The Phenomenology of Trump

Complex and puzzling and persistent phenomena have always driven men crazy. There must be an explanation for why things are as they are – and in biology, Darwin’s theories on evolution over time – where critters who end up with certain useful traits survive and reproduce, while those without don’t survive and obviously don’t reproduce, and thus, slowly, a species can evolve into something quite new – has been tested again and again. Things do seem to work that way. Students in the public schools in Texas and Louisiana, however, are taught that’s still only a theory, in spite of all the fossil history and carbon dating and DNA overlaps – these complex and puzzling and persistent phenomena could just as easily be the work of a supernatural creator, and might well be. If so, these phenomena should be admired as mighty fine work and folks should leave it at that. Some things are beyond human comprehension. God works in strange and mysterious ways. Don’t ask questions. That only pisses Him off. You really don’t want to do that.

Americans have been arguing about this since the Scopes Monkey Trial – and the rest of the world has been laughing at us since then – but some theories just don’t work out. For about two thousand years, everyone just knew that an excess or deficiency of any of four distinct bodily fluids in a person – those four humors – black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood – directly influenced temperament and health. When these four fluids got out of balance people became phlegmatic, choleric, sanguine or melancholic. This covered problems with both physical and mental illnesses.

Cool. Adjust the fluid levels. Things will be fine, but modern medical research in the nineteenth century showed that this was utter nonsense. There are germs, you know. With a microscope you could even see them. So much for that theory…

Phenomenology is tricky. Theories of how things work must be tested against observable evidence. Sometimes the evidence shows that you got it all wrong – and it works that way in politics too. Donald Trump should be gone by now, given what he has been saying. The country is full of Mexicans. Most of them must be here illegally. They’re everywhere – in the schools, in the emergency rooms, in the streets. They’re taking over. Donald Trump says they’re rapists and murderers, or at least drug dealers. A few weeks ago he said we should have invaded Mexico, not Iraq – but cooler heads in the Republican Party will work to marginalize and make him go away. America doesn’t elect buffoons – and the cooler heads in the Republican Party lucked out with Trump’s John McCain comments. He said John McCain wasn’t really a war hero – he was captured – he was a loser, even if he did spend more than five years in a North Vietnamese prison, being tortured, and surviving. Trump likes the guys who weren’t captured – the winners, not the losers.

That ticked off a lot of people. John McCain is a hero. This was unforgivable – and if politics is anything like evolution, the survival of the fittest, where those with useful traits move on and that without die off – and Donald Trump should be gone, but he’s not gone:

Businessman Donald Trump surged into the lead for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, with almost twice the support of his closest rival, just as he ignited a new controversy after making disparaging remarks about Sen. John McCain’s Vietnam War service, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Support for Trump fell sharply on the one night that voters were surveyed following those comments. Telephone interviewing for the poll began Thursday, and most calls were completed before the news about the remarks was widely reported.

Although the sample size for the final day was small, the decline was statistically significant. Still, it is difficult to predict what could happen to Trump’s support in the coming days and weeks as the controversy plays out.

Trump took a hit, but it may not matter:

Even with the drop in support on the final night of the survey, Trump was the favorite of 24 percent of registered Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. That is the highest percentage and biggest lead recorded by any GOP candidate this year in Post-ABC News polls and marks a six-fold increase in his support since late May, shortly before he formally joined the race.

Forget the old theory. Josh Marshall says it’s time to look at the real world:

Has Donald Trump finally done it? Finally gone too far?

Coming from Trump, the comments seem more ridiculous than outrageous. And let’s not forget that, only a decade ago, Republicans ran an entire presidential campaign around a more pervasive and aggressive denigration of another decorated Vietnam combat vet’s service record. But whatever I think of it, will Trump’s latest outrage finally sink him with his growing ranks of supporters? I very much doubt it.

