Uncertain Minds

Going into last night’s debate, I thought that any outcome was possible; the only thing I felt I could confidently predict was that it would be the most-watched debate ever, perhaps even approaching the 100-million-plus viewer stratosphere of the Super Bowl. We’ll have to wait for those numbers.  But regarding what transpired on the stage at Hofstra (covered in detail by my colleague Matt Sitman) I’d score the debate as a clear but not annihilating victory for Hillary. It's a sorry statement that all Trump had to do, in order to claim victory, was appear halfway civil (no talk about his penis or Hillary's “whatever”) and halfway coherent.  Did he manage it? Halfway civil, I’d say yes – though his badgering, bellicose style intermittently emerged, as it did when the topic turned to trade agreements, and he shouted, flailed his arms, and repeatedly interrupted. (Hillary’s gambit throughout the night was to chuckle indulgently at “Donald’s” excesses, as if fondly scolding an errant schoolboy for his naughtiness and noise, while slipping in deft attempts to bait him.)

As for halfway coherent, well, maybe. But only just halfway. Or maybe only a quarter way. Again and again Trump’s answers rambled, so that it was impossible to see what kind of logical connection he was making -- at one point, moderator Lester Holt said, with exasperation, “You’re unpacking a lot here”  --  and disclosed habits of mind that at times seemed downright weird (as when a discussion about international cyber-war led him to ruminate that the guilty hacker might not be Russia or China, but “someone sitting on their bed who weighs 400 pounds.” Come again?) Hillary, meanwhile, frequently offered answers that were well-informed and well-organized. On race and crime, for instance, Trump did little more than incant the Nixonian mantra of “two words – law and order,” while Hillary offered a mini-lecture that was comprehensive, nuanced and emphatic. She really crushed him on this topic, offering both policy recommendations and a core vision and rationale for them. Trump managed several effective zingers over the course of the evening, but the overall impression he left – on me, anyway – was of a mind that struggles to comprehend, focus, organize and explain in any of the conventional ways that we associate with executive intelligence and the skills of a leader.

All that said, I don’t imagine that the debate will prove to be a game-changer for voters. Or that it’s even a mind-changer.  But that begs the question of whose mind at this point might still remain to be changed. And that’s actually what I want to address – that’s who I want to address – with the rest of this post.

Last week Ross Douthat, conservative columnist for the Times (but no fan of Donald Trump) offered some interesting thoughts on what he perceives as an uptick in the politicization of TV talk shows. His takeoff point was the backlash against late-night host Jimmy Fallon for having recently had Trump as a guest on his show and treating him in the traditional late-night show fashion – that is, joshing with him for harmless laughs. The segment received strident condemnation from another late-night host, Samantha Bee, who thought it wasn’t harmless at all; she castigated NBC for inviting “a two-bit used hate salesman” onto the show and then exchanging pleasantries instead of blasting him “for playing footsie with hate groups.” On social media Fallon received something similar to the pungent treatment Matt Lauer got for allegedly going easy on Trump during the military forum some weeks back.

Fallon’s sin, Douthat wrote in his column, lay in “steering clear of anything that would convey to late-night television viewers that Trump is actually beyond the pale.” In Douthat’s view, the rebukes Fallon received for not treating Trump like a pariah are symptomatic of a trend. He wrote:

The culture industry has always tilted leftward, but the swing toward social liberalism among younger Americans and the simultaneous surge of activist energy on the left have created a new dynamic, in which areas once considered relatively apolitical now have (or are being pushed to have) an overtly left-wing party line.

On late-night television, it was once understood that David Letterman was beloved by coastal liberals and Jay Leno more of a Middle American taste. But neither man was prone to delivering hectoring monologues in the style of the “Daily Show” alums who now dominate late night. Fallon’s apolitical shtick increasingly makes him an outlier among his peers, many of whom are less comics than propagandists — liberal “explanatory journalists” with laugh lines.

Some of them have better lines than others, and some joke more or hector less. But to flip from Stephen Colbert’s winsome liberalism to Seth Meyers’s class-clown liberalism to Bee’s bluestocking feminism to John Oliver’s and Trevor Noah’s lectures on American benightedness is to enter an echo chamber from which the imagination struggles to escape.

