My Wired Critics class is going to watch Zero Dark Thirty this coming Thursday and to prepare I had them read Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Laden From 9/11 to Abbottabad by Peter L. Bergen. This means I had to re-read it. Hardly a chore. But, this being my fourth time through, you’d think nothing in it would come as a surprise. But I was surprised---by the cameo appearance of Donald Trump. I’d forgotten he shows up.
Manhunt was published in 2012 so Trump shows up as what everyone took him for at the time, a celebrity clown making a public nuisance of himself as the leading Birther of the day. Bergen refers to him dismissively as the “publicity-hungry billionaire Donald Trump” and “the blowhard billionaire” without any sign that it even crossed his mind that come the next presidential election season Trump would not only be running for the Republican nomination, he’d be on the way of winning it. Trump is only in the book because he happened to be at the White House Correspondents dinner that was held on April 30, 2011, the night before the raid that killed Osama bin Laden at his hideout in Pakistan, and President Obama made him the butt of some jokes in his monologue.
At 7 p.m. Saturday, Barack and Michelle Obama showed up as scheduled at the cavernous banquet hall of the Washington Hilton, the president in black tie and the first lady in a brown silk sleeveless gown with a plunging neckline. At the back of his mind, Obama was turning over the details of the Abbottabad operation, but he still managed to deliver a hilarious after-dinner monologue centered largely on the faux controversy about whether he was actually an American citizen. In the audience was Donald Trump, the blowhard billionaire who had been especially vocal in questioning the president's citizenship, and who hosted the NBC reality show Celebrity Apprentice. Obama began his monologue by saying, "My fellow Americans...Donald Trump is here tonight! Now, I know no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than 'the Donald.' And that's because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter---like, did we fake the moon landing?...But all kidding aside, obviously, we all know about [Donald Trump's] credentials and breadth of experience. for example---no, seriously, just recently, in an episode of Celebrity Apprentice---at the steakhouse, the men's cooking team did not impress the judges from Omaha Steaks. And there was a lot of blame to go around. but you, Mister Trump, recognized the real problem was a lack of leadership. And so ultimately, you didn't blame Lil' John or meatloaf. You fired Gary Busey. And these are the kinds of decisions that would keep me up at night. Well handled, sir. Well handled." Trump listened with a pained smirk.
Of course we soon learned what kind of decision would be keeping the president up that night. And, if the New York Times is right, we now know what kind of decision was in process behind Trump's pained smirk.
If the Times is right, the public humiliation of that night is a big part of the reason Trump is on the way to becoming the Republican nominee for President:
That evening of public abasement, rather than sending Mr. Trump away, accelerated his ferocious efforts to gain stature within the political world. And it captured the degree to which Mr. Trump’s campaign is driven by a deep yearning sometimes obscured by his bluster and bragging: a desire to be taken seriously.
I say “if the Times is right” because, like much of the analysis of Trump’s campaign and its success so far, the Times’ article is built on their reporters trying to figure out what Trump’s thinking based on what he’s done and said and the problem with that is that there’s pretty much no thinking behind the things he does and says. Trump is motivated by ego, vanity, appetite, whim, and a conman’s instinctive grasp for what draws in the suckers and convinces them to part with their money. He does whatever he does and says whatever he says pretty much because he feels like it. He doesn’t think. He acts. Which is a main source of his appeal. People who don’t think but feel deeply like that about him. You can’t analyze the thinking of someone who isn’t in fact thinking. On top of that, he’s a liar. But not as reflexive a liar as he’s often supposed. So if you ask him to explain himself, you can’t be sure if his answer is truthful, a lie, or a combination.
Trump himself denied to the Times that the President’s jokes bothered him the least little bit, let alone caused him to make up his mind to run for president himself.
In an interview on Friday, Mr. Trump acknowledged that he had encountered many who doubted or dismissed him as a political force before now. “I realized that unless I actually ran, I wouldn’t be taken seriously,” he said. But he denied having been troubled by Mr. Obama’s derision.
“I loved that dinner,” Mr. Trump said, adding, “I can handle criticism.”
