Another one mined from the notebooks. June 17, 2016. Posted Wednesday, November 1.
I try not to make election predictions. There’s no percentage in it. I don’t get paid to stir up debate to bring in eyeballs and bump up the clicks so I can’t fail upward. I don’t get rewarded for being wrong because I was wrong in a way that served the business model. All I can be is wrong.
I don’t like being wrong.
The other thing is, I don’t mind not knowing.
Making predictions is a way of fooling yourself into thinking you know.
And I don’t know.
At best, I have an idea.
I have an idea of what’s going on.
Sometimes it’s a pretty good idea.
Usually, however, it’s only a vague one. Often the vaguest idea.
Since he’s become the “presumptive nominee”---I put that in quotes only because I swear this is the first election in my lifetime I’ve heard that phrase used to describe the candidate with enough delegates that their nomination at their party’s convention was pretty much a sure thing. In the past, as far as I can recall, people were content to call them the candidate with enough votes that their nomination’s pretty much a sure thing. Too many words, I guess, to fit on a chyron or in a Tweet.---Since he became the presumptive nominee back in May, honest and self-shamed pundits and analysts have been busy explaining how come they predicted Trump wouldn’t win or, at any rate, how they failed to predict he would. Nate Silver seems to feel especially guilty and in need of offering what sounds almost like an apology.
Since I didn’t predict anything, I don’t have anything to apologize for. But I did have an idea and it wasn’t a vague idea. It was the wrong idea.
I had the idea he would fade.
It chagrins me to keep having to admit this, but for a long while back last year had that idea and held onto it. I expected Trump would fade because I was sure people would get tired of him and his act.
After all, he’s boring.
He bores me, at any rate.
Same song, same jokes, same shtick, delivered the same hammy, obviously overly-pleased with himself way.
But I forgot.
Donald Trump is a clown but he’s also something else. A salesman.
A great one.
Took a while for me to realize the reason I didn’t appreciate his routine was I wasn’t in the market looking to buy what he was selling. I don’t need the brand of snake-oil he’s peddling. I’m not sure what brand that is, maybe because I don’t need it. I like to pride myself on not being a sucker for any brand of political snake oil or patent medicines, homeopathic remedies, or magic cure-alls. Oh, maybe from time to time I’ve reached for the political equivalent a bottle of cold medicine or cough syrup or an aspirin and I think we’re about to overdose on that metaphor. Point is, since I wasn’t buying what he was selling, which from what I could tell from listening with half an ear was the same old Right Wing Republican mixture of resentment, grievance, hatred, anger, fear, and the kind of self-pity that’s hard to distinguish from self-loathing, I found his relentless patter tiresome, and I figured it wouldn’t be long before most Republicans got tired of hearing it too.
There was never a time when I didn’t take him seriously as a dangerous demagogue tapping into the the fears, angers, and hatreds of a significant portion of the Republican base. I knew he’d get a lot of votes and amass delegates. I didn’t think he would win the nomination, but I always thought he could. I didn’t dismiss the polls or ignore the polls. I just didn’t trust them.
Too early to tell, I was saying to myself---and online and to my worried students---well into fall. After all, the polls in the fall of 2008 had Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson leading John McCain by wide margins. And the polls now had Ben Carson in second place, and at points even leading. So I figured that as the primaries drew closer and voters really started paying attention one of the guys I was pretty sure would be the nominee--probably Jeb, maybe Rubio, but quite possibly Cruz---would start rising in the polls and Trump along with Carson would plateau and then fade.
I made several mistakes. The first was I was slow to realize just how truly awful a candidate Jeb Bush was.
Then I didn’t look closely at the GOP’s rules for winning the primary so I didn’t know just how few delegates the eventual winner would need and I took it for granted that Trump’s running for a long time at just a little of over a third in the polls wouldn’t get him close enough to the nomination. (As it turned out, he won over half the delegates with significantly less than 50% of the popular vote---1441 and 44.9%, respectively.) And I underestimated just how eager the media would be to help him sell his snake-oil.
But my big mistake was not seeing soon enough what he is.
What else he is.
I saw him for the effective demagogue he is. I saw him for the clown he is. I didn’t see him for the great salesman he is. I didn’t see was that the clowning and the demagoguery were part of a sales pitch. And I didn’t see what he was selling along with the racism and the anger and the hatred.
That’s the not-so-secret secret ingredient in the snake oil.
And for most people SUCCESS means money. Lots of it.
Sure, there are other things that go with it. Status, influence, opportunities for fun, further achievement, more money. But those come from having the money and they’re only added perks. Having the money is the point. It’s enough to be rich.
To be rich is to be successful by definition.
Rich, of course, is relative. Lots of people’s idea of rich doesn’t mean being a billionaire or even a millionaire in quantitative terms. It simply means having enough money that you can pay your bills without worrying and fretting and still have plenty left over to spend on having fun and enjoying life. Things get complicated and troublesome when your idea of having fun and enjoying life involves buying lots of expensive toys and luxuries and unnecessary comforts. And unfortunately for their mental health and well-being, most people think rich means RICH. It means being a millionaire or a billionaire...like Donald Trump.
