Andy Schmookler: Trump is but the mirror
“Trump represents something of a quandary for the media, especially TV networks,” says the Los Angeles Times. Matt Taibbi puts the quandary this way: “Essentially, TV news producers are wondering: ‘How do we keep getting the great ratings without helping elect the Fourth Reich?'”
If ratings are to rule, then dwelling continuously on Trump is the way to go. He is a specific human being – and an especially flamboyant one at that — so he is concrete and easy for our People-magazine culture to focus on.
But if the journalistic quest for understanding is to rule, it is not Trump but the large portion of the Republican base supporting him that should command our attention.
By now, we’ve gotten a good look at what Trump is up to, and the spirit he is serving. When even Republicans are using the word “fascist” to describe Trump’s message, the picture has surely become clear enough. But the only reason that Trump’s fascism is important is that it has the support of enough of the Republican base to make him the runaway Republican front-runner.
If we’re seeing ugly things in a presidential election that we’ve never seen before, it’s because something unprecedented in its magnitude has arisen in the American electorate.
It has not been the American way to value the hater, the arrogant, the bully, the boaster, the reckless. But at this point in history, as Donald Trump has demonstrated, it is possible to become politically prominent – even dominant – by being all those things. And that’s because such a posture now expresses the passions of so large a segment of the base of one of America’s two major parties.
We know that it comes naturally to Trump to act the bully. After all, he’s the guy who set up a whole TV program around the recurrent climactic moment of his dashing the hopes of one of his fellow human beings with the line, “You’re fired!” Most people feel a revulsion about having to fire people, but Trump went out of his way to be able to play that role.
But even if a brutal role is appealing to Trump, what he has ridden to power is his ability to read and exploit the dark passions of others.
Trump’s campaign took off from the outset with his attack on Mexican immigrants – whom he characterized as criminal monsters, “rapists.” If there’s any evidence that Trump himself cares about the immigration issue – he who has hired undocumented workers in his construction projects – I am unaware of it. But he has shown himself adept at riding the hatreds and fears of millions of other people.
It is not Trump himself that is the real story here. It is the darkness, rising for years in the Republican electorate, that he mirrors.
The impulse he is harnessing is clearly deeper than any single issue. For Trump’s rise has been accomplished by expressing hostility not only to Mexican immigrants, but also toward blacks (hence the enthusiasm for Trump from white supremacists), and now of course especially toward Muslims.
What this pattern shows is an underlying general impulse: hatred of the other. An impulse of hostility toward those who are different from “us” is one of the most fundamental forms of human brokenness.
In an earlier piece, I wrote: “In every society, both constructive and destructive forces are always at work. But the balance of power between those forces is not constant.”
And that connects with what is most important – most newsworthy – in the Trump phenomenon. Something dangerous has happened to many of our fellow Americans. Something has changed for the worse.
Racism and xenophobia are nothing new in American politics, of course. But what is new is that the “hate the other” impulse has now become more powerful than we’ve seen before. Twenty years ago, or 30, no one could have ridden a starkly dark message like Trump’s, delivered in a manner that transgresses our long-established norms for political leadership, to the front-runner position he now occupies.
So now that so many people can perceive the face of fascism that is arising powerfully out of the Republican base, the important questions that need to be asked in order to expand this newly awakened awareness, are:
1) How did so many people in the Republican base get led deeper into this dark space? (Here, we can look at the pernicious influences — of people like Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove, Fox News and elected Republican leaders generally – that have fed people’s hatreds and fears.) And
2) What, if anything, can be done to diminish these dark passions among those who are embracing Donald Trump as their champion?
Andy Schmookler’s newly published book is What we’re up against: The Destructive Force at Work in Our World .