New Yorker (Opinion)
By David Remnick
March 14, 2016
Nearly three decades ago, Howard Kaminsky, of Random House, called on the real-estate developer and self-marketing master Donald Trump at his office on Fifth Avenue. Kaminsky brought along a cover design for “Trump: The Art of the Deal,” its author’s literary début. Trump seemed reasonably happy. Just one thing, he said. “Please make my name much bigger.”
It was all so funny once. For a long time, Trump, with his twenty-four-karat skyscrapers, his interesting hair, and his extra-classy airline, was a leading feature of the New York egoscape. The editors of the satirical monthly Spy covered him with the same obsessive attention that Field & Stream pays to the rainbow trout. Trump never failed to provide; he was everywhere, commandeering a corner at a professional wrestling match, buying the Miss Universe franchise and vowing smaller bathing suits and higher heels. You could watch him humiliate supplicants on “The Apprentice” and hear him on “The Howard Stern Show” gallantly describing the mystery of Melania’s bowel movements (“I’ve never seen anything—it’s amazing”) and announcing that, “without even hesitation,” he would have had sex with Princess Diana. As early as 1988, Trump hinted at a run for the White House, though this was understood to be part of his carny shtick, another form of self-branding in the celebrity-mad culture.
And now here we are. Trump is no longer hustling golf courses, fake “universities,” or reality TV. He means to command the United States armed forces and control its nuclear codes. He intends to propose legislation, conduct America’s global affairs, preside over its national-intelligence apparatus, and make the innumerable moral and political decisions required of a President. This is not a Seth Rogen movie; this is as real as mud. Having all but swept the early Republican primaries and caucuses, Trump—who re-tweets conspiracy theories and invites the affections of white-supremacist groups, and has established himself as the adept inheritor of a long tradition of nativism, discrimination, and authoritarianism—is getting ever closer to becoming the nominee of what Republicans like to call “the party of Abraham Lincoln.” No American demagogue––not Huey Long, not Joseph McCarthy, not George Wallace––has ever achieved such proximity to national power.
Meanwhile, the elders of the G.O.P., like House Speaker Paul Ryan, have declared their disgust, unless, like Governor Chris Christie, of New Jersey, they have sold their souls for a place at Trump’s feeding trough. As yet, no detestable remark, no flagrant display of ignorance, no scummy business deal has dissuaded his followers. Nor will Trump be defeated by the putatively scathing critiques of the commentariat (including this one). Quote his most hateful eruptions––about Mexicans, about Muslims, about women, about African-Americans––and the next day will still bring an arena filled with voters who find him incorruptible precisely because he is rich, and who vibrate to his blunt assessments of the American condition. Last month, John Oliver, a master of the extended comic decimation, opened video fire on Trump after many months of resisting the subject. So hilarious! So devastating! And then Trump cleaned up on Super Tuesday. Don’t they watch HBO in the S.E.C. states?
Pull the camera back, and Trump can be viewed as part of a deadly serious wave of authoritarians and xenophobes who have come to power in Russia, Poland, and Hungary, and who lead such movements as the National Front, in France, and the Independence Party, in the United Kingdom. Vladimir Putin and Trump have expressed mutual admiration. It’s not hard to see why. Putin has obliterated the early shoots of Russian democracy as evidence of weakness and obeisance to the West; his eighty-per-cent popularity rating is built on arousing nationalism and a hatred of minorities (ethnic and sexual), the suppression of dissent, and a bare-chested macho image. Trump says approvingly, “At least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country.”
Yet how has Donald Trump, the coddled scion of a New York real-estate baron, emerged as a populist hero? How does the beneficiary of a draft deferment due to bone spurs on his feet get away with questioning the military record of John McCain, who endured five years as a prisoner of war? Trump believes that his appeal is based largely on what he calls his heroic lack of “political correctness” but which is more accurately described as a breezy penchant for race-baiting, war crimes, and content-free policy pronouncements. At rallies, Trump gets some of his loudest cheers when he calls for the expanded use of torture (methods “a hell of a lot worse” than waterboarding), for the construction of a walled-off southern border (it will be “a beautiful wall”), and for the immediate replacement of Obamacare with . . . “something terrific.”
The question remains why the Trump phenomenon has proved so buoyant and impregnable. Some have earnestly ascribed it to broad social and economic forces, particularly the “new normal” of stagnating wages, underemployment, and corporate “offshoring” and “inversion.” Yet those factors were at least as pronounced in the last election cycle––and Republicans chose as their nominee the father of comprehensive health care in Massachusetts.
The socioeconomic forces are real, but Trump is also the beneficiary of a long process of Republican intellectual decadence. Paul Ryan denounces Trump but not the Tea Party rhetoric that propelled his own political ascent. John McCain holds Trump in contempt, but selected as his running mate Sarah Palin, the Know-Nothing of Wasilla, one of Trump’s most vivid forerunners and supporters. Mitt Romney last week righteously slammed Trump as a “phony” and a misogynist, and yet in 2012 he embraced Trump’s endorsement and praised his “extraordinary” understanding of economics.
The G.O.P. establishment may be in a state of meltdown, but this process of exploiting the darkest American undercurrents began with Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy and, more lately, has included the birther movement and the Obama Derangement Syndrome. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, who compete hard for the most extreme positions in conservatism, decry the viciousness and the vacuousness of Trump, but they started out by deferring to him––and now they ape his vulgarity in a last-ditch effort to keep pace. Insults. Bigotry. Nationally televised assurances of adequate genital dimensions. This is the political moment in which we live. The Republican Party, having spent years courting the basest impulses in American political culture, now sees the writing on the wall. It reads “Donald Trump,” in very big letters.
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