Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Whether he wins or loses this November’s Presidential election, 2016 has been the Year of Donald Trump. He has forever changed the entire tenor of American politics. Any thin veneer of civility, of mutual respect, of treating your political opponents as reasonable people with whom you just happen to disagree, is now as “obsolete and quaint” as the Geneva Conventions are at Guantánamo.
Through a bizarre combination of the insult politics of a talk-radio host and the billionaire-populist schtick invented by Nelson Rockefeller when he ran for governor of New York in 1958 (plenty of rich people had run for U.S. office before but Rockefeller was the first person to tell voters, in essence, “I’ve already got more money than God, so I can’t be corrupted or bribed”), Donald Trump has won the Republican nomination for President and is within five to seven points of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in the national polls.
What’s more, I suspect, the polls actually underestimate Trump’s support. After Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, an African-American, lost his bid for the governorship of California in 1982 by 2 ½ percentage points, when the final polls had had him leading by that much, political scientists coined the phrase “the Bradley factor.” It meant that a Black candidate would always do five points worse than the polls said because five percent of the poll respondents would be too racist to vote for a Black candidate — but too ashamed of their racism to admit to a pollster that they wouldn’t. I suspect Trump has a reverse Bradley-factor working for him: five percent of respondents are planning to vote for him but don’t want to admit it to a poll-taker.
If I’m right, the American presidential election of 2016, after both nominating conventions and the so-called “bounces” from each, is a statistical tie. Despite his innumerable gaffes — errors and outrages that would have sunk a lesser politician overnight — Trump continues to remain competitive. Every time he’s seemingly stuck his foot in his mouth, reporters and political commentators have said, “This time. This is the one he won’t recover from.” And every time, Trump has recovered and bounced back in the polls as strong as or stronger than ever.
In the title of this article I called Donald Trump “the modern Antaeus.” Antaeus, for those of you who aren’t up on the minor characters of Greek mythology, was a giant whom, as one of his 12 “labors,” the mighty strongman Hercules had to kill. The problem was that Antaeus’s mother was Gaia, the earth goddess, so every time he was knocked to the ground, his mom gave him renewed strength so he could get up again and never be defeated. Hercules finally worked out a way of punching Antaeus out with one arm while using the other to hold him in mid-air, so he couldn’t come into contact with the earth and thereby fight back with the extra strength from his mother.
Again and again, Donald Trump has shown an Antaeus-like ability to recover from self-inflicted blows that would be deadly to any merely mortal candidate. He began his campaign by calling Mexican immigrants to the U.S. “rapists” and “criminals,” and his poll numbers soared; he took an early lead for the Republican nomination and never relinquished it. He dissed U.S. Senator John McCain (R-Arizona), whose courage during years of imprisonment in North Viet Nam had won him respect even among people who disagreed with his politics, saying, “He’s not a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
Everyone in the pundit class said Trump would never recover from that, especially running in a party that virtually reveres the military and everything it stands for. Wrong again: Trump’s standing in the polls went even higher. And it went higher still when he responded to Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly’s criticism of his demeaning remarks about women by making a demeaning remark about her as a woman — saying she had “blood coming out of her eyes, or her wherever.” Not only did his poll numbers go up after that remark, they went up even higher among Republican women than among Republican men.
So when I heard the pundits gang up on Trump again and say his outburst against Khizr Khan, whose son Humayan was a U.S. servicemember in Iraq in 2004 when he was killed by a suicide bomber, is going to be the final blow that destroys his credibility, pardon my skepticism. What happened was that Khizr Khan got tired of hearing Trump go on and on and on about Muslims, saying that we need an indefinite ban on all Muslim immigration to the U.S. “until we figure out what’s going on” and just what the connection between Islam and “radical terror” is.
