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.
Take immigration, a hot-button issue that ignited Trumpism, even when polls suggested voters’ real concerns were the economy and health care. If your experience with illegal immigration is hiring and patronizing with a daily “Buenas tardes” a José Garcia, your skilled, dependable—and rather inexpensive—gardener, or navigating around the political-correctness of an upper-middle-class diversity officer on campus or at work, then you are likely to embrace the Jeb Bush idea that illegal immigration is an “act of love.” That is an inexpensive and easily arrived at position—but not so if you are middle class and lack the romance of the poor and the influence and money of the well off.
If you do your own lawn and clean your own home, or you live and school among the lower middle classes, and your job is always in jeopardy, then even Trump’s vulgarity on issues is proof that he “cares” while the calm perspective of Jeb Bush, or an earlier incarnation of Marco Rubio, or the sermons of John Kasich can come across as crass indifference.
For half the week, I live at ground zero of Trump’s so-called poor white support, such as it is in blue California, and half the week I am with his critics on the Stanford campus. Aside from logic and to be crude, class is the chief divide that reveals attitudes about Mr. Trump. “Comprehensive immigration reform” for elites is a catchword that your children are not going to schools with Mexican illegal immigrants, who are not all dreamers but often include at least a few quite dangerous gang members. I know open-borders advocate Mark Zuckerberg’s kids will not enjoy a diverse Redwood City immigrant experience. (Why exactly has he stealthily bought up his surrounding neighborhood and staffed it with private security teams to adjudicate whom he sees while entering and leaving his compound?)
The children of Republican elites do not sit in classes where a quarter of the students do not speak English. When that specter of diversity looms, parents yank their kids and put them in the prep schools of Silicon Valley that are rapidly reaching New England numbers (or maybe better southern academies that followed integration). Their children are not on buses where an altercation between squabbling eight year olds leads to a tattooed parent arriving at your home to challenge you to a fight over “disrespecting” his family name. The establishment Republicans have rarely jogged around their neighborhoods only to be attacked by pit bulls, whose owners have little desire to speak English, much less to cage, vaccinate, or license their dogs. They have never been hit by illegal-alien drivers in Palo Alto. In other words, they do not wish to live anywhere near those who, as a result of an act of love, are desperately poor, here under illegal auspices, and assume California works and should work on the premises of Oaxaca.
But in rural Fresno County it is not uncommon to have been sideswiped and rear-ended by those who fled the scene, leaving their wrecked cars without insurance and registration. I doubt that CNN morning anchors have woken up to an abandoned Crown Victoria in their yard that swerved and went airborne in the night—its driver (who spoke neither Spanish nor English but a dialect of Mixteca Baja) found in the shrubs still sleeping it off.
The police who arrive much later have zero interest in doing much other than lecturing one that the car cannot be sold to pay damages. And the driver most certainly will not be turned over for deportation in a sanctuary county. Just writing all that is, for an elite, proof of one’s xenophobia and nativism. But then again, he is rarely stopped in the Walmart parking lot by a gang-banger in the next parking stall who out of the blue says, “Hey essay, what the f--- are you looking at me for already? And what are you going to do about it, punk?” (Are we back to the Old West where the wannabe with a six-shooter declares his nihilism on Main Street and thus his willingness to quick draw anyone?)
In Palo Alto where I work, there is no epidemic of bronze plaque and copper wire thievery, as there is near my home, where everything metal—Romex conduit, the dedicatory plaque at a Masonic temple, or bronze fittings on irrigation pipe—is in danger of being carted off, Vandal-like. I don’t think Mitt Romney has had a dead pit bull, in ripe rigor mortis with a rope tied around its neck, dumped on his lawn, or a beautiful Queensland Heeler, torn to shreds from dog fighting, thrown into his vineyard. Does the Gang of Eight ever get accosted in the evening by a group of tattooed thugs, claiming at your door they “are lost,” as they case your rural home? Or were they dreamers and future UC brain surgeons incognito?
Ask a citizen voter a simple question: If you invent a false Social Security number, and create an alias for the DMV, and lie on federal documents, will you be subject to indictment? If you arrive at an airport without a passport, will they wave you through as an act of love? I suggest you try it sometime—your version of crossing the southern border illegally.
Who does and does not have to follow the law—only U.S. citizens?
The point is that most of the Republican establishment sees illegal immigration not as legality or illegality, right or wrong, chaos or order, but only in terms of electoral politics. Discomfort with illegal immigration is mostly an abstraction, one that Trump yahoos and “nativists” and “xenophobes” whine about—and by such whining supposedly undermine the future demographic visions of beltway handlers
Trump, who has hired illegal alien labor, attacked Mitt Romney as insensitive on immigration and came late to the immigration debate. But even when he demagogues illegal immigration, and slurs and smears, his supporters do not care about the impracticality of his wall or his baiting of Mexico (whose leaders are far more racist than is the American working class). They care only that someone for a moment seems mad like they are, and does not lecture them on their own supposed biases and shortcomings. The way to further empower Trump is certainly to parody and mock his supporters.
Ditto such emotion for all other hot-button issues. Economists are, of course, right about free trade, the dangers of protectionism, and the nihilism of a Trump trade war, but then again, universities do not usually fire tenured economics professors and import in their place part-timers from Chile or Serbia. Politico reporters are not replaced by English-speaking immigrant Punjabi journalists. Distill racial politics down to “white privilege” and the Trump divide reappears as well. Those with money, class, and influence can navigate around affirmative action and “diversity” concerns; not so the lower middle-classes. To add insult to injury, it is usually wealthy whites who abstractly apologize for their privilege to minority elites, a sort of penance that assume their stature ensures that they can be magnanimous with lives (deemed less important) other than their own.
Because Trump anger is not about consistency on the issues, but raw emotion, refuting Trump by rationally exposing the myriad of his hypocrisies and vulgarities has not so far won over too many of his supporters. That might have been easily possible a year ago, had a candidate tried to infuse some passion into a workable agenda and shown some affinity with those who are otherwise written off as Ice Road Truckers or Ax Men embarrassments. Or had a candidate far earlier, as Rubio apparently is now, been willing to blow up his campaign by descending to Trump’s crude level and in kamikaze fashion trading repugnant Trumpian smears, blow for blow. Or had a Kasich, Carson, or Bush far earlier bowed out.
But at least for a while longer, millions of Republicans and lots of Reagan Democrats would gladly prefer to be wrong with Trump than right with anyone else.
(Artwork created using multiple Shutterstock.com and AP images.)