(Please begin with Part 1)
So how is Trump leveraging the Spiral? Why the gravity-defying poll numbers?
In my view, it is because he is firing on all the main cylinders of the Republican mind: Red, Blue, and Orange–these are, quite simply, where the GOP brain hangs out.
Put another way: Trump presents himself as a Bully, a Bigot, and a Businessman.
Red: The Bully
Perhaps the most striking feature of Trump’s candidacy–and a key source of his appeal–is his almost total lack of respect for anyone else in the race or anyone covering it. He does not let an event or appearance go by without sticking it to someone, and it is almost impossible for candidates or reporters to attack him. When Trump chided Rand Paul during the debate, “You’re not doing so well tonight”–like he was kicking a wounded dog–that was pure Red. Ands he told Jeb near the end of the first debate, we don’t have time for proper “tone.” We need to “go out there and get the job done.” And that is what Red does, without regard for rules or regulations, decency or decorum. Red brings home the bacon.
But it does so only for its own sake–remember, Red is egocentric. Red is concerned above all with the projection and acquisition of power: getting it, keeping it, and thumping your chest to make sure everyone knows how much you have. He surrounds himself with the spoils of financial war: ostentatious wealth and beautiful women. For a great case of Red, see Leonardo Dicaprio’s character in the Wolf of Wall Street. For a great explanation of Red and how Trump is channeling it, see Jeff Salzman’s analysis over at the Daily Evolver.
In projecting Red, Trump serves as a mouthpiece for the grievances, resentment, and sheer anger stewing among substantial swaths of the electorate: anger at Obama, at the federal government, at Washington politicians, at the media, and even at monied elites like himself. There are other candidates channeling Red–Cruz and Huckabee, for instance–but as I explain later, because they are stuck in a Blue box, they don’t give voters confidence that they can fix systemic problems, and their appeal will thus be restricted to social conservatives.
As Salzman notes, there is another key factor in the Red aspect of Trump’s appeal: In the campaign context, Trump’s Red card is a Joker. Like a stand-up comedian, the court jester deftly directs people’s attention to disturbing truths about the court by presenting them with humor. By puncturing the “poll-tested pretensions” of the other candidates and mocking reporters and moderators, Trump shines the spotlight on the farcical foundations of presidential politics–and the media that covers and feeds it.
This is a natural role for Trump the reality TV star. We all know “reality TV” is an oxymoron, we all sort of know that presidential politics is a kabuki dance, and more and more of us know now that our de jure democracy is a de facto plutocracy. How fitting, then, that a reality TV star comes along to reveal the way in which politics has become a reality TV show. He gets the camera to pan behind the scenes, to show voters what they already know but can’t quite believe: that the game is basically rigged, and that the odds are not in their favor. I’ll return to this later, since I think it is part of the reason that Trump’s success is, contrary to the views of many–including Hillary–a good thing for our political system.
Yet there is a dark side to Red. Witness the savage beating a homeless man in Boston by thugs invoking Trump. It reminded me of this scene from American Psycho, based on the novel about Wall Streeter Patrick Bateman, a finance something-or-other (winner) by day, serial killer of homeless people (losers) by night.
The dark Red psycho-cultural pot of racism and nativism Trump is stirring is probably going to spew some toxic stuff over the next year when mixed with the politics of immigration and the recent inflammation of racial tensions, whatever happens to his candidacy.
Blue: The Bigot
If you looked at his personal life and the source of his wealth, you’d conclude that Trump would have a huge “Gomorrah Problem”: the ex-wives, the decadance, the empire of sin, etc. And to be fair, Blue is certainly Trump’s weakest link. Yet he is nonetheless firing on Blue; less on religious identity, and more on racial and national identity. The key to Blue is not necessarily religion, but group identity–a strong sense of membership in an extended community bonded by race, religion, or national identity. Blue has a firm sense of boundaries and easily slips into an “Us vs. Them” mentality. Hence, Trump is meeting his Blue quota with bombast about securing the border. In doing so, he is stoking racist and nationalist fears. As Timothy Egan puts it, he is willing to say “things that the darker elements of the GOP believe but rarely voice.” I think the real forces driving the fears of many working class whites about the loss of jobs and a middle class life are global and sort of world-historical–technological and economic currents largely beyond the ability of the US or any country to seriously redirect. But these abstractions aren’t useful scapegoats. By concentrating the problem on a particular place–the border with Mexico–and on particular people–“dirty” and “dangerous” Mexican immigrants–Trump makes the problem definable and thus potentially solvable: we just throw them out and build a wall to keep them out. It gives the problem a place and a face. Is it stupid, bigoted, and impossible? Yes. Is it effective framing? You betcha.
