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Trump: From Sideshow to Main Event


Given the outcome of the Nevada caucus, it’s looking more and more like Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee for President.

A year ago, I would’ve considered it impossible.

Six months ago, I would’ve said he was a longshot for the nomination, much less the Oval Office.

Now? What should have been obvious all along is finally becoming clear. Donald Trump may or may not be able to win the White House–that remains to be seen–but that a one-man reality show could hijack the Presidential campaign season so quickly and easily, absurd as it may have seemed a year ago, now seems like it must have been inevitable.

In all honesty, I have always had mixed feelings in writing about Donald Trump. Ever since he exploded onto the Presidential stage, I have been at once fascinated and repulsed, the same as I imagine most of those who write media pieces about him are. It’s fair to say that, early on, giving him more exposure only did him a favor. I don’t believe I, personally, contributed meaningfully to that–hardly anyone reads this blog, and I’m clearly no mover nor shaker. But the media has played a large role in building the Trump phenomenon. His campaign has had that can’t-look-away car wreck quality from day one. How can someone be a politician and say such outrageous things? How can an outsider break into the GOP, flip every table in sight, and then start massively winning primaries? Out of context, none of it makes sense. None of it seems like it could have been predicted. It was easy to joke about last summer because it was assumed he would turn out like every other egomaniacal jackass who thought he deserved a shot at the highest office in the land. As with the huge GOP field in 2012, it was expected he would pop up in the pre-primary whack-a-mole game, be smacked down by the cold reality of the tracking poll, and scamper off back to his New York penthouse.

But now we approach Super Tuesday and Donald Trump is set to win, well, almost everything. The days of not taking him seriously are, at the least, coming to a middle.

I have written before about how the GOP created the perfect conditions for a Trump run. Amusingly, the New York Times came up with an almost identically titled piece on the same theme a couple weeks ago. Always gratifying to know I’m ahead of the curve, for once. And then there’s Matt Taibbi’s new analysis for Rolling Stone, which is well worth the time investment even if you tend not to care for Taibbi’s snark-o-matic style. I see this as the blockbuster excerpt:

It turns out we let our electoral process devolve into something so fake and dysfunctional that any half-bright con man with the stones to try it could walk right through the front door and tear it to shreds on the first go. And Trump is no half-bright con man, either. He's way better than average. It's been well-documented that Trump surged last summer when he openly embraced the ugly race politics that, according to the Beltway custom of 50-plus years, is supposed to stay at the dog-whistle level. No doubt, that's been a huge factor in his rise. But racism isn't the only ugly thing he's dragged out into the open. Trump is no intellectual. He's not bringing _Middlemarch_ to the toilet. If he had to jail with Stephen Hawking for a year, he wouldn't learn a thing about physics. Hawking would come out on Day 365 talking about models and football. But, in an insane twist of fate, this bloated billionaire scion has hobbies that have given him insight into the presidential electoral process. He likes women, which got him into beauty pageants. And he likes being famous, which got him into reality TV. He knows show business. That put him in position to understand that the presidential election campaign is really just a badly acted, billion-dollar TV show whose production costs ludicrously include the political disenfranchisement of its audience. Trump is making a mockery of the show, and the Wolf Blitzers and Anderson Coopers of the world seem appalled. How dare he demean the presidency with his antics? But they've all got it backward. The presidency is serious. The presidential electoral process, however, is a sick joke, in which everyone loses except the people behind the rope line. And every time some pundit or party spokesman tries to deny it, Trump picks up another vote.

It’s precisely correct. The business of government is serious–often boring. It’s a world of hearings, debates, parliamentary procedure, backroom deals, arguments over the specific language of a bill, petty personal grudges, staff conflicts, etc. In many ways, real politics are a lot like office politics: they’re uninteresting, even trivial if you’re not part of the club.

