Posted Thursday, June 30, 2016. Updated below, July 19.
Photo via the New York Daily News.
I have no idea what goes on inside Donald Trump’s head. Whatever it is, it’s apparently not coherent thought. The image of him from the other day giving his canned trade speech in front of stacks of garbage baled for recycling is symbolic on many levels but it doesn’t seem quite apt as a metaphor for his thinking. Sure, his head is full of recycled trash, but the stacks in the pictures are too neat and well-ordered. I used to think that whatever else there was going on under the weave, at least a part of him that knew what he was doing. Not about how to run for president, necessarily, but how to run a decent con.
Trump, I thought, had a side-show barker’s genius for sizing up a crowd, identifying the suckers, and making the right pitch to draw them in and part them from their money.
But he seems to have forgotten the flim-flam man’s first rule---Don’t let yourself get flimmed by your own flam---and fallen for his own sales pitch, which is: What this country needs to make it great again is to put a guy who knows better than anyone else how to get things done in charge and I’m that guy!
That notion, that Donald Trump is the guy who knows how to get it all done, as much as the racism, xenophobia, and misogyny, is a major source of his appeal.
Before I barrel on: I know. I know. We’re not supposed to sneer at the rubes who’ve fallen for his sales pitch. They’re just a bunch of regular working Joes and Janes who’ve been battered by the economy and had their interests and concerns ignored by the political elites of both parties. Democrats especially should know better. These folks---white, working class---have always been a major constituency and the party needs their votes.
All right. Again. All working class people aren’t white. All white working class people aren’t Trump voters. All Trump voters aren’t working class.
Economic anxiety and frustration are at work among Trump voters because they’re at work among all voters, even among the rich. But not all of us are dealing with it by planning to vote for a racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, ignorant, irresponsible bully boy and cheat who has no clear idea of how he’d govern except as essentially a dictator.
Yes, you bet they’re worried. For many the worry is how they’re going to buy groceries and get the furnace fixed and pay for their kids’ braces and if they’re going to have a job next week, if they have a job this week. But Trump’s voters also include a lot of people who are mad because they have to put off buying a boat. This is a core Republican constituency, people who think they should be rich and feel they’ve been done out of their due by THEM!
That THEM! Includes bankers and Republican Party establishment types doesn’t mitigate that THEM! to them are mainly black people, brown people, women people, gay people, liberal people, smart people, immigrant people, foreign people, and all NOT JUST LIKE US people.
What unites the truly struggling with the merely temporarily boat-deprived isn't economic anxiety. It's a sense of having been robbed of their due by THEM! They're united in their resentment of and their blaming of THEM! And they're not going to be persuaded to vote Democratic because the Democrats are the party of THEM! Which is fine with the Democrats and fine for the Democrats because THEM! is the the majority of Americans as well as the Democratic base.
I'm willing to believe that not all Trump voters are racists, xenophobes, misogynists, and other types of haters and bigots---although you have to wonder why those who aren't aren't repulsed by Trump's racist and bigoted demagoguery enough to vote against putting the racist and bigot in the White House. Do they think he doesn't mean it and that somehow makes it all right? Or do they not hear it? Or does it just not bother them? And if it doesn't bother them then what makes them better than the outright racists and xenophobes who are their fellow Trump voters?
Questions for another day.
I am not just willing to believe, I in fact do believe that not all of Trump's appeal is his racism, hatreds, and bigotries.
As I and plenty of others have pointed out again and again, all of Trump’s primary opponents were making the same appeals to the worst of the Republican base. He wasn’t saying things any of them weren’t saying either individually or in chorus. He just said it with more passion, force, style, and seeming conviction.
But all that passion, force, style, and conviction added up in his voters’ minds to the sense that he was the candidate who would get things done. And this is what they were looking for.
Someone who could get things done to make America great again, with the main thing needing doing being sticking it to THEM!
It’s a depressing or amusing fact, depending on how tragic or ironic view you take of human beings and their nature, that people have a tendency to think that all problems have a simple and obvious solution and that’s “The world would be a better place if everybody just did things my way way.”
When it comes to solving problems and getting things done, we don’t put our faith in intelligence, or education, or expertise. We put our faith in our own common sense. And that’s what common sense is: what I have and (fill in the blank with your preferred THEY) don’t.
We persist in believing this even when all the evidence adds up to our not possessing an ounce of common sense and our way being most definitely the wrong way. And rather than accept the evidence we decide that the reason our way isn’t working is that someone else is to blame. We’re not the ones who lack common sense. It’s HIM! Or HER! Or THEM! Someone else is screwing up or causing us to screw up. The system is rigged! The people running the rigged system are corrupt or stupid or perverse. The trouble isn’t we’re the screw-ups. The trouble is we don’t have the power to force people to do it our way, the right way, the unscrewed-up way. So that’s what’s needed. Somebody smart enough to see the problem for what it is and know what needs to be done to fix it. Somebody who thinks just like us but who’s tough enough and powerful enough to force them to go along or get out of the way. Somebody who knows the angles, knows the score, knows their tricks. Somebody who can beat the bastards at their own game.
