Summer of Our Discontent

Donald Trump has engineered the most extreme polarization a polarized nation can achieve.


Though I share the profound, the stomach-churning sense of deep alarm that must motivate the New York Times to sink its editorial teeth into Donald Trump’s irresistibly exposed rump nearly every day, the attacks have become almost comic in their variety and urgency.

One day we learn that he was the special protégé and boy disciple of the ghastly Roy Cohn, who still haunts the national memory as one of the most cynical and amoral power brokers America ever produced. The next edition examines Trump’s ties to smutmeister Howard Stern, to Vince McMahon of the World Wrestling Federation and Dana White of the UFC, who stages the gory cage fights televised as mixed martial arts. Friends of Trump — a menagerie of unsavory Americans a more conventional presidential candidate couldn’t easily imagine. Maybe the only thing that keeps the Times from trumpeting his history with convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein (a woman has charged Trump and the financier Epstein with raping her when she was 13) is Epstein’s known friendship with Bill Clinton.

What’s next? Trump is too young to be Hitler’s love child and too old to have fought with Al Qaeda, but there can’t be many other revelations the Times has not explored. Where was Donald Trump when Jimmy Hoffa disappeared?

The liberal Times columnist Timothy Egan signed off on the Cleveland convention with some of the most intemperate partisan language I’ve ever found on a mainstream opinion page. “When the convention closed, fear had won the hall,” Egan wrote. “And we should fear — for the republic, for a democracy facing its gravest peril since the Civil War.”

Gravest peril since the Civil War? Would I hesitate to go that far? Yet even Egan’s conservative colleagues have been feasting regularly on the exposed lies, the fraud, the 3,500 lawsuits, the multiple bankruptcies and the ruined, fleeced investors the self-styled tycoon has left in his wake. The Times is only doing its job, with the best conscience, and God bless every journalist who feels the same compulsion. But in a sense the Times is wasting its time. Water-boards and cattle prods couldn’t convince Times readers to vote for Donald Trump, and no Trump voters ever read the Times.

This candidate, this summer, has engineered the most extreme polarization a polarized nation can achieve. Traditional campaign strategies of persuasion and seduction are no longer in play. No responsible grownup anywhere near his right mind would vote to give this evil, infantile, ridiculous man the most powerful job in the world. Conversely, anyone who would cast such an irresponsible vote is far beyond the reach of reason or persuasion, in any form. Never mind Trump’s politics — the worst available on nearly every important issue — because he’s a hustler who changes them at will to fit the population he’s trying to hustle.

We all know who’s getting hustled this year. To be overgenerous, these are not people who marched with Martin Luther King, not people who have read Sigmund Freud on narcissism and the unrestrained id, or who — now let’s be nasty and honest — graduated anywhere with honors.

Here is a 70-year-old man who speaks, acts and presumably thinks like an emotionally disturbed adolescent, the worst case of arrested development Americans have ever witnessed on such a grand stage, with so much at stake. His own ghostwriter, who helped him turn outbursts into sentences in The Art of the Deal, has just denounced him as a sociopath. Trump’s boorishness and tastelessness, symptoms of a putrefying national culture, defy all precedent. But his political formula is grimly familiar. The party he just hijacked has been practicing it for years. Aimed at the most gullible voters, it features fear-mongering, scapegoating, unsubtle race-baiting and sweeping contempt for “the elite” — not people who are richer, God forbid, but people who are smarter and better read, or who may actually be expert at something. It’s a faux populism that rejects meritocracy — that old stuff about “the best and the brightest” — and celebrates the less and the least. And saddest of all, the whitest.

The people who make a living from presidential campaigns — journalists and media peddlers, consultants and speechwriters and fundraisers, ad salesmen for radio and TV — will soldier ahead as if 2016 is business as usual. But the hundreds of millions of words written and spoken, the hundreds of millions of dollars raised and spent, all the sound and the fury between now and Nov. 8, none of it is likely to change as many votes as a small town office-seeker could purchase with the money in his pocket. As some very unlikely observers (the ex-presidents Bush and the ex-Republican pundit George Will, among many others) have not failed to observe, Donald Trump is not just the worst candidate any major party has ever anointed as its presidential nominee. He is one of the worst public individuals in the United States of America, the kind of man you’d hire a detective to shadow if he came courting your sister.

