Is Wisconsin the End of the Line for Donald Trump?
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.