The Political Apparition
Like the phantom at the feast, Donald Trump materialized at the head of the Republican presidential race without anyone quite knowing how he got there. Once we overcame our embarrassment over his unexpected arrival, however, we haven’t been able to stop talking about the man. He needs to be explained. A veritable army of professional Trump explainers has thus been mustered into action. He needs to be criticized. A raging mob of Trump debunkers now howls by torchlight under the castle walls – comparing him, quite literally, to Frankenstein’s monster, but also, of course, to Hitler.
The extraordinary obsession with the higher meaning of Trump is as bewildering in its own way as his success.
It so happens that a number of people whose opinions I respect have brought up The Revolt of the Public in connection with the Trump phenomenon. Virginia Postrel, Arnold Kling, and Tyler Cowen, among others, have suggested that Trump’s abrupt appearance on the threshold of power becomes less perplexing in the context of the sociopolitical conflict I described in the book. Unhappily, I’m inclined to agree: and that entails the responsibility to draw out the implications.
If, as I suspect, Trump is a blunt objet trouvé, an accidental instrument wielded by the public against the political institutions of the industrial age, then two additional propositions are likely to be true. First, the public’s temper has moved much closer to nihilism than anyone not wholly deranged by conspiracy theories could have imagined. Second, the disintegration of the institutions of American democracy has proceeded much faster than I, at least, would have thought possible.
The trouble with such assertions, of course, is that we’re dealing with a fast-evolving, vastly complex set of human relations, caught in the fever heat of political conflict, amid the muddle of events. Analysis is hardly likely to be conclusive. What follows, then, is not finished analysis, and is only indirectly another attempt to classify Trump as if he were an exotic new species of insect blown in from the rain forest.
My subject is the sickness of democracy in our country, which appears to have taken a dangerous turn for the worse since I wrote the last pages of The Revolt of the Public.
The Empty Vessel
A meticulous study of Donald Trump’s biography, statements, and policy “positions” will reveal no hint of political direction. It’s not that Trump is contradictory or incoherent. He’s ideologically formless. His claim to business competence is nullified by inherited wealth and several bankruptcies. His supposed nationalism consists of complaining about countries in which he has invested his own money (“I love China, but…”). He’s going to make America great again – yet that’s a wish, not a program. A run at the US presidency has been concocted out of a disorganized bundle of will and desire.
A candidate deprived of direction can only drift on the stream of public opinion. Or to flip that around: the dizzying rise of Trump can best be understood as the political assertion of a newly energized public. Trump has been chosen by this public, for reasons I’ll have cause to examine, and he is the visible effect, not the cause, of this public’s surly and mutinous mood. To make him into an American Hitler or a world-historical figure of any sort, let me suggest, would be to distort reality as on a funhouse mirror.
The right level of analysis on Trump isn’t Trump, but the public that endows him with a radical direction and temper, and the decadent institutions that have been too weak to stand in his way.
The American public, like the public everywhere, is engaged in a long migration away from the structures of representative democracy to more sectarian arrangements. In Henri Rosanvallon’s term, the democratic nation has devolved into a “society of distrust.” The reasons, Rosanvallon argues, are deep and structural, but we also have available a simple functional explanation: the perception, not always unjustified, that democratic government has failed to deliver on its promises.
The public, I mean to say, cares a lot about outcomes and not so much about the legitimacy of the ballot box or the authority of elected officials. And if the outcomes demanded are a tangle of contradictions that divide the public, the sense of being betrayed and abandoned by “protected classes” is shared across large majorities of mutually hostile persuasions. The landscape in a society of distrust tilts steeply toward repudiation: everyone, at all times, wants to stand against.
For this descent into reflexive negation, President Obama bears a measure of responsibility. To the president, the democratic process is legitimate if, and only if, it promotes the advancement of progressive ideals. Otherwise democracy is really manipulation. In the heat of partisan battle, with the outcome in doubt, he has felt free to lash out at the system for being corrupt, racist, sexist, socially and economically unjust, and unworthy of his support.
By shrinking democracy to partisan dimensions, the president has extended an invitation to mayhem that far more radical characters than Barack Obama could hardly refuse.
