It is curious how people romanticize evil and insanity. The habit, I believe, is born of naiveté, or at least inexperience. The college student who prances about in a T-shirt bearing the image of Che Guevara, for example, has no idea of what a malignant figure Che was, how treacherous, how cruel, how murderous. He sees only a handsome “freedom fighter” swaddled in the gauze of exotic Latin flamboyance. The grubby reality escapes him entirely.
The knotty French philosopher Simone Weil saw deeply into this phenomenon when she observed that “imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring.” Weil understood the converse as well: “Imaginary good,” she wrote, “is boring, real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.” Something similar can be said about sanity, what David Hume rightly extolled as “the calm sunshine of the mind.” Madness seems like an adventure only if you do not have to contend with it.
But what if you do? Many people, I believe, are beginning to ask themselves that as the glow of novelty deserts Donald Trump and he stands more and more revealed for what he is: an astonishingly ignorant, narcissistic bully and braggart. A populist demagogue whose closest fictional model might be P. G. Wodehouse’s Mosley-esque character Roderick Spode, while the Italian clown, TV personality, and political activist Beppo Grillo might provide the closest real-life analogue.
No one, as far as I know, has compared Trump’s populist rallies with the “vaffanculo” (“f*** off”) rallies that involved more than two million Italians and catapulted the erstwhile clown to the eccentric center of Italian political life. It would be a useful exercise.
The Beppo Grillo analogy was suggested to me by “The revolt of the public and the rise of Donald Trump,” a remarkable essay by Martin Gurri, a former CIA intelligence officer and author of the (equally remarkable) “The Revolt of the Public And The Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium.” It is often said that Donald Trump gives voice to the disenchantment of people with the Washington establishment. It would be more accurate, Gurri suggests, to say that he is the embodiment of the decadence or collapse of a political consensus that no longer enjoys our allegiance. “A meticulous study of Donald Trump’s biography, statements, and policy ‘positions,'” Gurri writes:
… will reveal no hint of political direction. It’s not that Trump is contradictory or incoherent. He’s ideologically formless. His claim to business competence is nullified by inherited wealth and several bankruptcies. His supposed nationalism consists of complaining about countries in which he has invested his own money (“I love China, but … ”). He’s going to make America great again — yet that’s a wish, not a program. A run at the U.S. presidency has been concocted out of a disorganized bundle of will and desire.
The point, as Andrew McCarthy observed in a much-read column, is that Trump is the effect, not the cause of the deterioration of our shared political assumptions.
Many people believe that Trump is leading a new populist movement. In fact, he is the garrulous Howdy Doody puppet of forces he represents but does not control. As Gurri observes:
[T]he dizzying rise of Trump can best be understood as the political assertion of a newly energized public. Trump has been chosen by this public … and he is the visible effect, not the cause, of this public’s surly and mutinous mood … The right level of analysis on Trump isn’t Trump, but the public that endows him with a radical direction and temper, and the decadent institutions that have been too weak to stand in his way.
I think that’s right. Gurri believes that the public’s “surly and mutinous mood” has something to do with a new “revolt of the masses,” one brought about partly by the decadence of our political institutions but also, and more pointedly, by the destabilizing spread of instant if superficial connectedness wrought by the internet.
Whatever its causes, there can be little doubt that we are living in the midst of one of those yeasty “plastic moments” that Karl Marx celebrated for their revolutionary potential. At the outset, such moments often exhibit a carnivalesque ebullience. History teaches us the mournful lesson that the holiday atmosphere soon fades as inebriation gives way to something less pleasant. Gurri observes:
The American public, like the public everywhere, is engaged in a long migration away from the structures of representative democracy to more sectarian arrangements.
Like many people, I’ve been surprised as well as alarmed by the casual rapidity with which free speech, due process, and other seemingly stable bulwarks of freedom have fallen prey to the omnivorous agenda of virtue-signaling social justice warriors. There is a certain irony that the vanguard of these capitulations has been in the academy — an institution whose very raison d’être, once upon a time, was the free exchange of ideas in pursuit of the truth.
The retreat from that enterprise, on campus after campus, has been as astonishing as it has been rapid. Only this morning, a friend who is a Princeton alum sent me a hand-wringing email he had received from Christopher Eisgruber, the president of Princeton, about Woodrow Wilson, a former president not only of Princeton but also of the United States.
Wilson was a naive progressive whose starry-eyed ideas about international order helped pave the way for the totalitarians of the 1930s. But Wilson’s preposterous world-government notions are not what exercises Christopher Eisgruber. No, all that is doubtless part of what he describes as Wilson’s “many genuine accomplishments.”
What causes Christopher Eisgruber anguish is the fact that Wilson did not share Eisgruber’s enlightened views on race. Because of that, Christopher Eisbruger explains in his missive, the university will begin “immediately” to re-describe Wilson’s legacy and place in the Princeton universe.
