A new year brings new things, and on the first Monday of this year our politics changed a bit. Donald Trump, running away with the Republican nomination, started running campaign ads. He didn’t have to. He’d spent next to nothing and owns the Republican race. He started out rich and famous and he simply leveraged his fame. He said increasingly outrageous things, the more absurd the better, and the middle and the left would be outraged, and talk about how banning Muslims from America and building a giant wall at the Mexican border – to keep those murderers and drug dealers and rapists out – and getting Mexico to pay for it – was, well, outrageous. Those on the right, at least the angry white elderly Republican base – not the establishment business folks – would see that everyone on the left, and in the squishy middle, was outraged, and that made them very, very happy. Screw them. Screw them all. Trump was their man. There really was no need to buy ad time. Half of America was already screaming at the other half of America about what Trump just said – and everyone knew what he just said. The media covered it all. It was sweet.
But he decided to run ads anyway – a two million dollar ad-buy each week through the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, just to play it safe. In business terms it was a hedge, and for a man worth many billions of dollars this was chump change. Why not remind people of the outrageous things he’d been saying? Like a rock group reminding fans of how cool they still were, with the release of another “greatest hits” compilation, he’d do his “greatest hits” (so far) thing, and that’s what Donald Trump’s first television campaign ad was. The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson explains:
There are two images of a man and a woman standing next to each other in the first seconds of Donald Trump’s first television campaign ad. The first is of an unsmiling Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, almost leached of color, against a black-and-white background whose lines quiver like the picture on an old TV. The flickers turn to the dim red and brown of emergency-vehicle lights, and the next pair comes into view: an unsmiling Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, the San Bernardino shooters. It’s not subtle. The current President and the leading Democratic contender, in the storyland of Donald Trump, are just another terror duo. And they are hiding the truth, as the voiceover then explains.
“The politicians can pretend it’s something else. But Donald Trump calls it radical Islamic terrorism,” the narrator says. “That’s why he’s calling for a temporary shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until we can figure out what’s going on.”
Use the damned word – Islamic – make all Muslims the enemy. That plays well, in spite of the obvious issues:
In interviews, Trump has said that there would be an exception for American citizens who are Muslims, as if that made it all fine, but there is no reference to that here – no recognition, really, that there is such a thing as someone who is both American and Muslim.
To hell with them all:
Trump, the voice continues, will “quickly cut the head off ISIS” – here there is footage of an air strike, but also a jarring metaphorical appropriation of the thing that ISIS literally does -“and take their oil.” That oil, one guesses, is not legitimately theirs, but it’s not clear that Trump is worried about chains of ownership.
That is a bit of a problem:
In the past, he has suggested that this oil, or maybe Iraqi oil, or oil belonging to someone else in the general region, should be taken as a sort of war booty and used to pay for the care of wounded American servicemen. The prominent mention of this notion in a short ad – it runs thirty seconds – suggests three things: first, that Trump has trouble telling the difference between foreign-policy success and profit, or, more broadly, between greatness and wealth (the principal theme of Trump’s life); second, that he knows, better than most politicians, how to play to a belief held by many Americans (not without reason) that the whole Iraq adventure was a fraud perpetrated on the American people, who paid for it with lives and tax money and got nothing back, not even gratitude. In that sense, the oil-grab idea, which can sound like a throwaway line when Trump uses it at rallies, captures both the ugliness of his campaign and his populist instincts.
And that is the third point: Trump will stick with the wild, seemingly off-the-cuff things that he says even after he’s had time to think about them.
And then there’s Mexico:
“And he’ll stop illegal immigration by building a wall on our southern border that Mexico WILL pay for,” the voiceover says. There is footage here of dark-skinned people at some sort of barrier, and then of crowds running for what looks like a border. But it somehow doesn’t look very… Texan.
As Politifact noted soon after the ad’s release, the footage is of migrants trying to get into a Spanish enclave in Morocco. This is not the sort of lapse that embarrasses the Trump campaign, or even one that it regards as a gaffe. NBC reported, “Asked about the video, Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski told NBC News, ‘No shit it’s not the Mexican border but that’s what our country is going to look like. This was 1,000 percent on purpose.”
