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.
There’s nothing about any of these issues of national or international significance in a Trump speech. In fact, there’s nothing that in any understandable form is political. His campaign speeches are about “toughness” and national salvation. His victory speeches, when he notches up another primary success, are barely literate bromides about the joys of greed and of grabbing.
Trump’s supporters want theater—and not of the highbrow variety. They want blood and gore, tits and ass. They want adrenalin. If Trump took his cock out and shook it about onstage, I suspect his audiences would go wild. They want the money shot. Which is why they love it when he urges them to beat up protesters, or when he calls his opponents crybabies, or when he mocks a female journalist for menstruating.
This is, quite simply, pornography vaguely masquerading as politics. Which is why the other GOP candidates have had so little success knocking him off the pedestal. They are, however crudely, politicians; and, as politicians tend to do in an election, they’re talking politics. Trump is a manipulative stage-man, like the snake-oil sellers of yesteryear…and while his rivals talk politics, he sells his snake oil. His extraordinary success has come about not because he’s out-politicking Rubio et al., but because he has convinced the GOP electorate that this election has absolutely nothing to do with politics. He hasn’t done an end run around his opponents; he has simply decided to play a different game on an entirely different field.
The Romans in their decadence had bread and circuses, as well as gladiatorial combat, to keep the masses happy. We, apparently, now have reality TV and WWE. The Romans ended up with their Neros and Caligulas, mad megalomaniacs with brains warped by lead poisoning and gene pools warped by incest. We have Trump, whose bullying, self-pitying, aggrandizing rants suggest something approaching syphilitic madness.
But there is one difference: The problems Roman emperors had to deal with didn’t have quite the globally cataclysmic potential that today’s great challenges do. The Roman emperors didn’t control thousands of nuclear weapons, nor did they have to make critical decisions regarding how to put the brakes on climate change.
If the GOP base has now, finally, fully devolved into a mob, and if that mob wants spectacle instead of policy, the party has signed its own death warrant. It will have ceased to function as a political party and will have become simply a springboard for demagogues.
In the long run, because I have to believe in an arc of progress spanning the great eons of history, I can only hope that such a group will eventually become irrelevant—a vengeful, thuggish outlier on the edge of the political system. But as John Maynard Keynes once noted, “In the long run we are all dead.” The vast, overwhelming question of the moment is what happens in the short term? How do we as a country rescue the political process—that extraordinary process by which the most powerful country on Earth chooses its leaders, its public face, its top officials, whose every decision affects every corner of the globe—from this grotesque, pornographic, alchemical hijacking that it is now facing? If we don’t, the lights will go out all over America—as Sir Edward Grey, Britain’s foreign secretary, said of Europe, when pondering the hideous spectacle of the continent sliding into what would become the First World War—and they won’t come on again in our lifetimes.