle and get the GOP nomination in 2016 because he coupled his innate vulgarity and simple-mindedness with a litany of taboo political topics, race premiere among them. He convinced his followers that political correctness was best obliterated. Trump blew the lid off of the prevailing code of decency once, dragging the national discourse into the gutter, and evidently he believes that that’s the formula to victory a second time.
I wrote this on Trump’s inauguration day.
Months ago when it seemed evident that he would get the nomination, I saw Trump as a cult leader. He fit all the basic criteria, a charismatic figure preaching a shockingly different message that captured the imagination of marginalized people and made them feel that they belonged again; or perhaps for the first time ever. Now I think that Trump is an idiot savant, because of his gift for tapping into the irrational fear that exists in the darkest recesses of the cultural psyche, his ability to extract it, and then mainline it back into his voters again, and again like a drug. That is how he built his popularity with one outrage after another, by tapping into the reptilian brain and unthinking, emotional response of his voters.
Trump unconsciously tapped into the currents of repressed rage that flow just beneath the surface of our culture. He cracked the ice and that rage geysered upwards and continues to geyser upwards. It is no secret that Trump’s supporters have taken his election as a cultural carte blanche to misbehave in any manner which they see fit. Just the other day, Texas Congressman and Democrat Filemon Vela reported that a group of migrant children which he brought to Washington, D.C. for the inauguration were disparaged by Trump voters who called them, “beaners,” “burritos,” and even spit on them.
From that day to this, Trump has only amplified the same theme, cruelty to non-whites, taking it to the level of children in cages and concentration camps at the southern border. Now, he’s escalated his racist rhetoric, and seen fit to demonize four freshman congresswomen of color, The Squad, and make them the face of the Democratic party. To all intents and purposes, he’s running against The Squad in 2020, as he ran against Hillary in 2016, and all that’s different is that the chant has changed from “Lock her up!” to “Send her back!” Trump engineered this dust up with The Squad and then the RNC followed up with an attack ad labeling the four congresswomen as hate mongers and anarchists — as opposed to the “tremendous patriots” who chanted “Send her back!” during Trump’s Two Minute Hate in North Carolina a few days ago. John Cassidy, the New Yorker:
…some people—Trump and Newt Gingrich included—have argued that the entire commotion will help the President’s reëlection bid, because it has focussed attention on the leftward shift in parts of the Democratic Party. Citing unnamed Trump advisers, [Wall Street Journal’s Michael] Bender wrote that the President’s strategy is “to paint Democrats as so extreme and out of touch that he will appear as the best bet to keep the economy—one of the few issues that most Americans are willing to give him credit for—on an upward trajectory. If he is going to win over new supporters, by this calculus, it will be by making his opponents appear unacceptable rather than by modulating his own rhetoric.”
On its face, this argument isn’t entirely implausible. Painting your opponents as left-wing radicals and warning the electorate not to trust the economy to them is a popular strategy for conservative parties the world over, and it’s one some centrist Democrats are worried about.
We’ve seen this madness before in this country, but in far more recognizable form. Not like this. We certainly have never seen a sitting president vociferously attack a freshman congressman or woman. That abuse of power is new and it’s pure Trumpian punching-down. Andrew Sullivan, New York Magazine:
Yes, we have seen rallies not unlike this in the past, from George Wallace’s candidacy, for example. We have gone through periods in which minorities have been subliminally targeted in presidential rhetoric, along the Lee Atwater principle of using ever-more-coded racism to rally white support. We have had intense nativist phases during waves of mass immigration similar to the one we are now experiencing.