That last statement of his is a lie, but maybe he did have a good time at the dinner and the pained smirk wasn’t as pained as it looked. It doesn’t really matter. The point of the Times’ article is that around that time Trump was taking steps to get people to take him seriously as a political mover and shaker. And his most telling and effective step, which the Times only glances at and which Bergen didn’t grasp at the time, was making himself the hero of the Birthers.
Trump’s first move, then, towards making himself a viable candidate for the Republican nomination was to encourage and exploit the belief that a black man could not be President of the United States.
He’s still at it.
He’s dropped the Birther crap but the warp and woof of his campaign is racist contempt for the President whom he constantly derides as weak, incompetent, and not very bright or at least not as smart as he, the Donald himself, but then who is? Not a black guy, at any rate, that’s for sure.
And his supporters eat this up with a spoon!
Or better to say with a knife and fork, smothered in barbeque sauce. It’s red meat to them.
I’ve written before about a trend among political journalists and pundits to warn Democrats that they need to sympathize with Trump voters and take their worries and concerns seriously or...else! As far as I can tell it’s mainly a case of elitist journalists trying to prove their blue collar cred by speaking up for people they don’t sympathize with or take seriously themselves and in fact look down upon and despise. Maybe they’re sincere. Maybe they don’t just put on their hard hats and workboots when they sit down at their keyboards and they’re all working class heroes even when they’re away from the computer. I don’t know. And I don’t care. What I care about is that generally their apologies for Trump voters excuse, explain away, minimize, or just out and out ignore those Trump voters’ xenophobia and racism. And they do it while quoting Trump voters cheerfully, proudly, and belligerently declaring they’re racist and xenophobic and that’s why they’re for Trump.
The line generally runs like this: Trump voters are just average working stiffs who’ve been shafted by the economy and used and abused by the elites of both parties who want their votes but have done nothing to help make their lives and circumstances better in return.
For some reason, the pundits think these people are people Democrats need to be nice to because they’re people who ought to be voting Democratic.
Yes, they ought to be. But they don’t and they won’t, not because they don’t understand their own best interests but because they understand all too well that the Democrats don’t stand for one of their main beliefs---that it’s a crying shame that “we” have to share the country with “them.”
Trump did not set forth as the champion of the economically hardpressed. He set forth as the champion of people who blame their hard times on THEM!
Those other people!
Black people, brown people, Asian people, female people, liberal people, any people who aren’t “our” people.
It’s true that, traditionally, blue collar workers have been an important part of the Democratic coalition, but things change and it’s been a very long time since they were reliably so. The roots of their disaffection wind their way from far back---from the Cold War through the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, and the decline of America’s industrial dominance in the world in the 1970s. Whether the ones who gave up on the Democratic Party were eventually lured away by the likes of Richard Nixon and George Wallace or pushed away by the likes of Gary Hart and Jimmy Carter or it was a combination is worth debating, but it would be a debate about history. The present fact is when it comes to Trump’s voters, if there are Democrats among them, the last Democrat they voted for for President was probably Lyndon Johnson.
But let’s get some things straight.
Not all working people are white.
Not all white working people are for Trump.
Not all Trump voters are blue collar workers.
And very few of them are Democrats.
Now, working people of all colors are an important part of the Democratic coalition. Millions of them, including millions who are white, vote Democratic election year in and election year out. Their problems and concerns are of great matter to Democratic politicians from mayors on up to the President. The question is have they mattered enough lately and by lately I mean over the last twenty-five years?
My feeling is no. I think they’ve been taken for granted to the point of having been neglected. I think there have been too many Democratic politicians whose only offered solution to working people’s economic distress has been, basically, “Go back to school!” Which, considering how that’s actually impossible for many people because it costs money they don’t have and requires time they don’t have, is the liberal version of “Get a job!” I think Democrats need to worry more about these people and do more for them for their sake and for the sake of the party, not to mention the country---people should not be left hurting. These are Democratic voters who might be tempted to go over to Trump but are even more likely to just stay home, and the economy is stronger when the middle class is growing and thriving.
