Do I have thoughts on Donald Trump today? Why, yes. Yes I do.
1. Without offering this up as an excuse — it’s rather the opposite — I don’t think Trump planned to become the face of 21st century American fascism. I suspect rather strongly that he entered the presidential race for the usual reasons that Trump does anything publicly, i.e., for the publicity and the long-term brand benefits that accrue. He said outrageous things and when they gave him a boost, he kept on going in that direction, because why wouldn’t he, and here we are. Of course Trump is going to escalate his rhetoric, because that’s what he needs to do to keep the focus on him, and to starve the other competitors for the GOP nomination of the spotlight, forcing them off the stage.
Which is to say that Trump is running his campaign like he’s on a reality show, which has no other context than itself, and of which the goal is to win the presidency, not actually to be president. He’s not wrong about the reality show aspect of the campaign, and that’s on all of us. He’s wrong about everything else, and that’s on him.
2. I don’t believe that Trump actually thinks about Muslims or Mexicans in any particularly deep fashion; I think he likes and respects the members of either group exactly as much as they have money and a willingness to do business with him. So if you’re a Carlos Slim or a Saudi prince, he’ll like you just fine and be happy to cut you all the breaks you want (Carlos Slim, it should be noted, recently dumped Trump). Otherwise, you’re an abstraction that he can use to motivate another abstract group, that is, likely GOP primary voters, who, to be clear, I suspect he thinks about and respects as much and in the same fashion as Mexicans and Muslims — for what they can do for Trump, and only exactly that much.
3. Fundamentally Donald Trump doesn’t give a shit about anyone other than Donald Trump, and while this is obvious to anyone who knows anything about Trump for the last thirty years, it’s still apparently confusing to a number of people, who like to offer up various conspiracy theories for his continued existence in the race. He’s a plant by the Democrats to make the Republicans look bad! He’s a plant by the GOP to make the rest of the field look more moderate by comparison!
Well, no, and no. In the former case, the modern GOP doesn’t need any help; in the latter case, one need only look at the current other two front runners — Cruz and Carson — to see what nonsense that is. It’s extraordinarily telling that less than a year out of the election, the top three GOP candidates can all be described by the same two words: “Career narcissists.” That’s something for the Republicans to ponder. But to get back to Trump, there’s no reason to spin up increasingly bogus and complex conspiracy theories about who is tugging on his strings when Occam’s Razor — and common sense — dictates that this is Trump doing what Trump has always done: Making things about Trump, and his need to have the spotlight on him in order to build the brand.
4. This may lead you to ponder the philosophical question of “If you espouse fascist, bigoted points of views but don’t really believe them, are you really a fascist and a bigot?” In these troubled times it’s useful to turn to the words of a man wiser than I, so let me quote: “By their fruits ye shall know them.” (Indeed much of surrounding context for that particular quote is useful in the case of Trump.) Trump is espousing bigoted, fascist ideas and is campaigning to become president on the strength of those ideas and the fervor they generate. Whether he’s saying them because he believes them or merely because they give him a short-term benefit for a longer-term business strategy, the end result is a mainstreaming and affirmation of those ideals.
But he’s an outlier! Well, no. You can’t say the man who has for months led the polls to be the candidate for president of one of the two major political parties in the United States is not in the mainstream. Trust me, the bigots and the fascists are delighted by the amount of cover that someone like Trump gives them to say that their views are, in fact, at the heart of the American experience. There are others equally delighted that their inchoate bigotry, which before they knew enough to keep to themselves, now has a focus and cover for expression. You don’t get to walk away from the responsibility for doing that.
5. Which is the thing that genuinely confuses me about this whole thing. Bluntly speaking, Trump is never going to be president; mainstreaming fascism or not, at the end of the day the numbers won’t break his way. He’ll be swamped in the electoral vote certainly and probably in the popular vote as well. And then what? As noted, you don’t just walk away from being a bigoted fascist; that shit follows you around. As a business move it’s puzzling; it tarnishes the brand value of the Trump name — and burnishing that value is why I think he was in it in the first place.
It’s possible Trump doesn’t see that there will be long-term damage (or doesn’t believe it), or believes that he’ll be able to work within the universe of people who don’t mind he yanked his brand toward bigotry and fascism. Hey, it didn’t stop Hugo Boss or Volkswagen, he might say, afterwards. And, you know, maybe that will work out for him just fine. Maybe it’ll get him new casinos in the Carolinas and speaking gigs to “values” organizations. On the other hand, speaking anecdotally, before this election I saw the Trump brand as merely vulgar. Now I find it repulsive, and I strongly suspect for the rest of my days I’m going to go out of my way to avoid anything to do with it. The question is whether the people like me do more damage to the brand than the value added by the people who don’t mind bigotry and fascism.
