Taking Donald Trump seriously

by David Coates

David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies

The initial response to Donald Trump’s pursuit of the American presidency, certainly among many more moderate members of the Republican Party, was to wait for his pursuit to implode. It seemed to many seasoned observers of such campaigns that this one was not serious; or that if it was, it was inherently flawed. There was no need to take Donald Trump seriously, so the argument ran, because Donald Trump himself was not a serious candidate.

Well, those days and those responses have passed. Not only is Donald Trump seriously seeking the presidency. He is also now leading the Republican pack of all those who are – and is doing so by a substantial margin.1 It is time therefore to take Donald Trump very seriously indeed.

I

When we do, the results can be alarming. For Donald Trump is not only a serious candidate. He is also a dangerous one, in a series of linked and disturbing ways.

His misguided analysis of why Washington is broken.

The way Donald Trump tells it, America is in decline because Washington DC is not working, and Washington DC is currently not working for two main reasons. One reason is that there is a widespread lack of intelligence in Washington, that the existing political class is full of stupid people.2 As he is prone to say: “We have politicians that don’t have a clue. They’re all talk, no action. What’s happening to this country is disgraceful.” 3 The other reason is that those same people – the ones who are stupid – are said to be entirely beholden to big donors and to special interests – “puppets” to the Koch brothers as Donald Trump tweeted earlier in the summer. The first of those assertions is at best offensive and at worst counterproductive. The second may well be true, but in no way gets to the root of why Washington DC is currently so incapable of generating effective public policy. Both of the assertions, therefore, need to be challenged and put to rest.

How? By initially noting that there is a long tradition in US presidential politics, particularly when dissatisfaction with the state of the economy is high and social strife is intense, for candidates to run for America’s highest political office as self-proclaimed outsiders, as people selling themselves as worthy of support precisely they are not part of the Washington political establishment. The outsider card can often work as an electoral strategy – it did for Jimmy Carter, for example – but as a governing strategy it invariably guarantees two things: initial under-performance and ultimate failure. Outsiders coming into Washington inevitably take time to find out how to make the city work, and in the process of eventually discovering how to bend Washington slightly to their will, the one thing they invariably fail to do is to change the ways of Washington in any significant fashion. Donald Trump is playing that card again, with no doubt the same likely outcomes; but being Donald Trump, he is playing it with a new twist. He is not only criticizing Washington for political gridlock. He is also insulting the key players there by questioning their intelligence. Leaving aside the rich irony of Donald Trump of all people accusing others of stupidity, the one thing of which we can be certain is that a campaign built on insulting Washington insiders is even less likely, should it succeed electorally, to make Washington DC more responsive to a White House under Donald Trump than it has been to outsiders before.

That might matter less if the other Trump assertion – that the existing political class is effectively bought, and in hock to money and interests – was the correct explanation of why Washington is currently politically gridlocked. But it is not. Money and interests do have massive influence in Washington. On that Donald Trump is right. That influence has undoubtedly grown since the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United, and Donald Trump would be right to say that too if he ever wanted to (he hasn’t so far). But Washington DC is not currently politically gridlocked for that reason. It is gridlocked because it is ideologically divided; and it is ideologically divided primarily by the force of a set of Republican beliefs in the undesirability of strong federal government. On domestic issue after domestic issue, Washington DC fails to act because libertarian and states-rights Republicans don’t want it to act. They don’t see Washington gridlock as a problem. They see it as a victory.

That gridlock will therefore not be resolved by a candidate who is himself so ideologically inconsistent.4 Nor will it be resolved by a candidate who, whatever else his faults, believes in strong and active leadership – namely his own. Donald Trump may be a closet Democrat – Jeb Bush may be right on that5 – or he may be a late convert to many core Republican beliefs, as he himself asserts.6 But whatever party label he should properly carry, Donald Trump is no shrinking violet. Small government and “The Donald”7 do not go together; and because they do not, a Trump presidency would likely intensify political divisions in Washington rather than transcend them.

The superficial Trump grasp on how to fix America’s current difficulties.

Then there is the question of the skill-set that Donald Trump is proposing to bring to the presidency, should he be elected. The way he tells it, the big problem of the current Administration – and indeed of many of his fellow aspirants for high office in the Republican Party – is their lack of negotiating skills. The way he tells it, he would have got a better deal with Iran, and under his presidency ISIS would already be defeated.8The way he tells it, he will be the “greatest jobs president that God ever created.”9

There are at least two problems with his view of what is wrong with America, and how it is to be fixed. The first is that it is exclusively and excessively an “agency” explanation of what is currently going wrong. It puts the entire explanatory focus on the skills of a single individual, rather than on the underlying “structures” (institutions, groups and trends) to which those skills have to make a response. The Trump solution to America’s current difficulties is in that sense a view of politics as magic. Find a different wizard with a different wand, and hey presto, if the wizard’s magic is stronger than anyone else’s, the problems will all be quickly put to rest.