That 2004 business with John Kerry did come up on CNN but, Marshall says, that doesn’t much matter now:

Let’s not forget: these are supporters who have cheered Trump as he’s called Mexicans rapists and criminals and all the rest. They don’t have delicate sensibilities. Let’s also not forget that these kinds of attacks on McCain (actually considerably uglier ones) have a long history among hard-core base Republicans, just the folks Trump is spiking with. They claim he had a lackluster career before his capture (some real truth in that) and they hint he may have been turned in some way by captors or betrayed his fellow POWs during his captivity (zero evidence for this). But even beyond the hard-core fringe that believes those things, McCain is just really not popular with base Republicans, especially not those who define themselves around the immigration issue. He’s the ultimate RINO. All of which is to say, if you’re someone who’s cheered to Trump’s clown-car-of-aggression and derp over recent weeks, I see little here that will make you reconsider your enthusiasm. In fact, I see a lot that will make you see this as more of a brash truth-teller who won’t take any crap from the Republican establishment, the media or its favored leaders.

At the risk of stating the obvious, resurrecting Mitt Romney to denounce Trump or having Jeb or the increasingly hapless Reince Priebus do so is unlikely to shift this perception of what’s going on.

Trump will just call them losers. He already has. If it’s survival of the fittest, the fittest may be Donald Trump:

Is Trump a joke? Of course, he is. But if we judge politicians by any other standard than their ability to garner votes and polling support, we’ll soon run out of candidates. If clowns are above your dignity to report on, find another line of work, especially with this primary field. Trump isn’t a distraction or mere entertainment any more than the rest of the GOP field is. In fact, this version of his candidacy (I can imagine him running more as a Perot-type centrist figure in earlier cycles) is the logical end result of the Tea Party-ization of the GOP since 2009.

Trump is running an angry, populist campaign focused on xenophobia and “I don’t care what you think” aggression against ‘the establishment’ and ‘elites’ of all stripes. To think that trash talk against an establishment favorite, who is only marginally relevant to the politics of the moment in any case, will upset that apple cart is to thoroughly misunderstand the politics of the moment. Trump is the Frankenstein’s Hair Monster, finally walking among us, who is the inevitable product of a decades-long embrace of clown-show anti-establishmentism and the stoking of xenophobic and racial paranoia.

How did that happen? The blogger BooMan suggests this – “I still believe that John McCain ripped a tear in the fabric of the universe and let some alien form of Stupid arrive here on our planet when he gave us Sarah Palin.”

He may be onto something:

Asked about the dispute between Donald Trump and Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona – the candidate at the top of the ticket when she was 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee – former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin Monday afternoon called both men heroes.

“I have the good fortune of knowing both John McCain and Donald Trump well,” Palin told CNN in an email. “Both men have more in common than the today’s media hype would have you believe. Both blazed trails in their careers and love our great nation.”

Palin, who attached a photograph of McCain returning from Vietnam to her email, wrote, “Sen. McCain dedicated his life to serving our country, and in my humble opinion the sacrifices made by all ethical service members are heroic – putting it all on the line to defend freedom IS heroic – and Donald Trump is a hero in another arena.”

Follow her logic:

“Trump is the candidate giving voice to untold millions of fed-up Americans witnessing a purposeful destruction of our economy and the equal opportunity for success that made America exceptional,” Palin said. “We’re watching career politicians throw away our kids’ future through bankrupting public budgets and ripping open our porous borders which, obvious to all us non-politicians, puts us at great risk.”

Seeming to take issue with some of the language used by McCain in the past to describe attendees at Trump rallies and some of the Senate tea party members, Palin added, “Everywhere I go, hard-working patriotic Americans – not ‘crazies’ or ‘wacko birds’ – ask me to pass on to Mr. Trump encouragement to keep educating the masses about true ramifications of illegal immigration, and in general the real state of our union.”

Josh Marshall had it right about these people, and then there’s Rush Limbaugh:

Trump is not following the rules that targets are supposed to follow. Targets are supposed to immediately grovel, apologize, to say something like, “You know, it wasn’t me. That wasn’t me. That’s not the real me. That’s not who I am. And I forever apologize. I have the utmost respect for Senator McCain, and I really regret saying it, and I don’t know that I can go on.”

