The billboards here on the Sunset Strip keep changing. That’s where the major studios tout their latest films – it makes those who worked on them, driving home to Beverly Hills, feel good about themselves. The rest of us shrug, but at least the vampires are gone. We are moving from the age of moody sexy vampires to the age of flesh-eating mindless zombies. The Twilight series is finally and mercifully over – no more teen heartthrob vampires – but the 2013 zombie-epic World War Z was the highest-grossing zombie film of all time and another is in the works – and the wildly popular Walking Dead will soon start its seventh season on basic cable.
We’ve moved on, from vampires to zombies, and maybe that means something. We’re moving from troubled but somewhat sympathetic monsters who want to suck all the blood out of you in a desperate attempt to keep themselves alive – not nice, but understandable – to monsters who want to eat your brains, for no particular reason, other than they really want to. It’s a descent into utterly purposeless evil, but those of us from Pittsburgh know where this current zombie business started – with the 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead – a low-budget hoot filmed in glorious black-and-white on location, just up the road in Butler County, and yes, the blood was actually Bosco Chocolate Syrup. But it worked. The film is now a classic, of sorts, and thus Pittsburgh reintroduced America to zombies. You can thank us later.
The world is Pittsburgh now. Zombies really are the rage once again, probably because they fit right in with the current zeitgeist. Things are awful – economically, politically, socially – and it’s easy to feel as if the world is filled with the mindless undead, stumbling about, desperately and inexorably trying to eat your brains, for no good reason. And most of them are politicians, Republican politicians, muttering about long-settled and long-forgotten issues – states’ rights and contraception and abortion and how evil gay people really are – issues that are now back from the dead. These guys have been scaring the hell out of everyone since Obama won the first time, but that’s what they do. Be afraid, be very afraid – and vote for them. Resistance is futile.
Yeah, but karma is a bitch. They’ve got their own zombie on their side, as Alexander Burns explains:
Donald J. Trump, who in recent days has mocked a political opponent’s wife, defended a campaign aide arrested on a charge of battery and suggested punishing women who terminate pregnancies, may have surrendered any remaining chance to rally Republicans strongly around him before the party’s July convention in Cleveland.
At a moment when a more traditional front-runner might have sought to smooth over divisions within his party and turn his attention to the general election, Mr. Trump has only intensified his slash-and-burn, no-apologies approach to the campaign.
“He should have started uniting the party in March,” said Henry Barbour, a Republican National Committee member from Mississippi who previously supported Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, “and he is making it harder on himself.”
Republicans who once worried that Mr. Trump might gain overwhelming momentum in the primaries are now becoming preoccupied with a different grim prospect: that Mr. Trump might become a kind of zombie candidate – damaged beyond the point of repair, but too late for any of his rivals to stop him.
Donald Trump is, in fact, the walking dead:
Should Mr. Trump lurch into the convention so fatally compromised with general election voters and a sizable faction of Republicans, it could make it easier for the party to wrest the nomination away from him. But it would also make the consequences of failing to defeat him all the more ruinous if the specter of choosing a seemingly unelectable nominee does not deter Mr. Trump’s supporters.
Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who has frequently praised Mr. Trump’s insurgent campaign, said the front-runner had made a series of bewildering and irrational mistakes. Mr. Trump’s campaign, he said, had failed to evolve beyond the “personal gunslinger, random-behavior model” characterized by the candidate.
“None of the mistakes have been forced, and nobody forced him to react negatively,” Mr. Gingrich said. “It’s almost as though he is so full of himself that he can’t slow down and recognize that being president of the United States is a team sport that requires a stable personality that allows other people to help him.”
Zombies don’t have stable personalities – they just want to eat your brains – but the real problem is all the other zombies around him, as Salon’s Michael Bourne explains:
What happens when his campaign fails, as it almost certainly will? Trump is openly at war with his own party, and even if that badly splintered organization magically unites behind him after the convention, there simply are not enough angry white people in America to elect him president. Where will all that anger, which has been slowly building among America’s white working class for half a century, go, once it is left without a viable political outlet?
It seems that the Republicans actually created a zombie army:
In the months since Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has shifted from amusing diversion to cold political reality, the narrative favored by America’s political and media elite has been one of chickens coming home to roost. The Republican Party, the story goes, having for too long cynically played upon the ignorance and fears of its white lower-middle class base to gain the votes to pass ever more lavish tax breaks for its wealthy donor class, has had its electorate stolen by a clownish billionaire willing to say in plain English what Republican leaders have for decades been communicating to their constituents only in whispers and dog whistles.