Solving problems is always a simple matter of knowing how to get things done and taking charge. Everything is easy after that,
What the country needs, then, to make it great it again is somebody who will take charge. Not a dictator, necessarily. Not even an authoritarian in a literal sense of the word. But a boss! Somebody THEY! have to listen to or else. Somebody who’ll tell THEM! what do to do and make them do it.
Somebody like Donald Trump.
And that’s what Donald Trump has been selling himself as for years.
Somebody like Donald Trump.
The thing is that, like I said, I in my innocence assumed Donald Trump himself knew he was running a con. I assumed he knew that what he was selling, somebody like Donald Trump was a fraud and he knew he was nothing like Donald Trump because there is nobody like Donald Trump. Nobody like that Donald Trump, at any rate.
That Donald Trump is always and everywhere what the real Donald Trump boasts he is, the smartest, most getting-it-done man in the place. That Donald Trump operates in a world where there is a simple, commonsensical solution to every problem including problems that arise from running a country of 300 million people with a multi-trillion dollar economy trying to get along in the world with 6 billion other human beings.
I assumed he knew that, however smart he believed he was and on whatever evidence, there were plenty of people who were smarter. I assumed he knew that often when he got the better of people in a business deal it wasn’t because they weren’t smart or as smart. He’d simply outsmarted them on that one, the way he was sometimes outsmarted. I assumed he knew that often he hadn’t gotten things done as much as he’d just gotten away with it.
I assumed that the disarray of his campaign, the lack of staff and a field organization, the lack of money, his refusal to control himself, the things that looked as if he was flailing and floundering as the fun and games of the primaries were over and he suddenly found himself facing a serious and formidable opponent were due to his faith in the con. Why should he control himself? Why should he give up his clown act? It works! Works with his base, at any rate. And his business career was based on getting other people to pay the bills and do the hard work and then taking all the credit and pocketing as much of the loot for himself as he could. He was simply running for president the way he’d run his businesses. He was counting on the GOP establishment his base loathes to step in and put together a field organization and pay to staff it. He was confident the party’s regular big donors would pony up. And he was laughing up his sleeve as he bided his time.
But I’ll say it again, I assumed he knew.
Now I’m not so sure.
I forget what it was---a random tweet, a remark during a speech, something I read he’d said, or a sudden inspiration on my part---but something struck me and caused me to think, Oh my God! He really believes he’s DONALD TRUMP!
All through the primaries up until he clinched he gleefully called out his opponents for what they were, empty suits and lightweights, second and third raters, fools and dolts. I thought that was Trump’s one great political insight, that the Republican clown car was a clown car. The political media was dutifully taking the GOP establishment’s word that this was the deepest bench the party had ever had but Trump, with a bully’s talent for identifying others’ weaknesses, sized them all up, figured them all out, and seized his opportunity. When after he’d won the adjective presumptive he began talking about them as if they were each worthy challengers he’d had to take on and knock out one by one, like a prizefighter working his way up to a championship bout, I took it at face value, as an opportunistic line of attack on Hillary. Here he was, with 15 KOs to his credit, and she was still desperately trying to put away a bum like Crazy Bernie, so who was the real champ in this fight?
But now I think he really believes he was the political equivalent of his “friend” Muhammad Ali taking down George Foreman on his way to Manilla to fight Joe Frazier, except that Crooked Hillary would turn out to be a lot less tough an opponent than Smokin’ Joe.
In his own mind he truly is the Greatest!
Trump is a clown. And he’s a con artist. But what he mainly is is a salesman. And a good salesman has to believe in his product. So maybe instead of saying he’s fallen for his own con, it’s better to say that he’s bought his own product. He’s sold himself DONALD TRUMP.
The deluxe model with all the options.
He’s his own best customer.
He’s sold himself the belief that he is the smartest guy in the place, the only one who really knows how to get things done. He’s bought the conviction that all he has to do to win the election and go on to being a great president is to be show up on TV, at rallies, and on Twtter and be what he is. He’s going to win and govern on sheer force of personality and strength of will.
I don’t know if there’s much difference between his being an extremely satisfied customer or a complete sucker. Either way he’s a less interesting and more ridiculous character than if he’s a clear-eyed, calculating, cynical villain. But it makes him even more dangerous.
Trump seems motivated mainly by appetite, ego, vanity, and whim, but if that’s all there is to him, if there isn’t at least a cynical intelligence at work as well, if he has no common sense, then he has no inner restraint at all and that makes him a madman. I know people are saying he’s a madman. I’ve called him a racist lunatic. But I thought I was being hyperbolic with the lunatic part.
Updated July 19, 2016. I wrote most of this at the end of June before the Star of David horror and the farcical choice Mike Pence for VP. In the weeks since, Trump has shown himself to be more appalling and more resilient than he was looking at the time, although neither is surprising anymore. I probably should revise the post taking recent events into account and making use of Josh Marshal’s ongoing analysis Trump’s political and psychological pathology, this BuzzFeed article by McKay Coppins, and especially Jane Meyer’s interview at the New Yorker with Trump’s ghost writer, all of which work to confirm my suspicion that Trump is his own first and most completely conned sucker. A post for another day.