And that’s what Trump has been selling for decades with his books and with his example on The Apprentice, the formula for being rich and successful like Donald Trump.
It’s been an implicit theme of his campaign that as president he will make “us” all rich in that limited, modest way of having just enough money to pay the bills and have some fun---maybe you can’t buy a yacht, but you might buy that speedboat. He doesn’t promise that all those jobs he’s going to bring back will be high-paying, high-status jobs---actually, the Democrats implicitly promise that when they talk up the value of a college education and STEM and working people resent it. They take it as elitists telling them that they’re living their lives wrong and raising their kids to be failures. No, Trump is going to get people good jobs, the best jobs. And for most people that means steady work with decent pay and good benefits.
It’s his version of a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.
And if Trump stopped there, he truly would be the populist and champion of the working class so many people in the political media seem determined to portray him as.
But he doesn’t stop there.
Trump himself makes it clear he has only one qualification to be president. He’s a SUCCESS!
That’s more than enough, the best qualification, the only one that matters, really. To be successful, to be rich, is to be SMART! And competent. You can’t succeed, you can’t become rich, you can’t make money unless you’re smart and competent, and the more money you have, the smarter and more competent you must be. That’s one of the cons Trump is running on his voters, that he is richer than he is, rich as Croesus, richer than those people, at any rate, the smart guys and women of the political and business elites whose stupidity and incompetence have caused the problems that have to be fixed in order for America to be made great again. Trump, says Trump, over and over again, is the only one smart enough and competent enough to do the job. Need proof? Look at how rich he is! Look at all the things his money has bought him! Never mind what’s in his tax returns. He has a private jet, a big one, a YUGE one!
Like I said, I don’t think most people believe that electing him president will in itself make them rich. But they do expect it will make their lives materially better. If it doesn’t put more money in their pocket, at least it might keep more in it, just by slowing the flow of money out of it. And who knows what might follow from that? When things settle down, when the bills get paid…
Trump is selling that kind of success.
But there are people who want MORE!
They do want to be rich as Croesus. And Trump sells himself as a role model for them. That’s the theme of his books, a theme of The Apprentice, the reason for buying Trump steaks. Model yourself on me, use me as your example, and you too can be a SUCCESS!
If not, well, then, at least you can feel rich by identifying with me, the rich guy.
Now, as it happens, I don’t need to feel rich.
I’d like to be rich, but that’s different. And I definitely need more money.
But if I thought there was a magic medicine that would make me a SUCCESS, that would make me rich or at least put more money in my pocket, I wouldn’t buy it from that rich guy.
It’s not just because as we all now know, he’s probably not that rich and he hasn’t been a success, not the kind of successful businessman he wants us to think he is. His whole career as a businessman has been a decades-long upward fail, enabled by tax breaks and other people’s money and hard work. He’s gotten by, if not truly ahead, by cheating his employees, investors, and partners, screwing the tenants of his many heavily leveraged properties, and conning credulous bankers and government officials. His only truly sustained success has been as the star of a TV show in which he acted the part of a successful businessman named Donald Trump. I never watched The Apprentice so I don’t know how well he acted the part. But it couldn’t have been well enough to fool me into thinking it was the real him.
The fact is I’ve never thought of him as a successful businessman, even back in the 'Eighties when he was doing a pretty good of passing for one and fewer people had caught onto him. He has always looked to me like his idiot sons look to most people now. A spoiled rich kid and playboy, using his money to show off, aggrandize himself, indulge himself, and revenge himself on anyone who got in the way of his satisfying his whims, vanities, and appetites.
In short, I saw him as exactly the monster of ego, desire, and spite Garry Trudeau portrayed him as in Doonesbury.
Which is to say, Trudeau taught me who and what the real Donald Trump was.
Thirty years later, you read those cartoons and you’ll be amazed at how perfectly Trudeau captured him and how early. And at how the portrait’s still fresh.
Of course, that’s not how most people know him and see him. They know him as the character he played on The Apprentice. The tough, no-nonsense, but fair-minded boss named “Donald Trump”, the ultra-rich guy who hadn’t lost the common touch. The kind of boss they’d be if they could be the boss. The kind of rich person they’d be, if (and when) they got rich.
That’s the “Donald Trump” they’re buying the snake oil from. That’s the rich guy they want to be president.
It’s bad enough that people are going to vote for a fictional character without caring that he’s in reality an angry, hateful, ignorant, unscrupulous, irresponsible, racist, sexist, xenophobic monster of ego, appetite, vanity, and spite.
There are two pernicious notions at work that Trump is manipulating and exploiting.
The first is that it’s not enough to get rich. You should already be rich.
Rich is what you’re supposed to be.
Rich is the estate into which all Americans---the right kind of Americans, the good Americans---are meant to be born into or to inherit by God-given right.
So why aren’t you rich?
What went wrong?
What did you do wrong?
What’s wrong with you?
Well, there can’t be anything wrong with me. There must be something wrong with someone else. There must be someone keeping me from getting rich. The system must be rigged against me and I know who’s rigged it.
