Friday, April 1, 2016

The Prick

Donald Trump, in a recent Republican presidential debate, defended the size of his penis, which he felt had been unfairly maligned by a rival candidate.  How reassuring.  Everyone is familiar with the profusion of Trump’s offenses against civility, dignity, fairness, evidence, and reason – claiming that Mexico deliberately sends criminals and rapists across the border; bragging about his wealth; peddling debunked statistics about crime and race; promising to prevent Muslims from entering the country; blaming a female journalist’s criticism on menstruation; excusing and encouraging violence at his rallies; declining to disavow support from overt racists; urging official use oftorture”; recommending killing the families of terrorists – the list goes on and on.  The most distinguishing feature of Trump’s campaign is its utter lack of seriousness, its stubborn refusal to engage the process of choosing the President of the United States with the circumspection and respect it justly demands.  The country and the world are in a perilous state, and Trump responds with schoolyard bullying and locker room braggadocio.  But beneath all the adolescent bluster, the childish taunts, the petulance, the threats, the bombast, the ocean of boorishness so vast that it would shame a barroom bigmouth – beneath all that appalling unseriousness lies a very serious message: Working Americans – in particular white, Christian, working American men – have been pushed around for a long time and they finally have a champion who pushes back.  They’ve been persistently and systematically disrespected, and Trump’s mission is to make that disrespect a two-way street.

In other words, Trump’s dismissal of the norms of political engagement – even his dismissal of the norms of civilized conduct! – are central to his appeal.  They signal to his supporters that he won’t let elite disapproval undermine his fight for them.  But there’s a deeper and more important implication: the normal political rules are themselves illegitimate.  This is the prime doctrine of Trumpism: the game is rigged in favor of the powerful, the comfortable, the rich, the connected, and fighting those elites requires breaking their rules.  If America is to be made great again then the received rules of capitalism, trade, campaign finance, civility, and particularly the rules of political discourse, must be broken.  This is what his supporters mean when they say, “He tells it like it is.  He ignores received notions of what’s politically correct, of what’s acceptable or reasonable, and boldly speaks for white working people against a system of lies deliberately designed to exploit them.

It’s true, of course, that for decades the economic interests of working whites (indeed, of all working people) have been sacrificed for those of the investor class, while their cultural sensibilities – traditional, patriotic, religious – have been disdained and denigrated by cosmopolitan cultural elites.  And the pathetically unimaginative slogan festival that passes for our current political discourse positively hinders addressing the serious issues we face.  On both sides, political rhetoric is crafted primarily to delegitimize the other side and squash dissent on one’s own.  For conservatives, Obamacare is “socialism”, Social Security is a “Ponzi scheme”, and invading a non-threatening country was part of the bizarrely named “War on Terror.”  For liberals, any resistance to immigration or affirmative action can only be motivated by the most malicious racism.  Why should white working people respect notions of propriety that are used to dismiss their interests?

But this semi-conscious critique of our dismal discourse goes one step further.  On the outer reaches of the Trumpian worldview not just elite rules of conduct are dismissed, but any thought of proper conduct entirely!  Here, the fear of being denied official recognition to fight for one’s interests slips over into discounting the need for that recognition, and finally into discounting all recognition; arguably justifiable reassertion takes a wrong turn into destructive and juvenile rebellion against all constraint.  It’s this attitude that opens the door into that Trumpian world where anything in the service of one’s interests is justified, even embraced.  Violence, torture, barbarism – these are just more tools for achieving one’s ends.  This is positively post-modern: politics is war by other means, and all that matters in war is winning.  Trump will do anything to win.

And he’ll win for America.  There are two things Trump steadfastly believes in: the essential goodness of the American common man and his own indomitable talents and instincts.  If his instincts tell him he can get Mexico to pay for that wall, then they will.  If he remembers seeing New Jersey Muslims cheering as the twin towers fell, then they did.  And if he wants to slug those irritating protestors, then it must be OK to do so.  And his flawless instincts license him to make up policy – or even facts! – on the fly.  Without knowing the slightest thing about such topics he can blather on about NATO, or nuclear policy, or climate change, or anything at all.  He can claim, on the basis of an online video that’s been proven to be a hoax, that a man who’d tried to attack him was connected to ISIS, insisting “All I know is what’s on the internet.  Has there ever been a candidate whose communications have consisted entirely of talking out of his ass?  His supernaturally perfect instincts even permit him to contradict himself from one moment to the next, such as calling for criminally punishing women who have abortions one day and then walking it back the next, all while insisting his position hasn’t changed!  People who reason, and marshal facts and arguments can’t be trusted; they’re all on the side of the elites!  But if one’s heart is in the right place, if one’s faith in America remains pure then one’s instincts can always be trusted.  Any action taken in that moral purity and for that moral purity is axiomatically moral, too.  Right makes might.

Trump’s supporters love him because his instincts and theirs are identical, and he lacks the capacity for self-reflection or critical thought that might impede the bounteous flourishing of those instincts.  This is the one thing that Trump thoroughly understands, if only viscerally: White America is his tribe and he is their chieftain.  He stokes their fears, he humors their pieties, he mocks their natural inferiors, he dallies with their darkest prejudices.  In short, he reclaims for them their rightful place as the heroes of the American story, the best people in the world.  He will do anything for them, and they deserve no less.

Trumpism represents a colossal over-reaction by white, male, Christian America in the face of its economic and cultural decline.  The various components of that over-reaction – the rejection of civility, the embrace of barbarism, the glorification of impulse over circumspection – have been rampant on the right for years.  Now the right is using the political chaos of the last decade – the Iraqi debacle, the Great Recession, the Obamacare wars, white decline – as an excuse to indulge its worst inclinations.  And Donald Trump came along at just the right moment and pulled it all together into a semi-coherent whole, even if it’s a whole that almost entirely lacks intellectual substance.  But Trump’s utter obliviousness to actual political content – to what is still quaintly referred to in certain circles as reality – is crucial to his ongoing success, since it insures he’ll never stop fighting for his tribe.  It’s not just that’s he willing to be a shameless jerk to advance the interests of his people, it’s that he’s incapable of being anything other than a shameless jerk.  He’s a prick, but he’s their prick, and they’re convinced a prick is exactly what they need.

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