This is why I’m glad Bernie Sanders is in the race and why I’ve been glad he’s been doing so well. (Why I don’t plan to vote for him in the primary is another long post. Well, actually, it’s half a dozen posts that are stuck in my notebooks. I suppose I should dig them out before they’re irrelevant.) I think Hillary would have played it too safe, sounded too cautious (Yes, I know she sounds that way anyway to many of you.) if he wasn’t in it and pressing hard. She’s holding a rally in Cohoes, New York Monday. If there’s any town in New York that’s potentially a Trumpville because of its economic woes, it’s Cohoes. It’s not all that surprising that Hillary’s going there if you followed her Senate career. (This is part of the reason I’m voting for her and something else that ought to be a post of its own if I can blast it out of the notebooks.) But I’m not sure she would be going there if Bernie hadn’t made it so she can’t take an easy and lopsided victory in New York for granted.
Millions of people were knocked sideways by the Recession and are still suffering from it. But they’re not all voting for an irresponsible, reckless, egomaniacal, megalomaniacal, xenophobic, racist demagogue. They’re voting for Bernie. They’re voting for Hillary. They’d vote for some sane and responsible Republican if there was one running. The people voting for Trump are people who want to vote for an irresponsible, reckless, egomaniacal, megalomaniacal, misogynistic, xenophobic, racist demagogue because they like all that about him and think he’s just what the country needs.
At best, the pundits are asking Democrats to feel sorry for these Trump voters because they share the same economic woes as every other candidates’ voters.
And I guess we should. I guess we should.
But they make it very hard and not just by being racists, xenophobes, know-nothings, and misogynists themselves.
Trump voters are people who believe Trump is smart because he’s rich. They believe he knows what’s what because he tells them he does. They believe he’s qualified to do the job because of what they’ve seen on Celebrity Apprentice. They believe that his decision to fire Gary Busey is equivalent to deciding to send the Seals into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden, and that all the decisions a president has to make are that simple and that easy.
They believe that what the country needs to solve all its problems (really, their problems) is a big, strong man with a loud voice who will tell THEM, THOSE OTHERS what to do and where to get off, who when he tells THEM, THOSE OTHERS to jump, THEY, THOSE OTHERS will have to answer How high? And any of THEM, THOSE OTHERS who don’t jump high enough, fast enough, and far enough in the right direction gets fired.
In short, they believe that what the country needs is a boss.
There’s a technical term for a political leader like that.
And we’re supposed to sympathize with people who want one of those?
To get back to Manhunt before I sign off here. Like I said, Trump appears in the book as what most people took him for at the time of that Correspondents Dinner on the last night of April, 2011, a buffoon and a bully throwing his money and weight around just for the attention and deserving of the President’s scorn. And, again like I said, because Trump can’t explain his own thinking because he doesn’t think, he feels, and because he’s motivated by appetite, vanity, and whim and so there’s really no method to much of his madness, and because he’s a liar, it’s hard to know to what degree he was hurt by the President’s joking at the Correspondents’ Dinner and how much it increased his determination to make himself a serious political force. But it’s easy to believe that what the President did the next night, the first night of May, came as a terrible wound to his vanity and ego.
The President went on television and announced that Osama bin Laden was dead on the President’s orders, demonstrating without his having to say it, without his even thinking about it---and he wouldn’t have been even if he’d been inclined to---that he was as a President everything Trump claimed he wasn’t and that he, the Donald was in comparison exactly what the President implied with his jokes, a TV clown pretending to be serious and important.
That’s really still what he is, he’s just got millions of Republican yahoos pretending along with him, which unfortunately makes him serious and important and in an extremely frightening way.
Still, there’s an amusing irony in this from Manhunt:
As the Obama national security team left the Situation Room and the president was making some final edits to his remarks, TV screens in the White House were tuned to the regularly scheduled programming that the bin Laden announcement would soon interrupt. Tony Blinken [Joe Biden’s top security advisor] noticed that on NBC, the show that was going to be interrupted was Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice. “You can’t write this stuff,” says Blinken.
Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden From 9/11 to Abbottabad by Peter L. Bergen is available in paperback and for kindle at Amzaon.
And click on the link if you'd like to read the whole of that New York Times article by Maggie Haberman and Alexander Burns, Donald Trump's Presidential Run Began in an Effort to Gain Stature.
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