There is none, decent, hard-working Muslim-Americans like Khizr Khan say. The intent of the message he volunteered to deliver at the Democratic convention — which got lost a bit when Khizr pulled out a pocket copy of the U.S. Constitution and asked rhetorically if Trump had ever read it — was that Muslims can be as loyal to the U.S. and its Constitution as any other American. They can even send their sons off to America’s wars and face the real possibility that, like Humayun Khan, they won’t come home again. The maniacs of al-Qaeda, al-Nusra and ISIS don’t represent all Muslims — to which I would add, “just as the freaks who murder abortion doctors in the name of ‘life’ don’t represent all Christians, and the people who assassinated Yitzhak Rabin don’t represent all Jews.”
Khizr stood on stage at the last night of the Democratic convention with his wife Ghazala at his side. He whipped out his pocket copy of the Constitution and told Trump he would gladly lend it to him. (Yet another in Trump’s long list of previous gaffes had been when he said he would have no problem taking the oath to “preserve and protect” the Constitution, especially Articles 1, 2 and 12. The Constitution only has seven articles.) Khizr’s speech jacked up sales of his edition of the Constitution on amazon.com, but it didn’t move Trump — or his voters.
Trump gave an interview to ABC three days after Khizr’s speech at the convention. He ridiculed Khizr for having his wife up there with him but not letting her speak — to which she responded in an op-ed in the Washington Post. “Donald Trump said that maybe I wasn’t allowed to say anything,” Ghazala Khan wrote. “That is not true. My husband asked me if I wanted to speak, but I told him I could not. “Donald Trump said he has made a lot of sacrifices. He doesn’t know what the word sacrifice means.” Trump, you see, had told ABC he’d had to “sacrifice” to get his buildings built in New York City and elsewhere. To any rational person, that would hardly seem on the same level of “sacrifice” as sending your son off to war and seeing him come home in a box.
But Trump, showing his dedication to the same strategy that has got him this far and turned him into probably the unlikeliest Presidential candidate ever, acknowledged that even in his world, in which John McCain wasn’t a war hero, Humayan Khan was. “We should honor all who have made the ultimate sacrifice to keep our country safe,” Trump said. “The real problem here are [sic] the radical Islamic terrorists who killed him, and the efforts of those radicals to enter our country to do us further harm.” Then, as usual, Trump tried to make the whole thing about himself: “I was viciously attacked by Mr. [Khizr] Khan at the Democratic convention. Am I not allowed to defend myself? Hillary [Clinton] voted for the Iraq war, not me!”
First off, Donald, just because you have the “right” to say or do something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea to use it. Anyone less mindlessly adored by his supporters than Donald Trump would have thought twice before attacking the grieving father of a dead war hero just because the grieving father said a few scornful and rather nasty things about him on TV. Second, Hillary Clinton had the opportunity to vote for or against the Iraq war because as part of her long-term commitment to public service she’d been elected Senator from New York and it was her job to do so.
I think she made the wrong decision — and both Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders agree with me — but the point is that it was her decision to make. She had been credentialed by the voters of New York state to make that decision for them, and she did it on the public record in full knowledge that if the war turned out badly, she’d be subject to legitimate political criticism for it. Barack Obama wasn’t in the U.S. Senate when the Iraq war vote took place, but he made a speech at the time indicating he thought the war was a bad idea and he would have voted against it if he’d had the chance. Donald Trump claims he was against the Iraq war all along, but there is zero documentary evidence of that.
Not that that matters. As Tony Schwartz, who ghost-wrote Trump’s 1987 book The Art of the Deal and therefore did more than anyone else besides Trump himself to create the “Trump mythos,” recently told The New Yorker (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/07/25/donald-trumps-ghostwriter-tells-all), “Lying is second nature to him. More than anyone else I have ever met, Trump has the ability to convince himself that whatever he is saying at any given moment is true, or sort of true, or at least to be true.” During the George W. Bush administration, his advisor Karl Rove was criticized for claiming Bush’s government had the power to make lies true by the sheer force of will — “We’re an empire, and we create our own reality,” Rove said — but Trump seems to go Bush and Rove one better and believe he personally can make whatever he believes is the truth.
