By now it is fair to say that barring some unforeseen event, like a national restoration to their senses, or a direct intervention by the Republican leadership, that Donald Trump is almost certainly going to be the Republican candidate for the Presidency of the United States of America. His big wins throughout the primaries, along with Marco Rubio dropping out of the race after his disastrous loss in Florida, has swept the path to the nomination pretty clear. Not only has Trump maintained his popularity among his supporters, but he is benefiting from his self-serving opponents who are now jockeying for his favour in case he actually wins the nomination.
One of Trump’s biggest gets was New Jersey governor, Chris Christie who appeared with Trump shortly after suspending his own campaign and throwing his ample support behind the New York huckster. Of course, Christie’s expression throughout the press conference/gloat fest had the look that only Goethe’s Faust could understand (more about Christie’s role in Trump’s trophy cabinet a little later).
The reactions that Trump’s candidacy has elicited show that there is no shortage of strong visceral opinions concerning him. This is in part I think because this candidacy should never have happened. Trump is a three-time bankrupt fraudster whose mental capacity is measured in ounces. There is no shortage of explanations offered for the rise of Trump. For example, on any given day my Facebook feed alone will have more than a dozen articles referring to Trump, and that is just from The Guardian. Explanations have ranged from the sense of alienation that many ordinary Americans, mostly of the right-wing persuasion, feel as the recovery from the 2008 recession has largely bypassed them or the sense of “their” country is being taken from them as shifts in racial and sexual/gender demographics continue to follow global trends. Another persuasive explanation is the sense that the Trump represents a timely antithesis to the Republican elites and establishment who have ignored the grassroots. I think these and many of the other reasons offered to explain something that is unexplainable make very good points and I think they are quite on the mark.
Being a bit of a political junkie myself, I have spent some time thinking about what is happening in the United States. Trump’s rise has been compared to the rise of Hitler out of the failure of the Weimar Republic. While I am loathe to compare anyone to Hitler, including Trump, the comparison is not too strained, his ugly rhetoric regarding making Muslims wear identity badges connected to an explicit form of identity politics, his demagogy and appeal the basest instincts of his followers make it difficult to make the comparison. Hitler also had an ugly comb over, so there’s that as well.
To me the most striking thing about this is that no matter what Trump says, what outrageous lie he throws out like red meat to a pack of rabid hyenas, it has not stopped him. The fact that he could claim that he could murder someone on the streets of New York City in broad daylight and still remain popular with his supporters is bone chilling for the sheer bald faced cynicism this statement represents – and yet he is probably not wrong.
Despite the innumerable articles exploring the reasons for this phenomenon (I strongly recommend that you check out this video from Yahoo for a summary of the vileness of Donald Trump:video here), there is no one answer and I think many people are overlooking another reason for Trump’s success and that is his campaign is nothing less than performance satire.
What I mean by this isn’t that we should see this as funny or harmless, but rather Trump’s success is based on the fact that he has forced us to confront an uncomfortable truth; the electoral system is a sham. In essence, it worked only because we all, regardless of our political ideology, adhered to an unspoken social contract that the system would function by rules to which we all agreed and accepted. And because the social contract was so successful for so long we came to believe that the system would be immune to demagogic threats. How wrong we were. Trump represents the violation of that contract and his supporters are more than happy to pour the gasoline on the fire.
I came to this opinion from reading a recent biography of the Roman emperor, Caligula. Most history students are of course familiar with Caligula and his cruel madness. He is probably best known for appointing his horse, Incitatus, to the Roman Senate. Historians and biographers from Suetonius onwards have pegged his behaviour to his obvious insanity, after all what is more insane than appointing a horse to the senate?
However, Aloys Winterling, whose biography reconsiders Caligula’s actions in the light of a cunning and skillful politician imposing his authority over his aristocracy, argues that the emperor’s behaviour was part of an elaborate display of pitch black humour. Even by the 30s and 40s AD during Caligula’s reign, the Roman Senate which had been the governing body the Roman Republic had started its long process of becoming nothing more than a glorified town council of Rome. The decay had set in long before August’s victory over Pompey and Marc Anthony. But even still, inertia had allowed the Senate to maintain the fiction that it still really mattered in the politics of the early empire. Even Augustus was happy to maintain the fiction, although his title of primus inter pares was the first of the punchlines of a carefully choreographed diminution of the Senate.
Around the year 39 the punchlines kept coming and took on darker darker tones as Caligula began to strip the fictional prestige of the Senate away by appointing his horse to that august body.
As part of the appointment, Incitatus was given a palace staffed with servants and all the trappings of a newly arrived aristocrat. For anyone paying attention, the joke couldn’t have been clearer. The senatorial ambitions of the aristocracy were displayed on the battle field of lavish dinners, extravagant palaces and the continual conspicuous consumption that would elicit the ire of moralists for centuries. What better way to ridicule the lifestyle of the aristocracy or to make them face the reality of their own venality than by equating them with a horse? How better then to prove the impotency of the structure of the electoral system than by cosplaying the Nuremberg Rally and coming out even more likely to win the general election?
And just as the aristocracy whose fear of losing their position allowed Caligula to prostitute their wives in yet another display of the emperor’s dark commentary of the dignity of a debauched social class, those who originally opposed Trump for either political reasons or just plain human decency are slowly lining up to support him in the hopes of receiving some of the largess that would come from a Trump victory. Such pandering is not new, but again Trump’s actions are a more wickedly pointed satire of the process than anything Jonathan Swift could muster; and for someone who convinced people of his sincerity in eating Irish children as a response to famine, that’s saying something.
If you are unsure that about that claim, all you need to do is consider the case of Chris Christie. I have little love for the Governor of New Jersey, yet for a while he was one of the saner voices in the Republican party on the issue of immigration. That is until his short lived run for the Republican nomination. Christie went from being a vocal critic of Trump’s demagogy to being one of the first high profile Republicans to throw their weight behind the man that will undoubtedly destroy their party.
And what did Christie get for his decision? National humiliation.
During the now infamous press conference where Christie, standing behind Trump, had the look of a man who realized how little the soul he sold was worth. Basic etiquette demands that even in a situation like this that the victor display a certain amount of graciousness whether they mean it or not. It’s considered gauche to behave otherwise. Not only did Trump ignore this completely, but his mockery of Christie’s absence in New Jersey demonstrates the power of the joke in Trump’s campaign. What better way to demonstrate the venality of the electoral system than by parading around a formerly respected governor and now failed presidential candidate to be openly humiliated in front of the entire nation. What we witnessed was a modern day Roman triumph. The only thing missing was a parade of Visigoths in chains, though if Trump does win, I suppose we’d have to settle for Mexicans being dragged up Pennsylvania Ave.
I have no idea how this election will play out in the next months. Maybe the Republican establishment will be able to find a way to stop Trump (though past performance suggests this will not happen), maybe the American people will see the threat this man poses to the Republic and prevent a political catastrophe, or maybe we will wake up in November to President Donald Trump – the idea sends a shudder down my spine. Either way, what the Trump campaign has shown all of us is all the systems and structures that we have put in place are impermanent constructs that work so long as we all agree to make them work. Now that they been exposed, I dare say that much of the damage is irreversible and even if Trump goes down in flames, he has made it all the more likely for the next demagogue to achieve precisely what the founders of the nation sought to prevent. And that joke isn’t funny anymore.