Whither The Trump Paradox?

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

That Donald Trump is a vulgar, self-aggrandizing narcissist was obvious decades before that day of infamy in 2015 when he and his well-preserved trophy bride descended the Trump Tower escalator to kick off his presidential campaign.

His strategy then was clear: stir up nativist animosities by calling immigrants and asylum seekers from south of the border rapists, drug dealers, and gang members.

Also: rev up America’s ambient Islamophobia, “dog whistle” support for the “alt-right,” pander to Evangelicals, and give crony capitalists anything and everything they want. In Trumpland, crony capitalists are capitalists who pay homage to Trump and who act as if they owe him fealty.

Trump’s strategy has evolved only slightly since then, mainly to take account of changing circumstances and evolving business opportunities.

High on the list of changing circumstances is the bromance between the best foreign customer of America’s death merchants, the murderous Mohammad bin Salman, one of the most retrograde potentates on earth, and First Son-in-Law Jared Kushner, Trump’s unofficial Secretary of Everything and BFF, best friend forever, of the latest generation of ethnic cleansers of the Promised Land.

Once it became clear that Trump was serious about running for president, that his and Melania’s performance on the escalator wasn’t just a publicity stunt intended to call attention to the brand, Trump’s unsuitability for the office he sought became even more obvious than it had seemed before; and now that he has been in the White House for two and a half years, the unfitness of that most “stable genius” has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

There was, and astonishingly still is, reluctance on the part of some voters to acknowledge the obvious because the idea that the rich and heinous are praiseworthy and smart is a dogma of the American civil religion, and because it is widely assumed that a buffoonish, gangsterish real estate and gambling tycoon, best known as a reality TV star, could never make it all the way to the White House if he didn’t have at least a few estimable qualities.

Perhaps he really is a dealmaker extraordinaire – just not so as anyone can see it. How much more likely is it, though, that what he had going for him was his father’s money and influence, and that what he is good at is conning the terminally gullible and gaming the system.

The charge that Trump is in way over his head, that he is an ignoramus with the emotional maturity and moral sense of an adolescent bully, is beyond serious dispute. So are charges of corruption, overall sleaziness, and “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

None of this can be kept out of public consciousness indefinitely. Presidents, especially ones who, like Trump, are voracious publicity hounds, are so much in the public eye, and the evidence is so overwhelming, that only diehard fanatics could keep the faith for long.

And yet, it is widely accepted that unless a bad diet or a thunderbolt from heaven get him first, Trump could actually win a second term. More distressing even than that, there are vast swathes of the country where he actually enjoys majority support.

How can this be? How can Trump not just be Trump, but act like Trump, and still have roughly two fifths of the electorate supporting him? Granted – it is only at the very bottom of Hillary’s “basket of deplorables” that he elicits much enthusiasm, and many of his supporters are happy to state their misgivings. Nevertheless, the basket is large and its denizens do stand by their man.

Even those of us who expect less than nothing from an electorate that could elect the likes of, say, Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, find “the Trump base” – that is the current euphemism – shocking and ultimately incomprehensible.

This, then, is the Trump Paradox: each day he is more awful than the last. He makes no secret of it; he flaunts it. And yet each day his boast about how he would only gain support if he walked out onto Fifth Avenue and shot some random person becomes less hyperbolic – to a point where, even now, if it happened, nobody would be especially surprised.

It is possible, of course, that the reality is not quite as paradoxical as it seems; that the nature and extent of Trump’s support might seem more formidable than it actually is.

Nearly everybody underestimated Trump’s appeal in 2016; overestimating it could be an understandable psychological reaction to that. The polls got it wrong in 2016; perhaps we are now experiencing backlash from that as well.

Or perhaps it is “fake news,” driven by greed. Corporate media stand to make a lot more money from a nail biter than from a contest in which the outcome is predictable with a high degree of certainty.

That would be the case in a Trump versus practically anybody contest in an environment in which rationality and basic decency were driving voters’ choices. But this is not the case in our world today. Since even before Inauguration Day 2017, rationality and decency have been hanging by a thread.

There could also be a lot of fear mongering going on, engineered by Democratic Party operatives and their media allies. Nothing is better for motivating Democratic voters than the prospect of four more years of the Trumpian menace.

It is probably safe to wager that, against Trump, a Democrat cannot lose in 2020; especially if the Democrats don’t nominate someone like, but even worse, than last time’s loser – in other words, if they don’t nominate Joe Biden or any “centrist” like him.

Therefore, it would probably be fair to conclude that there is not much of a Trump paradox, after all, and that there is no reason to panic on its account. But until nuclear disarmament is achieved and global warming stopped in its tracks, extreme aversion to risk is the wisest course.

Therefore, when and insofar as it matters politically, it makes sense to act as if two-fifths of the electorate is indeed standing by their man, and to assume that most of those people are not going to cast off their delusions before November 2020. For at least the next year and a half, the way forward is to regard the Trump paradox as a specter haunting the next presidential election, and, in view of what is at take, to proceed accordingly.

