The Trump Era Sucks and Needs to Be Over
The race is tightening. Is America sure it's ready to give up its addiction to crazy?
In Donald Trump’s interview with Laura Ingraham last week, he talked about the “shadow people” he believes lurk behind Joe Biden:
INGRAHAM: Who do you think is pulling Biden’s strings? Is it former Obama officials?
TRUMP: People that you’ve never heard of. People that are in the dark shadows.
Fifteen years ago, the Fox News personality was likely to be the one pushing the conspiratorial envelope. Glenn Beck playing with rubber frogs while railing about assassination plots or spinning elaborate tales connecting Barack Obama to both Hitler and Stalin represented the outward edge of crazy in mainstream discourse.
Today the Fox anchor is the voice of restraint, pleading with the President of the United States to stay on planet earth while cameras roll:
INGRAHAM: What does that mean? That sounds like conspiracy theory.
TRUMP: No, people that you haven’t heard of. They’re people that are on the streets. They’re people that are controlling the streets…
We’ve been living with Trump for so long, we’ve gotten out of the habit of asking the basic questions we normally ask, when a famous person says something odd. What is he thinking? Is he being serious? Does he mean this as metaphor — is he talking about the donors and party higher-ups who may indeed have outsize influence behind his elderly opponent’s candidacy — or does he really believe in a nebulous, Three Days of the Condor-style secret spooks’ club, working after hours to install a socialist dictatorship through Joe Biden?
Donald Trump is so unlike most people, and so especially unlike anyone raised under a conventional moral framework, that he’s perpetually misdiagnosed. The words we see slapped on him most often, like “fascist” and “authoritarian,” nowhere near describe what he really is, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. It’s been proven across four years that Trump lacks the attention span or ambition required to implement a true dictatorial regime. He might not have a moral problem with the idea, but two minutes into the plan he’d leave the room, phone in hand, to throw on a robe and watch himself on Fox and Friends over a cheeseburger.
The elite misread of Trump is egregious because he’s an easily familiar type to the rest of America. We’re a sales culture and Trump is a salesman. Moreover he’s not just any salesman; he might be the greatest salesman ever, considering the quality of the product, i.e. himself. He’s up to his eyes in balls, and the parts of the brain that hold most people back from selling schlock online degrees or tchotchkes door-to-door are absent. He has no shame, will say anything, and experiences morality the way the rest of us deal with indigestion.
Pundits keep trying to understand him by reading political scare-tracts like The Origins of Totalitarianism or It Can’t Happen Here, but again, the books that explain Trump better tend to be about things like pro wrestling (like Controversy Creates Cash or The Business of Kayfabe) or the psychology of selling (like Pre-Suasion or Thinking Fast and Slow). The people howling about outrageous things Trump says probably never sat in a sales meeting. In Pre-Suasion, psychology professor Robert Cialdini, who went undercover with salespeople to discover their secrets, describes how one got clients to agree to his company’s $75,000 fee:
Instead, after his standard presentation… he joked, “As you can tell, I’m not going to be able to charge you a million dollars for this.” The client looked up from his written proposal and said, “Well, I can agree to that!” The meeting proceeded without a single subsequent reference to compensation and ended with a signed contract…
Sound familiar? When Trump first hit the campaign trail in 2015-2016, reporters were staggered by the outrageous promises Trump would toss out, like that he’d slap a 45% tariff on all Chinese products, build a “high” wall across the Mexican isthmus, or deport all 11.3 million undocumented immigrants (“They have to go,” he told Chuck Todd).
Those of us with liberal arts educations and professional-class jobs often have trouble processing this sort of thing. If you work in a hospital and someone asks you a patient’s hematocrit level, no one expects you to open with fifteen times the real number. But this is a huge part of Trump’s M.O.
By the end of the 2016 race, some of us in media were struggling with what to tell readers about Trump’s intentions, given that he would frequently offer contradictory proposals (with matching impassioned explanations) within minutes of each other, sometimes even within the same sentence. He would tell one crowd to whoops and hollers that he couldn’t wait to throw all them illegals back over the river, then go on Hannity that same night and say he was open to a “softening” on immigration:
Everybody agrees we get the bad ones out… But when I meet thousands and thousands of people on this subject…they’ve said, ‘Mr. Trump, I love you, but to take a person that has been here for 15 or 20 years and throw them and the family out, it’s so tough, Mr. Trump.’
Read what sales books have to say about morality or belief systems and Trump starts to make even more sense. What did Cialdini notice about John Lennon’s idealistic clarion call, Imagine? That Lennon increased his chances of selling political change with the line, “But I’m not the only one…” It turns out you can increase demand for anything from government policies to items on a Chinese menu simply by asserting, as Trump constantly does, that “everybody’s talking about it.” Ask students to draw long and short lines on a piece of paper, and when asked, the people drawing long ones think the Mississippi River is longer. Trump’s constant invocations about a future of “so much winning” worked, even with people who tried consciously to dismiss it as bullshit.
