As we move into the last days before Iowa, it’s useful to review some of the very best things that have been written on Donald Trump. Much of it is recent.
1. Hands down, I’d say Jodi Dean has penned the central text for understanding Trump.
Donald Trump cuts through the ideological haze of American politics and exposes its underlying truth, the truth of enjoyment. Where other candidates appeal to a fictitious unity or pretense of moral integrity, he displays the power of inequality. Money buys access—why deny it? Money creates opportunity—for those who have it. Money lets those with a lot of it express their basest impulses and desires—there is no need to hide the dark drives when there is none before whom one might feel shame (we might call this the Berlusconi principle). It’s the rest of us who bow down.
As Trump makes explicit the power of money in the contemporary US, he facilitates, stimulates, and circulates enjoyment (jouissance). Trump openly expresses the racism, sexism, contempt, and superiority that codes of civility and political correctness insist be repressed. This expression demonstrates the truth of economic inequality: civility is for the middle class, a normative container for the rage of the dispossessed and the contempt of the dispossessors. The .1 % need not pretend to care.
The freedom from civility, the privilege of enjoying superiority, incites different responses, all of which enable people to enjoy—get off on—this political round.
Some of the underpaid and exploited enjoy through Trump. Not only does he give them permission to…
2. Earlier this week in Salon, Steve Fraser offered a bracing comparison between Trump and his most important predecessor:
From its earliest days, the nation has witnessed its fair share of demagogues, some from the left, some from the right, even some from an elusive zone that overlaps left and right, but is neither. Some have aspired to high office, others have even managed to get there (Huey Long and Joseph McCarthy, for example). But none of them – except one – shared Trump’s profile. None of them – except one – rested their claim to political preeminence on their previous careers as titans of industry and finance. None of them – except one – threatened to breach the borders of conventional political protocols and established hierarchies to seek approval instead from the streets.
William Randolph Hearst is that exception.
Despite these striking similarities, The Chief and The Donald didn’t really speak the same language, even if both were masters of political invective and the Great Lie. What they didn’t have in common is a commentary on the evolution of American public life over the last century.
Hearst rose to the surface on a tidal wave of populist anti-capitalist sentiment. The Populist Party and its call for a Cooperative Commonwealth preceded him. So did a vast labor insurgency that faced off against the armed might of the nation’s mightiest industrialists. Those often violent confrontations continued as Hearst established his media empire. So too did a nationwide anti-trust movement that captured the imagination of millions of working- and middle-class people and even influenced the country’s political establishment. Immigrants toiling in the nation’s sweatshops made common cause with middle-class reformers to expose the scandal capitalism had become in urban ghettoes from coast to coast. The Socialist Party elected local officials all over the country, including some congressmen. The Chief tried and to some considerable degree succeeded in convincing all these foes of the new order of industrial and financial capitalism that he was their champion, their “chief.”
Relentlessly, Hearst denounced the trusts, local monopolies that dominated New York’s economy, and national ones that lorded it over the country and preyed on workers, consumers, and small businessmen alike. He talked about the “Trust Frankenstein.” He loathed Teddy Roosevelt (who hated him in return), for his “preening, bombastic, and aristocratic airs.” Like many populists and progressives of the day, he called for the direct election of senators, an income tax, and public ownership of public services. He was staunchly pro-union, arguing that without them the country would be like “China and India where rich mandarins and rajahs lord it over starving populations.” He campaigned for shorter hours and higher pay and portrayed himself as a hero of the immigrant working classes. He came so close to becoming New York’s mayor precisely because he did so well among those immigrant workers as well as the emerging white-collar proletariat and small business people. Not only did Tammany lose the loyalty of its immigrant base, but so too did Hearst take away votes from the Socialists, who were a party of real weight in the city.
One thing is certain, however. For The Donald, this is terra incognito (think immigrants for starters). If Hearst was the inheritor and master manipulator of a widespread left-leaning populism, the prodigal son of Jefferson, Jackson, Bryan and Debs, then Trump is the bastard son of Richard Nixon. Himself a maestro of political choreography (until it did him in), Nixon invoked something he famously anointed “the silent majority” to grease the wheels that landed him in the White House. What nearly got Hearst there was the polar opposite; we might call it “the vociferous majority.” (There is of course no mathematical realty behind either of these “majorities.”) It is the silent one that Trump now speaks for and that makes him a salient component of our public life.
