So Donald Trump seems headed for the large defeat that (ahem) I have predicted from the get-go. I’m not taking much comfort, though. Part of the problem is knowing that well over one-third of the American electorate is going to cast their vote for an ignorant, malicious, thuggish, woman-hating, ethically challenged, clinically narcissistic jackass.
Then there’s the concerning question of what comes next. As I wrote back in July (“The Trump Next Time”), there’s the possibility that Trump is not a one-off anomaly but a harbinger – that in four years the ugly forces he has channeled and incited might find a more effective tribune, one with the same xenophobic appeal, but lacking Trump’s disqualifying looniness. Imagine a charismatic and shrewd rightwing politician, a smooth European-style demagogue, who could stoke deep American resentment while wowing the Republican establishment instead of embarrassing it. It’s scary to contemplate what such a figure could have done this year (bye-bye Hillary) or might do in the future.
But even if that doesn’t happen, there’s the wearying certainty of what response the coming defeat will elicit from Trump diehards, and from the man himself – a bitter refusal to accept reality and instead to blame defeat on dark conspiracies. Remember the cynical political view described so unforgettably by journalist Ron Suskind a dozen years ago, during the heady arrogance of the Bush administration’s apparent great victory in Iraq? In an October 2004 article in the New York Times Magazine, Suskind described a conversation with a Bush aide (Karl Rove, it turned out) who, after skewering Suskind for writing an earlier article critical of administration policy, went on to dismiss the work of journalists altogether, and with genial contempt. Suskind described the mini-lecture:
The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
Seldom has nihilism expressed itself so confidently and smugly. And it’s a measure of how much further along this road we have come that Rove himself now routinely upbraids Trump for his mendacity. If Rove in 2004 was taking a post-reality point of view, Trump today is post-post-reality. With its rampant conspiracy theorizing, its casual trafficking in calumnies and canards, and its stubborn refusal to accept facts, his movement has dragged politics into a warped-mirror funhouse with no way out. A Times piece a few days ago by journalist Trip Gabriel describes the scene on the campaign trail in Pennsylvania, a state Trump must win to have any chance of election, but where he is well behind – though neither he nor his supporters believe it for a second. “At such rallies,” Gabriel reports,
Mr. Trump is sealed in a hermetic bubble with his fervent supporters. They are people passionate enough to wait hours to attend a rally where the candidate and the crowds draw energy and affirmation from each other, while dismissing any discouraging information. His supporters routinely pointed, as the nominee did, to the huge crowds still flocking to see him as evidence that his campaign remains strong. “I don’t believe anything the media says,” said Brad Chilson, 47, a truck driver from Bradford County, Pa., who waited hours with his wife outside the 8,000-seat Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre for Mr. Trump. “Look at the turnout we’ve got here.”
“I think the state of Pennsylvania, we’re going to win so big,” Trump croons to the crowd. Polling shows him 7 points behind in that state -- yet his supporters dismiss all such polls as strategic productions of a stacked, phony, partisan and lying press: “rigged,” in the inflammatory word Trump uses again and again.
By now we all know the beliefs that fill in this dark Weltanschauung. President Obama is a foreign-born Muslim out to sacrifice the US to a global socialist government. Climate change is a hoax perpetuated by traitors pursuing our country’s demise. Obama is conniving to abolish the 22nd amendment and grab a third term in office. The Clintons had Vince Foster murdered. “A lot of people affiliated with Hillary have died over the years, and nobody says nothing about it,” a retired police officer told Trip Gabriel in the Times.
Is it any surprise that Americans with this outlook have found their champion in a man whose business success (such as it may be) was built on “truthful hyperbole,” and whose swath through the field of GOP candidates included such slashing falsehoods as the slanderous innuendo that Ted Cruz’s father was a confederate of Lee Harvey Oswald? And will it be any surprise when these partisans bitterly and vehemently attribute their hero’s landslide loss to the machinations of a sinister elite?
What’s depressing is knowing that no political medicine can eliminate such adamant paranoia. Trump’s style is the MRSA of political discourse, a highly-resistant superbug that is likely to persist well past this election. A rigged system; Clinton perfidy; conniving liberal elites; craven betrayal by establishment Republicans: can’t you just hear it bubbling away in the cauldrons of talk radio for the next four years?
And Trump himself is already preparing the fire. In Pennsylvania the other day he shouted to roaring supporters, “The only way we don’t win this state is if there’s cheating going on!” Yesterday’s newspaper details Trump’s defense against the steady stream of revelations concerning his boorishness with women – it’s all part of a “global conspiracy,” with politicians and the media colluding in “the single greatest pile-on in history,” even as Hillary “meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty” and engineers “a massive coverup of widespread criminal activity at the State Department and the Clinton Foundation.” And today’s news brings yet another round of accusations of sexual wrongdoing, and Trump’s loud rejoinder that “the whole thing is one big fix. It’s one big ugly lie.”
Well, that much is true. I’ve written before about the Fascistic qualities of Trump’s appeal, and what’s shaping up now is an American version of the Dolchstoss, the big ugly lie that helped spur German extremism in the 1920s and 30s. Briefly, the Dolchstoss theory – literally, “dagger thrust,” implying a cowardly stab in the back – held that Germany’s defeat in WWI had come about not via reverses on the battlefield, but by the machinations of a cabal of corrupt, cowardly and traitorous German politicians (with special emphasis on Jewish ones) who sold the nation out by signing the armistice of November 1919. This rumor of conspiracy and betrayal by the so-called “November criminals” proved to be an ineradicable canard, and was instrumental to Hitler in his campaign to undo national humiliation and, as he so often put it, make Germany great again.
The election of 2016. Look for it to be the Dolchstoss of the rabid right, for years to come. It is poison. And there won’t be any easy way to purge it.
PS/ I was about to post this when a friend sent a link to Matt Taibbi’s mordantly entertaining article in Rolling Stone, “The Fury and Failure of Donald Trump,” which fleshes out the points I’ve made here with indelible reporting from the campaign trail, and with Taibbi’s always irreverent commentary. Describing Trump as “the mother of all pop-culture villains, a despised cross of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Charlie Sheen, and Satan,” Taibbi engages with supporters who embrace their champion’s notoriety as a badge of populist bona fides while reveling in their own pariah status as “self-proclaimed Deplorables.” Taibbi writes that in Trump, “a drunken slob let loose at an aristocrats’ ball,” we have received apt comeuppance for an American presidential electoral process “which had become as exclusive and cut off from the people as a tsarist shooting party.” Noting that the drift of the Democratic party toward a worldview shaped by global elites has left the American working class behind, Taibbi writes that “Trump picked exactly the wrong time to launch his mirror-gazing rampage to nowhere. He ran at a time when Americans on both sides of the aisle were experiencing a deep sense of betrayal by the political class, anger that was finally ready to express itself at the ballot box.”
I’d disagree; in my view, Trump picked exactly the right time, but in the end proved to be the wrong person. And I’m glad of it. Is Taibbi really so confident that the “right” candidate would take that anger where he would want it to go?