Hitting Rock Bottom: Brain Death in the Heartlands

Donald Trump tests the observation that ‘No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.’


A couple of years ago I read about a transsexual who offered budget buttock-enhancing surgery in a motel room in Dade County, Florida. He/she attracted enough clients, at $900 a session, to launch a practice that was thriving until one of the women died. This entrepreneur, unburdened by medical training, injected the defenseless human buttock with a mixture of cement, super glue and Fix-A-Flat, a commercial tire sealant. Pictures of the victims are available online, but you don’t want to see them, trust me.

I thought at the time that the women who surrendered their butts to this pseudo-surgeon must be, in spite of the fierce competition, the dumbest Americans who ever lived. Then I read that Donald Trump was leading virtually every poll of Republican voters who will choose a presidential candidate in 2016. In one Reuters poll he doubled the percentage of his nearest rival. And then I read the following, about Trump’s arrival at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines: “Almost immediately Trump was crushed by massive crowds seeking photos and handshakes and yelling encouragement. The pandemonium followed him around for roughly an hour—and during a stop for a pork chop on a stick.”

How stupid can they possibly be, these most cognitively challenged of American voters? If Trump’s Iowa reception is any indication, watch for cement mixers in the parking lot at the Red Roof Inn. And keep your tube of Fix-A-Flat away from Republicans.

It’s not really about Donald Trump. He is what he is—a boor, a racist, sexist pig, a phony in every sense of the word; a coarse, silly man whose heinous hair shelters a tiny brain bursting with baseless self-esteem. From the things he says, he can’t be much smarter than the voters who admire him. Trash media adore people like Trump, who have never known doubt or shame. There’s nothing to be done about him, except to ignore him—the one thing the American media establishment is failing so miserably to do.

It’s painful to see the New York Times and The New Yorker stoop to saturation coverage of this gross vaudeville clown who refuses to leave the stage. But the wonderful advantage most of us hold over Trump is his sincere belief that we envy him. In America, he mistakenly believes, no one who’s really rich can be absurd. Deep in the shadow of the poor road-kill mammal that found its final resting place on his forehead, he doesn’t hear us laughing, or groaning.

If you know someone who envies Donald Trump, I’ve got just the surgeon for your friend, over at the Motel Six. The urgent question is why even one American, even one member of his immediate family, would want to elect him President of the United States. Far worse than hiring a Miami street hustler to enhance your buttocks with Fix-A-Flat, this would be like hiring a blind man with Parkinson’s to operate on your brain, or Bill Cosby to chaperone your daughter. Trump is not merely a strange choice. Preposterous and inconceivable are better words.

So how do we account for the delirious crowds at the Iowa State Fair, citizens apparently so stupid, so myopic that they mistake the jackass for the messiah? Recently the Washington Post ran an editorial with the headline, “Too Few GOP Candidates Living in the Real World.” Its point was that this odd squadron of candidates, including Trump, was offering policy that might seduce primary voters in Red states, but would fail every test of feasibility, even sanity, in the real worlds of government and diplomacy. Yet I’m not sure it’s the Republican candidates who have lost sight of reality. Their reality, if they hope to be nominated, is that they’re compelled to pander to a woeful segment of the GOP “base” that’s lost all contact with reality. How else would we explain its hunger for Donald Trump, a star of “reality” television whose actual peers and competitors are Caitlyn Jenner, Snooki and the Duck Commanders?

My friend, classmate and colleague, the late inimitable Molly Ivins, wrote shortly before her death, “If we can’t get the money out of politics, we lose the democracy.” That was a few years before the Supreme Court opened the “dark money” floodgates with its Citizens United decision (2010). The New York Times reports that more than half the money the current Republican candidates raised from all sources, through June, came from just 130 families and their businesses. It’s no stretch, then, to argue that the democracy is already lost, purchased legally by a tiny fraternity of plutocrats who could pack themselves into one private jet.

The presidency is the last piece of the power puzzle that isn’t currently in their pockets. But even in the most decadent dollar democracy, money alone can’t close the deal. Tycoons and corporate leviathans can’t just order their flunkies to pass the legislation that guarantees and multiplies their wealth. First the flunkies have to win the elections—and that’s where stupidity plays its critical, irreplaceable role. How does the one percent persuade at least 50 percent of American voters to support policies that mock them and rob them blind?

