TL/DR: Donald Trump has no sincere beliefs, and says whatever he wants to serve his own ego. His rhetoric is a partially-accidental exploitation of a dangerous strain of nativism, and a mob has formed around that. Trump doesn’t control the mob, if anything they control him. That mob will still exist when Trump loses the presidential race, and people with overt hate-based agendas are likely to capitalize on the power vacuum his loss will create.
Jamelle Bouie in Slate does an excellent job of putting some more solid research behind this same argument, and puts the Trump phenomenon squarely in a racial/white supremacist lens.
It seems that it takes quite a bit to get me back into the blogging game, but the issues surrounding Donald Trump’s campaign for the Republican nomination (and ultimately the Presidency) have kicked up a lot of thoughts that I need to get down. The whole campaign has been a giant disaster for human decency, but the tipping point for me was watching this video analysis by Rachel Maddow. Her thesis is that the reports of violence at Trump campaign events (and seemingly only at Trump campaign events) is not an accident; not merely people’s emotions boiling over, or a reaction to the existence of protest, but something that is actively cultivated and exploited by the Trump campaign. I don’t dispute the facts as she presents them, but I arrive at a conclusion that differs slightly from hers.
In order to explain why, I need to give you a brief summary of one of the best sci-fi franchises ever produced in Canadian cinema.
A snake with no head
Back in 1997, a guy called Vincenzo Natali released a film called Cube, which spawned two sequels. The details of the film aren’t really that important, but it concerns a number of people trying to escape a prison comprised of an unknown number of cube-shaped rooms. As the movie progresses, we learn a great deal about the occupants of the prison, and the mechanisms by which it operates. The part of it that scared me, aside from the blood and gore and general atmosphere of foreboding, was the fact that over three films we learn almost nothing about the purpose of the prison. It seems to have something to do with the occupants – they all have some kind of connection to the construction – but we don’t know that they did something to deserve being imprisoned and tortured. In fact, at various points in the films, it seems as though the Cube has no purpose, and was instead built by a number of people who had no idea what they were designing. It seems as though the thing just came to be without anyone actually understanding its purpose. But it’s there, so they just used it.
The idea of a ‘headless’ force has scared me for a long time. Something that has a purpose makes sense to me – it is trying to achieve a goal. Its methods are designed to serve that goal. Its actions are largely predictable, insofar as they are related to getting closer to the goal. Conversely, the idea of something that exists for no purpose, that serves no goal, that has no particular aims, is a disturbing one. It’s the same theme explored, however hamfistedly, in Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies. Ra’s al Ghul, the Joker, and Bane were all motivated not by a pursuit of power for some purpose, but rather simply with overthrowing the current established order. They were merely power seeking destruction. They had no agenda.
So it is with more than a little bit of dread that I read this analysis:
All along, everyone has assumed Donald Trump had some brilliant evil master plan. I’ve been observing closely from day one, and I’ve seen no hint of that. Instead I’ve seen a one-trick pony who decided to out-racist his weakling republican opponents and pick them off one by one for sport.
But let’s start by letting go of this increasingly unrealistic notion that he’s still working with some grandiose master plan and has been one step ahead of us all along. The evidence says that can’t possibly be the case. The tactics he’s used to gain a minority foothold within a dying political party at the expense of the weakest crop of candidates either modern party has ever put forward? That’s just basic opportunism.
I think there’s a lot of truth in this argument. Donald Trump has not run a disciplined, issues-based campaign. He doesn’t have a policy portfolio to speak of, aside from building a wall along the US/Mexico border, and various assaults on the First Amendment (a religious-based immigration restriction, changes to libel laws that would make it easier to sue newspapers). His history of stances on issues is nothing even remotely resembling consistent, with the exception of the fact that he is pro-Trump at every step of the way. It is certainly a mistake to call Donald Trump an ideologue. He has no consistent ideology. What he is is an egologue – a man whose convictions are entirely wrapped up in the service of his fragile self-concept. He is, at least to this outsider, a deeply insecure man who uses his wealth and privilege to lash out at anyone who suggests that anything about him is anything other than first-rate. He is literally a mascot for himself and the brand that his name implies. And in the truly Republican fashion of making hay out of things that haven’t been current for many decades (as evinced by their “celebrities” – when’s the last time Ted Nugent did anything worthwhile?), the party has been branded by Trump.
But, as the title of the post suggests, I don’t think the machers at the GOP really understood what they were courting when, in the last few elections, they invited Trump to endorse candidates and participate in the political process. They couldn’t have realized that the mobs that show up to Trump rallies would be beyond their ability to manipulate – after all, they managed to get an establishment candidate elected in the last Presidential race. They likely assumed that after the extremist campaigns burned out, they’d be able to throw enough establishment money behind their favoured son and buy their way to the top of the ticket. Trump has effectively spoiled that gambit. And now he stands at the head of a mob that is furious with both Democrats and the Republican establishment – a mob that is becoming more bold and more violent as the campaign goes on.
