I have gone back and forth with my view on Donald Trump for a long while; but it has become much clearer in the last few weeks.
A while back I was having a discussion with an old friend, who I also occasionally podcast with, and who goes by the online name of ‘Mumra 2K’ (‘Thundercats’ reference, FYI). Discussing the American presidential race, I naturally explained to him why I despise Hillary Clinton and why – if I were an American voter – I would prefer almost anyone to her as a President: yes, even Donald Trump, I said.
My friend was aghast to hear me say that: how could I possibly defend Trump? He further argued that Trump is an extreme danger to everyone and that his rise was comparable to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party.
I disagreed with him, and argued that while there are a lot of worrying, dangerous elements around the Trump campaign (mostly certain sections if his supporters), an actual Trump presidency probably wouldn’t be anything like as catastrophic as establishment media and politicians are making out. I argued that Trump is simply putting on a show and appealing to the lowest common denominator in order to win support; and that he says all these provocative things merely for sensationalism and coverage – and that, at any rate, once he comes into office his tune will change, as there is an entire, complex political apparatus around the office of president – for better or worse – that will negate him being able to implement some of his worst ideas.
‘It’s just a show,’ I told him. Don’t get swept up in all the corporate media scaremongering and anti-Trump campaigning, I told him.
We agreed to disagree.
But I’ve started to realise he may have been more right and I was possibly being more naive than I thought.
Reading this, you might ask how I could be so clueless as to not realise the dangers Trump presents.
For one thing, I was probably slightly blinded by my outright resentment of Hillary; and I was probably also vaguely amused by the idea of an outsider (of sorts) coming along and trying to upset the status quo, particularly when the Republican Party started to fall apart around him (seeing Ted Cruz lose is always pleasant).
Also, the fact that mainstream media and Establishment politicians embarked on such a pronounced anti-Trump campaign (even though it was, in effect, a pro-Trump campaign for all the insane level of coverage it gave him) naturally made me question the validity of all the anti-Trump commentary – because, you know, if corporate media and politicians go out of their way to trash or derail a political figure, there’s often a fair chance that he’s doing something right (just witness, for example, how the mainstream British press deals with Jeremy Corbyn).
Even now, a part of me still wonders if Trump actually might be a better president than his divisive and offensive campaign showmanship and casual racism suggests. As I’m not in America, however, I wasn’t paying as much attention to the genuinely worrying, dangerous signs and incidents that my friend was picking up on.
On some level, I still doubt that Trump himself would be ‘dangerous’, at least not in a vacuum.
But Trump isn’t campaigning in a vacuum. These are very dangerous and highly toxic, volatile times in both America and the world. And Trump has deliberately played with fire and opened up a pandora’s box.
What’s curious about ‘Trump Mania’ is that it has all the properties of a cult.
It has become more and more obvious that the vast numbers of people rallying around Trump are less like mere ‘supporters’ and more like ‘followers’. Their attitude towards Trump, their attitude towards people who are against Trump, and even Trump’s way of speaking about himself, are all highly cult-like.
Trump, partly empowered by his preexisting celebrity status, has built up a cult of personality around himself that seems not dissimilar to what a number of dictators (or even cult leaders like Jim Jones) have done over the years. That’s why many of his proclamations don’t even need to hold water or make sense – because the cult of personality is what matters, and scores and scores of people are flocking to that cult and are so fanatical that they’re willing to defend the ‘leader’ of the cult violently (witness the assault on artist Illma Gore in Los Angeles).
Which is not to say that Trump would be a dictator or even sees himself that way – I don’t believe he does.
But what’s weird is that many of his followers would probably be perfectly happy for him to be a dictator. As Trump himself said (in Iowa); he could kill someone and still be able to rely on the loyalty of his supporters. “I have the most loyal people – did you ever see that? I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot people and I wouldn’t lose voters.”
This is where I start to reconsider my friend’s view of the Trump movement potentially being like the Nazi Party. It’s not that the ideologies are comparable necessarily; and we really can’t truthfully liken Trump to Hitler in either an ideological sense or in terms of personality or intention.
Comparing Trump to Hitler as a person is just cheap, low-quality journalistic sensationalism. But in essence, I’m not sure it’s even about Trump – it’s more about his followers.