Well, they start with the low-hanging fruit. The dark science of flattering and seducing the simpleminded has become a monstrous industry, attracting a wide range of dubious talent, from Karl Rove to Roger Ailes to Ann Coulter—and they all call themselves Republicans. It’s not that the Democratic Party crafts its message for Ph.Ds. It doesn’t need to, because the Republicans have long since conceded every intelligent American whose vote isn’t wedded to his wallet. The Democrats just work their constituency, and since it includes most minority voters and educated women, the white bigots and misogynists who fancy Donald Trump are beyond their reach.

The plutocrats who fund the Republican Party have fashioned a formidable coalition of the greedy and the gullible. The last two presidential elections demonstrated, to their dismay, that it isn’t quite a majority. With the greed vote reliably in its pocket, the GOP message is like a dragnet that scrapes the very bottom of the voter pool, to harvest every angry simpleton who swims or crawls down there. In a presidential election, and especially in the Red State primaries packed with Tea Party troglodytes, a candidate has to lower himself to rhetoric that would shame the average gibbon.

“Selection of a Republican candidate for the presidency of this globalized and expansive empire (the USA) is—and I mean this seriously—the greatest competition of idiocy and ignorance that has ever been,” an appalled Fidel Castro observed in 2012, after Republican candidates waged a stunning series of Stone Age debates in the Florida primaries. Mitt Romney, 2012’s eventual nominee, often looked embarrassed by the things he was saying, and even Newt Gingrich appeared to wince once or twice. At the nadir of the Florida freak show, Romney and Gingrich whored themselves to both evangelicals and Cuban exiles by considering whether Castro’s soul would go to heaven.

In 2016, with twice as many candidates, Republican rhetoric promises to be twice as ridiculous. Neither Fidel Castro nor Paul Krugman carries much weight with Republicans, but the Times’ liberal columnist, with his Nobel Prize in economics, is probably the most credible intellectual the working press can offer. In a column headed “They Can’t Be Serious,” Krugman recently wrote, “… the conventions of political reporting and political commentary make it almost impossible to say the obvious—namely, that one of our two major parties has gone off the deep end.”

“Or to put it another way,” Krugman continued, “modern Republican politicians can’t be serious—not if they want to win primaries and have any future within the party. Crank economics, crank science, crank foreign policy are all necessary parts of a candidate’s resume. … What distinguishes Mr. Trump is not so much his positions as his lack of interest in maintaining appearances.”

From a purely anthropological, sociological point of view, we need to ask whether Trump and his enthusiasts represent a new low, or merely the latest manifestation of a slow brain death that’s been gaining on America for decades. In 1926 H.L. Mencken, no admirer of our democracy, made an observation that has been edited and streamlined into the memorable aphorism, “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.” In spite of its obvious contributions in science and technology, the United States is dismissed as a primitive, violent backwater by many Europeans. When they read about legal assault rifles, concealed-carry cults, the runs on gun stores that follow mass killings—not to mention climate-change denial, nostalgia for Jim Crow and fundamentalists who still revile Darwin—-they assume that America is overrun with morons and madmen. To their credit, whenever they ask you about your incomprehensible countrymen, they courteously assume (or pretend to assume) that you’re just as appalled and bewildered as they are. Paul Krugman emphasizes that it’s almost impossible for Trump to out-crank his competition. Marco Rubio, trumpeted as the party’s bright young thing, is a climate-change denier and abortion hardliner who would choose the fetus even in rape cases and when the mother seems certain to die. Scott Walker has questioned whether President Obama is a Christian, Rand Paul has joined the vigilantes attacking Planned Parenthood, and moderate Jeb Bush once said—at the 2003 NRA convention—“The sound of our guns is the sound of freedom.” (There’s a deal-breaking one-liner that would keep me from voting for Gandhi or St. Francis.) Even as Trump pushes hate buttons that haven’t felt a forefinger since David Duke was running for governor, his rivals attack him from the Right, for liberal positions he tried on in some of his previous avatars. The Donald, of course, has never owned any philosophy or principle beyond self-promotion.

It’s the entire party, in hot pursuit of the most ignorant and gullible voters, that has left science, reason and common sense far behind. And still the Trump surge seems singularly pathetic. What it means, for one thing, is that the last, thin, long-endangered membrane between politics and entertainment has ruptured. There’s no serious difference between a President Trump and a President SpongeBob SquarePants, and I’m not just stretching for a humorous analogy. Donald Trump is not so much a person as a product, an artifact from the lower reaches of the entertainment industry like SpongeBob or Glenn Beck. He’s probably the first candidate who ever pursued a presidency in order to enhance his brand.