3. This morning, Josh Marshall put the recent dust-up over Trump’s withdrawal from tonight’s debate in a larger perspective:
4. Rick Perlstein knows more about conservatism and the modern GOP than just about anyone. He gave a masterful interview today to Isaac Chotiner in Slate, in which he confessed his bafflement:
I had a very interesting experience this summer. I remember exactly when it was. It was when I was reading an article by [Evan] Osnos in the New Yorker about Trump. He happened to be covering the white nationalist movement, basically neo-Nazis. Coincidentally, it was right when Donald Trump burst onto the scene, and he wrote about how these guys were embracing Trump, as they never had embraced any Republican candidate before. The feeling I got was that this was the first time in a very long time that I’ve read anything about the Republican Party that I couldn’t assimilate into my normal categories. That was a very uncanny and uncomfortable feeling for me. I realized that I had to go back to the drawing board and rethink what was going on. This is something that’s very new, very strange, and very hard to assimilate into what we thought we knew about how the Republican Party worked.
5. Speaking of the New Yorker, I thought this by Ryan Lizza was quite good:
Dnald Trump has a rule at his rallies: for the fifty minutes before he takes the stage, the only music that can be played is from a set list that he put together. The list shows a sensitive side, mixing in Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” and music from “Cats” and “The Phantom of the Opera.” But it’s heavy on the Rolling Stones—“Sympathy for the Devil,” “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” and the famously impolitic “Brown Sugar.” The young volunteer in charge of music for one rally sent me the full Trump-curated playlist and asked for requests. “Remember,” he said, “the more inappropriate for a political event, the better.”
Trump’s fans tend to express little regard for political norms. They cheer at his most outlandish statements. O’Reilly asked Trump if he meant it when he said that he would “take out” the family members of terrorists. He didn’t believe that Trump would “put out hits on women and children” if he were elected. Trump replied, “I would do pretty severe stuff.” The Mesa crowd erupted in applause. “Yeah, baby!” a man near me yelled. I had never previously been to a political event at which people cheered for the murder of women and children.
Throughout his campaign, Trump has made much of the dangers posed by immigration and political correctness. But central to his platform is his insistence that Americans are being cheated. To protect themselves, he says, they need to hire someone who will cut them a better deal. Domestically, he argues that undocumented immigrants are causing the wages of middle-class workers to plummet, and that campaign donors are bribing politicians—except Trump, a billionaire who can’t be bought. His foreign policy, such as it is, is guided by the idea that America is besieged by a long list of adversaries. He customizes his us-versus-them argument to every issue. At rallies in New Hampshire and Iowa, he warns voters that the two states might lose their status as hosts of the first two Presidential nominating contests. “There’s a big movement to put you at the back of the pack,” he said in New Hampshire recently. (In reality, there is little momentum for any movement to change the primary calendar.)
Some prominent Republicans fear that a Trump nomination would fundamentally alter the identity of the Republican Party, even if he goes on to lose the general election, which seems likely. The Party would become more downscale, a potential asset if it meant drawing in disaffected Democrats, but also more alienating to non-whites, who represent the largest source of potential growth in the electorate. It would be defined by ethno-nationalism at home and an anti-interventionist retreat from America’s obligations abroad. The last major figure in Republican politics who came close to Trump’s brand of nationalism was Pat Buchanan, the former Nixon aide who ran for the Republican Presidential nomination in 1992 and 1996. Buchanan was driven from the Republican Party by mainstream conservatives, who called him an isolationist and an anti-Semite; in 2000, he captured the nomination of the Reform Party. If Trump wins the nomination, it will be his opponents who are driven from the Party.
6. Last, there’s a book on conservatism that came out a few years ago. Controversial, they said. Yet every day, its theses seem truer and truer.
Update (11 am)
Jed Purdy also had a great piece in Dissent yesterday that I missed:
There is another difference that may be more telling about just what the Trump phenomenon is. His political language conjures up a very different world from the other candidates’. He dismisses the high-church liturgy of American politics: rag-tag colonists, a terrible Civil War, World War Two and fear itself, the sin of slavery (either lingering or long-since overcome), the Constitution, the Constitution, the Constution. That will be the language of the GOP debate, along with its pathetic jabs and sick burns. Cruz, although a man of the hard right, speaks this language just like virtually every American politician of the last century. Trump’s language, less consistently anti-government than Cruz’s, is something different and strange. That is part of Trump’s unsettling novelty.
When Trump mentions the Constitution, it tends to be the Second Amendment. “We’ve got to have the right to protect ourselves,” he told students at the evangelical Liberty University earlier this January. Announcing his candidacy last June, he praised a couple who, fearful of being attacked by escaped convicts, told him, “We now have a gun on every table. We’re ready to start shooting.” Vigilante fantasies of citizens shooting back at terrorists have become standard on the right, but the meaning of Trump’s Second Amendment is especially private and personal. In his America, haunted by illegal immigrants out for rape and murder, under a government too cowed by political correctness to protect its people, people have to be prepared to look out for themselves. No one is looking out for them.
That turns out to be the key to Trump’s message: no one is looking out for you.
And here is Joe Lowndes, setting Trump against the back drop of the troubled history of the GOP, racism, and National Review:
It is no coincidence that Trump’s strongest support comes from working-class Republicans who feel their whiteness no longer protects them.