It is no surprise that Trump is surging in the polls, bringing glamour and flamboyance to a country that is overstimulated by celebrity cachet and disgusted by career politicians.
Friedrich Nietzsche, the great German philosopher, once quipped: “If you gaze long enough into the abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” I am not sure if any statement—philosophical or other—can more accurately describe my current feelings toward the US Presidential Election only a mere 15 months away (please take note of my sarcasm).
Nonetheless, I must warn you that what I am about to say could come across as uniquely strange and unquestionably metaphysical, since some mysterious agency compelled me to watch all 53 minutes of Donald Trump’s “pep-rally” in Mobile, Alabama on August 21.
I say strange because once I started watching Trump, I became entirely mesmerized by the spectacle of his performance and couldn’t stop. I say metaphysical because the longer he spoke, the more I found myself deeply internalizing the abstract simplicity of his message. The subsequent resonance was all at once horrifying and profound—so much so that I had to drink some otherwise “special occasion” scotch to steady my nerves and make sure I was not having some kind of spiritual crisis.
After a week of being tormented by a sense of general self-loathing for being so easily coopted into the Donald Trump phenomenon, here is what I have surmised (I am still self-loathing).
Let me set the scene: 20,000 Alabamians have assembled to hear Trump speak. The energy is palpable; how can it not be? The organizers have even played the generically impossible “Sweet Home Alabama,” which only furthered the genial and slightly hostile southern atmosphere.
Remember, American politics is a contact sport and Trump is currently the reigning champion—the symbolism of having this “pep-rally” at a football stadium should not be lost on anyone. No other venue could better suit his general demeanor, which is raucous and confrontational, all of the things that now epitomize the hyper-factionalism of modern America.
Standing at the podium, he wore a crisp white shirt with impeccably folded French cuffs that peaked out of a sturdy blue blazer. This is a casual look that makes him seem relatable without overpowering the refinement, which can only come from being a billionaire. Trump is gregarious about his wealth, but the candor in which he speaks about money is easily disarming.
Far from having an air of contemptuous entitlement, he draws you into his world, speaking to his supporters like they are also people of affluence. This is the ultimate political sale, the ultimate political intoxicant; the idea that with only a nudge in the right direction, every American might also have the potential to become a billionaire like him.
And while he personifies the dreaded 1%, he somehow does not share the same nefarious qualities that are usually associated with such status. Regardless of Alabama being the seventh poorest state in America, his supporters welcome his financial braggadocio with roaring applause—even asking for their permission to steal $5 million from lobbyists. Yet behind this bombast and pomp, Trump is deeply accessible (personally and politically) and this breeds a kind of familiarity that does not exist with other establishment candidates like Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton.
(While watching Trump, he immediately reminded me of someone I once met at an airport bar, who was amusing only because he kept buying me free drinks.)
Although, before we venture any further down the proverbial rabbit hole with the Donald, a few things need clarifying. There are some points with regard to his candidacy that should be quite obvious to any astute observer of the human condition. More so since there has been an abundance of bewilderment and denial about his status as a top-tier candidate by the Republican establishment and mainstream media.
So why is this?
The Republican establishment is loath to admit that he represents the inevitable culmination of years of incendiary rhetoric and reactionary politics. However, there can be no “big tent” agenda that engages new voters when demagoguing an entire race of people becomes the mainstay of your political agenda. Case in point: If you want to attract Latino voters, do not refer to their children as “anchor babies.” The real issue, though, is that Trump has taken the outward projection of Republican obstinacy and turned it inward against his fellow candidates and other party luminaries such as John McCain—a big taboo.
Should Donald Trump have directed this antagonism against his fellow Democratic challengers, all of this would be a moot point.
Trump is also a business man, not a politician. Therefore, his calculus and strategy are about securing the bottom line. And like all great businessmen, he is using whatever competitive advantage is available to close the deal. If this includes tarnishing the Republican brand by attacking his fellow candidates, then so be it—it’s just business.
For conservatives who believe in the unfettered virtues of the free market, here it is: welcome home to your Frankensteinian monster.
As for the media, they simply cannot wrap their head around a candidate who challenges their position as the arbiter of public discourse. Given the way Trump draws ratings and the extensive coverage they afford him, the relationship is no longer symbiotic, which he knows all too well. This has fueled a kind of sportive combativeness that has allowed him to go on the offensive against certain media figures in a way no other candidate possibly could or would. Instead of setting the narrative tempo, both conservative and liberal media are now constantly having to play defense to Trump.
Plus, Trump’s not inconsiderable fortune is his own financial backstop. As a result, he does not have to conform to the public relations fundamentals needed to raise money from whatever depraved super-pac is quietly ushering him in millions in dark money.
The Once and Future President
But let’s go back to Alabama, shall we? People are cheering about deporting babies, and we should try and understand why.
Given his total disregard for solutions that might actually prove substantive, the Donald clearly has a pervasive disinterest in the world around him, which was on full display in Ladd-Peebles’s Stadium. While this might be an unusual quality for someone running for president, the fact that this was the largest Republican rally to date is not just hugely significant, but it also underscores a certain rejection of choreographed political theater. In a world governed by tireless public relations, people are ravenous for authentic characters like Donald Trump who lack the polish of career politicians.
Therefore, positioning himself as the consummate maverick outsider is not just ironic, but sinisterly clever—given that the government he claims to loathe is also the same government that provided him the opportunities to achieve what he has. But to a generation of dispossessed political refugees who have been misled, lied to and hustled by their government, is it really so hard to see why a vaudeville act like Donald Trump would become so appealing?
Which is why his speech could be callow and dismissive, but also sharply humorous at the same time. The punditry often underestimates the value of humor in politics, especially as a mechanism to misdirect people away from the complexity of issues that might generally be inaccessible. Trump understands this all too well and replaces substance with an oafish drollery that always ends with the same conclusion: “I was right.”
This appeals to a certain kind of base populism that thrives in a world of absolutes—one that equates political correctness with a loss of personal liberty and anger as the basis for sound policy. This is the reason why he can parade such a flippant term like “anchor baby,” regardless of its racial implications, all the while calling for the deportation of millions of families and still receive a thunderous applause. (For non-American readers, yes we are talking about deporting babies and children.)
For the past 15 years, America has thrived on the discordant perspectives of people who feel their station in life has been predetermined by groups of people they have had no contact or experience with. Trump has either—by design or involuntarily—offered his supporters a worldview that has been reduced to that of an aggrieved status, where they are all victims because of duplicitous politicians, illegal immigrants, China and Mexico.
He offers all of this, wrapped in a glamour and flamboyance, which is befitting of a country that is overstimulated by celebrity cachet and disgusted with career politicians. This perfect confluence of events has led to the rise of Donald Trump.
Going into 2016
In summation, I will leave you with this, as I attempt to sort out my once spiritual, now existential crisis.
Going into the 2016 Presidential Election, we must be cognizant of what America has become due to the zealous entrenchment of both political parties. For supporters of the Republican Party, the success of Donald Trump is a rejection of the status quo and a confirmation of how certain Americans feel about their elected officials. Mitigating the political threat brought by Trump is simple: Bring forward pragmatic ideas that can appeal to the evolving shape of modern America, which includes young people, minorities, women, immigrants and (gasp) even anchor babies.
If not, then brace yourself for the Trump revolution, which will be the abyss staring back at all of us.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.