And that is, indeed, the message of the ad: Trump’s hate, his theories, his xenophobia and bigotry, and his intimations of deceit and foreign infiltration at the highest levels of the White House – it’s all a thousand per cent on purpose.
Davidson then adds this:
Hillary Clinton, in the most recent Democratic debate, conjured up an ISIS recruiting video that, she said, used footage of Trump. Such a thing apparently didn’t exist then, though there has since been word of one from the Shabab. But to think that either would really bother Trump is to misunderstand his appeal. The idea that he might want to be careful and not alienate a billion people seems to strike him as absurd. As he sees it, what does he care what the terrorists think?
“We will make America great again!” Trump says in footage from a rally, a sudden burst of bright colors – orange hair, red-white-and-blue signs – to close out the ad.
Davidson was not impressed, and the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent sees something else:
Trump’s spot looks very much like the heavily-immigration-themed ads run by California Governor Pete Wilson in the 1990s. Wilson helped secure passage of the infamous “Proposition 187,” which sought to bar illegal immigrants from a range of state services and is widely believed to have driven Latinos away from the California GOP and set it on a path into the demographic wilderness.
Now compare that to one of the ads Wilson ran as part of his 1994 gubernatorial campaign, which served up similarly grainy footage of similar dark hordes invading the country. As Brian Beutler noted, this depiction of “illegal immigrants as invaders” offers a striking parallel to today’s Trumpian rhetoric. That parallel should make it hard to avoid reckoning with the possibility that Trump’s appeal to GOP voters just might be partly rooted in the raw appeal of his xenophobia and demagoguery about immigrants, and not just in anxieties that are legitimately traceable to the impact of immigration policy on GOP voters’ economic prospects, as some right-leaning commentators have suggested. Now Trump’s ad has helpfully brought this comparison to full circle.
If you think this comparison is a stretch, note that California Republicans also see warnings for today’s GOP in the wrong turn the party took in that state in the 1990s. E. J. Dionne’s terrific new book on American conservatism features an interview with GOP state chairman Jim Brulte, who says this: “California is the leading edge of the country’s demographic changes. Frankly, Republicans in California did not react quickly enough to them, and we have paid a horrible price.”
Dionne’s book is Why the Right Went Wrong: Conservatism from Goldwater to the Tea Party and Beyond – due out January 19 – but Sargent is working from an advance-copy:
As one California Democrat puts it to Dionne “The one thing no one can stop is that every month, the rest of America looks more like California.” Other Republicans, such as pollster Whit Ayres, broadly agree with this analysis and its ominous portents for the GOP’s hopes in future national elections.
With ads like this, the Republicans should be worried:
Now, it remains unlikely that Trump will actually win the nomination. But even if he doesn’t, the question then becomes: Whither the forces Trump has unleashed inside the GOP? Trump’s candidacy – and to a somewhat lesser extent, that of Ted Cruz – is framed around the idea that the way to win the White House is by unleashing the power of white backlash. This is plainly obvious in Trump’s case, but Cruz, too, has repeatedly suggested a GOP victory must be powered by evangelicals and “Reagan Democrats,” i.e., culturally conservative blue collar whites. Cruz has engaged in more sophisticated demagoguery about Muslims and has flatly ruled out any form of legalization for undocumented immigrants.
By contrast, Marco Rubio’s long-term strategy seems to be framed broadly (though he has diverted from it at times) around the idea that the way to win is to make peace with diversifying, culturally evolving America, in hopes of cutting into Dem voter groups.
The party is now at a crossroads:
Which will GOP voters choose? We’ll soon find out. And if it’s the latter, and Rubio wins the nomination, how far he has to go in pandering to the forces Trump and Cruz are unleashing in order to get there will also bear watching.
What is to be done with that white backlash? Can it be tamed, or must it be abandoned? “The one thing no one can stop is that every month, the rest of America looks more like California.” What about that? The few Republicans left out here are lying low.
Slate’s John Dickerson simply adds this:
Donald Trump made his fortune building commercial real estate, but as a candidate he’s selling a gated community. … The ad is a distillation of the Trump pitch. It’s a bouillon cube of Trump, the one message he wants voters to have in their minds when they go into the voting booth. Campaigns are about creating a need that only one candidate can fulfill. In this case Trump is the protector. Polls show that on the issue of terrorism, GOP voters trust Trump above all others. The ad is not about his ability to make great trade deals or increase wages. He’s going to keep you safe.