But neo-fascist rhetoric in huge stadiums designed to demonize dissent? New. Targeting specific nonwhite, female political opponents for deportation by a sitting president a year away from the party conventions? Unprecedented. An American president who delights in seeing mobs isolate and torment lone dissenters? I can’t recall any previous one so enthralled with such power. A president basking in chants to deport his political foes? As shocking and as anti-American as running in 2016 on a platform of putting his opponent, Hillary Clinton, in jail. Both chants —“Lock Her Up!” and “Send Her Back!” — invoke powers no president in a liberal democracy should have or want. They reek of racism, nativism, and misogyny. And they are chants for a strongman to replace the rule of law with the rule of Trump. The mob in North Carolina rhetorically wanted to give back to the Executive branch the power of attainder that monarchs once invoked to persecute their enemies. All of this is new. All of it is deeply menacing. […]
Trump’s strength, after all, is his sense of others’ weakness. He focuses on it, defines it, labels it, and knows no restraints in describing it. He understands that the moderate Democratic members of Congress — the ones who won the majority in 2016 — can be rendered invisible if he focuses on “the squad.” And he knows too how far left this groupuscule has gone, and how attention-seeking these newcomers are. He knows that their core ideological belief seems to be that liberal democracy is a sham for white control of “black and brown bodies,” and that in America, that means an entire system designed to wage an unending and vicious race war on nonwhites. And he knows that, in this argument, at this moment, he wins.
Trump has oversimplified the ideals of The Squad. They want change and they want to see equality in America, as do we all, but he is twisting their fundamental message into an anti-American, anti-white dirge, which is patently absurd. That argument falls apart at the slightest bit of investigation into the lives or campaigns of the four congresswomen. But he’s not worried that the truth will out, because the truth about his adversaries, when presented, can always be dismissed as fake news. Anything Donald Trump doesn’t find flattering or something that he can use, is automatically fake news. Any disagreement with him has, since North Carolina, been characterized as un-American. The definition of patriotism in this day and age is supporting Donald Trump, at least according to himself. “Love me or leave,” is his newest mantra.
What Trump is counting upon is that Americans are as fear-driven and backward at the end of the day as he is venal and corrupt. And you can’t blame him for that, 63,000,000 disenchanted Americans punched a card in a voting both for him, right? He’s following the same gut instincts that got him there in the first place. Trump is depending upon there being more angry, hate-filled Americans than there are decent, compassionate ones, and the GOP is traipsing happily alongside, co-signing on this philosophy as fast as they can. They have lost all conscience. They have devolved into the party of Trump and they’re fine with it. As long as they’ve got their standard bearer in the White House, their agenda is safe and they don’t care how the social fabric gets mangled or what irrevocable damage is done to America’s image and economic status in the world. The GOP is content to ride the Trump train, even as it treacherously careens towards social upheaval the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Civil War.
This country has had volatile civil conflicts before. What’s different now is we have a president whose instinct in such turbulent times is actually to intensify the turbulence with rhetoric and mass rallies that foment greater and greater mutual hostility. Most presidents regard it as their responsibility to tamp down racial and cultural conflict. Trump, having no concept of any broader interest than his own, is incapable of it. His malignant narcissism prevents him from any other way of behaving, and each outrage becomes a new baseline for the next one.
So yes, we are in an abyss. And as Trump becomes increasingly emboldened by his survival, and one of the two major parties has become a cult, the bottom seems even more elusive than before. Think of what might happen if Trump loses the popular vote in 2020 by an even bigger margin but still ekes out an Electoral College victory. Think of how a close election could lead to Trump’s refusal to concede, and how the wheels could come off the entire system. What we know for certain is that, for the first time, we have a president who doesn’t care if that happens, who’d rather destroy the legitimacy of liberal democracy than compete legitimately within it.
Trump is a sociopath, plain and simple. He’s worried about himself and the aggrandizement of his ego, which is all that the presidency has ever meant to him; and not the institution of the presidency or government as a whole. And he’s being enabled by a political party that does know better and should do something to reign him in and check his worst impulses, but they will not. They have either abdicated responsibility for their own oaths of office, or, more probably, they love what he’s doing. He is, after all, the Republican id, the persona to their shadow.
H.L. Mencken presciently wrote, “As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” That day has come. We have a downright moron in the nation’s highest office. The question is, to what extent does he represent the inner soul of America? This is a question that the entire world waits with bated breath to have answered. Because if Donald Trump is reelected to a second term, we will be toast in the eyes of the world. If Trump is defeated, we can argue that he hoodwinked so many of us, and in combination with Russian interference, was able to sway the outcome of the election in his favor. But if he prevails a second time, we will have no excuse. The sad truth will be that this is who we really are.