The Republican nominee for the office of President of the United States is a man who spends time in his speeches talking about all the various products which bear his name. This is the same man who is seemingly unable to resist being baited into petty feuds, online and in the real world, with personalities great and small, and whose taste in personal décor is rather closer to that favoured by Saddam Hussein (a man he frequently professes to admire) than any of the latter French kings. He also likes to talk about the size of his hands, and to boast of his poll numbers (something which may become increasingly difficult if the events of this week are widely replicated), but this sort of thing is of less immediate importance.
What does matter, though, is the fact that the advent of Donald Trump as a serious politician (if the word ‘serious’ is held in, oddly, a rather unserious light) makes the political systems which govern the Western world look foolish. He brings the very process of representative democracy into a kind of disrepute.
In this light, it does not matter that his business career and time in the television industry may as well discount him as a serious person. His personality, too, is practically irrelevant, despite its capacity for real arrogance, a lack of sincerity, and the sort of genuine cognitive dissonance which allows for a remarkably laissez-faire attitude towards basic facts of life as it is lived in the United States. (It must be said that I do not think Trump believes he is lying when he says he remembers Muslims in America cheering the attacks on 9/11, or that he opposed the Iraq War at the time, or that Russia has not invaded Ukraine; I am not sure as yet whether this is a more comforting thought than the alternative.)
The Donald Trump phenomenon does not only elicit a great deal of idiocy – it also makes idiots of us all, almost by necessity.
For those of us who, when he was making a surprise splash in the Republican primary campaign, said that he was not a joke and ought to be taken seriously – that he was, in his own way, acting rather cleverly – what has ensued in the last month or so has gone a very long way towards rendering our every opinion and judgement void by association. Because Donald Trump is not an undiscovered political genius and an underrated strategist. He seems to have sussed out what is necessary to beat Republicans at their own game; but now the nation (and, to a lesser extent, the world) needs to be courted, he seems incapable of moderating his decidedly extreme statements – about Muslims, about journalists, about the apparent obsolescence of NATO, and so on.
What might be the most worrying thing about the whole carnival sideshow which is Trump’s candidacy for the highest public office in the world is the idea that, for him, the whole thing is not all that serious. Not only does he treat the process of campaigning with the levity which so annoyed Oliver Hardy; he also seems, if some no doubt Beltway-bound ‘insiders’ are right, more than a little willing to give the whole thing up. When Trump was hunting high and low for potential vice presidential candidates, it seems, he enticed them by saying that, if they won in November, his pick could be the ‘most powerful Vice President’ in American history. In effect, Trump was saying (as ventriloquised by these journalists) that this governing lark is not really an interest of his, and that he would be far happier leaving it to one of those professional politicians – the Washington types he so heartily disdains in public – while he got on with whatever else he wanted to do to occupy his time.
All this speculation (as well as the actual suggestion of ducking the obligations of office) makes the very nature of American democracy look stupid and slow, unable to resist certain challenges seen as so unlikely that they were never effectively prohibited.
This could suggest that Trump, rather than taking the requisite battering from the press and other politicians (as we must now learn to think of them – and him), could even drop out of the forthcoming election if he gets bored, say, or spots a more lucrative business opportunity in the offing.
I do not think that is likely; I think he will stick it out until the end, because not to go the whole way now, after what was once thought impossible has been achieved, would seem a little illogical. But here we see the idiotic effect in full force: either those journalists who are increasingly confident in predicting an early departure look foolish, or I do. (I can take some solace in remembering that journalists and pollsters appear to have developed special talents for looking foolish of late.)
This stuff even seeps into the culture of the country and the world. Those of us who spend our time trying not to hear news of Trump’s latest ‘outrageous’ statement (and how so many people are thoroughly offended by this news), or how he was apparently ‘destroyed’ by some media personality or other (though it’s a little odd how he seems to have survived every instance of that absolutely unscathed), end up looking like idiots, too. We look idiotic thanks to the miracles of modern media; we are inevitably confronted with whatever it is we wish to avoid through fear of irritation or boredom. (And boy is it irritating, and boy is it boring.)
The vaguely post-modern element to all this is further accentuated when the Republican candidate is the one to denigrate America’s recent foreign policy and to suggest that it takes a much reduced role in the world. When the standard bearer of the GOP salutes a geopolitical rival and obvious autocrat in Vladimir Putin, while the Democratic convention cheers the police and the military, and features clips of conservative voices denouncing Trump, things have become decidedly strange.
Perhaps weird is the right word, but even it does not do justice to the depth of what is happening. Though there was a strange virtue in being deemed the ‘stupid party’ or the ‘Know-Nothings’, no politician has ever before sought to institute idiocy as official policy for every echelon of society. This is Donald Trump’s mission; and though it does not appear to be having any real effect on his poll numbers – and they could do with a boost – the lasting effects of this election could be vast, and very grave indeed.