But America’s condition is not so simply analyzed, let alone so simply solved. On a global stage, we live in a multi-polar world whether we like it or not. It is a world in which other actors have resources beyond our control, and a world in which our actions have long-term ramifications and push-back. Abroad, unless Donald Trump is envisioning using nuclear weapons or launching a third large-scale American ground war, it is hard to see how simply replacing Obama with Trump will “make your head spin.”10 And at home, the depth of the social divisions that now beset us, and the entrenched nature of the poverty and urban deprivation that surrounds and underpins increasingly insecure middle-class life, cannot be blasted away by the force of a President’s personality or by the immediate impact of new and so far unspecified policies. If America’s problems were that simple to resolve, they would already have been put to rest. The Trump campaign only gathers traction because the problems it fails adequately to understand now run so deep; and that depth means that a campaign based on bombast takes us no nearer to their resolution. It actually takes us further away.

The other problem with Trump’s parading of his superior managerial skill-set is that such a set of skills is entirely inappropriate to the world of democratic politics. It may well be – in the television fantasy world of The Apprentice or even the actual CEO world of American business – that people can be best motivated by the fear that, if they clash with The Donald, they will be “fired.” But democratic politics don’t work that way in a constitutional system based on a full franchise and the separation of powers. Nor should they. Donald Trump as president cannot simply “fire” elected representatives who displease him. They will come to Washington – as Donald Trump hopes to do himself – with their own mandates and with their own responsibilities back to their constituencies. The American private sector might prioritize top-down managerial strategies and the concentration of high rewards at the top of corporate ladders; but in a democracy, accountability has ultimately to be directed otherwise. It has to be directed down, not up: down to the people, not up to a President, however inflated that President’s view is of his own capacities and righteousness. In such a world, the managerial skills of an autocratic and opinionated CEO are not simply misplaced. They are completely inappropriate, and if deployed are actually threatening to democratic process.

The Trump propensity for bombast over policy.

For here is the ultimate danger in the Trump candidacy: its propensity for bombast over policy, and its associated assertion of Donald Trump’s own superiority to anyone else currently holding or seeking political office. In the American form of gladiatorial politics, all candidates for elected office need to possess a degree of personal self-confidence and intellectual resilience, if only to cope adequately with the rigors of long election campaigns. But Donald Trump carries that self-confidence and indestructibility to a terrifyingly new level. It is not only that he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. It is also that he appears to see himself as surrounded only by people of that capacity. He seems to see himself surrounded only by opponents less intelligent and less worthy than himself.

This excessive degree of arrogance and self-belief shows itself mainly in the Trump determination to make the campaign be about personality and personal capacity, rather than about policy per se. The full Trump agenda of legislative proposals may eventually be forced out of him, but it is not there yet.11 What we have instead is political theatre, grandstanding for the attention of a flaccid media – grandstanding that, when it gets down to specifics, has so far only stirred some particularly unattractive mud.

The Trump demonization of Mexican immigrants is the major case in point.12 It legitimates and reinforces the very racial and ethnic stereotyping that is currently souring relationships between key groups of the American poor – between white, black and Hispanic Americans. The linkage that Donald Trump regularly draws between immigration and crime is both factually misleading and deeply ironic, given Donald Trump’s own current troubles with the law.13 Contrary to the impression given by the Trump stump speech, most crime in America is committed by native-born criminals, not by imported ones; and if imported criminality is largely anchored in the illegal drug trade, who creates the demand for those drugs? Not immigrants in the main. The linkage Donald Trump regularly draws between undocumented immigration and criminality is also self-sustaining and profoundly dangerous. Donald Trump is currently exploiting the fears and insecurities of a predominantly white lower middle-class in contemporary America, galvanizing their support by talking over and over again about immigrant criminals.14 In doing so, he is not only failing to get to the heart of why certain kinds of crime are again on the rise in America. He is also reinforcing the underlying racism that remains America’s key internal weakness and source of shame.

If he sees what his rhetoric is doing, and chooses not to tone it down, then he is a knave. If he doesn’t see what impact his rhetoric is having on race relations in this country, then he is a fool. And “knave or fool” is hardly the choice we need before us as we select our next President. We need better candidates than that.