Read Brian Tracy’s The Psychology of Selling and you learn that the key to closing a sale not only involves identifying the “needs of your prospect,” but making sure to promise a big enough change to make action seem worth it:
The customer must be substantially better off with your product or service than he is without it. It cannot represent a small increment in value or benefit… [it must be] great enough to justify the amount of money you are charging, plus the amount of time and energy it will take to implement your solution.
The question, “What is Trump thinking?” is the wrong one. He’s not thinking, he’s selling. What’s he selling? Whatever pops into his head. The beauty of politics from his point of view, compared to every other damn thing he’s sold in his life — steaks, ties, pillows, college degrees, chandeliers, hotels, condominiums, wine, eyeglasses, deodorant, perfume (SUCCESS by Trump!), mattresses, etc. — is that there’s no product. The pitch is the product, and you can give different pitches to different people and they all buy.
In 2016 Trump reeled in the nativist loons and rage cases with his opening rants about walls and mass deportations, then slowly clawed his numbers up with the rest of the party with his “softening” routine. Each demographic probably came away convinced he was lying to the other, while the truth was probably more that he was lying to all of them. Obviously there are real-world consequences to courting the lowest common denominator instincts in people, but to Trump speeches aren’t moral acts in themselves, they’re just “words that he is saying,” as long-ago spokesperson Katrina Pierson put it.
In this sense the Republican Party’s 2020 platform is genius: there isn’t one, just a commitment to “enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda,” meaning whatever Trump says at any given moment. If one can pull back enough from the fact that this impacts our actual lives, it’s hard not to admire the breathtaking amorality of this, as one might admire a simple malevolent organism like a virus or liver fluke.
Trump blew through the Republican primaries in 2015-2016. His opponents, a slate of mannequins hired by energy companies and weapons contractors to be pretend-patriots and protectors of “family values,” had no answer for his insults and offer-everything-to-everyone tactics. Like most politicians, they’d been protected their whole lives by donors, party hacks, and pundits who’d turned campaigns into a club system designed to insulate paid lackeys from challenges to their phony gravitas. Trump had no institutional loyalty to the club, shat all over it in addition to its silly frontmen, and walked to the nomination.
So long as he was never going to win the actual presidency, this was funny. The Republicans deserved it. Watching GOP chair Reince Priebus try to pretend he wasn’t being forced to eat the biggest-in-history shit sandwich by embracing his obese conqueror at the 2016 convention was a delicious scene, similar to what most Americans probably felt watching Bill Belichick squirm at the podium after the Eagles pummeled him in the Super Bowl.
The Democrats aren’t much better, though, and the spectacle of “inevitable” Hillary Clinton being too shocked to ascend to the Javits Center podium, instead sending writhing campaign creature John Podesta to announce through a forced smile that the mortified audience shouldn’t worry and should get some sleep instead, was also high comedy, not that I really saw it at the time.
They all deserved it, every last politician ruined that year. The country did not, however, which is why the last four years have been a nightmare beyond all recognition. The joke ended up being on us.
The paradox ensnaring America since November, 2016 is that Trump never intended to govern, while his opponents never intended to let him try. In an alternate universe where a post-election Donald had enough self-awareness to admit he was out of his depth, and the D.C. establishment agreed to recognize his administration as legitimate for appearances’ sake, Trump might have escaped four years with the profile of a conventionally crappy president, or perhaps a few notches below that — way below average, maybe, but survivable.
Instead it was decided even before he was elected that admitting the president was the president was “normalizing” him. Normally no news is good news, and the anchorman is encouraged to smile on a day without war, earthquakes, terror attacks, or stock market crashes. Under Trump it became taboo to have a slow news day. A lack of an emergency was a failure of reporting, since Trump’s very presence in office was crisis.
We spent four years moving from panic to panic, from the pee story to the Muslim ban to Michael Flynn’s firing to the Schiff hearings in March 2017 to Jim Comey’s dismissal to Treason in Helsinki to Charlottesville to the caravan to the Kavanaugh hearings and beyond. When Trump fired Jeff Sessions, perhaps the most determined enemy of police reform in recent history — one of his last acts as Attorney General was issuing an order undermining federal civil rights investigations — liberal America exploded in media-driven street protests:
The problem was this all played into Trump’s hands. Instead of crafting a coherent, accessible plan to address the despair and cynicism that moved voters to even consider someone like Trump in the first place, Democrats instead turned politics into a paranoiac’s dream, imbuing Trump’s every move with earth-shattering importance as America became a single, never-ending, televised referendum on His Orangeness.
The last four years have been like living through an O.J. trial where O.J. testifies all day (and tweets at night). Not only has this been maddening to those of us who desire a more Trumpless existence, especially since it’s constantly implied that being anything less than enthralled by the Trump show is an inexcusable show of privilege, it’s massively increased the chances of the whole exhausting spectacle continuing, by giving Trump something to run on again.