Much of the analysis I’ve been reading of the race has been seen through the following lens: Donald Trump is exploiting the inherent nativism of the Republican base to further his own political ends. He understands how to whip the crowds into a frenzy by speaking to their frustrations and hatreds, but ultimately he doesn’t share them. He’s playing them like suckers to get at his real agenda, which is yet to be fully understood. But the video and the analysis I refer to above have got me thinking about a far more disturbing way of understanding the Trump phenomenon:
What if there is no real agenda? What if there is no ultimate purpose to the Trump campaign? What if there is literally nobody steering the ship?
What is Trump?
I want to go back to that “egologue” idea for a bit. Let’s presume for a moment that Donald Trump is motivated not by a desire for power, but rather by the desire for prestige. Donald Trump clearly cares very deeply about how he is perceived, but seems to lack the humility to absorb criticism and engage in genuine self-improvement. His entire adult life has been spent on cultivating an aura of wealth and power, but not through anything that a reasonable person would call ‘competence’. Instead, his approach (which is arguably an effective one) has been to define himself as “successful rich guy” in the absence of much real evidence. His entire persona is built around bluster. He is the ultimate paper tiger.
A person who has invested their entire life, indeed their entire sense of self, into creating this image is not very likely to abandon that priority in order to do something else. Like, say, actually run a country. I would put it to you that it’s entirely reasonable to assume that, on any given day, Donald Trump is motivated first by a desire to serve the interests of the Trump brand, using a method that has (again, arguably) proved successful since the 1980s – bloviation. His metric of success must be divorced from reality, because anyone as ridiculous as Donald Trump can afford no sense of shame or self-doubt. He surrounds himself with adulation, and immediately dismisses any critics as “haters” or “losers” (a discussion of the parallels between Donald Trump and Kanye West could make up someone’s Master’s psychology thesis).
So imagine that such a person was to discover that there is a rich vein of adulation to be mined among the disaffected base of a political party. A political party, mind you, that has kept themselves relevant by demonizing the very idea of fact-checking, of an independent media, of the trustworthiness of elites, of any type of claim verification other than “does it feel true?” A base that has been told repeatedly that the problem is “Washington”, and that everyone is out to screw them over. That they are the truly oppressed, strangled as they are by “political correctness” and made poor by a social safety net that is too generous to ‘those people’ instead of ‘real Americans’.
Into that fray comes Donald Trump – a man with no shame and the willingness to say pretty much literally anything if it gets applause. A man who has no clear principles, seemingly no scruples, and an intense distaste for any criticism or dissent. A man whose entire life is built on the foundation of an extremely fragile ego.
What would happen under those circumstances? In order to get the praise he so desperately craves, such a man will say whatever gets the biggest applause lines. If you’ve seen Donald Trump speak, his speeches have no theme, no central idea tying them together. He seems to spurn the idea of prepared remarks, instead jumping from topic to topic like a slightly more coherent version of Sarah Palin. As someone who is an experienced improviser, I recognize this tactic for what it is – hitting every note you can until you find the right one. Donald Trump is performing the political equivalent of a hack’s approach to jazz music. He doesn’t actually know what he’s doing, he just knows that he can get people to cheer when he makes a given set of noises with his mouth.
And because the establishment candidates aren’t able to match his zeal for making claims that are unverifiable and based on appeals to people’s worst fears, instincts, and pains (it should not be seen as an accident that Ted Cruz seems to be the #2 person in the race), Trump has emerged as the consensus favourite of people who want politicians to operate untrammelled by either the realism of their promises or the consequences of their actions. Which is, evidently, enough for him to run circles around his opponents, handicapped as they are by their wish to actually accomplish something other than self-flattery.
Of course, as you see in the Maddow video, Trump has also learned that demonizing and blaming “troublemakers” is a reliable applause line. So he’s leaned into it, again being completely heedless of the consequences. He openly, directly, and unashamedly says that political protesters should be physically assaulted, that it is a shame that people exercise self-restraint when punishing dissent, and that the people protesting his campaign are “holding America down”. I am not the only person reminded of one of the more frightening parts of The Wall. Resultingly, his rallies have become hotbeds for violence. The violence is blamed on protesters for being present, rather than the man at the front saying things that any reasonable person should protest who then tells his followers that their violent reactions are justified and even welcome.
Do I think Donald Trump believes that protest should be put down violently? Do I think Donald Trump hates Muslims and Mexicans? Do I think he sincerely believes anything? Who is to say? I think he believes it because his crowds respond positively when he says it, for any and all values of “it”.