And then everybody cheers that the target has seen the light and is now going to shrink away from public life, never to ever be heard from or seen from again. And that usually means another Republican has been taken out. And again, guiding all of this is the arrogant presumption that the majority American people are as outraged as all these media types are. So we shall see. Not only is Trump not following the rules, he’s doubling down on the criticism.

The American people haven’t seen something like this in a long time. I’m serious. They have not seen an embattled public figure stand up for himself, double down, and tell everybody to go to hell. What they’ve seen is an embattled public figure apologize and shrink away.

The Republican Party has lost control of its own party, as Ryan Lizza notes here:

Ever since the nineteen-seventies, when both parties opened up their nominating systems to become more democratic, the parties have been less and less able to exercise control over the messy system of producing a Presidential nominee. Self-funded personalities with no history of working their way up through the ranks have been a feature of almost every campaign.

Even worse for efforts to control the process, the recent Supreme Court decisions on campaign finance have meant that much of the important work of parties has moved over to Super PACs. Earlier this year, before it was dealing with Trump’s kamikaze-like assault on the GOP, the RNC was grappling with the Koch brothers’ attempt to essentially set up its own alternative to the Republican Party.

One can laugh at Trump and his absurdities, but it’s wrong to say that he doesn’t matter. He has exposed and exploited the Republican Party’s two great weaknesses: the fact that many of its voters don’t agree with Party leaders on immigration and the fact that the Party is powerless to do much about it.

Things have changed. Our theories of how our political parties work seem to be wrong. We might as well be talking about black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. Ask an expert. Ask Heather Cox Richardson, who wrote To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party – the definitive work on the matter. She’ll tell you this:

Trump is the product of a deliberate Republican strategy, adopted by Richard Nixon’s people in 1968, to attract voters with an apocalyptic redemption story rather than reasoned argument. It has taken almost 50 years, but we have finally arrived at the culmination of postmodern politics in which Republican leaders use words to create their own reality.

So, follow her logic:

After World War II, President Dwight Eisenhower and men like New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller led the Republican Party with policies based in reasoned argument. They used the government to regulate the economy and to promote social welfare, much as Democrats did, although with a philosophy that emphasized social unity rather than class conflict. The policies of these “Me Too” Republicans infuriated Movement Conservatives on the far right, who insisted that all government activism was communism. In 1964, Movement Conservative spokesman Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater won the Republican nomination when Rockefeller’s womanizing spectacularly imploded his candidacy. Movement Conservatives used their hero’s nomination to advance a new kind of politics.

America’s moderate consensus was enormously popular, but Phyllis Schlafly, the president of the Illinois Federation of Republican Women, flat-out denied that reality. In her famous book “A Choice Not an Echo,” she insisted that studies showing that voters opposed Goldwater’s extremism were part of a “propaganda machine” that used fake polls, radio and newspapers to destroy anyone but the chosen candidates of an elite cabal. She explained that all government activism outside of military buildup was a conspiracy to bankrupt regular Americans. Financiers and banking interests fed off expensive policies, pushed by an educated Eastern elite, and together these men were dragging America into the web of communism.

The world was really quite simple, Schlafly insisted, and it could be understood without any fancy education. It was divided in two, black and white, Communism and Freedom. Eggheads complained that Goldwater “had one-sentence solutions” for complicated problems, she wrote, but simple solutions were the answer. What should America do about communism? Stop it! The very fact that establishment Republicans opposed Goldwater’s nomination proved that he was the right man for the job. He was the “grass roots” candidate, the candidate for the little guy who voted his principles, not because he wanted a payoff.

That should sound familiar now, because that’s Donald Trump. Goldwater crashed and burned, but Richard Nixon didn’t:

Nixon’s handlers used new media to play to Schlafly’s script. They ignored people’s brains and went for their guts.