Among them are the social justice warriors who have sought to budge the president leftward and now incline to Bernie Sanders. The logic of the moment, however, more fiercely agitates Tea Partiers, evangelists, “alt conservatives,” and others on the right who find the status quo intolerable. These groups tap into energy flowing away from the preferences and even the personality of the sitting president. Repudiation, in their case, takes a special form that benefits Trump: the search for the anti-Obama.
As for the specific issues under debate in the primaries – immigration, the economy, terrorism – their importance to the public is uncertain. Exit polls have jumped all over the place. Take Trump’s apparent signature wedge issue: immigration. There’s little evidence that it is an abiding obsession for Trump voters, and some evidence that it falls somewhat down the list of their concerns. The same holds true for economic problems and terror. These topics can hold the public’s attention, but don’t seem decisive to its voting choices.
My guess is that they are tokens of distance – of that sense of betrayal and abandonment by the institutions of government. Ordinary people, for example, are not allowed to maintain that immigration might be connected to crime, or job loss, or terrorism. Such opinions are condemned as racist and placed beyond the pale of political discussion. If you happen to hold them, you are effectively silenced. A majority of Trump supporters agree with the following statement: “people like me don’t have any say in what the government does.”
Distance is decisive. The transcendent aim of the revolt of the public, everywhere around the globe, has been to smash the elites and the institutions down from the protected heights, by whatever means necessary, regardless of the consequences. So far, the US presidential elections of 2016 appear to be no exception.
The Lord of Attention
The attitudes just described are pervasive. They cut across ideological and demographic boundaries. Their relevance to the rise of Trump should be placed in perspective, however: he has received slightly more than a third of the 20 million votes cast in Republican primaries so far. He hasn’t yet been anointed maximum leader of the revolution.
But he is, politically, a stranger in a strange land, a man from nowhere who may soon become standard-bearer for the party of true world-historical figures like Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower – who may, conceivably, become president of the United States and so the most powerful person in the world. Such fantastic improbabilities lead us to the obvious question. Granted the zeitgeist of negation and repudiation, the failure of the institutions and the bad mood of the public: why Donald Trump?
I’m not a fan of cosmic, single-cause explanations. Let me offer instead a hypothesis about what I believe to be the most significant factor in the public’s reconstruction of Trump into a phantom of revolt. The hypothesis comes in two parts: one an indisputable fact, the other a lot more speculative.
The fact is this: since June 2015, when he announced his candidacy, Trump has received massive, probably unprecedented, levels of media attention. Though he has spent less on media ads than his Republican opponents, he has benefited from coverage so vastly more intense that the other candidates, by comparison, have suffocated from lack of exposure. When it comes to television coverage, for example, the primary election season at times has felt like a contest between Trump and silence.
So the question we should pose is what the effects might be of such immoderate levels of attention. Academic scholars, as it happens, have studied that question for decades.
According to media agenda-setting research, volume of discussion about a topic must climb above a specific awareness threshold before it can enter the consciousness of the public. Below that level the topic simply doesn’t exist. The charts show Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, Trump’s chief opponents, drowning deep below the awareness threshold. They and their messages were largely nonexistent to the public.
To the degree that volume of discussion rises above the awareness threshold, the topic discussed becomes increasingly important to the public. A Palestinian victim of violence, for example, will appear more important than a Congolese victim, because media coverage will favor one and ignore the other. If this principle is valid, and I believe it is, then in 2015 Donald Trump exploded into the consciousness of the American public as an event of cosmic significance: a media Big Bang. The political consequences were equally explosive and are not in doubt.
The media fixated on Trump for a pretty straightforward reason: he represented high ratings and clickbait. The news business is desperate for an audience and willing to trade whatever remains of its authority for that mess of potage. The web is an eternal shouting match between sectarian war-bands hungry for attention: the outrageous Trump, as object of digital frenzy, lifted their game to a whole new level.
Media people pumped the helium that elevated Donald Trump’s balloon, and they did so from naked self-interest. This has been widely noted – by now, it’s the favorite Theory of Trump among the commentariat. Although true so far as it goes, it begs a whole series of questions: for example, just how did Trump become such a magnet for high ratings and clickbait? Why the fascination? What separates him so sharply from the other candidates, in the eyes of both the public and the media?
Here we come to the more speculative bit of my hypothesis.