II

All this Trump grandstanding has therefore to be resisted; but unfortunately that resistance has to develop now in the context of a media circus that, by following and prioritizing every Trump moment, is currently helping Donald Trump to demean the democratic process and advance his own cause within it. He and they are demeaning the democratic process by turning the election into a horse race based on one-liners, and the news into simply who is winning and who is not.

In that televised horse race, Donald Trump is increasingly presenting himself as the voice of a silent majority, much as Richard Nixon did half-a-century ago. That claim must be challenged. It must be challenged by the more moderate element of the silent majority whose support Trump is canvassing – the silent majority of Republican voters. But it must be challenged as well by the other silent majority – the progressive one – the other America currently represented most effectively by Bernie Sanders and less adequately by Hillary Clinton. The progressive voice must demand equal air time. It must challenge every attempt by Donald Trump to reduce the causes of criminality to the presence of undocumented workers; and it must – more than anything else – demand of Trump clarity and detail on the foreign policy he intends to pursue, particularly in the Middle East.

Bulls let loose in china shops invariably do great damage: so we really need to know. Is he really going to bomb ISIS to the negotiating table? Is he really going to put more American boots back on Middle Eastern soil?15 Or is he secretly planning to nuke ISIS out of existence? What is this “fool proof plan to destroy the Islamic State,” the one that “will make your head spin”16 but that he’s “not going to tell you what it is tonight?”17We would ask such questions of any other Republican candidate, and we need to ask them now of the leading one: because the prospect of an over-arrogant President with his finger on the nuclear button is simply too terrifying to contemplate.

The reputation of America abroad can only be damaged by the America’s media current fixation on a candidate who trades bombast for substance, and who stirs the deep and unattractive waters of the American ultra-right. It is time to restore that reputation by demonstrating the ability of the American political process to deflate the bubble of a candidate so high on self-importance and so low on policy-specifics.

1 Chris Cillizza, ‘This Iowa poll shows just how amazing Donald Trump’s rise has been,” The Washington Post, August 30, 2015: available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2015/08/30/this-iowa-poll-shows-just-how-amazing-donald-trumps-rise-has-been/

3 Quoted in Robert Costa and David Weigel, “Trump’s audacious Southern spectacle is part of his strategy,” The Washington Post, August 22, 2015: available athttp://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trumps-audacious-southern-spectacle-is-part-of-his-strategy/2015/08/21/31da2a88-4812-11e5-846d-02792f854297_story.html

4 Jim Tankersley, “Trump upends GOP message on economy,” The Washington Post, August 31, 2015: available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonkblog/wp/2015/08/31/trump-upends-gop-message-on-economy/

5 Paul Weldman, “Donald Trump reveals where the real conflict within the GOP lies,” The Washington Post, September 1, 2015: available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/plum-line/wp/2015/09/01/donald-trump-reveals-where-the-real-conflict-within-the-gop-lies/

6 James Cohen, “Donald Trump’s Surprisingly Progressive Past,” National Review July 10, 2015: available at http://www.nationalreview.com/article/421043/donald-trump-progressive-issues

7 Amy Argetsinger, “Why does everyone call Donald Trump ‘The Donald’? It’s an interesting story,”The Washington Post, September 1, 2015: available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/style-blog/wp/2015/09/01/why-does-everyone-call-donald-trump-the-donald-its-an-interesting-story/

9 Mark Antonio Wright, “Donald Trump’s Eight Best Lines Ever,” National Review August 24, 2015: available at http://www.nationalreview.com/article/423003/donald-trump-superlatives-best-ever

11 A visit to the websites of the various Republican candidates is salutary here. The Jeb Bush website contains a string of position statements, on issues as varied as immigration reform and veterans’ rights. The Trump website, by contrast, currently has just one policy tab – on immigration.

12 Nick Corasaniti, “Donald Trump Releases plan to Combat Illegal Immigration,” The New York Times, August 16, 2015: available at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/17/us/politics/trump-releases-plan-to-combat-illegal-immigration.html?_r=0

13 Michael Isikoff, ‘How Trump could turn the presidency into a ‘litigation circus’,” posted onwww.yahooo.com, August 30, 2015: available at https://www.yahoo.com/politics/how-trump-could-turn-the-presidency-into-a-127901460096.html

14 Michael Gerson, “Trump declares war on America’s demography,” The Washington Post, August 31, 2015: available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/its-hard-to-look-on-the-bright-side/2015/08/31/57b9487c-5002-11e5-9812-92d5948a40f8_story.html

15 Editorial Board, “I am a Republican, Hear Me Roar,” The New York Times, August 18, 2015: available at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/18/opinion/i-am-republican-hear-me-roar.html

17 Trip Gabriel, “Donald Trump and the G.O.P. Debate: Policy Is Not His Point,” The New York Times,August 5, 2015: available at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/06/us/politics/in-drama-of-first-gop-debate-donald-trump-is-without-a-script.html

Tags: , , , , 

David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010. 

