10 of the Best Theories About Donald Trump
In tribute to the black hole who swallowed the news for an entire year, here are my personal top 10 theories about Donald Trump of 2017. None of them could possibly explain everything; none is entirely wrong. Several of them amount to restating the basic idea in a new way, said idea being “This guy has totally messed with our minds.”
Early in the year I made it through a weekend without saying or writing his name, and we once chose to go an entire publication day at Salon with no stories about him. But Donald Trump cannot be exorcised so easily. He may be defeated or disgraced someday, but he cannot be undone or erased from history. As we close out the unbelievable first year of his unbelievable presidency, Our only choice is to try to understand.
1. Trump is a historical fluke who will soon be erased
We might call this one the “Hamilton elector fallacy,” and I know it’s kind of mean to bring that up all over again. Essentially, the idea is that Trump’s election represents a bug or glitch in the software of democracy, which was otherwise working OK on the pathway toward our First Woman President™. Once the system administrators notice the unacceptable anomaly (to drag the metaphor out a little longer), the offending lines of code will be removed and we’ll be back to normal operation.
If the fanciful notion that Trump’s election might be nullified before he even took office — by way of the Electoral College exercising an independent authority it has not possessed since the 18th century — was a blatant example of the Trump-as-fluke hypothesis, it’s far from the only one. Republicans in Congress will finally wake up to their constitutional responsibilities and realize that their president is a dangerous, unhinged, blatantly racist moron! (Because they honestly had no idea until now!) Mike Pence and the Cabinet will evict Trump from office under the bizarre kangaroo-court proceedings envisioned by the 25th Amendment! (Which do not sound like a good thing at all!) Sometime very soon, Bob Mueller will perp-walk Trump and several of his family members out of the White House, in manacles and orange jumpsuits! Et cetera.
To jump ahead several bullet points, this strongly resembles what philosopher Jean Baudrillard called the “zero hypothesis” in his famous discussion of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which I’ve written about before. The zero hypothesis holds that a bad or terrifying event has no meaning and requires no explanation: “It ought not to have existed and, basically, it does not exist.” Baudrillard identified this as a theological notion, “the idea that Evil is mere illusion or an accidental vicissitude in the trajectory of Good.”
Major proponents: Everyone in your social-media feed, one year ago. A large proportion of Rachel Maddow’s audience. John McCain — at least in private.
Points in favor: Trump’s electoral victory was decided by fewer than 80,000 votes spread across three states, and involved such a wildly improbable set of circumstances that we’ve all had moments of believing it didn’t really happen or was somehow illegitimate. We haven’t gotten to the R-word yet, but the idea that Vladimir Putin was pulling strings behind the scenes, and made this all happen, is a version of the zero hypothesis.
Points against: Um, it’s completely delusional, ahistorical and untrue? It’s a liberal version of the reality-denial more commonly found among right-wing conspiracy nuts like Alex Jones? OK, I’ll play nicely: The Trump-as-fluke hypothesis rests on a mountain of dubious assumptions about the health of our democracy before November 2016, and refuses to acknowledge how both parties collaborated to clear a path for the election of a transparently unqualified buffoon.
2. Trump is an actual or aspiring fascist dictator
As Anne Applebaum of the Washington Post recently observed, the word “fascist” seems to fit the circumstances pretty well: A leader who treats his narrow election as a universal mandate, who overtly seeks to undermine democratic institutions and the rule of law, who thrives on stoking racial or ethnic tensions and demonizing an imprecisely defined “establishment,” and who seeks to gather all possible power to himself as the unitary symbol of both the state and its people. But as she further noted, the word also carries 20th-century associations of large-scale military conquest and mass murder, things that Donald Trump and his so-called movement manifestly lack the willpower, organization or leadership ability to carry out in practice.
I’ve certainly done my part to spread this super-scary thought experiment, having written articles exploring Trump’s striking similarities to Adolf Hitler (as well as his differences) and the way his rise to power followed the pattern of totalitarian ideology outlined by Hannah Arendt. As Applebaum says, we don’t have a word for this kind of slo-mo, video-game, sofa-bound fascism; I keep circling back to the idea that Trump is a showman, performing the idea of fascism for his intoxicated followers. That’s not to say it isn’t dangerous, or that there aren’t real victims and terrible consequences.
