Saturday, December 12, 2015

Six degrees of Trump

It's not hard to understand how, and why, Donald Trump has captured the imagination of certain conservatives within the United States of America.

He tells us it's OK to get angry and to lash out at things we don't understand, and with which we do not necessarily agree. He tell us it OK to talk tough ... that it's acceptable to heap ridicule on people we have deemed to be beneath us ... to make fun of whose with physical issues they cannot mask ... and even to demean women for the biological functions their bodies perform.

For every one of these insults Trump has hurled into this allegedly dignified presidential campaign, there is a group of Americans listening to pound their fists on the table and say something like, "damned straight." That is why he resonates. That is the cumulative effect of his daily doses of demagoguery.

The smart money says Trump will not be around for the final countdown. Either something will slow him down -- perhaps his latest pronouncement that the US shouldn't allow Muslims into the country -- or he himself will just lose interest and go back to counting his money and being a reality TV bully.

Others say that regardless of what ultimately happens with him, he's already hijacked the campaign beyond repair, and that he may have irrecoverably harmed his own party's chances of getting the White House back in 2016.

At this point, No. 2 seems more likely than No. 1. He's still made of Teflon. No matter what he does, or says, the same base of people who see him as the living personification of Howard Beale -- you remember Howard Beale? -- keeps going to the window and screaming "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore."

This is the way I see Trump.

I don't take Trump seriously, though I do take what he represents seriously. He is a dangerous man, not because he may become president (because I don't think he will), but because he legitimizes irrational anger. And irrational anger can often have dire consequences, as history has repeatedly shown.

I kind of felt the same way toward Ronald Reagan way back in 1980. It wasn't that he was conservative. Lots of good people are conservative; and -- conversely -- some liberals simply are not good people.

But Reagan made it legitimate to look down on poor people, with his apocryphal stories about welfare queens, and his other pronouncements that made it seem as if the have-nots were in the business of holding up the haves every day. If that were ever the case, wouldn't the paradigm have eventually shifted?

Trump is pretty easy to figure out. He's a megalomaniac. The closest thing to Donald Trump in classic American literature is Captain Ahab, a supremely self-obsessed man who is willing to bring the world down around him if there's something in it for him. There is nothing Donald Trump won't do to keep his name up in lights.

And that apparently includes running for president.

One would have hoped that simple respect would have kept Trump from making a mockery out of the one constant that has kept this country unique for almost 250 years -- the peaceful, scheduled transfer of power. Some campaigns over the years may have been a bit livelier than others, but there was always a baseline of dignity to the proceedings that kept presidential politics from going completely off the rails.

Until now.

This may be the result of a canyon-sized split in in the Republican party, where it seems as if the mainstream Grand Old Party is in danger of being usurped by the upstarts who would rather shut down government than listen to reason and work to find common ground.

It could be the result of an incumbent who, while certainly not the reckless George W. Bush who ushered in the 2st century, can be maddeningly deliberate and obtuse on visceral issues that genuinely make people's blood boil. Barack Obama may be absolutely right that there's no quick, easy fix when it comes to eradicating terrorist organizations such as ISIS. But he could do a better job at least speaking to the legitimate apprehension in this country about the presence of cells operating out of major U.S. population centers and acknowledging it.

Obama allowed himself to be upstaged internationally by Benjamin Netanyahu, and is in danger of being identified as on the wrong side of history on the whole Palestinian-Israeli issue (though, to his credit, he seems to be getting a little bit of the last laugh on Vladimir Putin on Syria).

Megalomaniacs such as Trump cannot thrive without some vacuum in which to step. And he has two pretty good one. First, there is no one currently running as president among the Republicans who can unify the divisive elements. And second, there's a lame-duck Democrat in the White House who bears the lashes of seven years of ups, downs, ins and outs. Disapproval ratings always seem to be a major issue with lame-ducks toward the end of their second terms. By then, they've angered enough people that it becomes harder and harder to find a base of people willing to say they're supporters.

Trump, being a megalomaniac, has no shame. I don't recall any other time -- at least in my life -- where someone who purports to be a serious political figure has so willingly resorted to demagoguery and pander. Even people I've historically barely been able to stand have at least paid lip service to maintaining some sense of decorum on the stump. Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush -- all people of whom I was not a fan -- maintained dignity on the stump, and did not allow themselves to be seen as willing to incite people for their personal gain. This also goes for Democrats a little too far to the left, too. Either way, they've respected the process enough not to turn it into a sideshow.