It is therefore timely to reflect on what hardcore Trumpians, the true believers, think they are doing. It hardly matters whether there really are some forty million of them or many less.

We can begin by acknowledging that anyone who supports Trump who does not have a major stake in the fossil fuel industry or in a handful of other enterprises that really are “enemies of the people,” or who is not filthy rich and grotesquely greedy, has no material interests that would put him or her on Trump’s side.

It is tempting, at this point, to invoke that old standby, “false consciousness.” No doubt, there is a lot of that around. But the Trump phenomenon it is too irrational, too surreal, to be explained entirely by concepts developed in saner times.

Could it be that the Trump forty percent is so propagandized and dumbed down by Fox and such that they are unable to see how irrational they are or, if they do, to grasp the full extent?

Or maybe they see all they need to, but don’t care; perhaps because they feel compelled to act out.

Or, as many a cable news channel talking head has claimed, they have “agendas,” pecuniary or, as in the case of Evangelicals, religious, which they think that Trump will help them advance. They could be right about that, even if, as some of them surely realize, he could care less about their agendas or about them.

Or maybe the problem just is that Trump’s marks cannot or will not admit to themselves that they have been conned? That would at least be humanly understandable.

Two and a half years ago, there was a rationale for siding with Trump over Clinton that is not entirely without merit, though, even back then, only a fool would have found it compelling. It was that a vote for Trump was a vote against the neoliberal, liberal imperialist order that the Clintons did so much to promote and with which they are so thoroughly identified.

A vote for Trump was a vote for someone who railed against that, albeit in a distinctively inchoate way, and whom nearly the entire power structure of our increasingly inegalitarian ancien régime could not abide. This was a cri de coeur, a plea from the heart; as such, there was something appealing about it.

But that was before Trump’s flaws became too glaring to overlook or deny.

It was still possible, back in 2016, to believe that although what Trump did or said or tweeted seemed insane, maybe what it really was is crazy like a fox; that maybe he really is a master deal-maker, a strategist thinking, as a chess master would, many steps ahead.

That argument is rarely floated nowadays. One reason why is that, to anyone who has wallowed in Trumpland for two and a half years, it rings hollow — like a nasty joke, which, in the final analysis, is all that it is.

The several explanations sketched above, and others that could be added to them, do have merit; but, separately or together, they don’t quite succeed in making sense of the Trump phenomenon. Perhaps there is nothing to do except to concede that it defies explanation; it is that bizarre.


This is why I would conjecture that, barring radical and unforeseeable changes in circumstances, the ninety-nine percent or so of Trump voters whose minds now seem hopelessly out to lunch will remain solidly pro-Trump until the economy takes a nosedive in ways that even they will be unable to ignore or deny.

Even before Marx’s investigations of endogenous developmental tendencies in economic systems, it was understood that capitalist economies go through cycles of boom and bust that governmental actions affect in various ways, but that ultimately lie beyond government control. As a general rule, governments in capitalist states are better at making situations worse than at making them better.

When the economic news is good, Trump takes credit for it; when it is bad, he blames Obama. In truth we are now in the tenth year of recovery from the worst downturn since the great depression of the 1930s. The entire system of global finance that had developed over decades very nearly came undone.

Obama could have done better than he did, but he did help save the day, especially in the financial sector. Insofar as anyone can claim credit for what was largely inherent in the developmental trajectory of the system itself, it is Obama, not Trump.

Of course, he did much less than he could have for the financial “industry’s” principal victims, the men and women lured into and then stuck with unmanageable levels of debt, and he let the banksters who enriched themselves egregious by creating this situation get out of jail free. But credit where credit is due; he did do some good; he saved the day. It is far from clear that Trump has done any good at all.

And now, with the long delayed end of the recovery looming, Trump is undoing much of the good the Obama administration did, all but assuring that when the pendulum swings back, as it inevitably will, it will swing back hard.

Thanks to Trump’s inequality enhancing tax cuts for corporations and the rich, and the crumbs he and his minions have been tossing to enough others to generate a sense of calm as his nostrums begin to take effect, it is all but certain that a train wreck is coming.

Will the gods whose playthings we are hold it off long enough for there to be at least some chance that Trump’s base will desert him in time for the 2020 election?

I used to think that there was not a chance of that happening, that it just wasn’t in the karma of a nation that has done so much harm to so many for so long.

But now there are indications that the end of the recovery may be coming sooner than most economists used to think. It is getting to be the consensus view that prosperity, such as it is, doesn’t have many more months still to run.

I remembered too that Trump and his minions have no monopoly on the absurd; that, comforting illusions of heaven and hell and karmic justice notwithstanding, the universe itself is absurd as it gets.

And then there is the incompetence of our “stable genius,” a man who knows nothing and everything at once, and who is becoming increasingly desperate mentally and emotionally. He can barely hold a thought, much less an idea, but on matters that reflect his own animosities, bigotry, and narcissistic delusions, he does have fairly stable attitudes. They endear him to the retrogrades in his base, but they also turn him into his own worst enemy.