At first Douthat’s column sounded at least kinda-sorta on point to me. (A cover article two weeks ago in TIME Magazine, subtitled “The Seriously Partisan Politics of Late Night Comedy,” charts the same phenomenon in detail.) What was Fallon supposed to do, anyway? Subject Trump to a point-by-point scrutiny of his egregious public utterances? This is not 60 Minutes; it’s talk-show TV. Who goes there for political insight?

Well, one obvious answer to that is, “A lot of young people” – thanks to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. But another challenge to Douthat’s piece was provided by the thoughtful response posted by a Times reader, who wrote that

Underlying Mr. Douthat's entire comment is an assumption that Donald Trump, in some way, is a "normal" candidate, albeit a bad one. But he is not. Whatever the social and economic forces that have made him possible - and these are important- his candidacy is based on the demonization and ostracism of religious and ethnic minorities, and the degradation of women. Admittedly, this is what the GOP has been selling for many years, but Trump has brought it all out into the open; there is no pretending anymore. Thus, Fallon's decision to treat a man who is preaching hatred towards large segments of the population as though he is simply a lovable rogue is irresponsible. One can credibly ask, if the Grand Wizard of the KKK enjoyed popular support of more than 40% of the population, would Fallon have had him on? Or does there come a time when it is necessary to see what it is that you are doing and what ideas you are legitimizing? Mr. Douthat's column is written from the perspective of someone who is under no threat from Trump - a point Ms. Bee made very well - and is an illustration of the problem that the media have treated Trump more as a sideshow than a serious candidate. As a result, a dangerously unqualified and ignorant thug is within spitting distance of the White House.

Well, I’m persuaded. And it’s a point worth coming back to: namely, that Trump is no ordinary candidate you might merely disagree with, but rather represents something new, different and far worse. As such, his is a candidacy that throws the usual calculus off. Extraordinary candidates demand extraordinary measures. Like voting against your party.

I took this up with a politically conservative friend of mine who has qualms about Trump, but intends to vote for him anyway. This friend heartily dislikes the Clintons, resents what he perceives as rampant liberal media bias, and admits that he instinctively warms to Trump’s broadsides against so-called political correctness, delighting in how the candidate infuriates liberals and progressives. Ok; but could he possibly make a case for Trump as President? I asked him. What about the long list of the man’s grievous actions and comments? Is there anything Trump could say that would disqualify him? Or was my friend saying, in effect, that there's no candidate who could be awful enough not to vote for, as long as the word "Republican" was plastered on his forehead?

This is the implicit crux of what the respondent to Douthat was arguing in the post I cited above.  For me, no matter how reliably I have voted for Democrats over the decades, if somehow the party, following a period of turbulence and schism, yielded up a Democrat version of Trump (and remember, Trump himself was once a Democrat), I'd vote without hesitation for the Republican -- whether Bush 1 or 2, Romney, McCain, Ted Cruz, whoever. How many Republican voters will do that in November? That, of course, is the $64,000 question – or rather, the 270 electoral-college vote one.

Politics and ideology matter, of course – in the normal run of things, they matter a lot. But then there's the person and his or her fundamental capacity to be president. And in that regard this is not the normal run of things. From where I sit, there hasn't been anyone like Trump to emerge as a candidate, not in my lifetime, anyway. There are just so many disqualifying features. Do we have to sum them up? Maybe we do. He's vicious, he's self-obsessed, he derived his popularity first from a fatuous TV show and then from propagating an insidious lie about the (black) President's nationality; he openly incites audience members to attack protestors; he praises Putin -- a violent and corrupt tyrant -- for being "in control of his country" and "popular." He has near-zero ability to focus at length on anyone or anything other than himself. (According to this New Yorker profile of the man who ghostwrote Trump’s book, The Art of the Deal, Trump is a pathological liar with a remarkably short attention span.) He suggests that a journalist asked a tough question because she's menstruating.  He uses a presidential primary debate to boast about his penis size. He routinely calls women "pigs," "dogs," "slobs," and "disgusting animals." He advocates torturing terrorist suspects and killing their wives and children -- and then, when asked what he'd do if his military commanders refused to obey such unlawful orders, he boasts that "Oh, they'd obey, believe me." His well-documented business plan, as Hillary pointed out last night, has been to hire contractors to do big jobs at his properties, then refuse to pay them. He conjures up the prospect of his opponent being killed by suggesting that her Secret Service guard be disarmed ("Take their guns away. Lets see what happens to her then.").  He calls the Pope un-Christian and John McCain a coward. He calls Hillary Clinton “disgusting” for taking a bathroom break (“It’s disgusting, I don’t want to talk about it.”) He sets up flim-flam enterprises like Trump University, takes customers’ money, then closes up shop and walks away. He sues people as routinely as you or I brush our teeth.