We’ve seen it over and over again in Trump’s years in public life. In 1987, when he was just riding the best-seller success of The Art of the Deal and transforming himself from just another scummy New York developer into a national (and, later, international) symbol of wealth, power and success (he’d call his second book Surviving at the Top), he took out an ad saying that the U.S. wasn’t militaristic enough and the nation had lost its “backbone.” At the time, the President was Ronald Reagan, who rightly or wrongly was proud of having reversed the alleged “decline” of the U.S. military and authorized a huge buildup in U.S. “defense” spending.
Later he asserted that President Obama had been born in Kenya and was therefore ineligible to serve in that office because the U.S. Constitution requires that the President be a “native-born citizen.” No amount of documentary evidence that Obama was born exactly when and where he said he was — August 4, 1961 in Honolulu, Hawai’i, U.S.A. — could dissuade Trump. In the Trump world, Muslim-Americans held a rally in New Jersey right after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in which they cheered — and he claimed to have seen this on video. The video was real, all right — but it had been shot in Saudi Arabia.
Trump pulled this one again recently when he claimed to have seen a video of millions of dollars of cash being off-loaded to the government of Iran by the U.S. as part of the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal. Once again, the video was real, but it didn’t show cash being given to the Iranians; it showed Iranian prisoners being released to the U.S., also as part of the nuclear deal Trump is so insistent was a bad deal for this country. What’s more, while the Iranians did get money out of the arms deal, it was their money that we had been sitting on, using the millions that rightfully belonged to Iran as leverage to get them to agree to mothball their nuclear weapons program.
What’s more, the last few weeks have seen more than their share of Trump saying things that … well, let’s just politely say that their connection between the Trump reality and the one the rest of us live in is minimal at best. From his open call to Russia’s government to see if they can successfully hack into Hillary Clinton’s e-mail server and discover the 33,000 e-mails she and her attorneys, without any outside review, declared “private” and delete, to his bizarre assertion that President Obama and Hillary Clinton “founded ISIS” — which he later said he “maybe” meant as sarcasm — Trump is painting a picture of himself as almost terminally unhinged. Time magazine’s latest cover story on him is illustrated with a picture of his face melting, and the headline “Meltdown.”
It also doesn’t help his cause that he’s sometimes seemed to revisit old controversies he’d be better advised just to leave alone — like when he brought up his “blood coming out of her wherever” comment about Megyn Kelly and insisted he meant her nose, or when he reminded people of the disabled reporter he’d insulted at a rally — or that he wreaked new ones on himself, like when he got upset when a baby was crying at his rally and told its mother to take her kid home. Indeed, Trump sometimes seems, both as a businessman and a politician, to have taken his cue for success from an obscure 1942 film called The Meanest Man in the World, in which Jack Benny plays a small-town lawyer who moves to New York City and bombs financially until he starts getting his picture in the paper as a man who steals candy from kids, forecloses on poor old widows and acts in general like the total S.O.B. of the title — whereupon he’s got all the wealthy, unscrupulous clients he can handle.
The Secret of Trump’s Success
Nonetheless, Trump has an intensely loyal base that seems committed to follow him wherever he leads them. It’s partly that he has consciously built himself up as the candidate of white male reaction. From his opening salvos against immigrants to his weird references to a Black person in one of his crowds as “my African-American” and the speech in which he said “I love Hispanics” and then proceeded to praise the taco salad at Trump Tower, Trump has deliberately preached a tone-deafness to contemporary sensibilities about people of color that his white male fans eat up. He proudly boasts that he’s not “politically correct” — a phrase that, ironically, was actually coined by Leftists in the 1970’s to criticize other Leftists for being too dogmatic, but which was taken up by the Right in the 1980’s and has come to encapsulate the resentment many non-college white males feel about their heartfelt attitudes towards Blacks, Latinos and women denounced as racist, sexist and no longer acceptable.