Major proponents: Yale historian Timothy Snyder, in perhaps the most-read and most-shared Salon interview of the year. My colleague Chauncey DeVega (who interviewed Snyder) has been a thought-leader in this realm, but pretty much every observer and commentator on American politics who falls somewhere between Jeff Flake and the Revolutionary Communist Party has flirted with the terminology, and the idea. I honestly don’t know whether that’s a good thing or not.
Points in favor: I mean, it’s clearly not wrong to suggest that Trump would like to hold all political power himself and rule forever. His base of support is vaguely similar to that amassed by Hitler, Mussolini and Franco during their respective rises to power. As in those cases, much of the capitalist elite decided he’d be good for business and came along for the ride, distasteful as they may have found the sideshow antics.
Points against: Let’s be fair to the fascists, shall we? Whatever we want to say about their fake-news theory of history and their unforgivable crimes, no one can claim their movement lacked a coherent ideology, well-organized political institutions and a broad base of popular support. Trump buffaloed his way into the presidency through cunning, good fortune and perfect timing, but he doesn’t have any of those things. His ideology is small-minded, retrograde fantasy; his movement is a series of revival meetings for racists. He’ll always be a wannabe.
3. Trump is the embodiment of the true will of the American people
See above. Isn’t this just the inverse of “Trump is a fascist”? The #MAGA movement’s sense of self rests entirely on the definition of “American.” If that word is taken to mean only that subset of the white population that feels disgruntled and oppressed for unclear reasons, is happy to blame all of it on feminism and black people and immigrants and gays, and thinks politics is all a bunch of crap anyway (not an unreasonable view in itself), then a half-baked, Vicodin-goggles worldview comes into focus.
As I’ve suggested previously, the level of nihilism involved here would cause the bass player in an early-‘80s East Village noise band to hang her head in shame. Trump represents the will of those Americans who no longer hold out any serious hope that things can get better, but are eager to punish those who have lectured them or sneered at them or gained (perceived) advantages at their (perceived) expense.
Major proponents: Donald Trump and his core supporters. Newt Gingrich. Various groveling toadies on the Republican right or in the conservative media who (like Gingrich) probably don’t believe it, or believe anything.
Points in favor: Then the first angel sounded his trumpet, and hail and fire mixed with blood were flung to the earth. A third of the earth was burned up, along with a third of the trees and all the green grass.
Points against: Trump himself is a transitory phenomenon, representing a demographic with a collective death wish that isn’t even close to a majority. But the damage done will long outlive him, or them.
4. Trump is the voice of the voiceless "white working class" and an expression of “economic anxiety”
See above, and then see above that. This is the pseudo-anthropological, neutral-sounding translation of “Trump is a total fascist.” It contains a grain of truth, in that many people who supported Trump were not entirely conscious of the extent to which they were driven by bigotry, anti-intellectualism and a longing for an all-white fascist utopia, or had enough self-awareness to feel uneasy about those things. Framing that choice in terms of economic logic, no matter how spurious, seems to add a rational frame — which is also comforting to reporters and pundits.
Major proponents: The New York Times, and certain strains in both the center and left of the Democratic Party.
Points in favor: Even if most Trump voters were not poor or working-class, and even if “economic anxiety” is a code phrase for a more complicated mixture of cultural and racial unease, class stagnation and diminished opportunities, that doesn’t mean it isn’t real.
Points against: Ultimately, this is a condescending attempt to turn a story of atavistic, irrational desires and the darkest places in the American psyche into a sympathetic narrative about people out of a Raymond Carver story or a Springsteen song.
5. Trump is a Russian stooge and/or a Republican useful idiot
OK, down the rabbit hole we go! I considered ducking this one entirely by filing the “Russia question” as a subset of Theory No. 1 above, Trump-as-fluke. If you can convince yourself that Trump was imposed on us from outside, through the Mephistophelean deep game of Vladimir Putin, that clearly lends force to the aforementioned “zero hypothesis” under which Trump’s election possesses no historical importance or didn’t really happen. It also avoids the question of how Trump swept to victory over every Republican in the known universe and put himself in position to be Putin’s sock-puppet president -- because Uncle Vlad didn’t stage-manage that part.
There’s no point trying to litigate the importance and meaning of the increasingly amorphous Russia scandal, a black-hole-inside-a-tesseract that looks different from every point on the political spectrum and has become a major ideological or philosophical chasm both within American society and within the Democratic Party and the left-liberal anti-Trump coalition.
