A historical perspective on the trouble with Donald Trump

by Paul Thomas / 11 October, 2016

Great divide: Trump, shown here after speaking at a campaign event in February, has been flirting with running for president for three decades and his message hasn’t changed. Photo/Getty Images

The astonishing rise of the Republican Party’s standard-bearer has so many aspects that should worry students of history.

One of the most brutal races for the White House is finally over - but one key question remains: what exactly is Donald Trump?

Is he the product of a tainted political tradition or the consequence of a breakdown in politics as usual caused by the Republican Party abandoning its identity and traditions in the scramble to remain relevant to an increasingly militant base? Or is he a one-off, PT Barnum meets Citizen Kane, one of those individuals who come along every once in a while, shake things up and then flame out or fade away, enabling normal service to be resumed? Is he an American buffoon, a banana-republic figure lacking only a generalissimo’s uniform or an American fascist?

The most curious aspect of Trump’s transformation from playboy/tycoon to leader of the American right is that it defies logic. Not because he’s manifestly unqualified to be president but because he hasn’t emerged from and doesn’t, on the face of it, represent either of the main factions in 21st-century American conservatism.

The conventional wisdom is that the Republican Party is a joint possession of the religious right, whose animating causes are socio-cultural, and the Tea Party, a small-government, anti-tax movement that grew out of anger and dismay at America’s slide into indebtedness. In 1970, the country was the world’s greatest creditor nation; it’s now the world’s greatest debtor nation.

By rights, Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals shouldn’t want a bar of Trump. He’s now onto his third trophy wife and is an adulterer who has boasted of seducing others’ wives or girlfriends. He has, at one time or another, taken virtually every stance on abortion it’s possible to take. His professions of religious belief are perfunctory and unconvincing. However, there’s little point in the Democrats dwelling on this since the people who should be concerned about Trump’s hazy relationship with God quite clearly aren’t.

Nor should Trump be the Tea Party’s cup of tea. How can people whose sine qua non is fiscal rectitude support a corporate adventurer who has been bankrupted several times, whose business career has been one long wallow in a trough of debt and whose signature policy – building a wall along the Mexican border – should be anathema to those who want to reduce government spending (unless, of course, they truly believe Mexico will pay for it).

The mythical wall explains this conundrum. Trump has performed a useful service by demonstrating that Christian morality and fiscal prudence aren’t the things that matter most to American conservatives. Those causes and their associated anxieties are covers for their consuming concern: that white America is being engulfed by a tide of otherness. Trump’s issues – birtherism, immigration, crime – all play to this fear. His success is based on connecting paranoia over the threat to the white race’s pre-eminence in American society to paranoia over the threats to America’s global pre-eminence.

The paranoid style

Consider these words from a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian: “American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers who have now demonstrated in the Trump movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind them I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and is not necessarily right wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”

Actually, I inserted “Trump” into the opening paragraph of Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”, which appeared in Harper’s Magazine in November 1964. He was referring to the movement led by Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate in that year’s presidential election.

Although Goldwater lost to incumbent Lyndon Johnson by a landslide, his breakthrough victories in the Deep South foreshadowed the break-up of Democrat Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition and led to the mass defection of white southerners to the Republican Party.

Hofstadter cited the founder of the extreme-right-wing John Birch Society, Robert Welch, who claimed President Dwight Eisenhower was “a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy”, which would have been a dizzying career change for the former Nato supreme commander. There was an echo of Welch’s claim in Trump’s post-Orlando-massacre tweets suggesting Barack Obama wasn’t doing more to combat jihadist terror because he secretly sympathises with the terrorists and may even be in cahoots with them.


And no survey of American paranoia would be complete without mentioning Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose name became synonymous with fevered conspiracism and open-ended witch-hunts. “How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster?” McCarthy asked. This is the conspiracy theory reduced to its pure essence: the challenging current situation – because governments are always confronting challenges – is inflated into a frightening crisis; things couldn’t possibly have got this bad of their own accord and therefore we, the people, must have been betrayed; and the lack of objective evidence of betrayal just goes to show how secretive, sinister and highly placed the conspirators are.

The logic is impenetrable, since the more successful the conspiracy, the fewer traces of its existence. Thus a handful of fellow travellers, harmless lefties and the odd Soviet agent within America’s vast bureaucracy amounted to “a great conspiracy so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man”.

Roy Cohn, on the right, was the attack dog for Senator Joseph McCarthy (left) and was Donald Trump’s lawyer. Photo/Getty Images

Conspiracy theories and the Mafia link

There’s one degree of separation between McCarthy and Trump: Roy Cohn. As general counsel to the Senate Permanent Committee of Investigations, Cohn was the attack dog McCarthy unleashed on leftists and gays in the bureaucracy.

A well-connected New York lawyer in later life, Cohn was Trump’s mentor and navigator through the murky waters of the construction and casino industries. Given that the Mafia had thoroughly infiltrated – to borrow from the ­McCarthyist lexicon – both industries, Cohn’s lawyer-client relationship with leading New York Mafiosi, including the infamous John Gotti, presumably did Trump no harm.

Although Hofstadter demonstrates that conspiracy theories are as American as apple pie, with hindsight it seems obvious that John F Kennedy’s assassination, which occurred a year before the essay was published, gave conspiracism a turbo-boost.

