One year ago today the American people, by virtue of the country’s very odd system of voting for President, committed what might wind up being known as the greatest act of electoral malpractice in the country’s history.
Donald Trump ran a cynical, mean-spirited campaign that was almost perfectly designed to appeal to the id of every angry white voter in this country. He was the perfect candidate at the perfect time for a party that had been trending this way for decades. Many prominent Republicans have started to notice the rot at the heart of their party, but even now those same prominent Republicans are not coming to any kind of grips with the fact that Trump’s emergence (or the emergence of someone like Trump) is something that many on my side of the political fence have been expecting for years. This past weekend, former President George HW Bush went on record as not approving of Trump or what he represents, but for anyone who has paid attention for years, there’s a line to be drawn connecting Trump to the Lee Atwater-run campaign that got Bush the Elder elected twenty-nine years ago.
I’m reminded of a line from Aaron Sorkin’s script to A Few Good Men, when toward the end of the movie Lt. Kaffee (Tom Cruise) is putting Col. Jessup (Jack Nicholson) on the stand in something of a Hail Mary move:
Lt. Weinberg: And now you think you can get him to just say it?
Kaffee: I think he wants to say it. I think he’s pissed off that he’s gotta hide from this. I think he wants to say that he made a command decision and that’s the end of it.
[Starts imitating Jessup]
Kaffee: He eats breakfast 300 yards away from 4000 Cubans that are trained to kill him. And nobody’s going to tell him how to run his unit least of all the Harvard mouth in his faggoty white uniform. I need to shake him, put him on the defensive and lead him right where he’s dying to go.
That’s what Trump did to the Republican field, and then to the Republican party, and then to a lot of Americans. It’s hard escaping that conclusion, given the sheer glee with which so many people are embracing the ugliest strains of thought that have been bubbling beneath the surface of American society pretty much since the beginning. Trump shook them, put them on the defensive, and then he led them right where they were dying to go.
Donald Trump knows nothing at all. Nearly every time he opens his mouth about policy, one of three things becomes clear: he knows nothing about it, or he doesn’t give a shit about it, or both. And that’s it. Any policy discussion coming from this man is a nonstarter, and he is enabled in Congress by both houses in control of his own party that has been more and more firmly embracing ignorance across the board for years. It’s clear to me that we’re witnessing a slow unraveling of a lot of what Americans have spent the better part of the last century building. How far this process gets is a matter of concern, but things will be worse before they get better, and all Democrats can hope to do is contain some of the damage. But having one of the two main political parties in the most powerful and richest nation on Earth in the total grip of pure ignorance is a deeply dangerous state of affairs. Right now the main reason that things haven’t fallen off a cliff is that in addition to being a know-nothing, Donald Trump is not especially competent. But this poses dangers of its own. Just looking at the averages, we are due for a recession any year now. When things start going south to a degree that genuinely affects Americans’ livelihoods in a big way, look out.
No, it’s not Hillary Clinton’s fault, either. We’re the ones who make the decision. We’re the ones who cast the ballots. We’re the ones who call the shots, in the end. It’s our fault. Saying anything else reduces elections to the political equivalent of Olympic figure skating, with us as the East German judges: “Sure, she’s more qualified, but she didn’t campaign in Wisconsin enough and she fell on that very last triple Salchow, so what can we do?”
Voting is an action, and actions have consequences. The consequences of America’s vote in 2016 will be felt for decades, and there’s no getting around it.
We screwed up. Everything that happens as a result is our fault.
As a writer I look at the world through the prism of fiction much of the time, and I can’t help thinking that the rise of a Donald Trump figure is predictable in a country whose popular culture thirty years ago–when today’s adults-in-the-prime-of-life were kids–was so deeply dedicated to celebrating the rich, the powerful, and the businesslike. I can’t help thinking that Donald Trump’s every move should be accompanied by a voiceover by Robin Leach, and I also keep thinking about JR Ewing.
I was a huge fan of DALLAS back in the 80s, and let me tell you, even as you winced at some of the shit JR Ewing pulled, it was really hard not to like the guy. For one thing, Larry Hagman’s portrayal of JR is one of the great marriages of character and actor in teevee history, and for another thing, JR was often the focus of some really good writing. If you’re a writer and you want tips on creating a delicious villain, you could do a lot worse than study JR Ewing (during the show’s first seven or eight seasons, anyway).