“Voters are basically lazy,” one Nixon media adviser wrote. “Reason requires a high degree of discipline, of concentration; impression is easier. Reason pushes the viewer back, it assaults him, it demands that he agree or disagree; impression can envelop him, invite him in, without making an intellectual demand… The emotions are more easily roused, closer to the surface, more malleable…”

Nixon’s people hired advertising executive Harry Treleaven, who believed the new medium of television had changed the nature of politics. For him, politicians were no longer policy wonks; they were actors with a narrative. Under Treleaven, Nixon’s people ignored policy positions and instead used television to create a candidate with a simple message: America was on the brink of disaster, and only Nixon could save it. They hired a brilliant young photographer to put together a series of television ads from stock photographs strung together to create a sense of doom; at the end a voice intoned “Nixon” over an iconic image of the nation. At the end of every ad ran the words: “Vote like your whole world depended on it.”

The campaign also hired a young television producer named Roger Ailes to stage “town hall” events for the candidate. Ailes hand-picked “regular” people to question Nixon in carefully managed shows from which the press was excluded. Ailes arranged applause, the set, Nixon’s answers, the camera angles, the crowd cheering the candidate, the careful shading of Nixon’s makeup. “Let’s face it,” he said. “A lot of people think Nixon is dull. Think he’s a bore, a pain in the ass.” But carefully managed television could “make them forget all that.”

It did. And so, after 1968, Republicans increasingly relied on their apocalyptic redemption story. America was in terrible trouble, because grasping minorities, women and workers wanted government policies that would suck tax dollars from hardworking white people. Democrats backed those policies because they would do anything to buy votes. It was up to Republicans to restore America to its former glory. In a time of dramatic economic and social upheaval, this story reassured voters left behind in the new conditions that the answers to their problems were simple and that coming up with those answers required no great education or thought. It simply required the right principles.

That made Donald Trump possible, by setting the stage:

Ronald Reagan’s Welfare Queen represented the misuse of tax dollars for lazy African-Americans, for example, but he also incorrectly insisted that President Carter had slashed the nation’s military budget, and warned in his inaugural address that the nation was in a crisis that rivaled the Great Depression, a crisis created by government activism.

To avoid niggling fact-checkers, in 1987, President Reagan’s FCC abandoned the Fairness Doctrine, a decision that meant that public broadcasters were no longer required to provide their audience with opposing viewpoints. Within a year, talk radio had taken off, with hosts like Rush Limbaugh hammering home the vision of a nation gone to ruin, awaiting redemption from the latest Movement Conservative candidate. In 1992, Limbaugh began to broadcast a television show, produced by Roger Ailes, to take the story to viewers. By 1994, the show was carried by 225 television stations. Two years later, Ailes would become the CEO of a new media channel, Fox News, which used the same formula – albeit updated – that Ailes had used to package Nixon’s story almost 30 years before.

By the time of the George W. Bush administration, the Movement Conservatives had erased the line between image and reality. In 2004, a senior adviser to Bush famously dismissed “the reality-based community” to journalist Ron Suskind. Gone were the days when politicians could find solutions based on their observations of the careful study of discernible reality. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore… When we act, we create our own reality… We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do,” he said.

Donald Trump was inevitable. The Republican Party had evolved into a new species.

Frank Bruni, who spent two years as the New York Times’ man in Italy, has a different theory. Donald Trump is really Silvio Berlusconi – George W. Bush’s best buddy – and that goes like this:

They have the same obsession with their wealth. Same need to crow about it. Same belief that it’s the irrefutable measure of their genius. Same come-on to countrymen: If I enriched myself, I can enrich you.

They’re priapic twins, identical in their insistence on being seen as paragons of irresistible lust. If hideously sexist utterances ensue, so be it. Loins before decency. Pheromones over good sense.

And the vanity. Oh, the vanity. During my meal with Berlusconi, who was then the prime minister of Italy, he grew most animated when complaining about Italian journalists’ put-downs of him as a dwarf.