It was plain from Day One that Trump was obsessed not just by Muslims, but also, even more, by the thought of brown-skinned rapists invading the Land of the Free from south of the border.

What was less clear was that he was also a tariffs buff. Trump knows less than nothing about tariffs, but he believes in them absolutely. In his mind, they are the artful dealmaker’s best friends.

We should be grateful for this. Instead of threatening tariffs hither and yon, raising the blood pressures of investors the world over, but not quite killing or maiming anyone, he could be starting wars. That would be more in line with what “normal” presidents, like the Bushes and Obama, used to do.

Those who thought Trump more likely than Hillary to promote détente with Russia and China were hoodwinked, but so far at least, to his credit, Trump, for all his mindless bluster and bullying, has kept the United States out of military engagements of his own contrivance.

Democrats, eager to hasten Obama’s canonization, ought to give this some thought; so should we all as we contemplate where we would now be had Hillary won.

Like most Democrats, she and Madeleine Albright, her husband’s last Secretary of State, are of one mind in thinking that inasmuch as America has lethal force to spare, it ought to use it from time to time – if only to enhance its creditability. It can be useful for hegemons, and also for imperial powers in decline, to shore their credibility up from time to time.

So far, Trump has not gone down that path; intentionally or not, he has become credibility’s worst nightmare. Teddy Roosevelt advised speaking softly and carrying a big stick. Trump speaks loudly, and carries a stock that is vanishingly small.

This doesn’t stop him, however, from brandishing it; making himself, and the country for which he stands, ridiculous.

This is one of many reasons why he is loathed in elite quarters. But with the still basically unreconstructed Democratic Party for an opposition, even our grandees, accustomed as they are in general to getting their way, find themselves pulling their punches.

This is hardly surprising: notwithstanding the support of the majority of voters, America’s political leaders cannot get rid of him, and cannot even do much to hobble him – not with the institutions our vaunted “founders” bequeathed us.

However, Trump can hobble himself. If our luck and the world’s holds, he will keep on doing just that for the next year and a half.

That is a big “if,” however, because nobody flip-flops like the Donald. Countless times since his inauguration, he has changed his mind on a dime — or on the advice of one or another Fox News bloviator whose views struck a responsive chord in the booming buzzing confusion of his mind.

But, as almost happened last week with Mexico, if he doesn’t flip-flop, or if he stumbles into something he really doesn’t want but feels he cannot avoid, he could find himself in what the late George H. W. Bush used to call “deep doodoo.” At that point, like rats fleeing a sinking ship, GOP Senators might actually break free from under his thumb.

After all, the captains of commerce and industry who own those Senators don’t care for tariffs any more than garden variety, Clintonite (neoliberal) Democrats do.

From the time Trump secured the GOP nomination in 2016, Republican legislators have lived in mortal fear of him, licking his boots whenever he demanded it of them. But their real bosses are the neoliberal – and therefore anti-tariff — capitalists they exist to serve.

If they call for it, and if push comes to shove, those Senators might find it necessary to overcome the cult-like servility that has become their signature stance, the better to serve their true masters directly rather than through the intermediary of a conman who has fallen for his own con.

Then anarchy might erupt in what is still reaction’s finest redoubt. This could be enough to give Mitch McConnell a stroke; it couldn’t happen to a more worthy fellow.

McConnell did his best to block Obama at every turn and to render the Democratic Party impotent; and, in both cases, he was good at it. But by far his most deleterious role in the politics of the past decade or more has been to fashion a troglodyte judiciary that will continue to afflict the body politic for decades to come.

He has so far succeeded mightily in this endeavor. But his plans could be thwarted, and some of his accomplishments might even be reversed, if the Republican monolith crumbles.

That just might be starting to happen now, as tariffs and uncertainty about tariffs take hold, and the first inklings of the next economic downturn emerge.

It is still more likely than not that the Trump Paradox, with or more likely without Trump, will be a factor in the life of the nation for a long time to come. But since the 2018 midterm elections, this seems a lot less inevitable than it used to – because now the broad outlines of a genuine opposition party capable of moving history forward are coming into view.

It won’t help that thanks to those damn founders and the institution builders that came after them, this will more likely be a reformed and reconstructed Democratic Party than something genuinely new, a fresh start as it were. But this problem, though debilitating, is not fatal; it can be overcome.

It will not be overcome, however, if there is a return to pre-Trumpian “normalcy.” Then, the best we will be able to hope for will be a return to the conditions that made Trump possible and arguably even inevitable.

But if the AOCs of the (already somewhat) new Democratic Party take charge, if they are able to prevail over defenders of the status quo while Joe Biden and others of his ilk suffer an historic defeat, then it will no longer be quite as unreasonable as it now is to dare to hope.

And then, building on that foundation and if all goes well, the Trump Paradox will fade back into the Nothingness from whence it came.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).