He writes here in a personal capacity.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Added 16.07.2018
Getting rid of loneliness is also about letting go of cynicism and mistrust of others. So next time you meet someone new, try to lose that protective shield and really allow them in, even though you don’t know what the outcome will be.
Added 12.07.2018
From the beginning Donald Trump’s administration has been marred by corruption and outright contempt for the rule of law – with the president’s firing of FBI Director James Comey “because of the whole Russia thing”, and persistent efforts to undermine Robert Mueller’s Russia probe; with his refusal to divest himself of private businesses, his attacks on judges who rule against him, and much else besides. Trump’s shameless claim to unbounded executive power manifested itself recently in repeated calls to deprive unauthorized immigrants of their due process rights. The conditions in migrant detention centers are horrifying and photos from one facility in McAllen, Texas showed children being held in cages. According to Senator Elizabeth Warren’s Facebook report, this border facility is an enormous warehouse “filled with cages. Cages for men. Cages for women. Cages for mamas with babies. Cages for girls. Cages for boys.”  Such an unconscionable state of affairs makes the current exhibition of Alberto Giacometti at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City all the more electrifying. The show features more than one hundred and seventy-five sculptures, paintings, and drawings, spanning more than forty years and across all the various media with which he worked.  
Added 12.07.2018
I sometimes meet with apologies from venues when a piano’s action may not be serviced to top form. I reply with a smile that such apologies are unnecessary, for in my youth I had to pull up as many keys as push down upon them when playing on battered uprights before elementary school children. In those days I played as often with my palms up as down, like a day at the gym dedicated to both push and pull. Once, however, just before a recital in a private South Carolina home, I encountered a woman whose main concern was – though my naked hands were plain before her – that I remove any rings I might be wearing before playing upon her piano’s vulnerable ivories.
Added 12.06.2018
Extract: “Nothing is beautiful except what is true,” Cézanne once said, “and only true things should be loved.” As the philosopher Jacques Derrida put it: “The truth in painting is signed Cézanne.” Perhaps it is this above all else that makes him the indispensible painter for our times, this era of so-called ‘post-truth.’ For Cézanne “painting was truth telling or it was nothing.” That is what it meant to paint from nature, to be primitive, to be free from all affectation, to be like those “first men who engraved their dreams of the hunt on the vaults of caves…” This is why we need to look and look again at Cézanne. And it is perhaps best that he has come to the National Gallery, to D.C., but a stone’s throw away from where truth is daily made a mockery of, and lies are proffered with breathtaking ease.
Added 06.06.2018
Extracts from the article: "Johnson and Johnson recently announced that it was halting a clinical trial for a new Alzheimer’s drug after safety issues emerged. This latest failure adds to the dozens of large, costly clinical trials that have shown no effect in treating this devastating disease. The growing list of failures should give us pause for thought – have we got the causes of Alzheimer’s all wrong?".............."Another option is to look at the risk factors for developing Alzheimer’s. One of these is type 2 diabetes." ............"Testing these [diabetes] drugs in animal models of another neurodegenerative disorder, Parkinson’s disease, also showed impressive effects, ............These new theories bring a fresh view on how these diseases develop and increase the likelihood of developing a drug treatment that makes a difference. To see any protective effect in the brain in a clinical trial is completely new, and it supports the new theory that Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease are caused, at least in part, by a lack of growth factor activity in the brain. These new theories bring a fresh view on how these diseases develop and increase the likelihood of developing a drug treatment that makes a difference."
Added 01.06.2018
Extract from the article: "The most common defense of truth is the pragmatic one – namely, that truth works; that true beliefs are more likely to get the job done than those that are not true. The pragmatic account of the value of truth is not wrong, but at the same time it is not enough. Truth is not valuable for solely instrumental or extrinsic reasons. Truth has intrinsic value as well. When we reduce the value of truth to instrumentality, it is a very short step to saying that we just want beliefs that work for us, regardless of whether they are true or not."
Added 14.05.2018
During the first century of modern art, Paris was a magnet for ambitious artists from all over Europe. Remarkably, the current exhibition at Paris’ Petit Palais tells us that “Between 1789 and 1914, over a thousand Dutch artists traveled to France.” Prominent among these were Ary Scheffer, Johan Jongkind, Jacob Maris, Kees van Dongen. But of course most prominent were Vincent van Gogh and Piet Mondrian.
Added 10.05.2018
The Jewish Museum in New York City is currently presenting the work of Chaim Soutine (1893-1943), featuring just over thirty paintings by one of the most distinctive and significant artists of the early twentieth century. Focusing on still life paintings, of which he was a master, "Chaim Soutine: Flesh" includes his vigorous depictions of various slaughtered animals - of beef carcasses, hanging fowl, and game. These are dynamic works of great boldness and intensity, and taken together they constitute a sustained and profoundly sensuous interrogation of the flesh, of carnality - of blood, skin and sinew.
Added 08.05.2018
The impact of air pollution on human health is well-documented. We know that exposure to high levels of air pollutants raises the risk of respiratory infections, heart disease, stroke, lung cancer as well as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. But there is growing evidence to suggest that air pollution does not just affect our health – it affects our behaviour too.
Added 05.05.2018
 