His unexpected appeal is a depressing phenomenon, reminding us for one thing that white Americans of the intellectual sub-basement hate smart people much more than they hate rich people—and even more than they hate black people, which explains both their loathing for Barack Obama and their affection for Herman Cain. To probe beyond that is to step reluctantly into the murky, poisoned waters of celebrity psychology. What do poor fools see when they look at this rich fool? I’ve never seen one of his TV shows or even met anyone who admitted to watching one, but could Trump be a familiar, comforting comic presence to millions of viewers who have watched that bobbing ledge of hair for decades? Has his hair become a beloved pop-culture icon like Groucho’s mustache or Bob Hope’s nose?

Further speculation is an embarrassment. The latest numbers confirm that Trump has a substantial lead across a wide spectrum of supposed Republican voters, including women and college graduates. This is not at all, of course, what the 130 gilded families intended when they pledged billions of dollars in dark money to elect a Republican president. They’re learning, to their sorrow, that gullible voters are volatile voters—they may be easy to sway, but they sway back and forth with every wind, or windbag, that blows through.

As the last semblance of civic dignity disappears, it’s old news that the two-party system is pitifully broken, awash in dirty money, desperate mendacity and micro-candidates who make your skin crawl. Whatever becomes of the Trump insurgency, he’s proof that presidential elections have been reduced to hollow spectacle like the Super Bowl or the Miss Universe Pageant (a Trump production). Presidential elections are no place for idealism—if you need an outlet for your idealism please start at the local level, with your village board and school board.

Lesser-evil voting is all we have left. And that’s an unsubtle warning to liberals celebrating the unexpected groundswell of enthusiasm for Sen. Bernie Sanders. Which thoughtful citizen doesn’t applaud when Sanders decries the unspeakable economic inequality that seated The Platinum 130 on the throne of this failing democracy? Inequality is the issue of the age, in America. But if you think a self-described socialist from Vermont is ever going to be elected president of the United States, you’re almost gullible enough to vote Republican. If such a thing ever became imminent—and it couldn’t—the 130 might simply purchase the US Army outright and take back the nation block by block. The best thing Sanders can achieve is to nudge the Democratic nominee toward the populist Left, and make inequality an unavoidable issue next year. The worst is to become the Ralph Nader of 2016 and help elect a crypto-fascist Republican to the White House.

I don’t think anyone honestly yearns for the Restoration of Billary, or fails to wonder whether Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden—and Trump, for that matter—are all a little too old to assume the presidency in January 2017. Check their birth dates. (I’m younger than half of them and my 24/7, crisis-crunching Oval Office potential is way behind me.) It was always the Republicans with the superannuated nominees, the lame old party warhorses who had been patiently waiting their turn. If the GOP is the party of old white men—-certainly true in the South—-where are the young men and women to lead the Democrats toward a brighter tomorrow?

It’s a galling obligation to vote for anyone the Democrats offer, but it has never been more important to hold our noses and do it, if only because the next appointments to the Supreme Court will change the color of American politics for the rest of my life, at least. Who would Donald Trump appoint, Judge Judy? Geraldo Rivera, LL.D?

“As democracy is perfected,” the cynic Mencken wrote in the Baltimore Sun in 1920, “the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

Mencken may have been thinking of Warren G. Harding, and bitter partisans still think the disaster he predicted occurred on Election Day 2000 (though we actually elected Al Gore, remember). But it’s delicious to imagine what Mencken would have made of Donald Trump, and the words that would have expressed his reaction. Discussing Trump the other night with a party of older liberals, I was surprised to hear a couple of them compare him—speculatively—to Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, who like Trump was once dismissed as a preposterous clown by aristocrats and intellectuals.

I argued that Trump is a TV narcissist on an ego trip, not a politician with a sinister agenda or the street skills to lead some army of brown-shirted bigots down Pennsylvania Avenue. I hope I’m right. I think it’s safe to discount Trump the candidate, but not the things he says or the all-white throngs of mean-eyed, slow-witted reality fighters who feed off them. What actual percentage of the population is dumb enough to trust its buttocks to the cement surgeon of Miami or its country to The Donald of Palm Beach, and at what tipping point does the percentage become critical? The sound of guns is not the sound of freedom, and neither is the sound of blowhard bullies cursing immigrants, abortion clinics and environmentalists. Those are the sounds that free people need to fear.

Hal Crowther’s latest book is An Infuriating American: The Incendiary Arts of H.L. Mencken, Iowa Press, 2014. His previous collection of essays, his third, was Gather at the River (LSU), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle prize for criticism.

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2015


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