The World Turned Upside Down

Trump supporters. Washington DC, January 2017.

Trump supporters. Washington DC, January 2017.

It will be a couple of weeks before you read this, but I was reminded this morning that today (October 7th) is the one year anniversary of the coming to light of Mr. Trump’s Discourse on the Proper Wooing and Treatment of Women, so eloquently delivered to Billy Bush of Access Hollywood.

At the time this came as a shock to the mainstream media, who had settled in to talk with patrician solicitude about the landfall of Hurricane Matthew.

Still, later that day would come revelations of Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election and the release by Wikileaks of emails hacked out of the account of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.

But it was Mr. Trump’s statements about who he would kiss and what he would grab, and how fame justified his conduct, that remain in memory. For, while the interference and the emails influenced American politics for a season, Trump’s utterances represented the dawning of a new era.

Throughout the 20th century, it was obligatory for American politicians to maintain a certain decorum. This is not to say that they were debarred from saying wretched things, or from accusing their political opponents of having some malign intention toward the republic. The important thing was the tone in which such utterances were delivered. There was a feeling abroad that one ought to make some attempt to embody the role of a politician, the manifest, if not exactly gravitas, then at least something approximating a demeanor proper to someone aspiring to high office.

Mr. Trump has, on repeated occasions, showed himself to be a horse of a different color. In the furore that ensued after his comments to Billy Bush came to light, Mr. Trump tried to pass them off as “locker room talk.”

This justification amounted to an admission that out of sight of prying (feminine) eyes, and probably naked, men are prone to give voice to the vilest sentiments. This amounted to an aspersion cast on everyone who had ever spent time in a (men’s) locker room.

Chris Kluwe, a former NFL player, and thus it might plausibly be claimed, an expert on locker room culture, wrote a public letter to Mr. Trump which offered a convincing refutation of the proposition that such talk was the norm therein.

According to Mr. Kluwe, not even the most benighted of his colleagues were given to talking about women in the terms Mr. Trump seemed to view as common. “I played a couple years with a guy who later turned out to be a serial rapist,” wrote Mr. Kluwe, “even he never talked like that.”

In the wake of the release of the tapes, it was generally assumed that Mr. Trump would rescind his candidacy, out of a sense of decency, if for no other reason. After all, Mitt Romney’s foolish, if rather less vulgar, comments about the 47% dealt a serious blow to his prospects for election. That, too, was a case of a man ill-advisedly speaking aloud a view that he assumes to be generally held. Sadly (at least in terms of human civilization), questions of decency simply did not occur to Mr. Trump, although they suddenly occurred to others.

Many in the worlds of politics and the media attempted to distance themselves from Mr. Trump’s comments. Some, like Mr. Bush himself, suddenly discovered that their association with their wives and daughters might actually indicate that women were human beings. Why this fact had never occurred to them at some prior point was never clearly addressed. In any case, they now were pretty sure that women were people and were justly horrified by Mr. Trump’s comments.

But for Mr. Trump himself, there was no question of retreat. After an apology that barely rose to the level of perfunctory, he then went on the offensive, offering the suggestion that Hillary Clinton was in some way complicit in her husband’s sexual misdeeds. This was standard Trumpian bluster: when challenged resort immediately to name calling and deflection.

More importantly, Mr. Trump had clearly calculated (correctly as it would turn out) that such things were simply not an issue for his base of support. Money talks, and the prospect of tax cuts for the wealthy does so loudly. Down the income distribution, there was a feeling that the objections to talk of grabbing women by their sexual organs was merely a kind of politically correct prudishness that should not detract from the project of returning America to some prior era of greatness.

This was only one moment, albeit an important one, in Mr. Trump’s process of prying the lid off of Pandora’s Box. What he did was not novel. There has always been an element of American politics directed toward the lowest common denominator. Think, for instance, of George Wallace’s prurient appeals to the fears and prejudices of white America. The difference in the case of Mr. Trump is the openness with which it is stated.

To a significant degree, Mr. Trump’s political success is based on a very effective combination of blandishments for the upper reaches of the income distribution, and pandering to the basest instincts in the American polity.

Mr. Trump’s words amounted to a sort of verbal cue to people holding views generally considered too vile for airing before civilized opinion. If you think of women or blacks as fundamentally inferior, if you think Mexico is populated by rapists and spongers, if you think that Hitler was just misguided (or not misguided at all), Mr. Trump’s words are a source of succor, a kind of validation that the grip of the puritanical squeamishness that has forced such views to the margins of the public sphere might finally be loosening.

Of all the alarming aspects of the rise of Mr. Trump to the pinnacle of American power, the worst may be that he seems to have found a coalition that has the capacity (with the help of voter suppression) to hold power for a long time to come. For those in possession of wealth, Mr. Trump’s baser instincts and expressions are regrettable, but not really a matter of concern.

Certainly, they may be made the subject of some pious nattering in news conferences, public speeches, or the sort of ephemeral political book that is on the shelves at Barnes & Noble one week and in the remainder bin the next. But talk is cheap and in this case serves as a useful alternative to actually doing anything, especially something that might adversely affect one’s revenue stream.

For the lower orders, Trump has managed to present himself as the kind of guy you’d like to have a beer with, maybe while ogling the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition at halftime of the football game. He has managed to convey to an important segment of white America the message, “I am just like you, but with more money.”

Indeed, the nullity at the center of Mr. Trump’s cultural presence is a sort of sublime object “a” for the lower orders of white America, that elusive something that one might be if only the liberal goody-goodies and minorities weren’t holding one down.

The toothpaste is now out of the tube in American political life. Having established itself as a viable (and in fact winning) strategy in American politics, Trumpism (really only another name for vulgarian populism) is probably here to stay. It is dangerous because it is immune to reason. It operates on surfaces and rumors, always escaping the moment one tries to pin down the nullity underlying the image.

In any case, by the time that emptiness is revealed attention has moved elsewhere, to ever new images and spectacles. And the question now becomes: how does one fight back?

Photograph courtesy of maccauleys corner. Published under a Creative Common license.