We don’t have to like Trump to understand him

Donald Trump is occurring. He’s no longer merely a punchline. Only a fool can say that his antics are not worth talking about (my line during the first few months of his campaign). Despite the GOP establishment’s best efforts, which were necessarily lame (we’re talking about the GOP here), Trump is the probable Republican nominee. Unless the “true” conservatives like Mitt Romney can manage to swing a brokered convention, The Donald’s got this in the bag. His opposition tells us a lot about how this happened.

There are two principal forces working against Trump. First is the Republican establishment—the Bush’s and Rubio’s and Romney’s of the world, who hate him because he threatens their carefully maintained status quo. For a while, conventional wisdom held that these slimy corporate shills would have little trouble torpedoing The Donald’s campaign. After all, Republican voters would never stand behind a candidate who calls the entire political system “broken,” and who furthermore has the impudence to argue that George W. Bush should have been impeached for his warmongering machinations. What self-respecting Republican, the establishment’s logic went, could lend their support to a candidate who is less than sycophantic toward the state of Israel? Isn’t it self-evident that all conservative-types in this country put the preservation of Israel’s regional hegemony at the top of their priority list?

Wrong, wrong and wrong again. As it turns out, a lot of Republican voters care more about their own well-being than they do about defending the crimes of the Bush administration or those of the IDF. Imagine that. Trump’s (vulgar yet revolutionary) populist rhetoric penetrates much deeper than Rubio’s hoary “presidential” hogwash. Republican voters may think backwards most of the time, but their instincts for self-preservation are as strong as yours and mine. They knew damn well they were being taken for a ride under Bush/Cheney—they just needed one of their own to reassure them that it was OK to feel confused; that they weren’t betraying the conservative cause by questioning their party’s commitment to their interests. Fox News doesn’t provide that reassurance.

Enter Donald Trump, in all his xenophobic and irreverent glory. Trump has not only made it kosher to criticize the establishment—he’s made it cool. He’s like the intrepid new kid who waltzes in and exposes the school’s most popular clique as a bunch of losers: everyone knew it was true; they were just afraid to say so. Trump is essentially Al Czervik, Rodney Dangerfield’s character in Caddyshack (credit to The Atlantic’s Christopher Orr for the astute analogy).  He’s a natural leader, a boisterous heretic, and people flock to him. So there was a fundamental, fatal miscalculation in the GOP’s math: they totally underestimated the disillusionment of their own base, and Trump’s ability to tap into it. Hence their failure to rein him in before it was too late.

The other force pushing back against the Trump freight train is what’s referred to as the liberal media, who hate him because he represents what could be a serious threat to Queen Hillary’s presupposed inevitability. When these so-called news outlets attack Donald Trump, it is for his nativist and anti-Muslim and pseudo-fascist demagogy. This, to a degree, is understandable. Trump’s recent comments on torture (he wants to bring back waterboarding and perhaps something a little tougher), Islam (according to Trump all Muslims have an irrational hatred of America), and the violence at his campaign rallies are objectionable and ultimately dangerous. And yet the attention paid to these factors by the liberal corporate media smacks of opportunism and obscurantism. Conspicuously absent from any critical commentary on or analysis of Trump is a real desire to understand his appeal and success.

It’s easy, and safe, and reductive, to focus exclusively on the xenophobic tendencies of Trump and the violence of a number of his supporters, and say that the phenomenon is explained by a shared fascism between candidate and voter. It is not so easy, or acceptable for that matter, to acknowledge that these points are consequences of a much larger problem, and moreover that standard political rhetoric is actually much scarier in its content than Trump’s ridiculous prattle. For instance, Donald Trump says that punching protesters at his rallies is “very, very appropriate.” This is worrying, yes. However, it is mere child’s play when compared to, say, Hillary Clinton’s praise for Henry Kissinger, or Barack Obama’s assertion that, by killing over 2,000 people in the Gaza strip in 2014, Israel was merely “defending itself.” Or how about Hillary’s boastt during the 2008 primaries that she would be willing to “totally obliterate” Iran? Is this “presidential” language? Presumably she was implying a series of nuclear strikes, which would in turn lead to a nuclear war with Russia and perhaps conclude with the annihilation of life on Earth. Just imagine the field day we would all have if Donald Trump came out and stated that he would have no problem obliterating a country of 80 million people. Imagine the news headlines, the ubiquitous outrage, the Nazi invocations.

To understand Trump’s appeal we have to (at the very least) admit that we live in a culture of extreme violence. So normalized is this violence, that our government can use remote-control drones to kill people suspected of terrorist activity, and anyone else who happens to be nearby, and very few people bat an eyelash. Suppose our government started killing murder suspects. No due process, no presumption of innocence, no trial—just strap them to a gurney and give them the spike. Who among us would accept it? That’s not an unfair analogy, unless you believe that American lives are worth more and deserve more rights than non-American ones. This certainly appears to be the position of Barack Obama, who signs extrajudicial death warrants of non-Americans on a routine basis. Who cares? Again, very few people. Who cares about the skirmishes at Trump’s campaign events? Everybody.

It boils down to a (in this case) disfigured concept of legitimate versus illegitimate violence that’s mostly taken for granted. State violence on a massive scale, particularly when committed by the US and its allies: legitimate, defensible use of force. Comparatively miniscule violence committed by Palestinians against their colonizers: terrorism. Sucker punch at a Trump rally: abhorrent fascist behavior. This is what the media would have us believe, and most of us oblige them. While it is certainly true that violence is under some circumstances legitimate, only one of the foregoing examples is debatable; I shouldn’t have to specify which.

In addition to the fact that, according to the doctrine of American Exceptionalism, violence is a virtue, there is the all-too-evident (and yet largely neglected) economic reality underlying Trump’s success. It’s the one Bernie Sanders keeps talking about: the rigged economy, the capitalist greed, the corrupt political system, the undue influence of special interests and lobbyists, the corporate trade agreements that destroy American jobs. More succinctly, the utter lack of democracy characterizing our nation. Many Republicans gravitate to Trump for the same reasons progressive-minded Democrats gravitate to Sanders. The delivery couldn’t be more different, and yet the basic message is the same: death to the established order. At the end of the day, both candidates represent change—serious change; not the bogus change promised once upon a time by our present leader. Given that Trump is a raving megalomaniac with little knowledge of political issues, it’s probably safe to assume that his brand of change will be for the worse. However, it’s still change, and that is what’s on people’s minds as they gather fanatically around his pulpit. His actual policies are a distant afterthought, if they are thought of at all.

By refusing to acknowledge that Trump is in essence a crude, right-wing version of Bernie Sanders (just as Jeb Bush is a right-wing version of Hillary Clinton), the mainstream liberal media has managed to persuade the masses that white supremacy is the bottom line of his campaign and the extent of his appeal. They’re doing a good job, in other words, of obscuring the role that heroes of the orthodox left like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have played in creating the very monster they’re now obliged to destroy. If the US functioned at all like a democracy, Donald Trump would still be hosting The Apprentice. Because it doesn’t, he could very well be our next president. Rocket science it is not.

Michael Howard’s essays and short fiction have appeared in a wide variety of print and digital publications, Dissident Voice among them. He lives in Vietnam. Read other articles by Michael.