Like a medieval wizard, Donald Trump has performed an extraordinary act of alchemy in recent months. He has converted one thing into something different entirely. Instead of an election being “a discussion and contest about policies and policy choices,” he has changed its definition. In 2016, in the GOP primary—and possibly in the general election itself—he has remade “election” to be “a popularity contest based around spectacle.”
As a political journalist, I’d say it’s craziness-inducing. Quite simply, there are no in-depth policies or ideas in the Trump campaign, other than build a wall, deport some people, impose some vague tariffs on China and other global competitors, and “make America great again.” It’s almost certainly the flimsiest set of proposals of any presidential campaign in history. And that’s deliberate. A campaign about absolutely nothing is a campaign that devolves into a reality TV–style popularity contest. Which is why we now have the ungodly spectacle of Marco Rubio saying Trump pees his pants and Trump saying Rubio sweats too much. It’s the ultimate infantilization of politics, reducing everything to a spectacle of the crass and the absurd. And in such a milieu, with the political process utterly denuded of politics, a barbarian such as Trump has a huge advantage. He plays the caveman game better than anyone else. He throws bigger and better tantrums, and his insults are coarser and harsher.
If you look back at history, that’s what Fascist messages, whether it be Mussolini’s rise or Hitler’s, Pinochet’s or Somoza’s, have always been: a vile stew of inchoate nationalism and racism, an iron-fist intolerance for dissent, a lot of name-calling and bluster, and a gross simplification of every political and sociological problem. Ultimately, all prospect for real social reform gets silenced, because the political process no longer has room, or even language, for proper policy debate and discussion; and the culture as a whole becomes completely debased.
We already see that in the vast GOP crowds Trump is drawing—people who treat the choice of president, the choice of whose finger should be on the nuclear button, as no different from a WWE spectacle or a vote on American Idol or The Apprentice. They don’t want to talk about climate change; or refugees—other than to bar them or deport them; Syria—other than to say they hate all Muslims; poverty; or global public health challenges. They don’t want to discuss education or wealth inequity. They have no desire for a conversation on how to get the uninsured access to doctors, or how to fix public infrastructure, or how to deal with police brutality, or the heroin epidemic, or the crisis in affordable housing. Or how to secure nuclear materials, or how to deal with the potential implosion of the European Union.