This narrative is true, of course, but in the telling, the focus invariably falls on Trump, who is portrayed as a shameless but politically astute demagogue in the mold of Louisiana’s Huey Long or Alabama’s George Wallace, able to sniff out deep wounds in the body politic others have missed and transform them into votes. But this is absurd. For all his bluster, Trump is at best a mediocre politician. He has no core political philosophy; he rambles at the podium, and quails at even the mildest questioning from the press. Half the time, he doesn’t even seem that interested in the office he’s running for. The night he won the Florida primary, knocking the home-state Senator Marco Rubio out of the race and cementing his position as his party’s front runner, Trump spent much of his prime-time televised speech touting his eponymous line of steaks and wines.
Trump, then, is not the problem:
Lower-middle class white voters from the Rust Belt and South have fallen under the sway of Republican leaders for more than half a century now. In some cases, those Republicans were brilliant politicians like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Just as often, though, white working class voters pulled the lever for empty suits like Mitt Romney and George W. Bush.
What changed, then, in 2016? It wasn’t the Republican Party’s strategy or the quality of the candidates it put forward. Jeb Bush, with his jaunty exclamation point and famous last name, was a more substantive version of his twice-elected younger brother, and Ted Cruz has the sweaty, aggrievement-fueled intensity of a young Richard Nixon. In any other election cycle, one of them, most likely Jeb Bush, would be honing his acceptance speech by now.
That didn’t happen this year because lower-middle class white Americans are hurting as they never have before. No group, after all, has been hit harder by globalization than the white working class in the Rust Belt and South. Drug addiction, long considered an “urban” (read: African American) scourge, is spreading through white society, especially in rural areas and former industrial hubs. A recent study by a pair of Princeton researchers found that, alone among all cohorts of Americans, the death rate for white middle-class people has been rising, thanks to spikes in alcoholism, drug overdose, and suicide.
That in turn generates zombies:
It’s easy to argue that working-class white Americans have no one to blame for their predicament but themselves. For generations, white people were favored in virtually every area of American life. Then, thanks in part to liberal legislation and court rulings, America became more color-blind and meritocratic, while at the same time free-trade agreements helped push factories overseas, hollowing out whole towns. The wiser children of factory workers got an education and joined the information economy. Those who stuck it out in the industrial heartland hoping the mid-century American gravy train would return instead got left behind.
This, obviously, is not how Trump’s white working-class constituency sees it. They blame 1960s-era legislation and court rulings for promoting the interests of minorities and immigrants over their own, just as they blame the free-trade policies of both parties for sending their jobs offshore. Their economic power waning and their social status under threat, they lash out at the minorities and immigrants themselves, fearful that these once lower-caste workers are fast climbing past them on the ladder of American society.
That’s not a new observation, but where does all that rage go once Trump is gone after he loses in November, if he does? The zombie hoards will still be walking among us:
We may already be getting a chilling preview of a possible post-Trump future in the spasms of seemingly random gun violence such as those at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs and the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. Neither of these alleged shooters has been brought to trial and there is much we do not know, but what is clear that we are in the midst of an unprecedented epidemic of mass shootings, a disturbing number of which seem to be carried out recently by emotionally troubled white men harboring right-wing views.
For a generation, gun advocates have defended the right to bear arms as a check against tyranny, and for just as long liberals have dismissed this as a melodramatic talking point. But what if we take them at their word, and accept that it is possible we are witnessing the opening phase of a still-inchoate violent uprising by a broad class of Americans, who, ignored politically, bypassed economically, and dismissed socially, are beginning take matters into their own hands?
What if, in other words, Donald Trump isn’t an aberration created by the miscalculations of a party-elite, but the political expression of a much deeper, and more dangerous, frustration among a very large, well-armed segment of our population? What if Trump isn’t a proto-Mussolini, but rather a regrettably short finger in the dike holding back a flood of white violence and anger this country hasn’t seen since the long economic boom of the 1950s and ’60s helped put an end to the Jim Crow era?
Well, we’re going to find out soon:
Trump made headlines when he suggested his supporters would riot if he were denied the nomination despite his lead in the delegate count. Even if we are spared that spectacle, the Trump era will almost certainly come to an end by November. And then we will be left with the naked fact of his followers, too few in number to affect meaningful change on their own, too numerous for the rest of us to ignore, too angry to sit still for long.
Jeet Heer at the New Republic worries about the same thing:
Late in February, a curious incident happened at a basketball game between two high schools just outside Des Moines – one mostly white, the other mostly Hispanic – where white students hurled the phrase “Trump, Trump, Trump!” at their opponents. Not long after, something similar happened in Indiana at another basketball game: Students from the predominately white Andrean High School in Merrillville, while holding aloft a big cutout of Trump’s head, shouted “Build a wall! Build a wall!” at Bishop Noll Institute’s predominantly Hispanic players and fans. The taunted students responded by yelling back: “You’re a racist!” Luckily, neither of these episodes escalated into physical violence. But they testified to the way Trumpism is rippling out across society, far beyond the political arena – and being felt even in such banal, ordinary settings as high school hoops contests.
