The dark side of Donald Trump: How gridlock leads to dangerous populism & authoritarian zeal

We assume Trump is benefiting from voters' xenophobia. But what if the real motivation is even more dangerous?

Published August 18, 2015 8:10PM (EDT)


Of the many ways Donald Trump has distinguished himself from his fellow Republican presidential candidates, his flamboyant xenophobia and protectionism have garnered the most attention. And that was still the case this past weekend, when the billionaire real estate mogul, reality television star and “cherisher” of women went on “Meet the Press” to tell host Chuck Todd that a President Trump would work hard to deport more than 11 million people. “We’re going to keep the families together,” Trump promised. But only so long as they understood that regardless of what the 14th Amendment might say, these American-born children of immigrants would “have to go,” too.

As my colleague Joan Walsh has pointed out already, this is a prescription for turning the entire country into a charnel house for civil rights that would make today’s Arizona seem comparatively benign. If the policy were truly enforced with the kind of rigor that Trump promises and his supporters crave, the result would be “a massive police state,” as Walsh puts it. The number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents would increase three-fold under Trump; and anyone who still failed to understand President Trump’s message would be encouraged to look no further than the southern border, where a giant wall would stand and carry on the Berlin and West Bank tradition.

The racial hue of Trump’s vision is obvious, and it’s understandable that commentators are inclined to see Trumpism through that lens. But there was another important Trump-related media development over the weekend. It was a stellar piece by the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel, who recently spent some time in Flint, Michigan, talking to some of “the Donald’s” biggest fans. And while nostalgia for an era when whiteness meant more than it does today was common, Weigel’s piece suggests that racial anxiety isn’t the main reason these folks are embracing Trump. What they like about him, it appears, is that he is a more convincing authoritarian.

“I don’t think he’d go to Congress and ask,” one supporter said to Weigel about a hypothetical President Trump. “I think he’d just do it.” A dutiful student of high school civics knows that the framers of the Constitution took great pains to keep such a sentiment from governing the country. But for the voters Weigel spoke to, such a display of presidential “strength” (a favored word of Trump and his believers) is badly needed. “He lets people know what he’s going to do, not what to ask for,” a 51-year-old named Bob Parsons said of Trump, approvingly. He then compared the former host of “The Apprentice” to Ronald Reagan.

Unsurprisingly, Trump’s fans say they appreciate their man’s disdain for “political correctness.” But although the phrase has been repeated so frequently by pro-Trump opponents of immigration that even (some) conservatives now recognize it as a dog whistle, when the people Weigel spoke with offer their explanation of what plagues the U.S., immigrants and foreigners are not the chief villains. They’re the main beneficiaries of whatever’s afflicting the people of Flint and elsewhere, no doubt. But they’re not ultimately responsible for the dynamic that’s hurting American workers. That role, according to Trump’s backers, goes to American corporations and politicians.

What explains the American elite’s leaving the working class hanging by a thread? Corruption is part of it, but it’s not the primary reason. The simpler explanation, which Trump himself repeats in some form or another ad nauseam, is that these elites are just hopeless fools. “Our leaders are stupid,” Trump said earlier this month during a Fox News debate. “Our politicians are stupid and the Mexican government is much smarter.” During all sorts of trade negotiations, Trump has argued, “people in Washington … don’t know what they’re doing.” It’s less a grand conspiracy between corporations and Chinese/Mexican workers, in other words, than rank incompetence.

If you understand the global economy and deindustrialization from that angle, Trump’s appeal makes more sense. It’s still totally wrong, mind you; but at least it hangs together, in its haphazard way. If the American middle class really is shrinking because those clowns in Washington couldn’t negotiate their way out of a paper bag; and if good-paying manufacturing jobs really are moving abroad because most politicians are too feckless and weak to stand up for (white) working Americans, lest they be called “politically incorrect,” then a guy with Trump’s experience, resources and proclivities is absolutely what’s needed.

But as Weigel hints in his report, the story Trump fans are telling themselves is a fantasy. Whether globalization-as-deindustrialization was a historical, technological and economic necessity or the product of a series of clear and straightforward decisions is up for debate. But the idea that throughout the past 40 years, and under multiple presidential administrations, some of the most ambitious, hardworking and intelligent people in America were simply unable to keep negotiators from other countries from bamboozling them — that idea is not on the table. Because that idea is ridiculous. The real world is not so simple. For that matter, most unreal worlds aren’t, either.

The authoritarian mind-set doesn’t have much patience for nuance or complication, however. It prefers to see the world as comprehensible, bordering on self-evident. And whenever it is confronted with a reality too opaque and intricate to be easily simplified, that’s when a kind of flattening mysticism — or “romance,” as Weigel calls it — steps in to abolish complexity and sand away rough edges. Channeled as it currently is in Trump’s direction, this free-floating rage at the status quo and this authoritarian desire for a great leader to enact justice through force of will is relatively harmless. What should worry the rest of us, though, is the prospect that Trump isn’t a one-off but rather a sign of things to come.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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