The other day I found myself thinking about Donald Trump, which troubled me. I’ve worked hard to arrange my life in such a way that I wouldn’t have to think about Donald Trump (and all the other Donald Trumps out there screaming for market share), and overall it’s worked pretty well.
The Donalds of the World, I figured out early-on, are attention eaters; they need it, live on it; they’ll say anything to get it. In some very real way – maybe because we are what we eat - they are our attention. Deny it to them, therefore, choose not to listen, and they and the Kardashian sisters and all the other caricatures of late-stage capitalism vanish. Just like that. It’s a small but satisfying sort of magic – like the flush toilet.
Yet here I was, sitting in my shack in the woods where I write, thinking about Donald Trump. I couldn’t get his voice out of my head; that absurd scowl – over-acting at its finest - lingered like an after-image in the eye. What was it about this man – just the latest clown, after all, in a political parade stretching back to Andrew Jackson – that refused to leave?
It wasn’t his crassness – we’d seen its like before. It wasn’t his made- for-TV foolishness – the bar on political stupidity has been raised high this past half-century. It wasn’t even his amusing tendency to shoot from the hip straight into his foot: “I do whine because I want to win and I’m not happy about not winning and I am a whiner and I keep whining and whining until I win.”
I’ve met this kid. I didn’t like him.
What bothered me, I realized, was the thought that one happy day some other scowling demagogue, some “post-policy” billionaire with a quick lip and an empty head, would not only catch the “great flapping ear of the American public” to recall H.L. Mencken, but actually hang on to it. Not just flare in the polls fifteen months before the election, but ascend like a hot air balloon straight to the Oval Office. To many of us it would seem impossible at first, then grotesque, ultimately terrifying. And it would come to pass.
What would this post-Trump Trump run on? My guess is outrage, vaguely defined, loudly expressed. A promise to cure all headaches, resolve all arguments. To clean house, in short. A scapegoat would be needed, and one would be found. Hell, it’s worked before.
What I’m talking about here – it may be time to haul that skeleton out of the political closet - is a form of totalitarianism adapted to our truncated attention span and our bottomless appetite for entertainment. Is it absurd to rattle these bones in American in 2015? Probably, and yet, ironically, the one thing making it possible would be our unwillingness to consider its possibility – to imagine ourselves immune.
We’re not immune. Though I’ll be returning to this cheerful subject further down the road (I don’t want to scare off my eight potential readers), for the moment it might be worth pointing out that the political inclinations of a sizable section of the electorate are troubling. They want answers. They want answers now. They want to know who to blame – environmentalists, government liberals, immigrants, freeloaders, etc. – and they roar with approval (recall Sarah Palin, slinging raw steaks to the masses) when someone tells them. As the historian George F. Kennan poined out nearly sixty years ago, it’s this hunger for a ‘solution’ to the problem of democracy that we most have to watch. “Too great an urge for symmetry and order,” he wrote, “too strong an insistence on uniformity and conformity, too little tolerance for the atypical and minority phenomenon; these are all things that can grease the path by which nations slide into totalitarianism.”
Which brings me back to Trump, scowling to beat the band, racking up those ratings. It was The Donald’s comment on the “murderers and rapists” coming over from Mexico that initially got me thinking about where this circus is headed. For just a moment, until he muddied his initial xenophobic point by promising to a) build a wall, b) deport all illegals, c) “welcome the good ones,” etc., I thought he might just be The One.
He’s not close. Which is the good news. Better still, it’s the “murderers and rapists” tending our yards, picking our crops and raising their kids (and it’s striking to see how similarly the Irish, for example, were depicted in their time), who will confound his plan to make the trains run on time. As Kennan, once again, wrote: “Diversity, in all the glorious disorder of nature, is the best defense of healthy societies.”
For now, until an angrier, less ridiculous, more telegenic candidate appears offering to whip us into shape in the name of God, efficiency and the American Way, it would seem we’ve got the Donalds trumped.