From the moment he stepped off the Trump Tower escalator last June, and in his campaign announcement speech called Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists, Donald Trump’s presidential run has been an exercise in white nationalism. The questions that have obsessed political pundits since that moment – Can he win? Will he cause a crack-up in the Republican Party? What happens if there’s a brokered convention and the establishment tries to take the nomination away from him? – are important, of course. But they’re far too narrow. What really needs to be asked is this: How is Donald Trump changing America? Not how he will change the country if he lands in the White House, but how he’s already changing it. Because Trump, even before he secures the Republican nomination – and even if he never wins the presidency – has transformed America as much as any political figure of our era. It’s a transformation that transcends politics and bleeds deeply into our culture.
Heer sees the source of this:
Fear is the very essence of Trumpism. Political scientists have found that his most ardent supporters are white people with authoritarian tendencies who are afraid of the way the country is changing – economically, culturally, and demographically. He wins them over by posing as the strongman who is tough enough to fight back against the feared agents of change, whether they’re Mexican or Muslim immigrants, Black Lives Matter protesters, or “politically correct” liberals who say “happy holidays.” But Trump hasn’t simply pandered to such fears, as Republican candidates have since Richard Nixon first cooked up the “Southern strategy.” He is a demagogue who’s turning white people’s anxieties into anger for political advantage. Trump isn’t simply reflecting fear; he’s conjuring it – both among his followers and among those he demonizes.
The most visible example of the Trump effect has been the well-documented abuse and violence directed at protesters (and sometimes reporters) at his campaign rallies. This behavior isn’t the rowdy spillover of hard-fought politics, as Trump likes to paint it, but a direct result of the candidate’s own encouragement.
And now he has his army:
Donald Trump is a big bully who is enabling many little bullies. His campaign for president has made white Americans more comfortable with their bigotry, giving them permission to be more vocal and confident in expressing their prejudices, resentments, and hatreds. This is exemplified by the fact that the word “Trump” has become a taunt used to humiliate or intimidate—a sort of verbal cudgel. On March 12, Khondoker Usama, a Muslim student at Wichita State University, reported that he and a Hispanic friend had been accosted at a convenience store by a man yelling, “Trump, Trump, Trump,” and “Brown trash, go home. Trump will win.” Similar sentiments were expressed last August, when a Hispanic homeless man in Boston was beaten up by two white men who yelled, according to the police, “Donald Trump was right,” and “All these illegals need to be deported.”
Trump is doing more than condone violence; he’s drawing it forth. And while much has been written about the grievances, legitimate or otherwise, of his white working-class followers, less has been said about what it’s like to live in Trump’s America if he’s cast you as someone to fear.
Along with Latinos, Muslim Americans have borne the brunt of Trump’s attacks. Some are starting to wonder whether they have a future in America. “A lot of times, I question whether the U.S. is still going to accept me as an American who happens to be a Muslim. I didn’t have that question after September 11. I have this question now,” Ali Zakaria, a litigator in Houston told the Toronto Star in February. “From a psychological point of view, that’s a big change.”
And that’s not going to change:
It is comforting to imagine, as many liberals and anxious conservatives do, that the Trump phenomenon will prove to be an isolated, ugly episode – a case of temporary mass insanity that will leave no lasting scars on American culture and politics, especially if Trump is ultimately defeated. This is wishful thinking. The destructive forces he has unleashed won’t be easily boxed back up and contained. And the Republican Party will, from all indications, continue to be a vehicle for Trumpism even after his political career is done. …
Today’s Republican Party has undeniably become Trumpized. You can see it in the campaign of his rival for the nomination, Senator Ted Cruz, who has insisted Trump is unfit to hold office even as he’s hardened his own stance on immigration and mimicked the frontrunner’s xenophobia. Trying to outbid Trump’s promise to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants – and then provide a mechanism for allowing the ones who are law-abiding to return – Cruz has said he’ll deport all these people but not let any back in. Trump’s birtherism and Islamophobia once seemed shocking in a major political figure, but Cruz has mirrored it by surrounding himself with advisers like Frank Gaffney, founder of the far-right Center of Security Policy and a notorious conspiracy theorist who believes the Muslim Brotherhood has infiltrated the highest levels of American government. Together, Cruz and Trump had won 77 percent of Republican delegates through the March 15 primaries. That’s hardly an indication that Trumpism is somehow an outlier, a momentary eruption, in the GOP.