Christopher Eisbruger believes that Princeton’s “most significant and enduring challenges pertain to enhancing the diversity and inclusivity of our community.”
I would like to be a fly on the wall when he explains that to people he is asking to fork over tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to support Princeton. Until fifteen minutes ago, the most significant and enduring challenge facing any serious university was the preservation and transmission of knowledge. It was to further that high task, not to cater to the wounded amour-propre of self-designated victims, that philanthropists have so lavishly bestowed their largess on our institutions of so-called higher learning.
I mention Princeton not because it is special. Such rewritings of history are proceeding apace on campuses from Stanford to Harvard and Yale, even as a demand for “safe spaces” has trumped elementary respect for and protection of free speech.
“But,” you say, “isn’t Donald Trump on your side in this debate? Isn’t he the politically incorrect candidate par excellence?”
No. He is the rude, crude candidate par excellence, but that is something else. When it comes to free speech, Donald Trump is a paid-up member of the “free speech for me, but not for thee” contingent. Hence his threat to “open up libel laws” against journalists who say “negative” things he doesn’t like.
In fact, when it comes to Donald Trump, the whole issue of political correctness is a red herring. Trump has ridden a wave of celebrity not because he’s is politically incorrect. Indeed, on most issues, his record is impeccably “progressive,” i.e., left-liberal, i.e., politically correct. What has energized the Trump wave has been his lack of restraint, his bad manners. “The most significant factor separating Trump from the pack,” writes Gurri, “is rhetorical”:
Trump is a master of the nihilist style of the web. His competitors speak in political jargon and soaring generalities. He speaks in rant. He attacks, insults, condemns, doubles down on misstatements, never takes a step back, never apologizes. Everyone he dislikes is a liar, “a bimbo,” “bought and paid for.” Without batting an eyelash, he will compare an opponent to a child molester. Such rhetorical aggression is shocking in mainstream American politics but an everyday occurrence on the political web, where death threats and rape threats against a writer are a measure of the potency of the message.
The “angry voter” Trump supposedly has connected with is really an avatar of the mutinous public: and this is its language. It too speaks in rant, inchoate expression of a desire to remake the world by smashing at it, common parlance of the political war-bands that populate Tumblr, Gawker, reddit, and so many other online platforms. By embracing Trump in significant numbers, the public has signaled that it is willing to impose the untrammeled relations of social media on the U.S. electoral process.
I agree with everything Gurri says except his conclusion. The forces of disintegration he discerns are real, and perhaps there is something to his identification of globally available social media as an enabling factor. I suspect that the sources prominently include the sorts of historical stresses that James Piereson identified in his book Shattered Consensus: The Rise and Decline of America’s Postwar Political Order.
But it is not clear that the American electorate is quite ready to impose the ethic of Twitter on the political process. For two months now, I have been suggesting that we had reached “Peak Trump.” Trump’s surprising electoral victories in the South may seem to have confounded my prediction. I am not convinced of that. Tomorrow, the people of Wisconsin go to the polls. Most observers have Ted Cruz substantially ahead. If he wins with a sizable lead, the pundits who have speculated that Wisconsin just might be Trump’s “Waterloo” will probably turn out to have been right.
This past week, as Trump stumbled from one gaffe to the next — from recommending that women who had an abortion be punished should Roe v. Wade be repealed to his refusal to say categorically that he would not use nuclear weapons in the Middle East or even Europe — the reporting on his escapades has taken on a different coloring (don’t miss this brilliant column by Janet Daley). There is something elegiac in the reporting now, something almost posthumous.
A couple of months ago, an outrageous statement from Donald Trump would have been a cause of exhilaration. Now, for the first time since his remarks about John McCain not being a real war hero last summer, his remarks are described as gaffes, as matters of concern, not matters for gleeful feigned outrage. Would you really want this man in charge of American foreign policy? Are you ready to entrust the keys to the American nuclear arsenal to him? The collective noggin wags a solemn “No.”
Of course, it is possible that Donald Trump will win in Wisconsin tomorrow and that he will go on to win most of the remaining primaries, chalking up the requisite 1,237 delegates to secure the Republican nomination. But possibility is cheap. The odds, by which I mean the preponderance of public sentiment, are against it. To me, that is a distinctly cheering thought, as I suspect it is to more and more people who, rightly disgusted with politics as usual, have flirted with supporting Donald Trump.
In an earlier column, I distinguished between Trump fans and Trump supporters. The two groups are not the same and there are many signs that the ranks of both are bleeding enthusiasts. For a while, the insanity that is Donald Trump looked like fun — even, for some, like something cathartic. Lately, however, the reckless extravagance of Trump’s behavior — just inspect his Twitter feed — coupled with the malevolent incursions of reality into the news cycle have reminded most people that insanity is not a lark but, as Simone Weil said about real as distinct from imaginary evil, “gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring.” It is also, I would add, something unaccountably dangerous.