The Trump Next Time

Modern American Presidential races have included three too-close-to-call matchups (Kennedy-Nixon in 1960, Nixon-Humphrey in 1968, Bush-Gore in 2000) and three “historic” landslides (Johnson-Goldwater in 1964, Nixon-McGovern in 1972, Reagan-Mondale in 1984). More typical is, say, a five point margin. A result like 59% - 41%, which may sound reasonably close to the layman, is in fact a landslide. If you’re on the losing side of that kind of Presidential vote, you’re probably only winning a couple of states.

I expect this fall’s election to be that kind. Barring an unexpected calamity that could fundamentally change the calculus of the campaign, (Hillary gets indicted, America suffers a terrorist attack of 9-11 magnitude), Trump will lose by a lot. Think 57%-43%.

There are good reasons for this. Personally and psychologically, given what a Presidency demands, Trump is – to use a favorite word of his – a disaster. The more I listen to what he says and how he says it, the more I think he isn’t just unconventional, but unhinged. If there’s one piece about Trump you should read this week, it is George Saunders’ New Yorker article, “Trump Days,” which recounts Saunders’ weeks of  following the Trump campaign and trying to understand the nature of his appeal. Saunders is a fiction writer, with a strong sense of absurdity, and this is the kind of political piece written by a non-political commentator, and much the better for it.

But you don’t need to be a brilliant absurdist to perceive Trump’s essential craziness. Any piece that quotes him at length will do. David Brooks’ column this week, “Trump is Getting Even Trumpier!” captures the ranting, randomly associational quality of Trump’s utterances, bolstering Brooks’ assessment that Trump “is slipping off the rails.” And another New Yorker article, by Jane Mayer, tells the story of Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter who created Trump’s 1987 ur-text, The Art of the Deal. Schwartz, who spent a year and a half with Trump, getting to know him perhaps better than anyone else has, is “terrified” by the possibility of a Trump presidency, since he views him as “pathologically impulsive and self-centered,” a man who “will lie about anything.” The Art of the Deal, Schwartz says, should have been titled The Sociopath. Schwartz describes a Donald Trump who never reads a book, who seems chronically unable to distinguish truth from fantasy, who is habitually reckless, who has no private self and lives exclusively through his reflection in the public eye, whose sole motivating goal is self-aggrandizement, and who has an attention span so attenuated, it has left him with “a stunning level of superficial knowledge and plain ignorance.” Schwartz’s bottom line: “I genuinely believe that if Trump wins and gets the nuclear codes there is an excellent possibility it will lead to the end of civilization.”

Which is why, when all is said and done – and every vote tallied – we won’t give him those codes. It’s undeniable that Trump has appealed to, and aroused, a resentful populist fever that changed the way this year’s campaign got played. But his raucous readiness to defy conventional political norms, while part of his appeal, comes with personal deficits that will prevent him from becoming president. His personality will extinguish the very fire it started.  

It didn’t have to be that way – at least, I don’t think it did. How about this as a thought experiment: the Trump phenomenon, minus Trump himself. Imagine a different candidate, one with the same demagogic and xenophobic appeal, but lacking Trump’s disqualifying looniness. Imagine a Trump who could stoke deep American resentment but who could also, for instance, make a coherent and compelling speech about foreign policy; who could follow up his inflammatory rhetoric with a cogent five-point plan; who could wow the Republican establishment instead of embarrassing it. Imagine an American version of a Euro nationalist like France’s Marine le Pen or Geert Wilders of the Netherlands, or Switzerland’s Chrisoph Blocher, or the late Joerg Haider of Austria. In an America beset with racial grievances, ill-articulated class frictions, attacks on police, immigration anxieties and the prospect of global terror, it is scary to imagine what a charismatic and truly talented rightwing politician might be able to do.  

Saunders’ piece in the New Yorker gets at the very real sense of grievance, the world view of (white) resentment and anger, behind the Trump phenomenon. Trump himself is a bungler and a fool, and it’s important to point out that many Americans who intend to vote for him have said they recognize that he’s a little bit wacked, but they’re voting for him anyway. That’s important. As I wrote last December, the real question about Trump is not his personal fate, but the meaning, size and significance of what he has churned up. Will he turn out to be Goldwater, a sign of a paradigm shift to come? Is he a footnote to history, or a harbinger?

Liberals and progressives are lucky they got Trump. It could have been much worse. It might be, next time.

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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