Sep 5th 2015

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

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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.

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