But campaigns–especially Presidential campaigns–are different. They are our opportunity, once every few years, to play audience to the greatest show on Earth while entitled establishmentarians and deluded upstarts and everything in between parade before us and emit every lie imaginable, all in the hopes that they’ll convince just enough suckers to throw a vote their way. It’s so devoid of meaning that, to me, it’s almost comical that anyone has bothered to put Bernie Sanders’ policy proposals through any sort of rigorous analysis. When a Republican promises to bomb Iran back to the Stone Age, torture every terrorist on Earth, and put Jesus back in the schools, are there policy wonks who attempt to make sense of the numbers? If so, the joke is on them. The Presidential campaign season is a carnival of fantasies, all peddled by miscreants who assume you are either in on the scam or too dumb to care.

Trump is the natural outcome of the world we’ve created. Our apathy for political process and the real work of political change combined with our appetite for TMZ-worthy reality TV shenanigans has given us the candidate that we demanded.

It’s been said that politicians don’t create the moment–the moment creates the politician. This could not be truer for Trump. If his policy ideas are incoherent noise, it’s because his supporters are incoherent and noisy. If he comes off as a macho, authoritarian blowhard, it’s because his cheering crowds want nothing else. A few weeks ago, he said during an event that he could shoot someone in the street and not lose any voters. It’s hard to say he’s wrong about that.

Blaming Republicans for creating this mess is, perhaps, unfair. The overall problem is not limited to a single party, but comes from our long tradition of distrusting the government, of venerating the mythical self-made man, of viewing almost all elected officials as corrupt, craven opportunists. It comes from a media culture obsessed with perpetuating wonkish narratives that fail to connect with the needs and interests of ordinary Americans. Inside baseball is fun for people who attend press conferences and hobnob with political staffers; it’s less so for Joe Worker who just wants to know why his job disappeared and nobody’s talking about it. Trump is telling him–right or wrong–that it went to China. No one else is telling him anything.

Trump has so thoroughly captured the imaginations of the press because he breaks all the rules you aren’t supposed to be able to break. He swears on national TV; his poll numbers go up. He uses sexist slurs against women he doesn’t like; his poll numbers go up. He calls Mexicans rapists and drug dealers and promises to build a wall to keep them out; his poll numbers go up. He insults anyone and everyone and makes promises that even a six-year-old would find incredulous; his poll numbers go up. This isn’t about reality. It isn’t about what’s true. It’s about one thing, and one thing only: how he makes people feel.

His ultimate promise is not to bring back jobs, or kill terrorists, or make equitable trade deals. It’s to “make America great again.” That this message resonates so well says everything. People don’t want to be told what’s difficult, or politically infeasible, or just plain impossible. They want to hear that we were great, that we aren’t right now, but that we could be great again, with the right person in charge. It plays perfectly on the anxieties of angry poor and middle-class white people who sense that our time may have come and gone, and we just want the opportunity to claw something back. Trump doesn’t make excuses. He doesn’t say it can be done, he says it will be. It doesn’t matter that the clock can’t be turned back to 1950, or that doing everything he suggests would involve starting multiple wars, killing many thousands (if not more) people, committing various war crimes, breaking dozens of treaties and trade deals, and oppressing millions of Americans who’ve done nothing wrong. To bring up such details would likely only raise his stock, because if he could do all that, does it not prove he is the greatest, most powerful man in the country, or even on the whole planet? What is worth respecting, if not a man endowed with incredible power and the will to wield it? I find this entire attitude wholly repugnant, and yet it is exactly the mentality that drives Trump’s supporters. I could see such people praising Hitler himself, for while he destroyed Europe, he also managed to conquer it, too. Do we not praise the man who rises above others and accomplishes the impossible? Isn’t one of our most cherished archetypes the rugged individualist who conquers challenges against all odds?

From the outside, it’s easy to dismiss Trump as a dismal caricature of politics. But he’s also the embodiment of vital American myths, filtered through a lens of white insecurity and rage. It no longer makes sense to ask, “Why Trump?” The question now is who will best provide an opposing vision to pull us back from the abyss.

Photo by DonkeyHotey