I am sick of Donald Trump. I am sick of seeing his hideous face and hearing his hideous excuses for ideas. I went to read David Brooks’s column this past Tuesday, and Tom Friedman’s on Wednesday—both were about Donald Trump. I look at the home page of my own magazine and three of the four photo thumbs are of Donald Trump. I spent the middle month of February in Berlin, where all anyone in the political class and government can talk about is the migrant crisis—except when they encounter an American, upon which the first question or statement inevitably turns to Donald Trump. At the time, I even worried that the early first words to come out of my fourth grandchild’s mouth, at age nine days, would be “Danah Twump.” Thank God, she’s kept her views of the current campaign to herself thus far.
Since the Trump saga began I made a pledge to myself not to ever write about it. The reason is that my doctor has advised me to avoid gratuitous stress. My heart, you know. But at this point, not writing about him has created its own form of stress. I ran into my old acquaintance Jessica Mathews the other day near the Farragut North metro stop—I don’t mean to say that Jessica is old, but that we’ve known each other a long time—and the first thing she said to me is, “Hey, what about this Trump thing?” My instinct in a case like that is to refer to something I’ve written about it, but the pundit pantry was empty. Stressful.
There is another reason I’ve avoided the subject in writing until now. I remember an old Star Trek episode in which Captain Kirk is about to unleash a directed-energy weapon at some tenebrous menacing glob out there in space when Spock warns him not to, because the glob feeds on energy. Try to whack it and it only grows stronger. Trump may be a similar kind of energy-sucking glob, one that our entertainment-addled mainstream media has stepped right in to witlessly assist. The problem reminds me of something the aforementioned Mr. Brooks once wrote: “Condemning a Randian is like hitting a masochist; it just confirms his worldview.”
We’re way past the point now where my writing about Donald Trump could do any harm. He is attention saturated already. So here it is—except I’m not interested so much in the man as in the circumstances that have enabled him to achieve the prominence he has. That, anyway, is the argument I’m using to grant myself permission to write this column.
The standard line about Trump is that he is harvesting a great deal of anger from white working-class types. That’s true of course, but it’s also a bit vague and possibly misleading. Anger can have several sources. There is, for example, the anger that arises from righteous indignation, from witnessing a moral wrong that one understands and wishes to put right. Let’s refer to this as Phineas Anger. But then there is the anger that comes from confusion and disorientation so profound that it generates levels of anxiety up to and including fear. Fear becomes anger when it finds a source to alight upon. Let’s refer to this as Toddler Anger.
In both cases, anger is a second-order emotion. In cases of Phineas Anger, the emotion can stimulate positive outcomes if it is sufficiently controlled and directed. In cases of Toddler Anger, almost by definition control and direction become impossible. What happens instead is that someone else takes control and directs the anger to his or her own purposes. The anger that Donald Trump has been harvesting is Toddler Anger.
Now, I don’t mean to insult Trump supporters by implying that they are toddlers of the noggin’. Anyway, I am very fond of toddlers, and my gut instinct is to want to support, help, and teach them, not reprimand, disparage, or punish them. I am not angry at Trump supporters. Rather, I am heartbroken by the straits in which so many of them find themselves.
It used to be that one working-class salary, especially if trade-union based, was enough for a family to get by on somewhere in the vast reaches of the American middle class. I should know; I was born into and grew up in such a family. But with globalization enabling the massive outsourcing of American manufacturing jobs and automation destroying so many other middle-class sustaining jobs—and then with massive legal and illegal immigration gobbling up a lot of what was left and further depressing wages—very few “standard-issue” American families can do that these days. Maybe none. Further add the encroachment of new guild-like barriers to entry in many professions through rentier licensing subtrafuges and other mid-level crony capitalist shenanigans, and a fuller picture of working-middle-class straits gets clearer.
It’s worth stressing, too, that what used to suffice psychologically as middle-class status has been wildly inflated—not entirely unlike what’s happened to grades and winning pinball machine scores over the past forty years—as “want” got ineluctably transmuted into “need.” We have commercial television and television advertising to thank for much of that. (Don’t let me get started on how much I hate television and what it’s done during my lifetime to this nation…)
And there’s one more elemental source of working class misery that needs careful airing: birth control pills.
Female contraception touched off a social revolution in the advanced countries, one comparable in its impact to the Industrial Revolution. And as was the case with the Industrial Revolution, it’s taking a long time for societies to understand and adjust to the change. One of those changes involved the mass inflation of the commercial labor force—the word “commercial” being necessary here to avoid the intimation that a woman working at home raising children and keeping the hearth glowing is somehow not engaged in labor just because it isn’t compensated with money. What happens when supply massively increases but demand doesn’t? All else equal, the price of whatever it is declines.