THEY did it!
And Doctor Don calls down from the stage at the back of his wagon, “Of course it was THEM! Of course THEY did it! They tripped you up coming out of the gate. They picked your pockets. They took what you had coming to you. They robbed you. And they’re going to come back for more. Everything you have, that you worked hard for, the SUCCESS that was your due, they’re going to take it.”
That’s one of the roots of their “economic anxiety.” The fear that the little success they have will be taken away by THEM.
The other is that they never will be a SUCCESS, never have that much money.
That’s what the local business owners with the Trump signs in the windows are afraid of. That’s what keeps them late at the store or in the office, has them pacing the lot trying not to look desperate as they watch the couple talking over the SUV they’ll probably decide not to buy. The country’s full of would-be mini-Trumps. Small business owners who think they should have been a SUCCESS by now. Could have been. Should have been. And they’re feeling the time running out on them.
That’s their economic anxiety.
And Doctor Don appears, his arms opening wide. “Fear not,” he says. “Fret not. Just buy my Magic Elixir. Drink it down. The whole bottle. It’s chock full of Vitamin S and Vitamin T. That’s S for SUCCESS and T for ME! Guaranteed to ward off infection by THEM!”
And they buy! They swig it down. Swallow tablespoon after tablespoon. And they get a jolt of confidence with every dose. And along with it come jolts of resentment, anger, hatred, and fear. Followed by a crash, naturally. Doctor Don’s Magic Elixir gives only temporary relief. It’s a stimulant. When the stimulation wears off, depression, self-loathing, and self-doubt return with a vengeance that have to be dispatched with another quick reach for the bottle.
There’s something else in it. A form of self-forgiveness.
Material failure is a sign of moral failure.
If you’re not rich, you haven’t simply done wrong in having made mistakes. You’ve sinned.
Your bad lot in life is proof of your bad character.
This is an article of faith it seems most Americans have inherited from our Calvinist ancestors. It’s fundamental to our self-flattering belief in our Protestant Work Ethic.
Republicans love to preach this sermon. Paul Ryan has written a book as an exegesis. It’s practically the basis of his budget. It frees them from having to care and from having to do anything to help, like pay more in taxes or pay any taxes.
The only way out of poverty, the only way to success, is thorough self-improvement. In other words, shape up! You got yourself into whatever mess you’re in. It’s your responsibility to get yourself out of it. Resolve to be a better person and strive to become one, without whining, without complaint, without expecting someone else to make up for your own bad and foolish behavior and your own moral failures.
It’s on this point Trump breaks ranks with other Republicans by offering something more in the way of forgiveness.
“Ok,” the others say, “Maybe you’re not so bad. Maybe it’s not your fault. Maybe it’s THEM! THEY’RE to blame. You’re paying the price for their bad character. You’re being punished for THEIR sins.”
Trump says all that, of course. Without the maybes. But he adds something the others can’t. An ideal of SUCCESS to identify with and, at least for a moment, the vicarious thrill of feeling SUCCESSFUL.
Back in the spring the New York Times ran a story that described the excitement that shot through the crowd at a Trump rally when his jet flew low overhead.
For that instant, everybody looking up in awe was on board that plane. For a second, they were lifted out of themselves. They weren’t what they were afraid they were, victims of their own moral failure. They were the opposite. They were rich. They were successful. They were...good.
Some time in the late fall of last year I gave up on the idea that Trump would fade. It was clear that he wasn’t. Most of the others were or already had. It was coming down to him and Cruz. By December I’d finally figured out what was in his Magic Elixir that made it addictive and that he had more than enough buyers to carry him to the nomination. By January’s end, there was no more doubt. There’d be no stopping Trump by the Republican establishment. Ted Cruz wouldn’t pull it out. It looked pretty certain he’d be the nominee.
I didn’t predict any of this. I just had the idea it was happening. And I’m still not predicting anything. But since I read that article in the Times, I’ve had the idea we should be worried.
The clown act may grow stale but now I have the idea the market for what he’s selling might only grow.
For a lot of Trump voters Make America Great Again is a way of saying Make Me Feel Great About Myself, and, after all, that’s something we all need.
A reason to like ourselves.
I don’t think most of us will find it in hating others, but that’s not even an idea I have, let alone a prediction.
It’s just a hope.
Like I said, the country's full of would-be mini-Trumps. I have the idea they're men mostly, many of them small business owners, but not all, who see something of themselves in Donald Trump and a lot of Donald Trump in themselves, and who encourage themselves---or console themselves---by identifying with him and his success. But here's a guy who over-identifies, and that's putting it mildly. He practically sees himself and Trump as twins separated at birth. At the New York Times: Shunned, Stared at, Still for Trump: The Holdout in Hillary Clinton’s Town.
The Doonesbury strip up top (by Garry Trudeau, as if you need me to tell you that) first ran on March 20, 1989. It appears here courtesy of GoComics but you can also find it in the collection YUGE!: 30 Years of Doonesbury on Trump, available in paperback and for kindle at Amazon.