And not all of his followers, for that matter – it would be unfair to tar all Trump supporters with the same brush. Many are simply – and justifiably – fed up with Establishment politicians and see Trump as the self-financed outsider who isn’t playing the establishment game (at least he doesn’t appear to be). That’s why I have generally hesitated to fully dislike Trump or buy into all of the anti-Trump campaigning: because he does appear to be the anti-establishment Republican, just as Sanders is the anti-establishment Democrat.
The difference is that Sanders may be non-establishment, but he isn’t an igniter of violence or sectarianism either, and his supporters are generally liberals and progressives who’re interested in progressive politics for *all* people and not just the interests of an angry section of white, right-wing voters.
It isn’t Trump himself, but the most fanatical, toxic section of his following that could genuinely be dangerous.
Extreme right-wingers, hardcore xenophobes, Mexican haters, Muslim haters, white supremacists, religious fundamentalists, willing to commit violent acts – many of them no doubt being gun-owners who consider the ‘right to bear arms’ a No.1 priority – have found someone to fully mobilise around. Trump’s idiocy is that he has willingly positioned himself as that person, so that – whether he genuinely holds those views or not – he is emboldening and empowering the very worst and most extreme elements of the Republican support-base to legitimise or reinforce those views.
He has unleashed a monster: and he might not be able to put that monster back in the den once he has accomplished his mission to get into the White House.
If he wins, there may be riots and unrest from alarmed liberals and left-wingers – which will prompt fanatical responses from the right-wing activists. If he loses, there may be unrest from his supporters. It may be that Trump has unleashed a monster now regardless of what the actual outcome of his presidential bid is. If he has, then the mass media has been complicit in helping to accomplish that.
This substantial undercurrent of Republican voters – these people who hold deep xenophobic attitudes and racist views, outdated attitudes towards women, etc, and subscribe to the idea that ‘white Americans’ are under some sort of threat – has always been there, long before Trump came along.
What Trump, Steve Bannon and co seem to have done is simply recognise how useful they could be to his presidential campaign and then played upon all of their prejudices and views in order win their support.
Some of these being people with an affinity for the KKK mentality or right-wing militias, some being people with an entrenched dislike of all non-mainstream and non-white communities, some being the kinds of people – and I know these guys’ minds and have clashed with some of them myself over the years – who’ve spent the last 8 years seething with indignation that there has been a black president of the United States.
I still highly doubt that Trump himself genuinely identifies with them – but has simply played off of their basest tendencies for his own good: he even seemed to dryly hint at this himself when he said something recently to the effect of “I love uneducated people”.
I thought for the longest time – and a part of me still thinks – that Trump has simply been playing a game. Saying controversial things to ensure mass coverage. Playing the anti-immigrant card and insulting Mexicans and Muslims to appeal to the xenophobe masses in key areas.
I don’t know if I believe Trump himself is a raging Islamophobe or hates Mexicans – he just knows that’s what a vast amount of the Republican voter base does believe in and wants to hear: so he gives it to them.
But it’s not just a cheap game; it’s also a dangerous game. He is helping make those ideas and views seem all the more legitimate to those who hold them, especially because Trump isn’t the archetypal redneck, religious fundamentalist or cowboy warmonger, but a New Yorker, a successful businessman and generally a more worldly (in their eyes) type of figure.
And the fact that he has just met with Henry Kissinger for policy advice suggests he isn’t quite the out-of-control rogue element that many portray him as, and that once he wins the presidency he can be re-assimilated quite easily by the Establishment.
But there is also a genuine danger that Trump has become lost in his own game, no doubt because it has gone so well; that he has genuinely started to believe his own press releases and started to actually *believe* some of the things he has otherwise said only to appease the angry right-wing masses. And the more they’ve shown immense loyalty to and conviction in him, the more he’s gone down the path that makes them happy and the more – perhaps – he considers himself duty-bound to follow through on all these ideas.
His campaign has sounded a trumpet blow for every unhinged right-wing lunatic to believe that their day in the sun has come again and that it’s time to ‘take back America’.
Trump’s unpredictable, sometimes out-of-control, rallies might be indicative of the type of trouble ahead.
In August last year, two Trump supporters allegedly beat up a homeless man with a metal rod.
On March 9th a white Trump supporter named John McGraw punched a black protester named Rakeem Jones at a rally – and threatened to kill him the next time they met. One of the most troubling things about this story, in my view, was McGraw actually didn’t say ‘I’ might have to kill him, but ‘we’.
That simple choice of word to me is indicative of a dangerous pack/cult mentality on people like McGraw’s part.
