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Disciples of Distrust

Donald Trump, Albuquerque, New Mexico, October 30, 2016
Carlo Allegri/Reuters
Donald Trump, Albuquerque, New Mexico, October 30, 2016

As a candidate for president, Donald Trump is so odd and unplaceable that people have cast about to find some past exemplars of his behavior. They have tried out various demagogues for a template—Father Charles Coughlin, for instance, or Joseph McCarthy, or George Wallace. Some have even rolled out the big guns, comparing him to Hitler or Mussolini, but let’s not get silly. Trump has not killed millions of people. He has not even begun on his first thousand.

Even comparing him to American demagogues is unfair—unfair to the past demagogues. They had specific bees in their bonnets, which attracted other nuttinesses, but which remained their craziness of choice. The bees in Coughlin’s bonnet were Jews, McCarthy’s bees were “Comsymps,” and Wallace’s were blacks trying to vote or go to school. Trump, by contrast with these specialists, has a capacious bonnet, which admits any irritant he happens to see passing by. His fixations are shallower than those of his putative forebears, but they cover acres and acres.

Some think there must be some personal charisma in the demagogues being considered. But they are, each in his own repellant way, quite different. Coughlin was a priest tending a shrine to Saint Thérèse of Lisieux who found that he had a syrupy radio voice. McCarthy was a ferret who fancied himself the Grand Inquisitor from the Dostoevsky novel he was not literate enough to read. Wallace was a strutting little fellow dwarfed by the doorway he stood in to keep blacks out. Trump looks like an overripe former matinee idol, a male Norma Desmond insisting that he is still wonderful (make Hollywood great again). These are not people of great charm.

Some suspect that the demagogues must have twisted or damaged psyches; but probing such muddied puddles does not get us far. Leaders are made by followers. The real question should be: what did the followers want that they could supply? Demagogues can touch exposed nerves, but some perceived crisis has to expose the nerves in the first place. Each of these men (only men) rode a turgid wave of turmoil caused by some menacing development. The Depression was the crisis Coughlin claimed to meet, by blaming it on the Jews. The cold war created the Commie scare that gave McCarthy his hunting license. The civil rights movement made Wallace a grubby improbable knight of the Old South. What is the crisis that created that parasite on the Republican Party called Trump?

What do his followers want to be saved from, even by a not-very-palatable savior? Two crises have, with some justification, been listed. First there is the shock some whites feel at having a black man in the Oval Office treated as superior to them. A second crisis is the growing income inequality, letting whatever money is still being made float inevitably up to those who are already rich. These anxieties do, undoubtedly, gnaw at Trump’s followers. But I think a deeper crisis underlies them both, not shouldering them aside but pitching in to make them both more pervasive and more intense.

This is the shuddering distrust of every kind of authority—a contempt for the whole political system, its “establishment,” the Congress, its institutions (like the Fed), its “mainstream” media, the international arrangements it has made (not only the trade deals but the treaty obligations under NATO and other defense agreements). This is a staggering injection of bile into the public discourse. It does not answer, or even address, the question: what kind of order can be maintained in a society that does not recognize the legitimacy of any offices? 

What has caused this bitter disillusion? It is the burrowing and undermining infection of the Iraq war—the longest in our history, one that keeps upsetting order abroad and at home. The war’s many costs—not just in lives and money but in psychic and political damage—remain only half-visible in America, as hidden as the returning coffins that could not be photographed for years. One way to gauge the damage is to look at it in a smaller mirror. What the war did to Great Britain is more visible because it has been better exposed in government investigations—the Hutton Report (2004), the Butler Review (2004), the Chilcot Inquiry (2016). These have made the once-popular Tony Blair an object of intense loathing. To get his country into the Iraq war, Blair jiggered the intelligence, lied to his own party, ignored sound advice, and put his manhood into a blind trust with George W. Bush.

Blair’s actions made Bishop Desmond Tutu refuse to attend an international conference because he would have to sit with Blair. Tutu wrote that Blair should, along with Bush, be tried for international crimes at The Hague. Geoffrey Wheatcroft says of Blair’s dishonesty and incompetence: “It is not fanciful to see the Brexit vote, the disruption of the Labour Party, and the rise of Donald Trump…[as] part of the revulsion across the Western world against  elites and establishments that were so discredited by Iraq.”

If that was true of a minor player in the war like Britain, what should we think of the Bush team that invented the war, sold it as a “cakewalk,” and hid the ugliness of it—the spying on American citizens, the secret torture sites spread around the world? Torture occurs in all wars; but Bush is the first president (he may not be the last) who adopted an official rationale and defense for torture. This alone, apart from all his other war measures, would make him our worst president ever. To gauge our descent into distrust, we should measure it against the giddy assent we gave to the war at its start. Congress voted for it, the press supported it (Judith Miller treating The New York Times as a branch of the Pentagon), symbols celebrated it—the toppled Saddam statue, the dramatic landing on the “Mission Accomplished” aircraft carrier, the purple fingers of free election. The current distrust grew out of a realization that all these things were phony. Why should we trust the CIA, the FBI, the NSA, the press, the president, the experts, the elites? They were all in on the huge scam that was going to spread democracy through the Middle East, and just ignited wilder fires of terrorism there and elsewhere.

Barack Obama promised to lift the country out of this muck. He said that Iraq was the wrong war. We should have stayed with the Afghan war, which was the right war. But then he re-entered Afghanistan, making the right war the new wrong war—and we have been floundering in both wars for all his years as president. Both wars are still there for him to hand on to his successor. Obama hid for years the extent of his assassinations by drone. No wonder he did not want anyone accountable for the vast torture programs of the Bush-Cheney years.

To his followers, Trump seems to “tell it like it is” because he voices their dissatisfactions. His insults show he does not follow the polite evasions of “political correctness.” He will not be bound by any of the practices that seem to have brought about the loss of status of people not rewarded by the economy. He will not have to submit any spending to a gridlocked Congress. He will end Obamacare and do something else—anything will be better. Abroad, he will just “bomb the shit” out of enemies, not acting under the restraint of alliances. He will go it alone. As he said at the convention, “I alone can fix it.” His followers think that they are acting alone through him. That makes them regain what they imagine were their powers under some earlier era. He will wage wars without allies. He will end terrorism by means far more drastic than waterboarding. He will kill the terrorists’ children. He will make America vilely great again.