Thursday, February 11, 2016
“Proverbs for Paranoids, 3: If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.”
~Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow
I’m going to jump on the current political bandwagon and talk about Trump.
I’m conflicted on this issue. On one hand, I hate talking about Trump, I don’t want to have to talk about Trump… and yet I’m also strangely compelled to talk about him, to talk about the phenomenon that is his success, about the demagoguery that is his campaign.
I’ll be frank: I do not like Donald Trump. His politics trouble me, and his supporters increase my concern exponentially. What I fear more, however, is Trump’s lack of responsibility when it comes to the things his supporters say.
I may not have voted for John McCain, and I still wouldn’t vote for him today (if he were running). But I’m reminded of a moment during his campaign in 2008, popularized on HBO’s Game Change (2012), when a supporter stood up and described democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama as an “Arab,” implicitly (although let’s face it, not that implicitly) associating him with terrorism. As soon as the word left her mouth, McCain leaned forward and took the microphone from her, offering the following rejoinder:
“I have to tell you. Senator Obama is a decent person and a person you don’t have to be scared of as president of the United States.”
People in the crowd did not like this. McCain was met with cries of disdain, and certain people even shouted “liar” and “terrorist,” thereby making the association mentioned above very explicit.[i] McCain saw it as his responsibility to counter these attitudes, especially once they voiced themselves. I don’t think it’s too outrageous to suggest that if he had had any shot at winning the presidency, this moment irreparably damaged that shot.
As far as HBO dramatization goes, their depiction of this scene communicates a specific interpretive angle: the woman who identified Obama as an Arab, and those in the crowd that accused him of terrorism, were drawn to McCain’s campaign by Sarah Palin. I have no idea if that’s true, but I think it’s more than believable. Whether or not that’s the case, however, I cannot help but wonder what that woman must have been feeling when McCain stepped forward, took the microphone from her, and told her she was wrong. Was she embarrassed? Was she angry? Was she humbled? Maybe she felt all three reactions, or a mixture of them. As I think on the possibility of embarrassment or humility, I find myself having a very singular reaction: good. Embarrass her, humble her. The point of education is to find yourself temporarily ungrounded, to have to navigate your way through new information and possibly change your position because of it. I love that McCain did what he did, and I hope that woman felt humbled.
Of course, I doubt she did. She probably found some way to rationalize her belief that Obama is an “Arab.”[ii] We’re all guilty of similar rationalizations, in one way or another. But I want to turn here to a comparable moment during Donald Trump’s recent presidential campaign when one of his supporters called candidate Ted Cruz a “pussy.” Now, this is certainly different than calling someone an “Arab,” but both comments generate political fallout. What I find fascinating is Trump’s handling of the situation. After telling his supporter that he “never expects to hear that” from her again, Trump repeated the comment through the microphone: “She said he’s a pussy.” The comment generated tremendous applause and laughter. After joking about the nature of his constituents, Trump told the woman she was “reprimanded,” which generated more laughter. After the rally, the woman told reporters that she “knew that Trump was kidding.”[iii]
Trump’s manipulation of the moment is impressive, although perhaps not as much when we consider whom he’s manipulating. Ostensibly, Trump dissociates himself from the comment, and we can already predict his own defense to reporters: “I can’t help what my constituents find funny” (or something along these lines). He bonds with them as he appears (albeit thinly) to chastise them. I’m not so sure we can credit this to Trump’s political skills as much as we can to the intellect of his average supporter. Ryan Lizza’s recent piece in The New Yorker speaks to the magnetic irrationalism of Trump’s campaign: “State and national polls consistently show that he draws strongly from all four ideological segments of the party. His strongest supporters are less educated and less well off; his fiercest opponents are Republicans with advanced degrees and high incomes.”[iv] The lack of consistency within his own campaign reflects the ideological quagmire of his supporters, what we might describe (tenuously) as a brand of radical nationalism informed more by a paranoiac pathos than by any sense of critical thought.
If it isn’t obvious by now, I don’t care much for Trump supporters. Or, at least, for a significant portion of them (after all, one shouldn’t generalize…).