Reflecting on Libra, the brilliant novel he fashioned out of the life of Lee Harvey Oswald, Don DeLillo pointed out that “we still haven’t reached any consensus on the specifics of the [assassination]. Beyond this confusion of data, people have developed a sense that history has been secretly manipulated. Documents lost and destroyed. Official records sealed for 50 or 75 years. A number of suggestive murders and suicides involving people who were connected to the events of November 22nd. So from the initial impact of the visceral shock, I think we’ve developed a much more deeply unsettled feeling about our grip on reality.”

A decade later, the Watergate scandal not only validated conspiracism’s premise of nefarious plots, dark agendas and things and people being the opposite of what they’re meant to be, but also generated a cynicism that assumes all politicians are venal until proven otherwise. Among other things, this mindset partly explains the appeal of the non- or anti-politician: Trump is the first Democratic or Republican presidential candidate not to have held elected office since Eisenhower in 1952.

As an aside, it must be said that Hollywood has both contributed and pandered to the notion that the government is the problem rather than the solution, if not indeed the enemy within. Although Hollywood is often denounced as a hotbed of liberalism, much of its output invites the assumption that its prevailing political philosophy is nihilism.

For example, in the long-running hit TV series 24 – starring Kiefer Sutherland as an archetypal American hero, the lone-wolf righteous killer – the security apparatus charged with protecting America from terrorism is riddled with traitors. The political class, up to and sometimes including the president, is either corrupt, treacherous or deranged to the point of believing things must be made far, far worse before they can get better.

Although Trump conforms to Hofstadter’s narrative, much recent analysis of his rise has concluded that he’s the logical if not inevitable consequence of two decades of Republican Party scorched-earth tactics. According to this view, the Republicans’ rejection of consensus politics and unwillingness to accept the responsibilities that come with governing – playing chicken with the US and therefore world economies over the debt ceiling, for instance; refusing even to address the vacancy on the Supreme Court – are driven by a radicalised base that rejects a cornerstone principle of democracy: country before party.

Trump and Cohn. Photo/Getty Images

Palin proves a low point

The defining moment in the Republican Party’s collapse into obstructionism and irresponsibility was surely its 2008 presidential candidate John McCain choosing the ludicrous Sarah Palin as his running mate. That a party elder whose political brand was a blend of patriotism and spiky independence could propose putting Palin a heartbeat away from the Oval Office confirmed the Republican Establishment’s capitulation to the militants of the religious right and the anti-government Tea Party movement.

That Obama has been able to circumvent Republican bloody-mindedness and dominate the political landscape for the past eight years has hardened the zealots’ suspicions that conservatism’s elected representatives aren’t up to the job, a notion the dozen-plus professional politicians who contested the primary process did nothing to dispel.

Trump is a candidate in the zealots’ image. “The paranoid is a militant leader,” wrote Hofstadter. “He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated or compromised, in the manner of the working politician.”

Or is Trump unique? Is this just what happens when a rich, famous blowhard decides the party Establishment is a house of cards and sets out to blow it down? Is Trump 2016 a perfect storm that occurs when the backlash against political correctness gains a standard-bearer who happens to be a reality TV star with almost unparalleled name recognition?

As a writer on politico.com observed during the primary season, “For all the flak Trump receives about littering his name on swag and skyscrapers the way a feral cat marks its territory, doing so is one of the reasons he’s trouncing his opponents in the polls. He’s been carpet-bombing the electorate with it for the better part of three decades.”

In fact, Trump has been flirting with running for president for the better part of three decades and his message hasn’t changed. In 1987, he went to New Hampshire to proclaim the US had become a laughing stock and faced “a catastrophe that you’re never going to believe”. At that point in time, Ronald Reagan, the patron saint of modern American conservatism, had been president for six and a half years, presiding over what his admirers wistfully regard as a golden age in US history.

Insane, stupid or racist?

A 2010 Harris poll found 22% of Republican voters believed Obama to be the Antichrist; 51% of them reckoned he wanted to turn the sovereignty of the US over to a global government, 45% thought he was the “domestic enemy” referred to in the Constitution, 38% were convinced he’s doing many of the things Hitler did, and 22% reckoned he wanted the terrorists to win.

Republican gadfly Bruce Bartlett concluded from this that 20-50% of the party “are either insane or mind-numbingly stupid”. An equally reasonable interpretation would be that many of them are racist.

As George W Bush’s main speechwriter, David Frum, put it: “Trump is running not to be president of all Americans, but to be the clan leader of white Americans.”

That Trump – a demagogue who makes little attempt to conceal his authoritarian tendencies and whose political persona is fuelled by ego and vengefulness, a fairground huckster who knows from long experience that a section of the public is infinitely impressionable and credulous, a brazen manipulator exploiting both the mainstream media’s addiction to celebrity culture and need to be seen to be even-handed and the alt-right media’s unscrupulous propagandism – can get this close to the White House is a chilling reminder of democracy’s fragility.

This is an excerpt from a psychological profile of Adolf Hitler prepared by the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the CIA: “His primary rules were: never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one, and if you repeat it frequently enough, people will sooner or later believe it.” It’s also a pretty good summary of Trump’s modus operandi.

Two questions have haunted the world since Germany sank into barbarity in the 1930s: “How could that happen in an advanced, civilised country?” and “Could it happen again?” The Trump phenomenon partially explains how Hitler and the Nazis were ever elected in the first place and strongly suggests that yes, it could happen again.

This article was originally published in the October 22, 2016 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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