Laughing, until we find out what's going on
Then I asked: 'does a firm perswasion that a thing is so, make it so?' He replied: 'All poets believe that it does, & in ages of imagination this firm perswasion removed mountains; but many are not capable of a firm perswasion of any thing.'
-W.Blake, Marriage of Heaven and Hell
Straightaway I suppose I should admit a personal vice: Donald Trump often makes me laugh. When he gave out Lindsay Graham's phone number several months ago (oh, so many months ago) I laughed. When he said Rick Perry started wearing glasses to look smart (but that, unfortunately for Rick, voters could “see through the glasses”) I laughed. When he said Muslims should be temporarily banned from entering the country, and that the families of terrorists had to be 'taken out,' I stopped laughing and had a darker feeling about the state of the country than I've ever had before. But then, when he went to Bernie Sanders's hometown in Burlington, VT., and told security to take protesters and “throw them out into the cold” and “confiscate their coats,” like goddamned Ebeneezer Scrooge, I laughed all over again. And this morning I couldn't help myself when I saw Trump acting out a future dialogue between him and voters when he's president: “If I'm president, you'll say, ‘Please, Mr. President, we're winning too much. I can't stand it. Can't we have a loss?’ And I’ll say, ‘No, we're going to keep winning winning winning because we're gonna Make America Great Again.’ And you'll say 'OK, Mr. President. OK.'”
I know I'm not alone. With very few exceptions, fellow liberals I talk to about Trump are laughing too, even if it is at the precise moment that they are also talking – with increasing seriousness – about moving to Canada. I feel, and maybe you do too, rather like that ape watching the low-quality magic trick; I don't really understand what I'm seeing, but something absurd is happening. And while I don't know how dangerous it is, I'm happy to still be alive to see it. Well maybe I'm projecting a little on the ape.
At any rate, there are a load of mysteries packed into this show called the Republican Primary. Maybe the most interesting is the undefinable relationship Trump has with his audience. Like me, Trump's supporters are laughing, too. And in both cases, the laughing is a kind of indulgence. I sometimes find myself taking lightly a thing I know to be quite serious. In the case of his supporters, there's an indulgence too, though it's a little more complicated. Of those who I have talked to that support Trump, I find that they all have the following in common:
They are totally exasperated with politicians.
They wish to make it known they are not a fan of political correctness.
They readily admit that Trump is a wild personality, that he sometimes goes too far, but that this is what we need in the country now. “We have no choice,” “we have to win again,” “we need a guy who can get things done” are all common, and familiar phrases. “He's entertaining anyway!” is another common one.
They like that Trump cannot be owned by special interests or billionaires. That he is himself a special interest and billionaire does not appear to be a problem.
When he is brought up, the first thing they do is laugh.
There is a certain lightness to their declaration of support. Some of it must be because his supporters know that he is a divisive person, and they anticipate a possible angry reaction from others. They may well feel embarrassed to say out loud that they support Trump. But almost everyone in this country is embarrassed to talk openly about their political views, whatever they are; it's one of our worst qualities. I think beyond this, there is another reason for their jollity: they are suddenly free from the domga of the Republican or any other party. They no longer have to pretend to hold views that they either don't hold or don't care about.
Ted Cruz has a new campaign ad running hot in Iowa which highlights Trump's “New York values.” It relies mostly on a 1999 Meet the Press interview in which Trump says plainly he is pro-choice. And certainly, there are numerous examples as to why Trump isn't by any recent American definition, either a conservative or a Republican. Last week, the National Review cobbled together some half-hearted essays in opposition to Trump, where that fact was dutifully expounded upon. He's apparently pro-life. He loves eminent domain. He's given money to Nancy Pelosi and the Clintons. He's spoken admiringly of the Scottish single-payer healthcare system. And so on. Any single one of these things would have sunk the chances of any other Republican candidate. And yet, as we all have seen, he is somehow set apart.
But while there really is no one like Trump (as rare as a unicorn, I heard some pundit say months ago), I think there has been too much focus on him. Maybe nobody could do to the Republican party in 2016 what he has done. But Trump didn't invent his constituency; his constituency has found a way out of the darkness, by the light of this weird, combative, clever figure, and lifted him up on high. Maybe his supporters stand by him not because they are unaware of his past non-conservative positions. Maybe it's not because they're too dumb to understand what the National Review and Ted Cruz's ads are trying to tell them. Maybe they don't care, at all, about many of these conservative principles that they were supposed to care about. And maybe the two-party system, with its veneer of binary opposition and internal assimilation, has been hiding cracks in its structure for a lot longer than anyone has known.