When the Republican Party regained control of the House of Representatives in 2010, I could sense the palpable sense of relief felt among millions of rank-and-file Republicans not only that their party had prevailed, but that that (ugh) woman Speaker, Democrat Nancy Pelosi, would be replaced by a white man, John Boehner. Likewise there are millions of white male voters who have been counting the days for the past eight years when that n----r President is finally out of the White House and what they consider the natural order of the universe is restored as a white man takes his place. Needless to say, they’ll be even more ballistic if the election turns out the other way and the Black man in the White House is replaced by a woman!
But there’s more to Trump than just making himself the face of white reaction. If Bernie Sanders, when he ran against Hillary Clinton, presented himself as the indulgent dad defending the kids against their censorious, schoolmarmish Mama Hillary and offering them all the goodies, like free college and access to health care, she’d told them the family couldn’t afford, Donald Trump is a very different kind of father figure. He’s the stern, take-no-nonsense dad who will wallop the kids if they get out of line, but will be equally as ferocious when the family is under threat from outside.
Other writers have compared Trump to such Right-wing media figures as Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly, but American Prospect contributing editor Harold Meyerson (http://prospect.org/article/trump%E2%80%99s-appeal-forgotten-man) noted that one thing they have in common is they present themselves as all-knowing father figures whose superior wisdom is questioned only at the family’s peril. “There is in Trump, Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and their kind a need both to assert their own authority and to assume a certain passivity in their audience,” Meyerson wrote.
“This assumption certainly bolsters their own sense of indispensability, and reinforces their image (and self-image) as the leader of a distinct tribe, or the unchallengeable head of a docile family. … [T]heir respective cult leader assumes the role of the head of a traditional ‘father knows best and takes no shit’ family. They may even acknowledge the father in question may not always know best — there’s ample evidence that Trump supporters understand he’s at minimum a serial exaggerator — but his assumption of the role of tough, judgmental father is what really appeals to them.”
In a New York Times essay (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/04/opinion/campaign-stops/the-eternal-return-of-unenlightened-despotism.html?rref=collection%2Fcolumn%2FThomas%20B.%20Edsall&action=click&contentCollection=Opinion&module=Collection®ion=Marginalia&src=me&version=column&pgtype=article), political scientist Thomas Byrne Edsall took this even further. Like Meyerson, Edsall cited survey research by political scientist Matthew MacWilliams, author of a forthcoming book called Why Irrational Politics Appeals, who has called Trump’s winning the Republican nomination “the rise of American authoritarianism — America’s Authoritarian Spring.”
Edsall also cited research by Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) CEO Robert P. Jones that indicates that by a 2-to-1 margin, Americans favor authoritarian styles of child-rearing that emphasize obedience and discipline rather than independent thought. According to Jones’ survey, “A majority of Americans prefer children to have respect for elders (74 percent) rather than independence (26 percent); to demonstrate good manners (70 percent) rather than curiosity (30 percent); and to be well-behaved (61 percent) rather than creative (38 percent).” This may explain the popularity of charter schools and other so-called “education reform” measures sponsored by giant corporations which regard schools as training grounds for future corporate drones, not independent thinkers.
Also, according to PRRI, “A majority of Americans favor either highly authoritarian (31 percent) or authoritarian (26 percent) traits. In contrast, roughly one-quarter express preferences for either highly autonomous (10 percent) or autonomous (13 percent) traits. One in five Americans (20 percent) has mixed preferences.” What’s more, the PRRI survey shows, “Americans who have a highly authoritarian orientation are more than twice as likely as those who have a highly autonomous orientation to say the country needs a leader who is willing to break the rules to set things right (58 percent vs. 22 percent).”
This would seem to be a dynamic tailor-made for Trump, who in his big speech at the Republican Convention seemed less interested in being a democratically elected, constitutionally constrained President than a Führer. His now-famous statement that America is in crisis and “I alone can fix it” sounded much more like something one would expect to hear from a Hitler or Mussolini — or, on the other side of the Left/Right divide, from a Lenin, Stalin or Mao — than someone running to be the chief of state of a republic. Indeed, Trump’s much-discussed admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin seems quite likely, at least to me, to stem from the way Putin has turned Russia from an incompetently governed republic to a competently governed dictatorship. I suspect in his heart of hearts Trump wants not only to be U.S. President but to duplicate Putin’s triumph over democracy, economic oligarchy and the separation of powers here.