While incidents like this are often portrayed in terms of a racial divide, we should also note that another incident where a black Trump supporter also assaulted a (white) protester (which was actually worse assault than the McGraw attack) after said protester had superimposed Trump’s face over a Confederate flag.
Yet there is undeniably a race issue too. On March 3rd, protesters at a rally in Kentucky were assaulted by members of a white supremacist group.
This doesn’t even appear to be the bad actions of a few rogue elements: Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, has been accused of assaulting a reporter, and was caught on film during the March 19th rally (in Arizona), manhandling a protester by the collar.
Meanwhile a few days after John McGraw was charged for his assault, Trump – instead of condemning the act or discouraging violence – publicly offered to pay McGraw’s legal fees.
That isn’t new. As Vox noted, in November last year, a Trump supporter “punched and attempted to choke” a protester at a rally in Birmingham, Alabama; instead of discouraging or condemning it, Trump simply said “maybe he deserved to get roughed up.”
On March 4th in Michigan, just a day after the white supremacist violence in Kentucky, Trump – when interrupted by a protester – said “Get him out. Try not to hurt him,” and then added “If you do I’ll defend you in court.”
The question is whether this tension and violence is going to escalate. Is it a taster of what might follow after this year?
In truth, Trump’s supporters aren’t the only offenders: it’s a two-way street, with those opposed to Trump also sometimes using intimidation and aggression. Trump had to cancel a rally in Chicago on March 13th because of hundreds of protesters creating a dangerous environment of intimidation, with all the ingredients necessary to trigger violent confrontations. Some right-wing outlets – like Alex Jones, for example – have also accused Bernie Sanders supporters of violent protests too.
The difference is that Sanders isn’t encouraging such behaviour, nor has Sanders contrived a cult of personality around himself, and nor has he incited any kind of racial tension or played on people’s sectarian natures.
Trump has had plenty of time and opportunity to try to calm his supporters down; but encouraging them into a frenzy has worked to his campaign’s benefit, helping turn it into something much more like a ‘movement’ with a cult mentality.
When you have that kind of mass cult-like following around you and then you appear to encourage violence, bad things are going to happen.
Trump simply never presents himself as someone who minds those violent tendencies on the part of his followers. “Part of the problem and part of the reason it takes so long [to kick them out] is nobody wants to hurt each other anymore,” he jokingly complained at a recent rally, concerning how to deal with protesters. The Tea-Party-inspired masses cheer and whistle and chant their mantras; and he carries on with the pantomime, because it’s working.
As entertaining as much of the media may find all of this or as good for ratings as it may be, this actually isn’t funny.
The panic that erupted throughout the Republican Party in recent months, which I previously found amusing, was probably actually justified. Trump’s campaign hasn’t just disrupted the Republican establishment, but threatens to put what they consider an unpredictable, rogue element (with a fiercely loyal and dangerous personal following) into the White House.
Some alarmist figures in mainstream journalism have said a Trump presidency will be disastrous for foreign policy and may lead to World War III. I disagree with that view; I generally think Hillary would be worse for foreign policy (given her horrendous track record) than Trump would be. Actually, I tend to think Trump wouldn’t be too bad when it comes to foreign policy, seemingly favoring a less aggressive and more isolationist position. In fact, this is probably a major reason why I’ve been slow to see Trump as a problem: a Trump presidency would probably be less hawkish in international terms than a Hillary one.
But the area where Trump presents potentially serious problems is domestically. The potential of a Trump presidency to severely exacerbate divisions in American society – along cultural, racial, religious, even gender lines – and create mounting unrest is palpable.
And it may ultimately benefit Hillary who, as the Trump controversies and tensions continue to be ramped up, will seem like the only ‘safe’ choice to lots of worried voters.
In fact I’m not the only one who has wondered for a while if the Trump campaign/hysteria has in fact been a manufactured ‘inside job’ all along to ensure Hillary’s path to the Oval Office.
But even if it is/was, the Trump campaign may have gathered so much momentum that it becomes unstoppable and Trump ends up as President.
I still genuinely don’t believe Trump himself is a lunatic or fascist. Rather, he is a stupid, bumbling, politically inexperienced person who has opened up a dangerous pandora’s box in order to win grassroots support and bypass the Republican establishment.
He has crafted an act meant for maximum appeal to a vast, volatile and unfriendly section of the electorate; but now may find himself having to fully embrace that act, along with all the consequences of the pandora’s box he has cynically opened.
What that might look like if he actually wins the Oval Office is anyone’s guess.