It may be the case that a great many traditionally Republican voters never much cared about abortion or gay marriage. They're not terribly religious. They like their Social Security and welfare system, especially when they personally find themselves in need of it. They don't like Wall Street calling the shots in our government, even though the Republican party has been the party of Wall Street deregulation for a long time. The nature of our politics has meant that if we had an opinion about one or two political matters, that reflexively meant we agreed to have a bunch of other political opinions, whether they were directly related to each other or not. If we were pro-gun, that meant that we must be pro-life. If we wanted Social Security expanded, that must mean we wanted to be lenient with undocumented immigrants. Of course, no one really believes that our views line up exactly along one or the other 'side,' but we have been carrying on, in our political system, as though it were the case. And Trump, by sheer force of personality, has just disregarded this idea in a way that any one of us not running for public office might have done. And his supporters, I think, are laughing because they are finding it to be a very liberating feeling.
The Republican establishment is trying to decide whether or not their party will be the party of fighting losing battles. Culturally, they have lost a lot recently. And some candidates, like Cruz, are trying to consolidate traditional conservatives that still are moved by the traditional religious and cultural issues. Other candidates, the supposedly palatable ones (Bush, Kasich, Rubio, Christie), are still sitting on their hands like idiots, or squabbling among themselves, waiting for the storm to pass. But as they are now - a few days away from Iowa - realizing, it's not going to pass. The rapture is in progress, and they are the ones who have been left behind.
Last night the popular conservative radio host Laura Ingraham posted the following tweet: "This got lost today—but this is huge. Drug prices skyrocketing…why shdnt Medicare be allowed to negotiate prices?" That a pillar of conservative talk radio is openly talking about letting Medicare negotiate directly with drug companies, a long-time liberal goal blocked time and again by Republican lawmakers, is just one recent example how much the landscape has gone topsy-turvy. Luckily for her and other conservatives, Trump has floated this idea, and it is now safe to discuss. One doesn't have to be a dirty liberal anymore to talk about it.
You might ask, fairly, why I as a liberal aren't more happy about this development. Isn't it good, from my perspective, that a large chunk of Republican voters don't want to fight anymore about the culture wars or social safety nets or the need for public servants to talk endlessly about their religious convictions? Well, yes. And no. It's a very strange time. Americans are and aren't open to new ideas; they seem to be both more and less driven by ideology than before. People are starting to talk more about their actual beliefs, which is good. And yet some of their actual beliefs are terrifying. When Trump read his press release, to a very large crowd, in which he explained his desire to ban all Muslims from entering the country “until we find out what's going on,” (whatever that means...no, I know what it means. It means horseshit. It's not designed to mean anything), that very large crowd went wild. And when I hear open discussion – not only by Trump – of wholesale slaughter of civilians so long as they live in distant, troubled lands, I do start to wonder if some opinions aren't better kept to oneself, away from polite society, or any society.
But that doesn't seem to be an option any longer. The new struggle is to try to convince working class people, who have real legitimate grievances, that they will not find salvation with a ego-maniacal real-estate tycoon who makes promises with no content or coherence – a man whose career has been an endless list of vulgarity, litigation, and self-interested maze-like dealmaking at the expense of others. And on the other side, the Left has to be convinced that Trump supporters - fun though it is to watch an laugh - need to be treated as what they are: real hard-working people who have been failed by their country, and who need to be engaged earnestly. Bernie Sanders does seem to understand this, and weirdly enough there is some crossover populist appeal there. He knows about building coalitions of people who don't, on the surface, seem to belong together. I'm not so convinced that Hillary Clinton can do this, or understands, as deeply, the need for it. But whatever happens in the Democratic primary, if Trump wins or if he doesn't, efforts in this direction are going to be of the utmost importance. Left-leaning people cannot put it off any longer.
Meanwhile the carnival-esque nature of this election will continue to thrill, for better or worse. One of the problems with dangerous times is that they are just so goddamned interesting. And sometimes amusing. We've all read bits and pieces of history. We all have wanted, from time to time, to be alive during revolutions, wars, or upheavals, even when we knew they could be terrifying. This is not a moral reflection, just part of the nature of being alive. Comedy isn't really the opposite of tragedy. Sometimes they are very nearly one taste. They appear in their fuller color in the wilder, hotter, raging times in a society. Did you really think we were immune?