The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza sees even more:
What Trump is proposing is not a reviving of the American Dream that we all collectively think of. Instead, he wants a replacement model that goes something like this: We will be so big, so tough and so scary that no one will ever mess with us. We win; everybody else loses.
There is, obviously, appeal to that sort of view. We live in complex times both at home and abroad. Someone promising, in essence, to win every time, all the time holds real appeal. The desire for things to “be simple again” is also strong – particularly within a certain segment of the electorate that forms Trump’s base (less-educated, less-affluent and white.) …
Trump’s dystopian vision of the country is one that rings true for lots of Americans.
This seems to have been Donald Trump’s New Year’s message – Happy Dystopian New Year!
How did this happen? Tom Nichols tries to explain that, and that would be this guy:
Tom Nichols is a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, at the Harvard Extension School, a Sovietologist, and a five-time undefeated Jeopardy champion. He is a senior contributor at The Federalist and the author of five books. Previously he was a fellow at Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Relations, and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He also worked for Senator John Heinz as personal staff for defense and security affairs.
And here’s Nichols’ curious explanation:
To understand Trump’s seemingly effortless seizure of the public spotlight, forget about programs, and instead zero in on the one complaint that seems to unite all of the disparate angry factions gravitating to him: political correctness. This, more than anything, is how the left created Trump.
Yes, this is all the fault of those on the amorphous left:
When I say “the left,” I do not mean the Democratic Party – or, solely the Democratic Party. Rather, the pestilence that is the Trump campaign is the result of a conglomeration of political, academic, media, and cultural elites who for decades have tried to act as the arbiters of acceptable public debate and shut down any political expression from Americans with whom they disagree. They, more than anyone else, created Donald Trump’s candidacy and the increasingly hideous movement he now leads.
These are fighting words, not least because no one really wants the blame for creating the Trump phenomenon, and understandably so. Democrats want to perma-glue Trump to the Republicans so that the GOP will never get his stink off the party even after he’s been defeated. Republicans, for their part, can’t post enough pictures of Trump and the Clintons, or play enough clips of Trump noting that he voted for President Obama and showering praise on Hillary.
This is what parties do, and it’s natural for both the Democrats and the GOP to see who can hang Trump on the other.
But that misses the point:
Trump is too uncontrollably narcissistic to be genuinely attached to either party. As much as Republicans point out the money he gave to Hillary Clinton, for example, the fact is that Trump would have given money to Yuri Andropov if he thought there was a photo op in it. (Exhibit A: his creepy, un-American attachment to Russian dictator Vladimir Putin.) Democrats can try to tar the GOP with Trump, but Trump’s a GOP newcomer whose views on abortion, health care, and taxes are mostly anathema to actual conservatives.
It’s pointless to try to explain Trump in terms of political platforms because Trump himself is too stupid and too incoherent to have any kind of consistent political views about anything beyond hating minorities and immigrants. Nuclear weapons? “With nuclear, the power, the devastation is very important to me.” Drugs? “That whole heroin thing, I tell you what, we gotta get that whole thing under control.” A random word generation program could do better.
But he can ride political correctness to the nomination, because times have changed:
I am not referring here to the daily political correctness that became normal after the 1970s, the reflexive self-editing that we’ve all learned to do, almost unconsciously, in the name of being nice to other people. This early “correctness” was always awkward and artificial, but it wasn’t overly onerous. …
Today, however, we have a new, more virulent political correctness that terrorizes both liberals and conservatives, old-line Democrats and Republicans, alike. This form of political correctness is distinctly illiberal; indeed, it is not liberalism at all but Maoism circa the Cultural Revolution.