Another place Trump is weak on Blue is the military and foreign policy. Despite his embarrassing performance in an interview with Hugh Hewitt on foreign policy, Trump reassured us that “I’ll be so good on the military it will make your head spin.” I predict that foreign policy will be Trump’s ultimate undoing. When push comes to shove, voters won’t be willing to hand over the keys to a guy who sells slot machines.
Orange: The Businessman
While Red is his strongest card in the trenches–at the knife fight level of politics–Orange is his best play at playing president. Orange is about winning–about coming out on top in the competition of the marketplace through talent, hard work, and grit, and so Trump’s reputation as a successful business leader stands him in good stead with Orange voters. He knows how the economy works, he knows how to manage massive organizations, he knows how to make deals, he knows how to get things done, and so on. And, of course, he wins. And wins. And wins. I’ll have a great deal to say about the irony that the lion’s share of his winnings come from a game in which winning has nothing to do with talent and hard work, and everything to do with luck–and where the average player is guaranteed to lose, and the house always wins. But for now, it seems clear that Trump’s business chops signal that as president, he’d be good for the economy.
So that gives us a sense for why Trump is doing so well–he is firing on all three major cylinders.
Finally, the Spiral is even woven into his campaign slogan (now trademarked–to trademark such as thing is, of course, trademark Trump):
Make (Orange): America is a nation of makers (not takers), entrepreneurs, creators, visionaries, free enterprise, start-ups, self-reliant, rugged individuals. Government must get out of the way to let people help themselves.
America (Blue): We need a strong national identity, flag-waving patriotism, secure borders
Great (Red): America should be the best, #1, top dog, the one great superpower, and we must “beat China” (or something)
Again (Red/Blue/Orange): Trump’s proposition is that on all three levels, America is in decline. Obama’s regulatory regime has hurt business and the entrepreneurial spirit (see “You didn’t build that”), catering to the takers, not the makers. Obama is a cosmopolitan elite, a liberal internationalist who has made America look weak abroad, apologizing for America’s past mistakes (see Birthers), abandoning our allies (especially Israel), preferring diplomacy over military action, and compromising with (if not cow-towing toward) our enemies. By not projecting Reaganic strength, he allows bullies to be bullies (see Putin, Vladimir). And so on.
Of course it is all nonsense. But that is the fantasy world of American conservatism that has emerged and congealed in the past decade or so, a world ruled by what Julian Sanchez dubbed “epistemic closure,” a world midwifed by Fox News. Fox wants to arrest the Spiral, to insulate America from the modern world, to cling to an airbrushed, white bread image of American life from the ’50s and the ’80s, to, as William F. Buckley audaciously put it, “stand athwart history.” As Bill Clinton put it in a commencement speech in 2010–in the wake of the rise of Tea Party–many of the cuckoo things going on in our politics nowadays are not what they seem; it’s a bunch of people on a train called the modern world hollering to be let off. Fox News created the conditions for Donald Trump, and their failure to nip his candidacy in the bud in the targeted hit job of the first debate is coming back to bite them. Connor Friedersdorf nails it:
hasn’t Fox News spent years conditioning viewers to believe that journalists belong to a condescending class of decadent elites which engages in barely-concealed conspiracies to destroy anyone who tells it like it is to real Americans? For years, Roger Ailes broadcast everything that Glenn Beck wrote on a chalk board! Surveying America for individuals whose insights he would broadcast to the masses, he settled on Sarah Palin as a person whose analysis he would amplify. It is no accident that a chunk of the Fox News audience is now inclined to side with Trump over Kelly. With Trump’s rise, the network is reaping what it has sown.
Trump is cut from the same cloth as Bill O’Reilly–they are both grade A assholes. But Bill-O is a hired hand. Trump cannot be controlled. The clown is already out of the box.
Trump’s success isn’t just about what he is doing right, but what other candidates are doing wrong, or aren’t doing. In Part 5, I will look at how his opponents are hazarding the Spiral.