In American politics, Trump is a peacock among dull buzzards. That should be apparent to anyone with eyes to see. The one discernible theme of his life has been the will to stand out: to attract all eyes in the room by being the loudest, most colorful, most aggressively intrusive person there. He has clearly succeeded. The data above speaks to a world-class talent for self-promotion. The media noticed, and just kept the cameras aimed at the extravagant performance – allowing Trump to represent himself to the public, a rare commodity for a politician. And the public, in its mood of negation, its hostility to the established order, also noticed. Trump lacked a political past. He was glamorous and a winner – he looked different and acted different.
He also sounded different from other politicians. The most significant factor separating Trump from the pack, I believe, is rhetorical. Trump is a master of the nihilist style of the web. His competitors speak in political jargon and soaring generalities. He speaks in rant. He attacks, insults, condemns, doubles down on misstatements, never takes a step back, never apologizes. Everyone he dislikes is a liar, “a bimbo,” “bought and paid for.” Without batting an eyelash, he will compare an opponent to a child molester. Such rhetorical aggression is shocking in mainstream American politics but an everyday occurrence on the political web, where death threats and rape threats against a writer are a measure of the potency of the message.
The “angry voter” Trump supposedly has connected with is really an avatar of the mutinous public: and this is its language. It too speaks in rant, inchoate expression of a desire to remake the world by smashing at it, common parlance of the political war-bands that populate Tumblr, Gawker, reddit, and so many other online platforms. By embracing Trump in significant numbers, the public has signaled that it is willing to impose the untrammeled relations of social media on the US electoral process.
I’m amazed by the rapidity with which this moment has arrived: that we have come to it, however, will surprise no one who has been paying attention.
The Conquistador of Ruins
Trump has warned of “riots” if he is denied the nomination, but this seems unlikely. The public that picked him up and now wields him like a sledgehammer against the status quo has never been deeply involved in his campaign. There have been few spontaneous Trump events, websites, or online riffs – nothing equivalent to “Obama girl,” for example, or the social media activism that inspired protests in Spain, Israel, Venezuela, and elsewhere. A Trump “occupation” sounds like a contradiction in terms. Beyond the demographics of his supporters, Trump himself is the occupier: he’s taken over all the available political space. The news media aims its cameras at him, personally, because he’s the one who delivers the audience. In social media, Trump has utilized his Twitter account, which had millions of followers before he became a candidate, to dominate digital buzz by the sheer outrageousness of his personal style.
The Trump uprising is less an eruption from below than an improvised performance, a demonstration of what is now possible for the public to accomplish. Italy’s Five Star Movement, which became the second-largest political party behind a popular entertainer and blogger, Beppe Grillo, may serve as a reasonable parallel.
Put differently, the Trump candidacy is a test of democracy in America in 2016. The public is agitated and willing to vote for this strange and formless man. It is not directly engaged. The structures of democracy, on the flip side, appear to be near collapse. What should have been a brutal collision against unyielding institutions has turned into a strut over a landscape darkened by colossal ruins. The news business is dying and desperate. The primary elections are a crazy quilt of contradictory rules. The Republican Party, by all appearances, is more of a historical memory than a living organization.
Donald Trump, anti-establishment wrecker, has been fortunate in his moment. In 1960, 1980, even 2000, there would have been an establishment to oppose him. In 2015, the putative establishment champion was Jeb Bush. He had been away from elected office for nine years, “a longer downtime than any president elected since 1852 (and any candidate since 1924).” The Republican worthies who endorsed and promoted him had been out of office for an average of 11 years. If this once was the party’s establishment, it’s now a claque of political corpses. The Bush candidacy, in brief, was a dance of the dead, and the Republican Party, at the national level at least, stands revealed as a ruinous graveyard over which nearly anyone, fitting any description, can lay claim.
The Revolt of the Public has been accused, with uncertain justice, of advancing a bleak vision of our political reality. In that spirit, I want to conclude with a dismal observation. At present, the leading candidates for the presidency are Trump and Hillary Clinton. One is a reckless smasher of institutions. The other is a fossilized specimen of the remote and protected elites. Both are creatures of the society of distrust, divisive to an extreme degree.
So my observation is this: regardless of who wins, the 2016 presidential election is shaping up to be just another episode in the grinding social conflict and disintegration of industrial forms that have defined our age. Nothing much, I fear, will be decided.