6. Lindsey Graham today has been calling out Donald Trump, calling him “a race-baiting, xenophobic religious bigot,” which is correct, and I absolutely applaud him for saying so. He’s also saying that Trump “doesn’t represent my party,” which is, unfortunately, not correct at all. Again, Trump has been leading the GOP polls almost without interruption for months. He’s not an outlier. He’s there for a reason. The reason is that the GOP has made space in their party for race-baiting xenophobic religious bigots, and has done so for years by conscious and intentional strategy. Trump did not bring his supporters into the GOP. They were already there. I strongly suspect Graham knows it. The GOP wasn’t always the party of race-baiting xenophobic religious bigots — there’s a reason the term was “Dixiecrat” and not “Republidixies” — but they took possession of them 50 years ago and have been banking on them ever since.
The GOP’s problem is that Trump is the distillation of every political strategy they’ve honed over the last several decades, and particularly ramped up over the last two. Lionizing the “political outsider”? Check! Fawning over billionaires? Check! Ratcheting up political rhetoric so that everyone who opposes you is the enemy and sick and awful? Check! Scaring the crap out of not-young white conservative Christians with the image of lawless racial and religious minorities? Check! Valorizing the tribalism of white conservative Christianity over the rule of law and the Constitution of the United States? Check!
There’s a reason why the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s executive director wants GOP candidates to “be like Trump” even as Graham bleats that Trump doesn’t represent the party. Lindsey Graham, are you shitting me? Trump doesn’t just represent your party. He’s the goddamn Platonic ideal of it. You can’t spend decades preparing the way for someone like Donald Trump and then pretend to be shocked, shocked when he roars down the field, flawlessly executing your playbook.
7. Also, getting rid of Trump, which the GOP now fervently wants to do, doesn’t solve the party’s fundamental problem, which isn’t Trump, but rather the fact that the race-baiting, xenophobic religious bigots he’s currently energizing will still be there if and when he goes. Dear GOP: Do you think that when Trump goes, the remaining candidates are planning to turn their backs on that particular constituency? Hell, Ted Cruz is positively drooling at the prospect of snapping up Trump’s leavings. And Cruz may not even have to wait that long; he’s gaining in Iowa, primarily on the strength of the same crowd Trump is riling up.
I think that the GOP wants to get back to where it was before, when it could pretend with a wink and a nod that race-baiting, xenophobic religious bigots weren’t in fact one of the two twin engines of the party, the other engine being rich autocrats, who don’t care for silly things like regulations or workers’ rights. Guys: It’s a little late for that (we figured out the rich autocrat thing, too). There’s only one way to fix your race-baiting, xenophobic religious bigot problem, and it’s not (just) by getting rid of Trump. He’s the symptom, not the disease.
Actually, he is a disease. But he’s an opportunistic infection allowed by a previous illness. You have to have had the one to have the other. The GOP didn’t vaccinate for the first. It actually smeared the infection vector all over its body.
8. In case it wasn’t clear: No one — no one — should be supporting Trump at this point. No one should have been supporting him at any point, mind you. But now more than ever is the point when anyone who isn’t comfortable with outright fascism and bigotry should make it clear, to themselves if no one else, that they are out. It doesn’t matter that Trump won’t win the presidency; it doesn’t matter that he might not even win the GOP nomination. Right now, in the United States, the leading candidate for president of one of the two major political parties — the leader by a substantial margin — is openly talking about denying an entire class of people their fundamental Constitutional and human rights, and being cheered for it. It’s not right, it’s bigoted and hateful, and yes, it absolutely is dangerous.
Trump has a right to say bigoted and fascist things. Other bigots and fascists have a right to support him. The rest of us should also exercise our rights and call Trump and the others out for what they are. And right now, the fact is: If you’re supporting Trump, you’re supporting a bigot and a fascist. That may or may not make you a bigot or a fascist, but it doesn’t say good things about you in any event.
If you love the principles that make the foundation of our laws — and of the United States in a general sense — then you should take your leave of Trump, and for that matter, of any candidate who would cheerfully ride into power the same constituency Trump is mining. What you stand for and who you stand with matters. It’s time to stand away from Trump. As far away as you can get.