All Commentary
Monday, July 27, 2015

The Banality of Donald Trump

Trump appeals to the same rotten vices as totalitarians throughout history

“He’s not as crazy as you think,” reads the tagline. 

The subject? Donald Trump. The venue? Think Progress, whose editor in chief, Judd Legum, makes what he terms the “surprisingly strong” progressive case for Mr. Trump.

This case does not consist, as one might imagine, of openly setting up a joke candidate to improve the fortunes of Hillary Clinton. (Predictably, we’ve heard that one elsewhere.)

No, Legum claims that Trump is actually “more mainstream than his competition.” Indeed, Trump’s views are “significantly more progressive (and politically more popular) than others in the field.”

In short, Trump’s not really all that bad.

It’s hard to deny, though, that Legum makes the case by way of much water under the bridge: Trump would not cut Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid. As if maybe he could. Trump at one time supported universal healthcare, too, which is interesting but more and more irrelevant, I fear.

And Trump has also denounced the Iraq War, which can’t exactly be unfought. (This last makes him less bellicose than Lindsey Graham, which again is not saying much. Republican doves rarely last long, anyway.)

To make Trump’s case to a progressive audience also takes a high degree of selective dismissal. Thus, Legum writes off much of Trump’s actual appeal — the appeal that he makes to his own base  as “blustery” and “absurd.”

But Trump doesn’t lead in the polls because he wants to save Medicare. He leads in the polls because he says blustery and absurd things about foreigners. Trump’s base likes him for precisely those things that progressives would have to dismiss as jokes, if he were to fly as a progressive. (Progressives may also have a certain affection for him because it is cheering to see what looks like an end to hypocrisy, in which we behold Republicans saying in public what they presumably thought all along, albeit in private.)

Personally, though, I hesitate to say that calling Mexican immigrants rapists is of a kind with the candidate’s notorious hair. Or to say that Trump’s continued birtherism (remember birtherism?) is just a showman’s gesture — rather than, say, the mark of a conspiracy-minded loon. 

I do hope progressives avoid this route. All hyperbole aside, in watching Trump’s political career I have found myself again and again thinking of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. Arendt argued that people arrived at totalitarianism from at least three different paths (none good).

The very worst sort of people  the “mob,” in her term  simply admired the strength of the nakedly totalitarian utterance. Meanwhile, many in the bourgeoisie were relieved that someone had finally shouted from a podium the things that they only dared to whisper in private. And all too often, the intellectual elite “applauded because the unveiling of hypocrisy was such superior and wonderful fun.” (True confession: It is.)

In each case, what mattered was not the statement’s relationship to the truth, but its psychological effect on the reader. This is commonly the case with conspiracy theories, which have delighted both Trump and the totalitarians. 

To one audience, conspiracy theories are simply a joke. They can’t be anything else. But to another audience, the allegation of conspiracy bears with it a “terrible, demoralizing fascination.”

As Arendt noted, it was not the pseudo-scientific racism of Arthur de Gobineau, but rather the Protocols of the Elders of Zion that made for the best propaganda. The former at least aspired to seriousness, which brought serious people to dismiss it, seriously. The latter was a transparent fraud; this made it safe for the intellectuals to laugh and look the other way. Yet to another audience, the Protocols’ psychological effect would appear to have been electrifying. It was the ruin porn of its day. Was it true? It didn’t matter.

Feeling and not truth was key. As Arendt wrote, “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction and the distinction between true and false no longer exist.”

A confirmed ideologue would at least have some fixed, external referent with which to compare a leader’s claims. His ideology would not necessarily be the truth, but at least it would be something. And perhaps, through the careful comparison of political hypotheses, we could find the courage to dissent. Not so in the realm of bluster and blather.

So. Am I really calling Donald Trump a fascist? Nah. I’m too afraid I’d get a nasty tweet, or maybe a nasty autographed note from him, which I simply don’t think I could bear, even if it is a recognition that Trump has bestowed on roughly half the pundits in Washington. The above is all a joke, and you don’t have to take it seriously if you don’t prefer. History only rhymes. It doesn’t actually repeat itself. (Does it?)

I don’t even mean to be too critical of Judd Legum, whose likely motive sowing discord is admirable enough, at least in this case. To call his bluff, I’d be delighted if Trump decamped to the progressives, and if he took certain other crazies along with him. In time, I might even vote Republican.