The May bank holiday is intimately linked to labour history and to struggles over time spent at work. In the US, May Day has its origins in the fight for an eight-hour work day at the end of the 19th century.

Added 01.05.2018
Quote from the article: "Who is talking about how globalized the world was between 1880 and 1914 -- until war broke out and fascists subsequently determined the course of history -- and the parallels between then and now? Globalization always had a down side, and was never meant to last forever -- but the gurus chose not to talk about it. It is always just a question of time until economic nationalism reappears, but the gurus have done a poor job of addressing the nexus between economics and politics, and its impact on business, which is the real story."
Added 29.04.2018
"......if we did manage to stop the kind of ageing caused by senescent cells using telomerase activation, we could start devoting all our efforts into tackling these additional ageing processes. There’s every reason to be optimistic that we may soon live much longer, healthier lives than we do today."
Added 29.04.2018
Many countries have introduced a sugar tax in order to improve the health of their citizens. As a result, food and drink companies are changing their products to include low and zero-calorie sweeteners instead of sugar. However, there is growing evidence that sweeteners may have health consequences of their own. New research from the US, presented at the annual Experimental Biology conference in San Diego, found a link with consuming artificial sweeteners and changes in blood markers linked with an increased risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes in rats. Does this mean we need to ditch sweeteners as well as sugar?
Added 25.04.2018
Female doctors show more empathy than male doctors. They ask their patients more questions, including questions about emotions and feelings, and they spend more time talking to patients than their male colleagues do. Some have suggested that this might make women better doctors. It may also take a terrible toll on their mental health.
Added 25.04.2018
The English-born Thomas Cole (1801-1848) is arguably America's first great landscape painter - the founder of the Hudson River School, the painter who brought a romantic sensibility to the American landscape, and sought to preserve the rapidly disappearing scenery with panoramas that invoke the divinity in nature. The Metropolitan Museum of Art's "Thomas Cole: Atlantic Crossings" is an astounding exhibition featuring a painter of extraordinary power and vision, underscoring his environmentalism and the deep sense of loss that pervades many works as he reflects on deforestation, the intrusion of the railroad, and the vanishing beauty of the untrammeled wilderness.
Added 23.04.2018
Quantitative evidence from three independent sources — auction prices, textbook illustrations, and counts of paintings included in retrospective exhibitions — all pointed to the fact that some important modern artists made their greatest work late in their careers — Cézanne, for example, in his 60s, and Kandinsky and Rothko in their 50s. But the same evidence indicated that other important artists produced their greatest work very early — Picasso, Johns, and Stella, for example, all in their 20s. Why was this was the case: why did great artists do their best work at such different stages of their careers? I couldn’t answer this question until I understood what makes an artist’s work his or her best.
Added 19.04.2018

People of all ages are at risk from diseases brought on by loneliness, new data has revealed.

Added 09.04.2018

I was a senior university student in Baghdad, Iraq. It was March 2003, and over the past few months, my classmates had whispered to each other about the possibility of a US-led invasion and the likelihood that 35 years of dictatorship and tyranny could be brought to an end.

Added 26.03.2018
In 1815, 69-year old Francisco de Goya painted a small self-portrait. Today it hangs in Madrid’s majestic Prado Museum. Next to it are the two enormous paintings of the uprising of May, 1808, in which Madrid’s citizens had been slaughtered by Napoleon’s troops, that Goya had painted in 1814 for King Ferdinand VII, to be hung in Madrid’s Royal Palace. One of these, of the execution of Spanish civilians by a French firing squad, is now among the most famous images in the history of Western art.
Added 15.03.2018

Soon after I enrolled as a graduate student at Cambridge University in 1964, I encountered a fellow student, two years ahead of me in his studies, who was unsteady on his feet and spoke with great difficulty. This was Stephen Hawking.