Is Trump sui generis? The culmination of forty years of oblique race-baiting in the GOP? A reality television hack? An avatar for fascism? We are asking the wrong questions. The real question is how our political culture has become so denigrated that we would allow a rank amateur so clearly out of his depth to rise this far, this fast.
Then again, the questions always seem to outpace the answers when it comes to Trump’s nettlesome presence in the 2016 presidential election. A year and some ago, he was only the most orangey in a crowded field of GOP attention-seekers, from Ted “Puddin’head” Cruz, Mike “not quite primetime” Huckabee and Ben “Egyptologist” Carson. How long til the Donald flamed out? Analysts could barely answer this question before Trump cleared the decks of the “serious” candidates (low energy Jeb!) and exposed the brittleness of “rising stars” (little Marco). But where was Trump on the issues? Well, he wants a religious test for immigrants, and the Big Beautiful Wall just got ten feet higher…
There is no real one reason we’ve let this happen, but I’ll hazard one anyway. Politics has become too professional. Somewhere between the careful calibration of political position to precision polling and the rise of the million-dollar political consultant, politicians ceased even trying to be legitimately phony. Instead, they cashed it in for data-driven analytics that promised steep rewards on precision behavior.
The first sighting of this as a reliable guide for action in the modern television age was Joan Didion, whose classic “Insider Baseball” laid bare the scripting of unscripted moments in the “process.” Of course it was nothing new, even in the 1980s. American politicians have been scripting their actions since George Washington began his cross-country processional march to New York to assume the office of the presidency in 1789. And politicians have been twisting their deeply-held philosophical principles into political pretzel knots since Abraham Lincoln pandered to Stephen Douglas’s race-baiting in their storied 1858 debates.
If anything is different now, it is that political insincerity so nakedly tracks the billion-dollar political consultancy industry. We may never have believed politicians, but we at least expected them to try hard to pretend they believed what they were saying. Todays candidates lack even this common sense. Everything they do, from where they eat to what shoes they wear to the crap they post on social media has been meticulously curated. And it is transparently phony. Why else would Jeb Bush tweet the word “America” along with a picture of a gun with his name engraved on it? Really Jeb? Did anyone buy this? No! Six million dollars worth of political advice, data mining, and focus group testing led to the decision to try and up Jeb’s “I’m-just-like-you-with-my-guns-and-religion” credentials. And why else would Marco Rubio make the inexplicable shift to insulting Donald Trump’s face and hands with a set of one-liners obviously penned by Tonight-Show-monologue-writer-castaways? He was so serious! Until serious didn’t work any more.
Into all of this came a man whose words were clearly his own. What political consultant would say “Attack John McCain directly—maybe point out that he was captured, you know, because captured soldiers are failures”? What focus group results would encourage a strategy of repeatedly belittling successful women? And what polling would ever suggest that increasingly hardline and bizarre policy prescriptions would help as we got closer to the national election?
Trump is obviously authentic. He is Trump, sans apology. His unscripted moments are truly unscripted. Hell, even his scripted moments seem unscripted. And he means what he says about policy, even though he sometimes does not understand what he says. But at least he means it.
This is what Trump’s admirers mean when they say that he “tells it like it is” and that he is “not politically correct.” Political correctness, in this formulation, has less to do with liberal orthodoxies about raceclassgender and more to do with the toothless, focus-group tested, poll-driven positions that are part of a two-hundred-million-dollar electoral strategy to both “shore up the base” during the primaries and “win the middle” during the election.
Which is why for Trump’s supporters the choice could not be clearer going into Election Day. Let me be clear—this has nothing to do with policy. This has everything to do with a basket of voters who are sick and tired of having politicians led around by consultants in Brooks Brothers suits with fancy-pants degrees and statistical regressions and action plans. And the Democrats have played right into this. Not since Al Gore have the Democrats fielded a candidate so wooden. I mean, how long did the Hillary campaign work up some kind of retort to Make America Great Again™? Make America Whole Again? Give me a break.
In a famous moment of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Cassius and Brutus perform a dialogue while Caesar is off stage, speaking to a … rally. We don’t hear Caesar, but he riles up his crowd pretty good, and we hear them cheer. Cassius and Brutus wring their hands at the monster they have helped create. Then comes the line that has fired the literary imagination ever since. “Men are at some times masters of their fates,” Cassius says. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves.”
There is no wisdom in that line for us today, not to explain the Trump phenomenon. There’s more insight in the later line that Shakespeare gives Caesar himself when he emerges from the rally and demands to have more fat people (read yes-men) working for him. “Cassius has a lean and hungry look,” says Trump, er, Caesar. “He thinks too much; such men are dangerous.”
This piece is part of our ongoing roundtable discussion, offering a range of perspectives from historians about what Trump represents about the past–and future–of the GOP and the conservative movement. Past pieces are below, and more are to come!
- Adam Gallagher, “Is Trump Sui Generis?”
- Alex Cummings, “There Is a There There: Trump Is Hardly Sui Generis”
- Gary Gristle, “Reckoning Trump through a Didion Lens”
- H. Robert Baker, “Trump doth bestride the world…”
- Timothy Lombardo, “New Right, Far Right, Alt-Right? Donald Trump and the Historiography of Conservatism”
- Casey Baskin, “Sorry, Folks, But Trump Really Is Different”