What is Terrifying About Trump Isn’t (just) Trump

I have half-jokingly considered myself a political refugee from the United States and as such I am no stranger to problems my home country faces. Half-jokingly, I sent an e-mail to New Zealand immigration authorities asking for political asylum status in the immediate aftermath of the Iraq invasion. I remember being called a traitor in all but name for my fervent opposition to it. I remember a pickup truck driving down Beach Boulevard in Jacksonville with an American flag mounted on the bed of the truck and “let the ragheads hit the floor” written on the back window. It remains the most overt racism I’ve ever seen in the US. I decided to leave Jacksonville – and America – when Bush was elected for a second term. Something like 70% of my Jacksonville neighbors voted for him in 2004.

As bad as that was, it was to a certain extent understandable. America was not herself after 9/11. People experienced it in different ways. The sense the world was coming to an end only lasted a day or two for me. For many others – those who orchestrated and supported the Iraq War – they were left dumb and blind for more than a year. Iraq, for them, wasn’t a “war of choice” – Saddam Hussein was an existential threat. Or at least a nominal enemy that could be crushed to relieve an existential anxiety in ways that chasing al Qaeda through the mountains of Torra Borra wasn’t doing.

In 2016, with the crowning of Trump as the Republican nominee for the President of the United States, I see echoes of this groupthink without anything to make it the least bit excusable or understandable. There is no smoking pile of ruins in New York to look to for understanding how the worst instincts of a polity became normalized into mainstream political thought.

I remember the exact moment that portended to all that would come. It came in the form of a YouTube video, circa 2014, in which Brigitte Gabriel delivered a four-minute bigoted tirade against a Muslim college student during a Heritage Foundation seminar. What sent chills down my spine wasn’t Gabriel’s response. It was the applause that the response got. Here, in a five-minute video, was evidence not only that the American right had drifted into an Islamophobia that George W. Bush warned against – but that there was an insatiable appetite for people willing to break through the taboos of political correctness and “tell it like it is.” If there’s one moment to isolate before Trump’s campaign that illustrated just how viable his candidacy would be, this is it.

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Ezra Klein today wrote a piece in which the title says it all, “Donald Trump’s nomination is the first time American politics has left me truly afraid.” While I share all of Klein’s fears about how terrifying a Trump presidency would be, I would argue that he’s missing a larger point. What’s terrifying about Trump is that he won a party’s nomination and that he was then endorsed by most of the GOP (however timidly). Here stands a candidate that turned the Party’s platform 180 degrees on a dime: free trade, defense policy, treaty obligations, and more.

While I share all of Klein’s fears about how terrifying a Trump presidency would be, I would argue that he’s missing a larger point. What’s terrifying about Trump is that he won a party’s nomination and that he was then endorsed by most of the GOP (however timidly). Here stands a candidate that turned the Party’s platform 180 degrees on a dime: free trade, defense policy, treaty obligations, and more.

What’s terrifying about Trump is how he became normalized. Much has been written about how polarized American politics has become – our opinions on everything from favorite movies to food preferences correlates far too closely to political affiliation than it is healthy for democracy. Trump’s nomination is simply the worst example to date: many, many people ‘falling into line’ because he represents the “us” in “us vs. them.”

It is telling that one of the memorable moments of the GOP convention was Ted Cruz asking delegates and the public to ‘vote their conscience.’ He was booed off stage for such heresy. That ‘voting your conscience’ was such a polarizing issue within the GOP highlights the fact that those booing knew that Trump is an unconscionable candidate. To boo Cruz for that particular word choice acknowledges that for a Republican in 2016, to vote your conscience is mutually exclusive with tribal voting.

Nate Silver’s analytics show Trump has a higher chance of being elected than anyone should be comfortable with (40%, at the time of writing). Some are rightfully worried about the ‘Trump Effect’ even were he to lose – particularly the normalization of bigotry. My worry is more long-term and cuts across the political aisle. Trump is proof that we’ve crossed some tipping point where the rules have changed:

  1. The traditional candidate screening mechanisms, while not always the most open or democratic, are imploding. ‘Party elites’ and middlemen have been made redundant. Anyone can get through now.
  2. Parties are insufficiently organized and insulated from fragmentation and thus someone winning a nomination with a small, hardcore following. Which translates into a plurality of votes (as was the case with Trump).
  3. The people who can now bypass screening mechanisms aren’t bounded by conventional party platforms. Sanders, a Democrat only sense 2015, came far closer to winning the nomination than he should have. Trump has switched party affiliation multiple times. As with the first two points, it isn’t all bad – party platforms shouldn’t be straitjackets and new ideas from outsiders should be welcomed. To an extent.
  4. Trump shows that you can bypass traditional gatekeepers, win with a plurality, overturn party platforms and orthodoxy and most of the party will follow along if you win the nomination. Republicans are now officially skeptics of NATO and economic isolationists – and for no other reason than this comes from the deranged, nonsensical rants of an ignorant, deranged sociopath.

We’ve passed a rubicon where tweets from white supremacists are displayed at a GOP convention and it’s so unremarkable that no reporter even asks about it. Take that on a linear trajectory – what might be unremarkable in the 2020 or 2024 elections? Might an ‘out’ white supremacist win the nomination? Would the rest of the party follow along, as they are now? I don’t see any natural stopping point now, making it certifiably a ‘wicked problem‘ now.

Further, I don’t think it’s limited to the right. Socialists come in many flavors, with Bernie Sanders being amongst the most benign. In 2024, might a Leninist run to the authoritarian left where the 2016 Trotskyist social democrat failed? While a larger and more diverse political base puts institutional checks on extremism, might the Democratic Party start having problems with anti-Semitism like the Labour Party across the pond?How many are aware that the American labor movement was born amidst nativism and racism – kicking Chinese out of California and ensuring the good jobs only went to whites?

As with the right, would the left not also march in step? The political tribalism is just as strong on our side. The problem isn’t just Trump. The problem is all the ways in which Trump happened. The problem is how he became normalized. The problem is how quickly people who know better willingly walk themselves, their party, and their country off a cliff.

The problem isn’t the speaker. It’s the applause.

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