The Origins of Trump Nihilism

During the most recent Detroit debate, even a reformed “inclusive” and “presidential” Donald Trump still was crass and vulgar. (Has a candidate ever crudely referred to the size of his phallus, and in our sick world is that a Freudian admission of doubt, or a macho reassurance in LBJ fashion?)

Trump gave more than enough evidence that his positions are liquid and change as often his perceptions of his flatterers and critics. He is a blank slate, who as president could build or tear down a southern wall with equal ease, depending on the dynamics of the political deal of the moment. Has there ever been a Republican candidate that Republicans feared was too liberal and Democrats too reactionary? Planned Parenthood advocates usually do not wish to build a wall on the southern border. Trump’s perceived danger to the Republican Party is that he would move not only to the Left, but do so in an especially crass and crude way—expanding the party by not being of the party, winning as a Republican precisely by not being a Republican. To the degree that he would succeed as a president, liberals would applaud his conversion to liberalism; to the degree that he would fail, they would cite his innate conservatism.

In the debate, in passive-aggressive fashion Trump pouted and pounced, furious that others had broken the Golden Rule and done unto him what he has done unto others. His entire moral universe is predicated on a preteen morality of liking those who praise him, and hating those who criticize him. For Trump, to the extent that Megyn Kelly or Bill O’Reilly is or is not a good journalist depends entirely on his own transitory perceptions of how obsequious or prickly each was to Trump in their last encounter. All politicians operate like that; Trump’s great strength or weakness is that he is not shy in expressing it. (And that he knows most journalists wish to be liked rather than respected, and so make the necessary adjustments for Donald J. Trump.)

All that said, I doubt Trump will lose much of his 35-45% support in the next rounds of elections. It does no good for his critics to point out that he never reaches 50% margins in either elections or polls, when he can still win primaries well enough without gaining half the electorate. His genius so far has been to turn his third of the electorate into proof he’s a winner because his opponents never united to marshal a majority against him. In other words, Trump counted on the egos of his opponents to outweigh their concerns for their establishment party. His 35% is unimpeachable, and the anti-Trump 65% is at this late date still hopelessly fragmented. The more candidates talk about “uniting” around an anti-Trump candidate, the more they sound like medieval proverbial mice who dream of someone else putting a warning bell on the marauding cat.

Nor does it matter much that Trump flip-flops or outright lies as often as he calls others liars. His appeal is predicated on a general premise: He is a creature of pure emotion when a third of Republicans are sick and tired of patronizing temporizers. Just as civil wars can prove more savage than conflicts against foreign enemies, so too we have reached a point where the Trump base hates the Republican establishment (with whose agendas it agrees 75% of the time) far more than it despises Hillary Clinton (with whose policies it would support 5% of the time). All the latent class biases of the Republican gentry are now on the table, and they prove more compatible with Hillary Clinton than Donald Trump. Republican nihilism is the result.