Corporate America pretty quickly figured out how to get two workers for not a whole lot more than the price of one. Sure, women have been discriminated against by being paid less for the same work, but what is less often remarked is that the massive inflow of women into the labor force also depressed wages for most middle- and working-class men, particularly so as technology inexorably discounted the economic value-added of manly bulk and brawn.
One of the several reasons that male workforce participation is now so low by historical standards, making the unemployment figures less relevant and palliating than they seem, is that many men feel emasculated before the presence of better educated and more emotionally mature women. Women are smart, probably smarter than men at least in the sense that most of them know how to sit still, listen, and sense the emotional aperture of other people, which makes them more desirable employees for a whole range of jobs even at par pay. White males of a certain age, and especially of certain selected ethnic backgrounds, were socialized to a role of provider and protector. When they fail according to their own lights to be a provider for a family, depression, anxiety, fear, and anger often trail not far behind. The four horsemen of their personal apocalypse are not infrequently accompanied by self-medication with various controlled and uncontrolled substances, especially if guys can’t find a worthy job or have even given up looking for one. And those numbers get inflated further thanks to the excessive ease of getting generous disability benefits.
There is no doubt about what such straits do to marriages, and to the children caught within dysfunctional and decayed marriages, and therefore to the integrity of communities and to the nation’s store of social trust. All of this, not least the acute loneliness of American middle class life these days, is documented by Robert Putnam, Andrew Cherlin, Charles Murray, and others in recent books.
I’m not for banning birth control pills—don’t get me wrong. I’m just trying to point out a few of the deeper and more remote sources for the Trumpenproletariat that make up the main reservoir of his supporters. Trump is for real, like it or not, because the people who are attracted to him have real problems, and for the most part they are problems not of their own making. Both major political parties have failed for different reasons to deal effectively with these sources of mostly uncreative destruction, and both have therefore become the butt of much resentment—justifiably in my view.
Worse, both parties, have in recent years played, each in their own way, with the fires of racial resentment and anti-immigrant incitement, to name just two of many incendiary sins, and have thus supplied the rhetorical fuel for the combustible nastiness we see today. If self-annointed “progressive” Democrats like to define political consciousness in terms of group-essentialist identity, they may now behold another group of identity-victims that their way of thinking has helped bring into being: white working-class folk who think that mostly undeserving minorities have gamed the system, and look down on them like some kind of ignorant clueless trash. They are told in essence via the sirens of political correctness to “shut up,” the way a grown-up speaks to a misbehaving child, as though they lack a right even to say what they think.
Meanwhile, what some Republicans have done on the immigration front is unforgiveable in a country composed overwhelmingly of immigrants. And the GOP’s now protracted vanguard role in abetting crony capitalism at more exalted levels of the economy is vastly worse.
So his supporters may respond to Trump’s nonsense that America’s problems are not structural, but are merely caused by weak, stupid, and greedy elites. But the problems are structural, and weak, stupid, and greedy elites have failed to notice or deal forthrightly with them. The fact that a lot of anxious Americans don’t understand the first, structural aspect of the problem does not make their fears any less real.
But we can go a bit deeper still.
From the ancient Greeks to the American Founders, democracy had a schizophrenic image. Citizen participation in self-governance was a good thing, but mob rule and demagogy were not. To simplify admittedly quite a lot, democracy works anywhere from okay to great when things are going well—when the economic pie is growing, when people are for any number of reasons optimistic or at least agreeable about life in general, and when the supply of human dignity is not for some reason in too short supply. But when things are not so peachy, when a democracy—even a limited and mediated republican democracy like ours—has to deal with economic stagnation, insidious pessimism, and a sense of ambient indignity, or simply when the stabilities of normal life change too fast for many people to keep up with them, things can get ugly. Things have gotten ugly.
The ugliness has a characteristic odor, that of early 20th-century fascism. This has led a lot of people to ask whether Donald Trump is a fascist. The answer is “no,” he isn’t, but much of what he says and does smells bad because the social churn that enabled Mussolini and Hitler to take power in Italy and Germany bears some resemblance to the churn that we—and many European countries, too—are experiencing today.
Frightened people respond well— often much too well—to the reification of their supposed enemies. The men on white horses who name the villains prey on the impatience of the anxious, which makes it easier to dispense with open debate, deliberation, compromise, and common sense. In what many take to be a social crisis, polarization vitiates the center, leaving reasonable people without a constituency. Recent elections in Slovakia have brought actual Nazis into the parliament—the enemies they name are the Roma. We’re not there yet. America is neither Slovakia today nor Weimar Germany in 1930. But that’s the arc we seem to be following—and its angle of incidence is sharpened by a nerve-racking confluence of international turmoil with upheaval in the American political economy—and Donald Trump is riding its looming elevation.