He mocks handicapped people. Shouldn’t that alone disqualify him?

That, and so much more. He chisels, or perhaps steals, from his own foundation, as a reporter from the Washington Post discovered, after having spent time investigating it. It’s worth listening to this reporter discussing his findings on a recent NPR On Point segment. Any fair listener will come away convinced that you really need to put quotation marks around Trump’s “foundation.” It makes the Clinton Foundation look like the very picture of efficiency, magnanimity and transparency. And that’s saying a lot. Last week the New York Times had a front-page article about Trump’s spectacular failures of veracity. The paper put some journalists on a kind of truth detail; they followed six days of the candidates appearances and culled a list of thirty-one whopping untruths the candidate told – in six days alone. It never ends.

How to understand Trump – as a phenomenon -- in the broader American context? William Dean Howells’ 1885 novel, The Rise of Silas Lapham, tells the story of a man who makes a fortune in the paint business, builds a lavish house on Boston’s Beacon Hill, and then endures the anxiety-producing trials, and frequently the embarrassments, of trying to fit himself and his crass bumpkin manners to the etiquette and expectations of Boston Brahmin society. It’s a terrific novel of class in America during the Gilded Age, a novel about the snootiness of old money and the pride and anxiety of new money, themes Howells explored with meticulous attention to every small fillip of social conflict.

One can safely say that Donald Trump doesn’t share that anxiety. This partly explains the paradox of how a plutocrat can appeal to the man in the street. Though in fact he got a million-dollar jump start via an inheritance from his wealthy father, Trump presents himself as the brash, boastful essence of self-made money, “new” money – and, unlike Silas Lapham, he doesn’t give a flying F about what anyone else thinks about that. As an American tycoon seeking office, Trump has done remarkably little to elevate his profile and spiff up his act. There’s a traditional process in America whereby money cleans itself up -- goes professional, goes cultural, goes philanthropic; puts on social airs, sends the kids into respectable careers, and in general perfumes itself -- before it goes political. Think Kennedys, Roosevelts, Bushes: the traditional path of big money goes through the Vineyard, Hyde Park, and Kennebunkport before it lands in the White House. In an age of rampant mistrust and resentment of this kind of elitism, however, Trump has short-cut the whole process. His acquisitiveness remains raw, his manner brutal, his Trump-Tower glitz ever glitzy. His vainglory struts in the sun, even as his business practices remain shady – whether his well-documented practice of stiffing contractors, or his chiseling from his own (paltry) foundation. (Did you hear the story of how he offered a million-dollar prize to anyone who hits a hole in one on his golf course – and then, when a guy hit one, refused to pay up?) Trump sues people and boasts about it, fires people and boasts about it, rips people off and boasts about it, insults people and boasts about it. And the funhouse mirror of our current pseudo-populism, turning his Little Lord Fauntleroy into John Galt, construes this crudeness as the kind of bold, unvarnished American energy that can rejuvenate us.  

In normal times, as the Times reader suggests, we would have recognized it all as a sideshow act, not the behavior of a serious candidate. But a sideshow act is what Trump’s many millions of viewers – um, I mean, his supporters – have clamored for. And the result, as the Times reader says, is that a dangerously unqualified and ignorant thug is within spitting distance of the White House.

To me this goes way beyond politics. Even when Americans have disagreed vehemently about their presidential candidates, we've been able to take a certain basic competence for granted. Not this time. I appreciate the insights put forward on dotCommonweal last week by my pseudonymous colleague, Unagidon, who sympathetically delved into a research project that illuminated how white rural supporters of Trump feel marginalized – culturally, politically and above all economically -- in the current political dispensation. An article in the Times by columnist Roger Cohen, titled “Views From Trump Country”, does a similar service, offering the important reminder to liberal metropolitans that treating the fears and hopes of a large swath of the citizenry with condescension is a fool’s errand. But in the end there’s the message and then there’s the messenger, and my question to anyone who’s intending to support Trump remains: Can you really vote for this ill-informed, thoughtless, self-obsessed jackass and blowhard -- this unreconstructed plutocrat, misogynist, liar and bully -- for President of the United States




Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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