You might screen every ticketholder at a New York Yankees game and fail to find anyone so conspicuously unqualified and unworthy of high office, far less the highest one. Every well-meaning, well-informed, reasonably perceptive citizen sees through Trump instantly and deplores him. A frightening crowd of angry, hungry white reactionaries and racists adores him. No one in either group is going to be moved a centimeter by the tidal waves of rhetoric that will flood the republic between now and Election Day. This “race” for the White House will remain a simple head count, us versus them, with the same result in November as in July.

Don’t be fooled by the pollsters, who make a good living by portraying the election as a heart-stopping horse race, and profit from the impression that opinion is shifting back and forth. There will be hundreds of “surges” and “retreats” as they post their numbers, all of them spurious entertainment and little more.

A Clinton restoration was among the last things I had hoped for at the end of Obama’s second term. When you speak of baggage, the Billary baggage train is at least 100 cars long. But Hillary Clinton is a competent, sane, uniquely experienced person who might make an excellent one-term president, if she has the good sense to step down when she’s in her mid-70s. Her choice of Virginia senator Tim Kaine for a running mate shows good sense and good taste, I think. When she’s the only choice that stands between us and the shattering international humiliation of a Trump administration, it’s inconceivable to me that any rational progressive or disgruntled Bernie Sanders lover could deny her his vote. And of course it’s an historic breakthrough to elect a woman to lead this country, which began with a constitution that gave women few more rights than slaves.

The static nature of this bipolar election leaves the opinion peddlers, like the candidate handlers and campaign gurus, in a strange position. We feel superfluous. Trump is so outlandish he disarms our most gifted satirists, never mind acerbic pundits. What he offers us, in the few weeks before he becomes a historical footnote or the thunderous crack of doom for a once-great democracy, is a rare opportunity to reevaluate many of the things we take for granted in this country. The travesty that culminated in Cleveland was not a political movement generated by Donald Trump. It was the inevitable conclusion of the cynical power game the Republican Party has been playing for decades, as it moved dramatically to the Right and pandered to the worst ignorance and prejudice. When you fish for votes in the fever swamps of white supremacy, biblical literalism, assault-rifle worship and climate-change denial, sooner or later some swamp monster is going to swallow your bait and drag your boat over the cataract. One way or the other, this is the end of a Republican Party that any of us senior observers could recognize.

Trump is also a rich dig for sociologists, a one-man milestone for a major class realignment in America. Where does he fit in, class-wise? (Besides having no trace of class.) To his supporters, predominantly undereducated and underpaid, he’s some lofty, omnipotent plutocrat from a world high above them, like the character he played on his ridiculous reality show. To the remains of the old upper class and even to the educated middle class, he’s an ill-mannered lout they would never meet anywhere except on television, a nouveau riche laughingstock who doesn’t get the joke. Even to the new nouveau riche, the techno-entrepreneurs who are buying up America, Trump with his bankruptcies and 3,500 lawsuits is exactly the kind of businessman they strive to avoid.

He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth — but it was a greasy spoon, alas, and he still eats with it. Trump, whom no one could mistake for a gentleman, represents many terrible things. But he also represents a certain freedom, almost a revolution against ossified class assumptions and traditional standards of behavior. Most of us at his age, blessed with any upward mobility, aspired to some notion of gentility — not just material comfort but a cultured life, as we understood it, and a code of behavior descended, distantly, from the knights and gentlefolk of yore. Courtesy, dignity and discretion were its cornerstones. For Donald Trump and the relatively few like him, none of this ever applied. It was just take the money and make your own rules, and damn the snobs and losers who couldn’t match your net worth. Whatever happens to him in this bizarre election, I’m nursing an awful premonition that America harbors a lot more Trumps in the making.

Hal Crowther is a longtime journalist whose essays have been awarded the H.L. Mencken, Lillian Smith and American Association of Newsweeklies prizes for commentary and the 2014 Pushcart Prize for non-fiction. His latest book is An Infuriating American: The Incendiary Arts of H.L.Mencken (University of Iowa Press, 2014). Email

From The Progressive Populist, September 1, 2016

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