And this is my problem with the analysis of the Trump phenomenon. Most analyses place Donald Trump at the head of a mob, channelling their anger into his own ambitions. But I think something far more frightening is happening. I don’t think Trump steers the mob. I think the mob steers Trump. I think he is the perfect Rorschach candidate – he reflects, by design, whatever ideas and beliefs the mob perceives as being desirable in a leader. He is an empty vessel into which their anxieties can be poured. “He says what he thinks,” is a common refrain from among his supporters, but they are wrong (about so many things) – he says nothing, but does so in a way that makes you think he shares your values. We know that this is powerfully appealing to the human psyche.
Why is this worse?
The astute reader may very well ask themselves why I am more frightened by the prospect of a ‘headless’ movement. After all, wouldn’t it be worse if Trump had a sinister agenda to hurt or kill people? If he’s just an egomaniac, he’ll do whatever he feels like – if he doesn’t actively hate people then isn’t that better?
Here’s why I don’t think so.
Donald Trump is tapping into one of the oldest organizing principles there is: us vs. them. In an American context, “us” and “them” have run along racial lines. There’s a very long and VERY bloody history of what happens when “us/them” is the underlying principle of state power. Despite its various attempts at self-flattery, America has never really had to contend with its own white supremacist history, let alone the myriad of ways it informs the current state of the union. It is within living memory that the United States defended laws that explicitly made people second-class based on their race. It is within living memory that those laws were struck down over the bitter objection of many people who viewed desegregation as government tyranny. It does not stretch my imagination to think that there are a lot of people living and voting in America who think things were better back in the “good old days”; that blacks (and Mexicans! and Muslims!) have had it too good for too long, and need to be reminded whose country this really is.
Those people have found a candidate without the sense of caution to use coded language, and without the sense of purpose to use bigotry as a means to a coherent political end. Instead they have found a carnival barker who is capable of putting their voices into his mouth. And a mob has coalesced around that candidate. And that mob has access to the political apparatus of a party whose ambition for power is fuelled by its disdain for reason. Members of this mob who do have specific agendas are able to meet like-minded bigots who are no longer forced to the fringes. They can network, use the party apparatus, and exert a great deal of influence. They’ve been handed the instruction manual for attracting large groups of angry people who are primed to respond to a very specific set of triggers. And now they don’t have to hide as much.
Donald Trump appears poised to win the Republican nomination. As Mitt Romney and John McCain did before him, he will likely lose his bid for the Presidency. And as his predecessors did, he will likely tack hard to the right at the end of his campaign to shore up the votes of the Republican base, to get them to the polls. Which means that, despite whatever “moderating” people are expecting during the general, there will be another ugly few months of Donald Trump stoking the crowd’s aggression. And those fringe positions will become even more mainstream. Despite that, he will lose.
And that’s where things get really scary. Because the establishment Republican party will be completely in shambles at that point. No leadership, but still lots of power. And as we’ve seen in Syria and Egypt and Libya and countless other places, the people who move in to fill a power vacuum aren’t usually the nicest folks. In fact, what Donald Trump has done is finished up the process of hollowing out the GOP so that its “corporate greed” soul can be replaced by something possibly much worse. “Moderate” Republicans will move to the Democratic party, as they did (in reverse) when members of the southern Democrats fled for the Republican party when white supremacy was dropped as the Democrat organizing principle. This will ensure that corporate greed remains well-represented in Washington.
The only people left in a post-Trump GOP will be the most extreme of the extreme. And they will have an angry mob at their fingertips – a mob that just lost again, to a political coalition led by black and brown people. ‘Those’ people. The Democratic party will, in order to keep its donor class happy, enact a series of half-measures that will ultimately fail to solve the issues that the Trump mob is rightly upset about: unemployment, poverty, job migration, and the loss of a way of life. The GOP will become, in essence, UKIP. Except they won’t be a fringe in the way that UKIP is – they’ll be the second party in a two-party system. A two-party system that handles pretty much every election in the country – governors, judges, municipal positions, you name it.
People on my side of the Trump argument console ourselves that Trump will lose. The problem is that Trump isn’t the problem – the movement he’s created/exploited is. Trump will retreat back to his rich guy enclave and will be the next Sarah Palin – relevant and palatable only to those most blinded by partisan zeal. Because he doesn’t care about the movement or their issues – he cares about the applause. But the people whose anger he stoked to engender that applause won’t disappear the moment Trump loses the election. They’ll still be there. They’ll just be better organized. And in positions of influence over one of the most successful and powerful political parties in the history of the modern world. And they’ll have an even bigger axe to grind.
Whatever the realignment of the Republican party is going to look like after this next election cycle, I think the evidence suggests that it will get a lot uglier before it gets any better. I hope I’m wrong.