A dwarf! He stressed to me that he was taller than José María Aznar, Spain’s leader at the time. A few years later, on a television talk show, he informed Italians that he was “definitely taller” than Napoleon. And a few years after that, at a political rally, he proclaimed: “I am taller than Putin and Sarkozy,” referring to his Russian and French counterparts. “I don’t understand why all the caricaturists portray me as a dwarf, whereas the others are allowed a normal height.”

We give in, Silvio. You’re a mountain among midgets.

And we admit it, Donald. No one’s hair sweeps the heavens like yours.

You two are the biggest, the best, shaming all the rest.

That’s the general idea:

Trump is Berlusconi in waiting, with less cosmetic surgery. Berlusconi is Trump in senescence, with even higher alimony payments.

Trumpusconi is a study in the peril and pitfalls of unchecked testosterone and tumescent avarice. It’s a commentary on wealth in the Western world: how ardently certain blowhards pursue it, how much the rest of us forgive in those who attain it, how thoroughly we equate money and accomplishment.

It’s a comedy. It’s a tragedy. It’s even a porn flick.

Of course it is:

“Best Sex I Ever Had” blared a front-page headline in the New York Post in 1990. It ostensibly quoted Marla Maples, the second of Trump’s three wives, but a skeptical reader wondered who really planted that story, especially as the years went by and Trump’s boasts flowered.

“All of the women on ‘The Apprentice’ flirted with me, consciously or unconsciously. That’s to be expected.”

“Oftentimes when I was sleeping with one of the top women in the world I would say to myself, thinking about me as a boy from Queens, ‘Can you believe what I’m getting?'”

“I’ve said if Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her.”

But those are puny bleats next to Berlusconi’s trumpeting. A few years ago he assessed his erotic impact, musing: “When asked if they would like to have sex with me, 30 percent of women said, ‘Yes,’ while the other 70 percent replied, ‘What, again?'”

The two billionaires’ tasteless words are so interchangeable that it’s sometimes hard to tell who said what…

And that’s not the only parallel:

Like Trump, Berlusconi built his fortune with real estate. He then bought media outlet after media outlet, infiltrating people’s hourly lives, imprinting himself on their very consciousness. A similar impulse animates Trump, who has emblazoned his name not just on skyscrapers and casinos but on mattresses, clothes, cologne.

They’re both after omnipresence, and they both understood early on how crucial television was to that. Berlusconi took ownership of Italy’s airwaves, which he used to broadcast game shows and news programs with women in various states of undress. Trump took partial control of the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants, and played the lord of all capitalism on “The Apprentice.”

To their profound chauvinism they add racial insensitivity, though, in fairness, Berlusconi’s doesn’t have Trump’s calculated, mean-spirited edge. Berlusconi’s infamous crack about the Obamas – that the couple must have gone to the beach, because they looked tanned – pales next to Trump’s anti-immigrant tantrums and xenophobic rants. In a clip from a radio interview released on Friday, Trump called for a boycott of Mexico, saying that “it’s a corrupt place” that treats America “very, very badly.” He pledged not to set foot there. A howl of grief rose from Guadalajara, and Ciudad Juárez wept.

And thus we are in a new world:

Both men have learned that they can turn such cloddishness to their advantage, by casting it as unvarnished candor. Sloppy talk becomes straight talk. Insult becomes authenticity, even if it’s pure theater and so long as it’s a hell of a show. And self-regard goes a long, long way. It can be mistaken for wisdom. It can masquerade as vision.

Complex and puzzling and persistent phenomena have always demanded an explanation, a theory that explains such things, and Bruni offers this Grand Berlusconi Theory of Trump. Heather Cox Richardson offers an evolutionary theory. Trump is the inevitable quite new species of Republican that had to evolve, given what had been happening since 1964 in the party. This was natural selection at work.

Each theory is possible. The only theory that is not possible is the theory that Trump will soon be gone. He’s a phenomenon.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to The Phenomenology of Trump

  1. Stockaholic says:

    This article made me change my perspective on Trump. He’s still an idiot, but now I consider him more of a brave idiot.

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