That’s what people hate:
The extremist adherents of this new political correctness have essentially taken a flamethrower to the public space and annihilated its center… Any incorrect position, any expression of the Constitutional right to a different opinion, or even just a slip of the tongue can lead to public ostracism and the loss of a job. …
Gay marriage is a good example. Liberals wanted gay marriage to win in the Supreme Court, and it did. Leftists wanted more: to silence their opponents even after those opponents completely lost on the issue… I could reel off many other examples. When the New York Times tells the rubes that it’s time to hand in their guns, when the Washington Post suggests that Jesus is ashamed of them for not welcoming Syrian refugees the week after a terrorist attack, people react not because they love guns or hate Syrians, but because their natural urge to being told by coastal liberals that they’re awful people and that they should just obey and shut up is to issue a certain Anglo-Saxon verb and pronoun combination with all the vigor they can muster. And if they can’t say it themselves, they’ll find someone who will, even if it’s a crude jerk from Queens who can’t make a point without raising his pinky like a Mafia goon explaining the vig to you after you’ve had a bad day at the track.
For the record, I despise Donald Trump and I will vote for almost any Republican (well, OK, not Ben Carson) rather than Trump. I’m a conservative independent and a former Republican. I quit the party in 2012 because of exactly the kind of coarse ignorance that Trump represents. The night Newt Gingrich won the South Carolina primary on the thoughtful platform of colonizing the moon, I was out. … But I understand the fear of being silenced that’s prompting otherwise decent people to make common cause with racists and modern Know-Nothings, and I blame the American left for creating that fear.
That’s his story and he’s sticking to it:
The great mistake made by both liberals and their most extreme wing on the American left is to assume that ordinary people, once corrected forcefully enough, will comply with their new orders. This is, of course, ridiculous: Americans do not magically become complacent and accepting multiculturalists just because they’ve been bullied out of the public debate. They will find a new vessel for their views, and will become more extreme with each attempt to shut them down as the issue moves from particular social positions to the far more encompassing problem of who has the right to tell whom to shut up, and to make it stick. Nixon’s “Silent Majority” increasingly feels itself to be a silenced majority, and Trump is their solution.
How long this will go on, then, depends on how long it will take for those people to feel reassured that someone besides Trump will represent their concerns without backing down in the face of catcalls about racism, sexism, LGBTQ-phobia, Islamophobia, or any other number of labels deployed mostly to extinguish their dissent.
So, the smug and sanctimonious folks on the left are the ones responsible for this mess, or not. Kevin Drum isn’t so sure of that:
This is hardly a new critique. Conservatives have been complaining about “being silenced” forever. The only difference between Trump and the rest of the GOP field is that Trump’s complaints are a little earthier than Rubio’s or Bush’s.
Still, even if I think Nichols is overstating things, it’s not as if he doesn’t have a point. Even those of us on the left feel the wrath of the leftier-than-thou brigade from time to time. I don’t generally have a hard time avoiding objectionable language myself because (a) I’m liberal, (b) I’m good with words, and (c) I write rather than talk, which gives me time to get my act together. But even at that, sometimes I cross an invisible line and get trounced for it.
But for someone without my advantages, I can easily see how it might feel almost impossible to express an unpopular opinion without tying yourself in knots. And let’s be honest: We liberals do tend to yell racism a little more often than we should. And we do tend to suggest that anyone who likes guns or Jesus is a rube. And the whole “privilege” thing sure does get tiresome sometimes. And we do get a little pedantic in our insistence that no conversation about anything is complete unless it specifically acknowledges the special problems of marginalized groups. It can be pretty suffocating at times.
For the most part, I don’t mind this stuff – and conservatives do themselves no favors by harping on supposed PC idiocy like the “war on Christmas.” But the reason I don’t mind it is that I can navigate it reasonably well and I mostly agree with the aims of the PC police anyway.
People who have trouble with navigation obviously feel a lot more constrained. So while I don’t really buy Nichols’ argument – conservatives built the monster named Trump, not liberals – I do think he has a germ of a point. Donald Trump is basically telling ordinary people that ordinary language is okay, and since that’s the only language they know, it means they feel like they can finally talk again.
Okay, fine, let them talk, and don’t sneer at them, but then disagree with them. You want to do what? How is that going to work, exactly? Be civilized about it – let them change their own minds – but somehow it seems that’s not going to happen. It may be too late for civilized discourse. More Trump ads will follow. It will be a dystopian year, the first of many. After all, it didn’t start well.