Trump’s open appeal to authoritarian voters looking for a leader who will restore “law and order” and bring peace — his peace — to a highly uncertain and dangerous world is one previous Republican Presidential nominees have ridden to success. In 1968, Richard Nixon and Senator Strom Thurmond (R-SC) worked out the so-called “Southern Strategy” that flipped the Republicans’ and Democrats’ historic positions on civil rights. The party of slavery, segregation and the Ku Klux Klan had pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, so Nixon’s and Thurmond’s response was to see that the racist white male constituency was up for grabs and remodel the “Party of Lincoln” as the party of white reaction and backlash.
Faced with a country that seemed to be coming apart at the seams, courtesy of racial uprisings and a long, costly and unwinnable war in Viet Nam, Nixon presented himself as the candidate of “Law and Order” and the “Silent Majority.” Between them, he and George Wallace (the Right-wing independent whose candidacy the “Southern Strategy” was designed largely as a response to) got 57 percent of the vote to Democrat Hubert Humphrey’s 43 percent, a signal of how decisively American politics had turned Right just four years after Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964 — and in 1970 student protesters at Kent State and Jackson State University were viciously and cold-bloodedly shot down by National Guardsmen and police in a vivid demonstration of what “Law and Order” actually meant on the ground.
The 1960’s were also the decade in which Ronald Reagan came of political age and won the governorship of California largely on a promise to restore “law and order” to college campuses beset by student protests. When Reagan became President in 1981 he dealt with the striking air traffic controllers much the way he’d handled the student protests at Berkeley and elsewhere in the state as governor: by treating them as unruly children who needed to be disciplined and slapped into line by a strong, unforgiving father figure.
As Edsall noted in another recent New York Times article (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/11/opinion/campaign-stops/is-trump-wrecking-both-parties.html?_r=0), Trump is finishing the process Nixon and Reagan started, tearing the white working class that used to be the bulwark of the Democratic coalition in New Deal days and anchoring it firmly to the Republican Party by issues of race and culture. He argues that the Democrats now have a less stable coalition than the Republicans, an uneasy combination of people of color who want more government involvement with the economy and upper- and upper-middle-class people who want government essentially to leave them alone so they can make more money.
The latest polls show Trump behind Hillary Clinton both overall and in the so-called “battleground states” which, in the bonkers process by which Americans elect their President, have a disproportionate impact on the final result. But, as journalist Jon Wiener recently wrote (https://www.thenation.com/article/are-hillary-clintons-strong-poll-numbers-misleading/?utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=New%20Campaign&utm_term=daily), Clinton’s poll leads could be misleading because they fail to factor in the strength of Trump’s appeal and the uniqueness of his campaign.
“Trump is so different from every other candidate in the recent past that pundits fear he could break out of the historic patterns of voting,” Wiener wrote. “That’s pretty much what happened in the primaries, when so many experts said with great conviction that Trump couldn’t win. Their reasoning was strong: He had no ground game, no field operation working to get his supporters to the polls on election day; he had no TV ads, which candidates all consider essential; he wasn’t raising money, or spending it. He had no real campaign organization and no experience in politics. In the past, candidates like that never won. But, of course, the Republican primaries were different this time.”
By his no-holds-barred approach to campaigning, and in particular by being his own “attack dog,” spewing insults at the other candidates himself instead of relying on his surrogates to do that, Donald Trump has likely changed the face of U.S. political campaigning forever. His open appeals to the racist and sexist prejudices of his core supporters have finished the process Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan began: they’ve made prejudice seem not only acceptable but something to be proud of. Trump the candidate may lose, but Trump the political phenomenon will be alive and well after this election, ranting about how the results were “rigged,” calling for Hillary Clinton’s immediate impeachment and generally turning U.S. politics into a cesspool of insult and denigration.