Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The unbearable silliness of Trump

There's really no question that Donald Trump's performance in the GOP debate was childish and boorish. Often he simply blustered and stumbled to barely coherent responses, He bragged about buying politicians and stiffing his creditors. He whined about being treated unfairly and confused common standards of decency with political correctness. He asked us to believe that he can bend foreign governments to his will. Yet he can't even handle Megyn Kelly.

In the days since then, he's only made it worse. I understand that Twitter is not exactly a forum for the expression of any thought that is much more than a sentiment, but his feed reads like that of an over fresh high school kid. The man is an embarrassment.

And yet there are people for whom he apparently strikes a chord. They are either willing to overlook his aggressive ignorance and peevish megalomania or, worse, mistake them for virtue. Some of us seem to believe that the more a politician shows disregard for common courtesy and the facts, the more he's speaking "truth" to some imagined "power." They mistake bombast for candor and vulgarity for strength.

When Trump is wrong (and he often is), his supporters see it as being "unscripted." They see his complete lack of depth and detail on any policy question as a commitment to "action" rather than "talk." That no one seems to know what that "action" will be (other than building a wall on the border) does not matter. The guy builds a few casinos, licenses his name to a lot more and fake-fires people on television. He'll get stuff done.

Some on the left want to say that Trump offers some kind of unveiled conservatism, but that's preposterous. He is not conservative.  He is a big government crony capitalist who has fed at the subsidy trough and advocated for eminent domain abuse. He is pro-choice (or was, until yesterday afternoon) and a supporter of Obamacare. He has contributed to Hillary Clinton. If anyone in the current GOP field would share Obama's ambitious view of what a President can and ought to do - who would use his pen and phone rather than the tools the Constitution provides - it is Trump.

I am not sure that much of his support can be articulated in political terms. He is, as some one wrote, the first "post-policy" candidate. His proposals generally boil down to "I'll be terrific." He is someone who appeals to voters who judge politicians in the same way that they judge movie stars, mistaking celebrity for competence and peacock bravado for insight. He may be the first sign, as Neil Postman once wrote, that we may well actually amuse ourselves to death.

But nothing is that simple. Trump does tap into a resentment of the status quo that can be found across the political spectrum. He appeals to the belief that there is a "they" out there (including, ironically, guys like him) who are taking advantage of guys like us.  Who better to tame the one-percent than one of their own? His sometimes ugly appeal to nativism - blame Mexico! blame China !-  is present on both the left and the right. Trump wants to build a physical wall. Bernie Sanders wants to build one with trade restrictions.

But he has an appeal to some conservatives as well. For those inclined to the right, there is frustration that our leaders too often assume office and come to prefer power to principle. They don't reshape our government as much as they reshape themselves. Maybe someone who doesn't act like a politician will be different. But, of course, difference is only different. It's not necessarily better.

Because his appeal is to sentiment and not reason, it's just about impossible to argue with a Trumpkin. They have as little patience with reality as he does. They seem to believe that Putin will swoon before the Donald's faux Alpha Male persona. He'll do things that no one else can or will do because … well … just because.

This is a very limited appeal. Trump does worse in two-way match-ups than almost anyone in the GOP field and he will never get more support than what he has now. Sixty-two percent of the public say that they wouldn't vote for him under any circumstance.

And the support he has will erode. It is easy to say you like someone to a pollster, but harder to actually vote for him. When a candidate's appeal is novelty and entertainment and the frisson of poking in the Man in the eye, he has a short shelf life. These things get old and boring.

In the end,  politics is not about emotional release. However real the frustrations of the left and the right, populists like Trump are rarely the answer. The government cannot be seized by a strong personality who will make the world anew. It cannot be restructured by someone who refuses to understand the issues and offers his impatience for them as a virtue. Playground bullying - name calling and strutting - do not constitute discourse.

Eventually the voters - or enough of them because you can fool some of the people all of the time - figure this out. Many of the people who now support Trump haven't thought much about it. But they will.

Trump too shall pass.

Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin.

1 comment:

John Mitchell said...

Trump is not going anywhere. He has hit a nerve with the public--a non-politician who says things that ought not be said. He may be crass and crude but he has a winning issue with immigration. It doesn't matter that his plan is considered extremist or even pass Congress. He is anti-establishment, even though he is part of it. He invokes populist rhetoric, even though he is part of the elite. He is exposing the candidates a year (!) before the election for what the are in the eyes of a number of Republicans/conservatives--bland, unappealing, run of the mill (although, I believe Rubio, warts and all, is the best overall candidate for the GOP).

Trump is playing the long-game, scandals or no scandals. Best you and the GOP insiders/beltway types take notice rather than be dismissive.