Lizza’s article in The New Yorker divulges some of the disreputable underbelly of Trump’s campaign, specifically as it surfaces among his supporters: “The racism of some Trump supporters has been well documented. At one rally in Las Vegas in mid-December, attendees punched a black protestor while others yelled, ‘Shoot him,’ ‘Kick his ass,’ ‘Light the motherfucker on fire,’ and ‘Sieg heil.’”[v] Comparisons between the president and Hitler are nothing new. They started back when George W. Bush came into the presidency, and they continued when Obama became president. I cannot recall, however, any supporters of either Bush or Obama actively exclaiming “Sieg heil” during campaign rallies. Judging from the quality of the vocabulary leaving the lips of Trump’s base, this is a different kind of political candidate.
Trump’s is the perfect candidacy for that woman whom McCain shut down back in 2008. It is the candidacy for those who want desperately to say all their politically incorrect sentiments, and to do so at a venue that breeds cognitive dissonance and emotional irrationalism. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that Trump feeds on the outbursts of his supporters. This is the same candidate who criticized McCain’s war record (Trump prefers people who don’t get caught, remember). It also shouldn’t come as any surprise that Sarah Palin endorsed Trump, leading her flock of redundant seagulls to perch patriotically on their candidate’s stump.
The Trump Stump.
It’s like a tramp stamp, but more painful and infinitely more embarrassing.
Trump’s defenses are ironclad despite what should be severe criticisms. He brushes them off with ad hominem attacks and other juvenile methods. His supporters believe him because of his apparent confidence. This appearance of confidence is an important political tactic. In the view of his supporters, personal authenticity trumps (oh, the inevitable pun) media accuracy. As one supporter interviewed in The New Yorker said, “‘I’m dead set unless I find out something down the line […] But I’m not going to believe what the media tells me. I have to hear it from him. The media does not persuade me one bit.’”[vi] Of course it doesn’t. That lying, corrupt, propaganda institution that is the left-wing liberal media. Sounds pretty evil, yes?
The overarching story of the New Yorker article is how Trump’s candidacy is changing the GOP. It’s an interesting read, and one that I recommend. But I have another take on Trump’s success that I want to touch by way of conclusion. Trump reaches his constituents because he talks about national issues in a manner that they feel touches them. He appeals to low-income, blue-collar workers who feel cheated out of what they believe they’re owed. The candidacy of a Jeb Bush, or a Ted Cruz, appeals to business owners; but Trump’s constituency consists of those employed by business owners. This is a powerful base. His campaign has toned its muscles on an implicit class differential, appealing to a particular demographic of working-class right-wing Americans. When Trump does speak on issues such as immigration, or national security, or religion, he does so in a way that connects these issues to the immediate experience his constituents (the immigrants are taking your jobs, ISIS is threatening your safety, secular politics are limiting your ability to practice religion). This is a necessary tactic, since Trump knows that to expand the scope of his arguments would mean to lose his base. His voters need to see how these large issues are affecting them directly.
The problem is that not all of these issues affect us directly. They affect us indirectly, through various channels and other cultural dynamics. We live in a complex world, not one that can be distilled from the campaign stage. The vision that Trump puts forth for his voters is not an accurate description of the world. It is not even close. It is a paranoiac fantasy. It caters to his supporters’ egos by making them feel as though each and every one of them is the center of the universe. In this case, it’s incredibly easy to point to various minority groups – immigrants, Muslims, etc. – as scapegoats. To give the impression of direct impact, of the immediacy of cultural factors, one has to be able to identify and classify the cause. It isn’t a new strategy by any means.
Hitler did the same thing.
[i] This episode is fairly well-documented, but those interested can read more about it here: http://www.politico.com/story/2008/10/mccain-obama-not-an-arab-crowd-boos-014479
[ii] The problems with this sentiment are, of course, numerous. For starters, “Arab” is a vague term that does not specify religion, nationality, or cultural values. There are also millions of people of Arab ancestry living in America, and who identify themselves as American citizens. I doubt she trusts any of them either (and just to be clear, Obama isn’t one of them – but should it really matter if he was?).
[iii] Full story here: http://www.cnn.com/2016/02/08/politics/donald-trump-ted-cruz-waterboarding/
[iv] Ryan Lizza, “The Duel: Understanding Trump vs. Cruz,” The New Yorker, 1 Feb. 2016: 42.
[v] Ibid, 40.
[vi] Ibid, 43.