Trump has not. And the hell of it is that Trump has to see what this is doing, not only to his own party, but to the country. Ted Kennedy once called politics a contact sport, and he was not wrong, of course, The pursuit of power can be pretty rough, and those who take part have to have exceptionally thick skin. We've all come to expect a sharp elbow or two to the ribs during political campaigns, and I think all but the most hopelessly naive among us accept it -- though grudgingly sometimes.

But what Trump is doing is more than just a sharp elbow to the ribs. His is a hay maker to the solar plexus. If your average political campaign can seem like a boxing match sometimes, at least it's being fought with something approaching Marquees de Queensberry rules. Trump has turned this into mud wrestling. No holds barred. The show is the thing.

If we understand Trump's motivation here, what are we to think of his followers? The ones who keep showing up in the polls helping him maintain his status as a frontrunner?

Answer: Not much.

In the beginning, all of this was understandable. We've reached a point in politics where nobody will say anything without having a focus group meet on it first. Hillary Clinton, whom -- I think -- will be your next president, is notorious for saying absolutely nothing spontaneously. Unless a gaggle of advisers told her to, she wouldn't tell you if you were on fire.

Along comes Trump who just wings it half the time. He says anything, and doesn't care how people react. Disregarding how inflammatory much of what he says is, it's still rather refreshing in the minds of many that he's willing to put himself on the line like that.

But that should have lasted a month, tops. It's now been almost a year. And Trump still says inflammatory, misanthropic things, and people still support him. Why?

Could it be because people are just so fed up with political pablum that they'll accept anything if it sounds different than the usual mush? Is that an indictment against Trump, or should we be complimenting him for recognizing yet another vacuum in U.S. politics: genuine human beings instead of programmed robots.

At the very least Trump is a real, live, human being with a heart and a pulse, whose face gets red, and changes expression, and whose blood seems to boil over that which makes him angry. We may not have to agree with him, but damn, we can appreciate his passion. Right?

Not so fast. Again, shouldn't we be able to be able to tell the difference between a person who is legitimately moved and angered over issues versus one whose continued rants about just about everything that plays well to the cheap seats smack of calculation? We should ... but we can't seem to. And this is the conundrum of Donald Trump. What makes him seem so real to people is actually quite phony. He's willing to incite anyone to keep the attention on himself.

The Republicans deserve to get banished to Aldebaran for the way they've handled the whole Trump thing. From the first debate, any serious candidate should have simply refused to take the stage with him. You can't ban him, but you can refuse to play. How much fun would it have been had Trump been reduced to debating himself?

I guarantee you, had the likes of Jeb Bush or Chris Christie, or Marco Rubio, just to name three, simply said, "No! We value this system too much to see it treated like a sideshow, and until he's gone, we're not taking part in this sideshow." You're not telling me their numbers wouldn't have soared?

There have been rumblings of late by Republicans that it's time for this charade to end, and now that Trump has come out and said something truly nutty (about Muslims) the heavy hitters are fighting back. Too little, too late. That should have happened long ago.

Which leads one to conjure up another "what-if:" What if the Republicans actually want Trump out there saying ridiculous, idiotic things? What if they figure the dumber he looks, it'll take a little bit of the focus off the truly scary things they're all saying? Every one of these candidates is flawed, but they all (well maybe not Ted Cruz and Ben Carson) look pretty tame in comparison to Trump. Still, at this point, it looks as if someone like Willard Romney is going to have to step in and do what Nixon did in 1968: pick up the fragmented remains of a disastrous early primary season and restore order. The comparison ends there, though. In '68, the Democrats were just as divided as the Republicans were. This year they're not. Even with the unexpected insurgency of Bernie Sanders, does anyone expect Clinton to lose the nomination?

I do think Trump will not be around next November, but I couldn't tell you who will be. It could be Romney -- again -- for all anyone knows. My personal opinion is that Trump has been allowed to hang around much too long, and do too much damage in the name of Republicans. And that's because none of the others who have chosen to run have enough cachet to fight him.

I believe it all spells defeat for the GOP next year. The only question that remains to be answered is whether Hillary's coat tails are long enough to sweep them out of power altogether. Rampant and excessive gerrymandering have made it hard for Democrats to win in some Congressional districts. But this disaster could transcend even those efforts.

As the noted philosopher Moses Horvitz once so eloquently said, "we shall see what we shall see."

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