There is plenty of social and intellectual history and theory to help us understand what is going on since, as just suggested, the phenomenon isn’t unique. Thoughtful people tend to have favorites to whom they return when things like this happen, just to help them organize their heads and choose the right vocabularies. I have a couple of favorites in this regard, but right now one stands above the rest. Consider, please, this extended remark, which I will put into context anon:
Even in primitive societies where myth pervades and governs the whole of man’s social feeling and social life it is not always operative in the same way nor does it always appear with the same strength. It reaches its full force when man has to face an unusual and dangerous situation…. In all those tasks that need no particular and exceptional efforts, no special courage or endurance, we find no magic and no mythology. But a highly developed magic and connected with it a mythology always occurs if a pursuit is dangerous and its issues uncertain….
Later on there appeared other political and social forces. The mythical organization of society seems to be superseded by a rational organization. In quiet and peaceful times, in periods of relative stability and security, this rational organization is easily maintained. It seems safe against all attacks. But in politics the equipoise is never completely established. What we find here is a labile rather than a static equilibrium. In politics we are always living on volcanic soil. We must be prepared for abrupt convulsions and eruptions.
In all critical moments of man’s social life, the rational forces that resist the rise of the old mythical conceptions are no longer sure of themselves. In these moments the time for myth has come again. For myth has not been really vanquished and subjugated….
The description of the role of magic and mythology in primitive society applies equally well to highly advanced stages of man’s political life. In desperate situations men will always have recourse to desperate means—and our present day political myths have been such desperate means….
If modern man no longer believes in natural magic, he has by no means given up the belief in a sort of “social magic.” If a collective wish is felt in its whole strength and intensity, people can easily be persuaded that it only needs the right man to satisfy it.
These words were written in 1945 (published in 1946), in the shadow of the Holocaust, by Ernst Cassirer toward the end of his final book, The Myth of the State. Cassirer had seen in his philosopher’s imagination a progression of human self-realization through history. He examined the movement of what he called the mimetic to the analogic to the symbolic phases of human expression. Before the Nazis, he assumed that, while development might be uneven amid human cultures, it moved only forward, with reason, toward freedom. The madness of Nazism, with its rabid Black Forest romanticism turned into mass rituals and a death cult, made him realize that mythic consciousness, the analogical stage of man’s cognitive development, was not dead and buried after all.
Cassirer had earlier described mythical consciousness in detail in the second volume of his masterwork, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, as having certain key characteristics. One was emotional consanguinity:
The world of myth is a dramatic world, a world of actions, of forces, of conflicting powers. In every phenomenon of nature it sees the collision of these powers. Mythical perception is always impregnated with these emotional qualities. Whatever is seen or felt is surrounded by a special atmosphere—an atmosphere of joy or grief or anguish, of excitement, of exultation or depression.
A second characteristic was metamorphosis. The mythic world is a unitary world where all is one, without borders or distinctions. “Its view of life”, wrote Cassirer,
is sympathetic, not analytic. If there is any characteristic and outstanding feature of the mythical world, any law by which it is governed—it is the law of metamorphosis…. By a sudden metamorphosis, everything may be turned into everything else.
Cassirer was shocked, twenty years later, to see key elements of mythical consciousness at work in 20th-century fascist ideology. How could one witness the 1935 Nazi rally in Nuremberg and not see these elements? How could one listen to Hitler’s anti-Semitic rants and not hear them? In The Myth of the State, Cassirer thus confessed that “human culture is by no means the firmly established thing that we supposed it to be.”
Can anyone today read Cassirer’s description of the mythic consciousness lurking within a deranged rump of American politics and not see Donald Trump at one of his rallies, particularly the recent one where he asked his followers to swear loyalty to him with raised, stiffened right arms? The critics complain that Trump’s vocabulary is stunted and simplified. They note that he has abandoned all pretense of providing arguments or evidence for what he claims and says. They say he has no policies, only accusations and naked boasts. All of this is true and it is totally beside the point, for, as Max Frankel said long ago, “simplemindedness is not a handicap in the competition of social ideas.”
Trump is, in short, a political shaman. He is adroit at social magic, stirring emotion and changing anything he likes into anything else he likes. And his followers, hypnotized by the dramatic world of colliding forces that he enchants in simple schematic form, nod in agreement, not with his logic but with his demonic magic.
Donald Trump is therefore not just about the Republican Party’s nomination for President, and he is not even just about the presidential election. He is a harbinger, a warning, of a very deep strain of irrationality rising within the American body politic. He is, too, an incubator of potentially significant political violence. He has organized no para-military organization of course, but every time he threatens to punch someone in the nose he is, in effect, giving permission for his followers to be transgressive, not to exclude being violently so. If he is denied the Republican Party’s nomination for President, or, failing that, if he loses the November election, we should expect violent reactions—on what scale no one can say. We should start thinking now about how most wisely to deal with them.