If you want to understand how it is that Donald Trump has managed to rise to political prominence then you need to read three books, two written more than 50 years ago and one in 2005.
The first is C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow. In Jim Crow Woodward tells the story of the emergence of the increasingly severe laws enforcing segregation in the South following the end of Reconstruction. (In the North we were more De Facto than De Jure about segregation.) They grew harsher as the economic status of the Whites and Blacks narrowed; the Whites seeking to hold on to privilege even as their economic status worsened. In the US today wages have been at best stagnant for the last 40 years. In the wake of Financial Crisis and the Great Non-Recovery Americans again find their economic status diminishing at the same time that groups of people – Gays, Lesbians, Transgendered, Blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, etc. etc. – are demanding and sometimes even receiving equal treatment under the law. White Americans feel their privileged position slipping away and they are lashing out, this time without the legal mechanisms of Jim Crow. This is one of the reasons behind the rise to the Tea Party and other extreme Rightist movements.
The second is Richard Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics. It is a collection of essays and the title essay has understandably received a lot of attention in the last eight years. However I think it is the second essay in the collection, The Pseudo Conservative Revolt – 1954, which truly captures what Charlie Pierce calls “the prion disease afflicting the Republican party.” Here is a relevant quote:
The ideology of pseudo-conservatism can be characterized but not defined, because the pseudo-conservative tends to be more than ordinarily incoherent about politics. The lady who, when General Eisenhower’s victory over Senator Taft had finally become official in 1952, stalked out of the Hilton Hotel declaiming “This means eight more years of socialism,” was probably a fairly good representative of pseudo-conservative mentality. … The general who spoke to the [Freedom Congress] demanding “an Air Force capable of wiping out the Russian Air Force and industry in one sweep,” but also “a material reduction in military expenditures”; the people who a few years ago believed simultaneously that we had no business fighting communism in Korea and that the war should immediately be extended to an all-Asia crusade against communism.
A perfect example of this today is the reaction to Operation Jade Helm, a military training exercise that had been held many times prior to this year in various Southern and Western states. This year however a number of citizens came to believe that this was either a precursor to the Federal government taking over or the actual take over. In Texas “a survey of registered Republicans by Public Policy Polling in May 2015, found that 32% thought that “the Government is trying to take over Texas”, and that half of all Tea Party supporters are concerned with an imminent Texas invasion.” The governor of Texas, a human paper weight named Greg Abbott, met with representatives of these people and ordered the Texas State Guard to monitor the operation, declaring, “During the training operation, it is important that Texans know their safety, constitutional rights, private property rights and civil liberties will not be infringed.” This trend of course has reached its apogee and perfect mouthpiece in Trump. However, had Trump not run this insanity would have had no trouble with any other of this year’s crop of GOP contenders for the Presidential nomination.
Perhaps the most astounding thing about Trump’s followers is their devotion to him no matter what he says or does. They so thoroughly identify with him that it does not matter if he says something that is an easily proven lie. (Go here or here for collections of those lies.)
It does not matter that he has offered no policy or course for how he intends to “make America great again.” It does not matter that he has at various times rejected some or all of the Conservative ideas his followers appear to hold. Conservative evangelicals, who used to require candidates be able to answer a lengthy catechism, now do not care that Trump is entirely uninterested in religion. He has made himself immune to the charge of flip-flopping, which used to be able to derail entire campaigns. Indeed his followers appear to assume anything he says comes with a wink-and-a-nudge. They all “know what he really means” so anything he says is in automatic agreement with whatever that particular person believes. His ability to get people to support things that are against their own self-interest is without parallel in American history.
How is this possible? Consider this:
“The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides…is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it. … The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.”
That is from Harry G. Frankfurter’s remarkable book On Bullshit, a philisophical examination of why facts are of less and less importance in public discourse. (Don’t let the phrase “philisophical examination” scare you, it is both readable and short.)
Trump’s campaign only makes sense once you apply Frankfurt’s theory of bullshit: It was never supposed to have any connection to reality. It exists soley to aggrandize Trump himself and nothing else.
There is quite a bit of the sociopath about Trump. Publicly he shows little empathy and absolutely no remorse for anything. People appear to be of interest to him only to the extent that they can get him something. He shows no loyalty — if you once were useful but now dare to offer even the mildest criticism you are cast off and attacked with the same vengeance used for his bitterest enemies. Should he be elected president he will easily eclipse Woodrow Wilson and Nixon, the current benchmarks for presedential vindictiveness. He will also make Nero and the most recent President Bush look like amateurs when it comes to destroying their own nations.
It’s somehow fitting that the best description of Trump I have found was written 91 years ago by H.L. Mencken in his blistering essay In Memoriam: W.J.B.
“A vulgar and common man, a cad undiluted. He is ignorant, bigoted, self-seeking, blatant and dishonest. … A poor clod like those around him, deluded by a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, all human dignity, all beauty, all fine and noble things. He is a peasant come home to the dung-pile.”