But here’s what we can say for sure: Some reasonable and intelligent people view Trump as an actual Russian agent or pawn (knowing or unknowing), others as the accidental beneficiary of an extensive hacking and propaganda campaign. Those views are in fact shared by many Republicans — whatever they may say in public — who have decided it was worth riding along with some degree of super-dubious Kremlin connections because Trump would nominate scads of right-wing judges and sign their massive tax-cut bill, along with anything else they actually manage to get through Congress.
Major proponents: The intelligence community, the producers and on-air hosts at CNN and MSNBC, most of the mainstream media, a solid slice of the Democratic Party. If that combo doesn’t ring some alarm bells for you, I don’t know what to say.
Points in favor: There were several known contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian agents, and there’s ample evidence that Russian hackers and trolls worked to support Trump and sabotage Hillary Clinton (among other things) during the 2016 campaign. It’s also clear that Trump’s involvement with Russian oligarchs and Russian money extends deep into the past, with a major and spectacular stopover at the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow. As for the “Republican useful idiot” part, that’s just true.
Points against: What does any of this add up to? I have no idea and, honestly, neither do you. Mueller’s inquiry hasn’t even hinted at anything that would touch Trump personally, and my hunch is that liberals will have an enormous sad when he finally issues his findings. If there is serious Russian kompromat in Donald Trump’s past (which seems more likely than not), it might not have anything to do with his election campaign.
6. Trump is Steve Bannon’s personal Joffrey Baratheon
This may be a defunct theory in the aftermath of Bannon’s Alabama Waterloo, but the mysterious fascination the Breitbart chieftain holds for pundits and political reporters seems unabated. According to this theory, Trump was a formless lump of game-show-celebrity clay with no political identity until Bannon breathed life into him. It’s like a really gross and disturbing reboot of the fable of Pygmalion, or the story of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster.
Of course, Dr. Bannon’s election-winning secret sauce was basically thinly veiled white nationalism topped off with pie-in-the-sky New Deal economics and homoerotic visions of robust, manly men carrying lunch-buckets to jobs at entirely imaginary shipyards and ironworks. (That will never stop being funny, Steve-O.) Which, come to think of it, is pretty doggone close to the agenda of that famous political party that got itself elected in Germany in the early 1930s, and brings us back to the proposition that Trumpism is fascism on the down-low.
Major proponents: Steve Bannon, and all the reporters who hate themselves for loving him.
Points in favor: Right-wing populists have been complaining about the hypocrisy and corruption of the Republican Party for a generation; Bannon’s “Leninist” campaign of conquest actually worked. Then he threw all political wisdom to the wind and pandered directly to the darkest and most delusional impulses of the Republican base, and that worked too. Once.
Points against: Bannon’s trillion-dollar infrastructure plan is a total fantasy, as is his grand and stupid theory of history and his vision of a 50-year Republican Reich. After his extraordinary success in electing a Democrat to the Senate from the reddest state in America, it’s reasonable to wonder whether Bannon will ever run a winning campaign for anyone, anywhere, ever again. Which leads naturally to our next theory.
7. Trump is a disruptive postmodern genius who has remade reality
What if Steve Bannon wasn’t the Machiavellian mastermind who shaped Donald Trump, and it was more the other way around? As I wrote recently, the fact that Trump almost never says anything true (unless by accident) and has no respect for scientific evidence or any shared notion of reality is not a liability but an asset. Lies are the substance of Trump’s politics, aimed at a public that doesn’t much like reality as they perceive it.
[Trump] creates an entire universe of lies and invites his listeners to live in it, somewhat as Walt Disney’s theme parks were meant to create a pseudo-America more welcoming than the real thing. Trump’s tsunami of outrageous, impossible lies that no rational person could possibly accept is something like a stage magician’s conspiratorial wink to an audience that, in [Hannah] Arendt’s phrase, has taken refuge in cynicism. You know and I know that the entire enterprise of politics is fraudulent, Trump told his MAGA-hatted minions (in effect); let’s prove it by perpetrating the biggest fraud of all.
