Thomas Frank: We're Still Aghast at Donald Trump - but What Good Has That Done?
It has been one year since the US slipped through a hole in the space-time continuum and chose as its leader the most unpopular presidential candidate of all time. Every now and then you get a bracing reminder of the crazy that has been transpiring ever since.
One of these came to me while I was flipping through Donald Trump’s 2015 campaign book, Crippled America, the cover of which displays his proud pompadour and the first few pages of which assert that “As for the presidency and the executive branch” – meaning the executive branch of Barack Obama – “the incompetence is beyond belief.”
To recapitulate, that’s Trump calling Obama incompetent. What do you say when confronted with a big-league, flat-out, beyond-belief distortion like that? Do you get all sincere and point out that, no, Obama was actually good at the job and Donald Trump is the incompetent one ... that Trump gets all kinds of things wrong and doesn’t know what’s in the constitution and is unaware that the executive has this power and that power and is ignorant of everything else on this-here long, long list of examples extending the entire length of the page?
That’s certainly how the liberal wing of America’s pundit class has dealt with Trump. They have been at it every day for a year now, and the literature of Trump-denunciation they have produced is enormous, a vast Alexandrine library of lamentation and deploring.
Pundits pronounce him dangerous, if not “F*cking Crazy”. They explore the depths of his stupidity. They apologize for him to Muslims. They compile long lists of the man’s falsehoods and misrepresentations. They look to the past and compare him to Hitler, to Mussolini, to Nero and Caligula. They look to the future and try to imagine the exact nature of the apocalypse the dunce will surely precipitate.
They are aghast, almost every one of them, and they compete fiercely with one another to say just how aghast they are. It is a “parade of the aghast”, as an acquaintance calls it, with all the skills of the journalist reduced to a performance of perturbation and disgust.
The parade of the aghast is the obverse of the gullible way our pundits usually contemplate American leaders – lionizing them as men of crisis, admiring their gravitas as they go from international summit to emergency bank bailout. And now the buffoon Trump has exposed it all as a fraud.
A solid year of the aghast has been a good thing overall. It’s healthy for the country to have pundits periodically choose to despise our leaders instead of honor them.
But the parade of the aghast is also sharply limited. In the race to depict Trump in the worst possible light, the parade of the aghast conceives his iniquity to be a thing unique and unprecedented.
In certain ways, of course, this is correct: Trump’s incompetence is one-of-a-kind. He is also the first tycoon president, the realization of a long-running Republican dream that has brought with it many unforeseen conflicts of interest and constitutional issues. And if it turns out he colluded with the Russian government during last year’s election, that will make him, shall we say, singular.
Yet in other ways, Trump’s sins are continuous with the last 50 years of our history. His bigotry and racist dog-whistling? Conservatives have been doing that since forever. His vain obsession with ratings, his strutting braggadocio? Welcome to the land of Hollywood and pro wrestling.
His tweeting? The technology is new, but the urge to evade the mainstream media is not. His outreach to working-class voters? His hatred of the press? He lifts those straight from his hero Richard Nixon. His combination of populist style with enrich-the-rich policies? Republicans have been following that recipe since the days of Ronald Reagan. His “wrecking crew” approach to government, which made the cover of Time magazine last week? I myself made the same observation, under the same title, about the administration of George W Bush.
The trends Trump personifies are going to destroy this country one of these days. They’ve already done a hell of a job on the middle class.
But declaring it all so ghastly isn’t going to halt these trends or remove the reprobate from the White House. Waving a piece of paper covered with mean words in Trump’s face won’t make him retreat to his tower in New York. To make him do that you must understand where he comes from, how he operates, why his supporters like him, and how we might coax a few of them away.
The parade of the aghast will have none of that. Strategy is not the goal; a horror-high is. And so its practitioners routinely rail against Trump’s supporters along with Trump himself, imagining themselves beleaguered by a country they no longer understand nor particularly like.
They denounce people who tell the truth about how the Democratic party operates on the grounds that such knowledge is an “obstacle” to anti-Trump efforts.
A year of this stuff, and never has mainstream opinion journalism seemed so inconsequential, so powerless to envision anything useful about our national predicament.
Look at the grand sweep of history: this is an angry, populist age, and with every year – with every little tightening of the inequality index – it grows angrier and more populist still. To the satisfied and comfortable American pundit class, these are alien and deplorable sentiments, and so they fall back on high-decibel moral aghastitude. They scold and they scold and they scold. But if they really want to send Trump and the Republicans packing, they will make an effort to understand.