This is madness. Fully predictable madness. One archetype of the American experience is now realized. We’ve always had our carnival hucksters and itinerant preachers and snake oil thieves. P.T. Barnum put on a good show. All sought wealth and power.
But never before has one risen so high as Donald J. Trump, with so vast an audience of willing dupes and sleepwalking accomplices—the balance of the liberal establishment included.
The 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland was ground zero to witness this disaster. But before introducing you to its parade of zombies and daemons—lest I be accused of malignant nihilism—here are three things we can’t lose sight of about Trump’s winning the Republican nomination:
1. This is all happening because of rampant disgust with the members of the American political establishment. While their clients (aka donors) grow richer, the middle class is sinking. Simply put, the contemporary “neoliberal” American economy does not allow for the majority of the population to lead comfortable lives. In fact, the opposite is true: More people are falling out of the middle class and into seemingly inescapable debt traps. Trump acknowledges this reality more than the establishment Republicans and promises a different economic path, albeit without providing details. America will remain in a political crisis until this reality changes.
"The great tragedy of the moment is not rooted in the Republican Party’s self-cannibalization. It’s with a Democratic Party that 'successfully' suffocated responsible answers to the crises consuming our world."
2. No one should have any illusions: The election of Donald Trump would generate a real sense of empowerment for the most reactionary white supremacist forces in our society. Stating this fact does not amount to an endorsement of Hillary Clinton, who has much to answer for herself as a neoliberal at the center of power for decades; but Trump’s ascendancy has revealed how vibrant these terrifying forces remain in American society. No decent people should have any illusions about the real danger a Trump presidency would represent.
3. Donald Trump would be an unmitigated disaster for “Brand America.” This is not a concern of mine politically, but it is certainly important to an American political and economic establishment that operates in, and to a great extent oversees, a globalized world. Trump is the personification of the “ugly American,” and that’s not helpful for the maintenance of the United States’ military empire, or for U.S.-based global corporations. If for no other reason, the political establishment would be expected to rally to Trump’s opponent over these concerns. But in 2016, support from the political establishment can be a kiss of death.
On this point, let’s return to this week’s vertiginous convention. We’ve all been told that Mr. Trump is the candidate of the anti-establishment, and yet if you came to Cleveland expecting to find the Quicken Loans Center overrun with the Duck Dynasty/NASCAR set, you’d be disappointed. In contrast, the delegates on the floor look almost like the same crowd who nominated Mitt Romney in 2012: a preponderance of blue blazers, Laura Ashley summer dresses and a notable lack of Army fatigues. In fact, the most conspicuous alt-culture present was the 10-gallon-hat-wearing, pro-Ted Cruz Texas tribe.
I asked Michael Steele, former Republican National Committee chairman, about this anomaly. Was King Donald’s coronation occurring at a court not of his choosing? Could it be that the makeup of the delegates was a result of Trump’s lack of organization at the state level, and thus those committed to voting for him were the standard longtime Republican Party set?
Steele explained: “Yes, partly. But most of the delegates voting for Trump were hand-selected by the campaign. Still, it’s true that the pool of Trump delegates are diluted because of his lack of organization at the state level. So what you have are a mix of people on the floor, all bound to vote for Trump—some very enthusiastically, some less so.”
On the one hand, the mass media representation of Trump supporters as overwhelmingly semiliterate, white poor and working-class lynch-mob racists is either: a) exaggerated, or b) this group has changed its attire to include Sperry Top-Siders. While one can never overstate the mindlessness of this well-bathed, suburban caste, it is striking to see them endorse a candidate who so frequently expresses contempt for an establishment they so clearly have been born into.
That they would so willingly embrace a candidate whose victory would so badly tarnish the American brand around the world (undoubtedly a bedrock of their own prosperity) is proof of two things about our GOP brethren: 1) America’s prosperous suburban country-club set loves a winner, and 2) as John Nichols, political correspondent for The Nation, pointed out as we stared out together onto the convention floor, “This is an authoritarian party. Its rank and file is expected to fall into line.”
Indeed, Trump’s bluster and erratic (yet always authoritarian) manner perfectly fits linguist George Lakoff’s conception of the Republican brand as hyperpatriarchal, a worldview grounded in “strict father morality.” Not only does Trump parade his well-rehearsed and terrifyingly attractive family at every opportunity, we cannot forget that Trump’s business empire is not publicly traded. It’s a top-down, family-owned fiefdom with The Donald as king. And like any pre-fallen Macbeth or Tennessee Williams’ patriarchal phantasm, the lord of these garish manors is erratic, contradictory and teetering toward a destructive madness—even as the ghosts of his earlier exploits remain well hidden (though expect some to slip into view with the publication of David Cay Johnston’s excellent “The Making of Donald Trump” on Aug. 2).
So as the crowds who attended Trump’s rallies watch their hero call out the betrayal of the white working class from their Velveeta-stained couches, the suburban set populating the convention floor in Cleveland falls in lockstep behind its newer, more patriarchal patriarch because it’s the only thing they know how to do.
Joining them in their sleepwalk are the mainstream media. Upon arrival at the convention, nothing was more striking than the contempt in store for the Fourth Estate. Housed in a parking lot across from the Q Center, media row was janky and claustrophobic. The hospitality resembled that afforded to movie extras. The floor of their parking lot home was uneven, and the makeshift booths of particleboard and Styrofoam all strangely askew. Author Thomas Frank quipped, “This is as phantasmagoric as any German expressionist set.”
While it’s true that the mainstream media burps up undigested objections to the Trump phenomenon, their utter lack of depth provides The Donald sanctuary in their preferred infotainment narrative: Trump as The Star on another reality show. And herein may lie one source of Trump’s success. On balance, reality shows reveal a tawdry world of desperate Americans willing always to walk over each other, stabbing any semblance of solidarity in the back. In this, Trump’s world is much closer to the lives led by the masses of contemporary Americans, whose middle-class aspirations are in free fall, than is the celebrated upward mobility of Hillary’s professional class.
Bernie Sanders, in contrast, not only exposed America’s class imbalances, he also presented policy proposals to rectify them. Unfortunately but predictably (as it’s too early in this era of newly engaged class struggle for the economic powers-that-be to sign onto Sanders’ radical reforms), it was only the nonsense-spewing narcissist tycoon who was able to eviscerate his party’s establishment. After all, Trump has yet to outline his policy proposals in any detail (including in 75 minutes of Mussolini-esque preening on Thursday night). I’m sure the folks at the American Legislative Exchange Council are confident Donald will rely on them when and if the time comes. And they certainly understand that they will continue to control Congress if Trump wins and, thus, be able to stanch any program of economic populism Trump might entertain.
So as we move on to the Democratic convention in Philadelphia, let’s be clear: The great tragedy of the moment is not rooted in the Republican Party’s self-cannibalization. It’s with a Democratic Party that “successfully” suffocated responsible answers to the crises consuming our world. Indeed, as Hillary Clinton’s selection of the milquetoast Tim Kaine as her vice president shows, the Dems have put forward a candidate who embodies an establishment widely recognized as having betrayed the majority of the American public.
All of which leaves us with the very real possibility of President Donald Trump being inaugurated on Jan. 20.