Major proponents: Well, certainly there’s me. But an entire cadre of lefty-egghead commentators has vacillated between the idea that Trump is the tool of other, smarter people and the idea that in his sub-Hitler, reptilian fashion, he has outsmarted us all. We can fold in the allied notion that Trump is actually a performance artist, perhaps actually the undead Andy Kaufman, who would have viewed his performance as pure genius.
Points in favor: This is a relatively parsimonious explanation that accounts for most of the visible evidence and views Trump as the self-absorbed and self-interested protagonist of his own story, rather than a cog in some large and implausible wheel. He hacked a weakness in democracy, so to speak, exploiting the public appetite for fantasy fascism while taking advantage of numerous other marginal factors: Bannon, the Russians, sexist and racist paranoia, the weakness of Hillary Clinton and so on.
Points against: A little too neat, maybe? Kind of airless and intellectual, not to mention that it treats a guy who basically did not win the election like a Great Man of History. Trump isn’t Napoleon, or Hitler. Neither of those two was a total dumbass.
8. Trump is an avatar of American ignorance, bigotry and stupidity
Clearly true, and alarming, but not very illuminating. I think this is just a despairing reformulation of all the earlier theories, except for the “zero hypothesis” ones in which Trump doesn’t really matter and the ignorance, bigotry and stupidity mentioned above are just a passing weather system before the sun breaks through again.
Leading proponents: Everyone who didn’t vote for him, and a fair number of people who did.
Points in favor: That dizzy feeling you get, when you see him on TV and have to remind yourself, that guy is actually the president.
Points against: None. It just doesn’t explain anything.
9. Trump is a seminal figure in a new Age of Revolution, aka World War IV
This is an interesting concept I took a few whacks at earlier this year, so I have a high degree of buy-in. Essentially the idea is that since Sept. 11, 2001, the Western world (i.e., the capitalist or liberal-democratic order) has been at war with itself: If Osama bin Laden and “radical Islamic terrorism” marked the first stage of that war, Donald Trump and the resurgence of right-wing nationalism or fascism signify the second.
Leading proponents: Although that specific formulation is mine, the ingredients are all borrowed from other sources (notably Baudrillard and historian E.J. Hobsbawm), and related arguments have been advanced in greater depth by numerous academics.
Points in favor: It’s a useful first stab at a historical framing that makes sense of Trump as an aspect and consequence of a much larger pattern, not as a bizarre anomaly that suddenly afflicted American democracy. And without the need to engage in arguments about the awfulness of Hillary Clinton and whether Bernie coulda, shoulda, woulda. Because, dear God, can we please all shut up about that?
Points against: Doesn’t tell us much of anything about how Trump actually got elected — “the inexorable workings of history” is not an actual answer — or what we need to do to make sure he goes away.
10. Trump is an enemy of democracy, the Enlightenment and civilization
That might sound blatantly obvious, and also like a highfalutin way of repeating several things we’ve already said, including, “He’s a Nazi.” But the Nazis, although vastly more horrible than Trump in terms of actual actions and effects, would not have described themselves as opposed to the Enlightenment or Western civilization. They were big on art and culture, and wished to be understood as the ultimate defenders of those things in an age of Jewish-contaminated decadence. Yes, their tastes were vulgar and sentimental and their understanding of culture was evil and shallow. But they were pretentious, which is one insult you cannot hurl at Donald Trump.
This strikes me as a salient point, though I’m not sure what it means. Except this: The backlash from Obama to Trump was not just from our first black president to an overtly racist white man, but also from the most cosmopolitan, intellectual president of recent decades to a person who revels in incuriosity and small-mindedness, does not even pretend to read books or listen to classical music or care about the so-called higher pursuits, and appears to spend most of his waking life watching cable news.
Trump epitomizes the ugly but unavoidable fact that a large chunk of the American population is entirely disconnected from the values on which the republic was founded, or views them as sanctimonious bullshit mouthed by hypocrites, roughly the way Soviet citizens of the 1970s viewed the promise of a stateless society of universal plenty and equality. Trump’s fans love him for speaking truth to power, the truth in this instance being that American life has no point beyond self-aggrandizement, self-indulgence and spectacle. This problem has been evident for years, but we’ve all been pretending it isn’t there. We can’t do that anymore; in this and in so many other things, our Dear Leader has shown us the way.
Leading proponents; points in favor; points against: No one could possibly disagree with this. And no one knows what to do about it. So Happy New Year!