But JR Ewing also seems to me redolent of the kind of “businessman” Donald Trump seems to portray himself as, which is the kind of person a lot of Americans seem to think is the way a real businessman is. Business in this view is all about maximizing one’s money, and it doesn’t much matter who gets hurt along the way. Business isn’t about making a thing and selling it, so much as about buying things for no other reason than to sell them again sometime down the line. JR Ewing would cheat and swindle. He would do unethical things, make shady deals, and trick partners into giving him money only to wind up with nothing. And he was a womanizer who repeatedly cheated on his wife.
Did we elect Donald Trump because we loved watching JR Ewing on teevee thirty years ago? I’m not saying that, but it is illustrative to note that Americans have, for most of my lifetime, tended to equate money, and the having of lots of it, as a gauge of intelligence. At one of last year’s debates, Hillary Clinton noted with disdain Trump’s apparent success at avoiding paying taxes decades ago. One would expect that people would find that sickening; I know that I did, since I pay all my taxes. Trump’s caustic reply, though? “That makes me smart.” A lot of people approve of that.
For an awful lot of people, it was not a mark against Trump that he bankrupted a casino, or that his roster of utter failures in business far outstrips his roster of successes, or that his retail brands involved products made in China, or any of that. I suspect this is because of how we view money: we all want it, and in America we seem to inherently respect anyone who has it. We view money as a measure of success, and the lack thereof as a measure of failure. And if Donald Trump has ever done anything, it’s convince lots of people that he has worked himself to the bone in order to pile up gobs of money.
But for all that, Trump has always been playing a part. Yes, he has all that money, but he started off rich, and he has always been adept at failing upwards, using various oddities in US bankruptcy and tax laws to make sure that even when his ventures implode he comes away with more money than with which he went in. I suppose there’s some kind of perverse competence at work there, but for an awful lot of Americans none of that matters. All they see is a filthy rich man who has failed a lot and is still filthy rich, and they think that merely being filthy rich is a qualification in itself for office. It’s the same impulse that drove a lot of people to support Ross Perot in 1992, despite his lack of policy knowledge (and he seemed like a total wonk in comparison to Trump). It’s what led to Mitt Romney’s odd stint at the top of Republican circles — yes, he was a governor for a single term, but he won that by virtue of being a rich guy with a lot of money. This is why the pledge to “run government like a business” seems to carry so much weight with Americans, despite it being pretty much utter nonsense.
My own representative in Congress, Chris Collins, is pretty much worthless from a policy standpoint. He ran for Erie County Executive some years ago, literally entirely on the basis of “I’m a successful businessman,” and he pledged after winning to do some weird business thing called “Six Sigma” in Erie County government, which was going to make everything better. Exactly how was never clear, but hey, he was a businessman! He must know a lot and be really good at running things! Except he wasn’t, and he was defeated after a single term of not getting much done at all except pissing people off.
Of course, this being America where lots of people are impressed by businessmen, Collins was able to turn his failure as County Executive into several terms thus far in Congress (with, I am sure, more to come because his seat is incredibly safe, unless it gets redistricted out of existence).
JR Ewing (and other depictions of business people in the 1980s) shaped our idea of what business looks like and what kind of person is successful at business. This, couple with our idea that business is in itself the finest of callings (remember all the talk of George W. Bush being our “first MBA president”? Remember how well that turned out?). We see being successful at business as having the necessary skillset for anything, and since we also view our government as largely sluggish and incompetent, well then, what better sort of person to cut through all the nonsense and make it all better? Why, a businessperson! That is what we need. Businesspeople are all about getting shit done. They take no crap. Screw up and you’re fired. There’s no time for bureaucracy. (Which will come as news to anyone who has ever tried to cancel cable service.)
Thus we get President Donald Trump, a president who acts like he is the fictional head of a Texas oil company. We don’t expect thoughtful, deliberate process; we expect quick and decisive action of the type that only a businessperson can provide. President Donald Trump is not just the unfortunate (and, it is to be hoped, ultimate) expression of our nation’s sometimes-latent, sometimes-overt racism, sexism, homophobia, and general authoritarianism. He is also the expression of a nation that worships wealth and forgives nearly any sin committed to get it.