Ever since Trump jumped into politics, the pattern has been the same. He enters the arena hauling nothing but negatives and character liabilities, but leaves every time armed with winnable issues handed to him by overreacting opponents.
His schtick is to provoke rivals to the point where they drop what they’re doing and spend their time screaming at him, which from the jump validates the primary tenet of his worldview, i.e. that everything is about him. Political opponents seem incapable of not handing him free advertising. They say his name on TV thousands of times a day, put his name on bumper stickers to be paraded before new demographics (e.g. “BERNIE BEATS TRUMP”), and then keep talking about him even off duty, at office parties, family dinners, kids’ sports events, everywhere, which sooner or later gets people wondering: who’s more annoying, the blowhard, or the people who can’t stop talking about the blowhard?
Nearly the whole of Trump’s case for re-election in 2020 comes from the wreckage of these endless, oft-overheated Spy vs. Spy-style intrigues against him. What would he be running on, if he didn’t have Russiagate, “fake news,” and impeachment? When the Democrats failed to bring the latter up even once during the recent DNC, conspicuously disinviting key impeachment players like Adam Schiff and Tom Steyer, it made Trump’s martyrdom argument for him: if Ukraine was the Most Important Issue In the Universe just eight months ago, where is it now?
American politics has become an interminable clash of off-putting pathologies. Call it the hydroxychloroquine effect. Trump one day in a press conference mutters that a drug has “tremendous promise” as a treatment of coronavirus. Within ten seconds a consensus forms that hydroxycholoroquine is snake oil, and the New York Times is running stories denouncing Trump’s “brazen willingness to distort and outright defy expert opinion and scientific evidence when it does not suit his agenda.”
Then you read the story and find out doctors have been prescribing the drug, that “early reports from doctors in China and France have said that [it] seemed to help patients,” and moreover that the actual quote about it being a “game changer” from Trump included the lines, “Maybe not” and “What do I know? I’m not a doctor.” In response to another Trump quote on the subject, “What do you have to lose?” journalists piled on again, quoting the president of the American Medical Association to remind audiences “you could lose your life” — as if Trump had recommended that people run outside and mainline the stuff.
Trump being Trump, he responded to this criticism by doubling down over and over, eventually re-tweeting a video boosting the drug by a doctor named Stella Immanuel. She turned out to believe that alien DNA had been used in medical treatments, atheist doctors were working on a religion vaccine, and uterine endometriosis is caused by demon sperm. Asked about this “misinformation,” Trump somehow managed to include both a xenophobic putdown about the Nigerian doctor and a lie about his enthusiasm for her, saying, “I don’t know what country she comes from… I know nothing about her.”
All of which is insane, but so is rooting for a drug to not work in the middle of a historic pandemic, the clear subtext of nearly every news story on this topic dating back to March. Rule #1 of the Trump era is that everything Trump touches quickly becomes as infamous as he is, maybe not the biggest deal when talking about an obscure anti-malarial drug, but problematic when the subject is America itself.
Trump’s argument is, “They lie about me.” He attracts so much negative attention, and so completely dominates the culture, that the line between him and the country that elected him becomes blurred, allowing him to make a secondary argument: “They lie about you.” This incantation works. The New York Times just ran a story about how “Chaos in Kenosha is already swaying some voters” that quoted John Geraghty, a former Marine. Geraghty’s first vote was for Barack Obama, and called Trump’s handling of coronavirus “laughable,” but still:
Mr. Geraghty said he disliked how Mr. Trump talked but said the Democratic Party’s vision for governing seemed limited to attacking him and calling him a racist, a charge being leveled so constantly that it was having the effect of alienating, instead of persuading, people. And the idea that Democrats alone were morally pure on race annoyed him.
With the election just a few months away, the country is coming apart at the seams. In addition to a pandemic, an economic disaster, and cities simmering on the edge of civil war, we’re nursing what feels like a broken culture. Life under Trump has been like an endless Twitter war: infuriating, depressing, filling us all with self-loathing, but also addictive. He is selling an experience that everyone is buying, even the people who think they oppose him the most.
My worry is with that last part. Institutional America is now organized around a Trump-led America. The news media will lose billions with him gone (and will be lost editorially). The Democratic Party has no message — literally none — apart from him. A surging activist movement will be deflated without him, along with a host of related fundraising groups and businesses (watch what happens to “dismantling white supremacy training” in a non-Trump context).
It feels like a co-dependent relationship, and the tightening poll numbers in battleground states make me wonder about self-sabotage. He’ll likely still lose, but this is all beginning to feel like a slow-motion rerun of the same car crash from four years ago, when resentment, rubbernecking, and lurid fascination pulled him just across the finish line. People claim to hate him, but they never turn off the show in time, not grasping that Trump always knows how to turn their negative attention into someone else’s vote.
Isn’t four years of this enough? I don’t even care anymore whose fault it is: Trump has made us all crazy, and it’s time for the show to be over. We deserve slow news days again.