And in politics, of course, success breeds copycats. Barry Goldwater might have been clobbered in the 1964 general election, to give one notable example, but he showed how an archconservative could win the Republican nomination – and ultimately paved the way for the election of his ideological disciple, Ronald Reagan. Goldwater-Reagan conservatism was the driving force in Republican politics from 1964 until 2012. Now the GOP – which dominates American politics at every level but the presidential – is the party of Trumpism.
Martin Longman doesn’t think so, because much of this started long ago:
Some taboos should not be broken, and the Republicans have been breaking taboos left and right ever since they decided to impeach the president over a petty infidelity, or at least since hanging chads tripped up the 2000 recount in Florida.
There have been big things and small. It used to be that judges were vetted by the American Bar Association and a degree from Regent University wasn’t seen as a ticket to a high-level position of responsibility in our nation’s bureaucracy. It used to be that we didn’t start wars of choice that involved invading and occupying foreign countries based a tissue box full of lies. It used to be that White House press credentials weren’t given out to fake reporters writing under an alias who moonlight as male prostitutes.
The list is getting pretty long at this point. You don’t threaten the credit of the United States. You don’t shut down the government. You don’t filibuster every procedural move in the Senate. You don’t refuse to meet with a Supreme Court nominee.
And, yes, you don’t nominate someone like Sarah Palin or Donald Trump and then try to tell us that they’re well-qualified for the position. You don’t defend the crackpot things that they say, whether it’s about torturing people, nuking people, beating the shit out of people, or deporting them by the millions.
It seems this had been a long-term project, but Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog suggests this isn’t the end of the world:
Yes, post-Trump Republicans will try to appeal to white nationalism and anti-black and anti-Muslim racism, but they’ll revert to using coded phrases and dog whistles, albeit with somewhat less coding than in the pre-Trump era. There’ll be less inclination to pretend that torture is a bad thing. There’ll be more talk of merciless military assaults, with not much concern about whether the uses of force being described are war crimes. Future Republicans won’t be just like Trump. But they’ll be somewhat more like Trump.
Let’s recall that David Duke’s run for governor of Louisiana in 1991 didn’t turn the state into a Klan hotbed – in fact, sixteen years later the state elected Piyush “Bobby” Jindal, an Indian-American, as governor. On the other hand, the man who replaced Jindal in Congress was Steve Scalise, who once gave a speech to a white supremacist group and reportedly referred to himself as “like David Duke without the baggage” – none of which has prevented him from becoming the House majority whip, a leadership position he retained even after his this uncomfortable information came to light.
So should we worry about the GOP become more Trump-like? Sure. Will that transformation involve jackboots? If it happens, it’s more likely to be a lot subtler than that.
That’s not very comforting, but Sean Illing senses a happy ending here:
“To all outward appearances,” John Fund writes in The National Review, “Trump seems to be engaged in a form of self-sabotaging behavior in which people both move toward a goal and then from deep within do things to defeat themselves.” This is a perfectly legitimate question. It’s very likely the Donald never intended to become president at all, that this whole thing is a ruse, a publicity stunt. Indeed, we received confirmation of this in the form of an open letter to Trump supporters from Stephanie Cegielski, who formerly served as communications director of the pro-Trump super PAC Make America Great Again.
Cegielski wrote: “I don’t think even Trump thought he would go this far. And I don’t even know that he wanted to, which is perhaps the scariest prospect of all…What was once his desire to rank second place to send a message to America and increase his power as a businessman has nightmarishly morphed into a charade that is poised to do irreparable damage to this country.”
Cheri Jacobus, a Republican strategist who met with Trump about the communications director position, echoed Cegielski’s statement: “I believe Trump senses he is in over his head and doesn’t really want the nomination. He wanted to help his brand and have fun, but not to be savaged by the Clintons if he’s the candidate. He wouldn’t mind falling short of a delegate majority, losing the nomination, and then playing angry celebrity victim in the coming years.”
In the months ahead, I suspect Trump’s real intent will become increasingly obvious. There is no reason to think he wants to be president. It’s an unspeakably complicated job and Trump’s defiant ignorance suggests he has no desire to learn what is required. This was always about Trump – his brand, his image, his profile. It should surprise no one if he finds a way to undermine his own campaign. At this point, the best possible outcome for him is to lose without appearing to quit. Then, as Jacobus pointed out, he can expand his celebrity, broaden his influence, and avoid the trouble of actually serving in public office.
He was just kidding? All zombie movies should have a happy ending, but what about all the other walking dead out there, too numerous for the rest of us to ignore, too angry to sit still for long? This isn’t over.