Trump, Sanders and tribalism: Why the Donald's dark allure goes deeper than racism and xenophobia

Behind the hateful rhetoric and paranoid fantasies, Trump conjures up the violent darkness of human history

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published September 12, 2015 4:00PM (EDT)

 Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders (Reuters/Lucas Jackson/Jim Young/Photo montage by Salon)
Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders (Reuters/Lucas Jackson/Jim Young/Photo montage by Salon)

At some point during the Iran hostage crisis of 1980 – an event that, lest we forget, decisively scuttled the presidency of Jimmy Carter and got Ronald Reagan elected – I remember seeing a hand-painted banner outside a working-class tavern in South Baltimore. Its centerpiece was a caricature of the Ayatollah Khomeini, done in political-cartoon style with an oversized head and undersized body. Iran’s Supreme Leader was bent over with his robe hitched up to his waist, wincing in pain or religious ecstasy as a large bomb with streamlined 1958 Cadillac fins, bearing the atomic symbol and the American flag, was thrust between his buttocks. Beneath this was written, “How long, Mr. President? How long?”

This outsider-art masterwork made a huge impression on me, although I wasn’t sure why at the time and understand it only a little better today. I couldn’t tell you where I was in my adolescent political evolution at that moment: Did I think I was a Marxist or a libertarian or a Democrat? In any event, I couldn't quite get my head around the multiple layers of hatred and cruelty and infantile viciousness in that image, the way it conjured up genocide and xenophobia and anti-Islamic bigotry and homosexual rape and a tribal revenge fantasy in a few simple brushstrokes.

Many Americans, probably most, felt increasingly demoralized and depressed as the 444-day hostage crisis dragged on, and the failed rescue mission of April 1980 made the world’s supposed military superpower look impotent against a radical student uprising. The Baltimore protest banner cut through that Gordian knot of national gloom with a kind of primitive genius, and could not have evoked Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” more clearly without actually using the phrase “Exterminate all the brutes!” (I use the loaded word “primitive” deliberately, and we'll get to that.) It expressed a desire that was forbidden and deeply irrational, and because of that it was exciting even if I also thought it was dreadful. I look back on it now and I think: Hello, Donald Trump.

Maybe the guys in that bar who had commissioned and displayed that glorious artifact would have told you that it was basically a joke, ha ha, and they didn’t really want or expect Carter to drop a nuclear bomb on Tehran, killing thousands or millions of civilians along with the Ayatollah and the American hostages, and quite possibly starting World War III in the dumbest imaginable way. (On the other hand, given the “Dr. Strangelove” death wish not far below the surface of American culture, maybe they wouldn’t.) But jokes are funny things, am I right? As Dr. Freud informed us, jokes and dreams are where the action is, in psychological terms – they provide an arena where stuff comes out that isn’t supposed to come out.

You and I and pretty much everybody else in the reality-oriented quadrant of the population treated Trump’s presidential campaign as a joke from Day One, and it’s safe to say the laughter has faded. I remember hearing Mara Liasson, NPR’s national political reporter, assure her listeners in tones of smug gravity that Trump’s best day as a candidate would be his first day. (In fairness, Liasson recently had the decency to eat those words in public.) If Trump’s campaign is a joke, it’s beginning to look like the “killing joke” variously imagined by Monty Python and Alan Moore, the one so funny you laugh yourself to death.

Trying to stop Trump by pointing out, Mara Liasson-style, that everything he says is unreasonable or nonsensical or flat-out false is missing the point entirely. To extend the metaphor, it’s to anoint yourself as another butt of Trump’s grand joke, alongside Jeb Bush and Megyn Kelly and Hillary Clinton and all the other talking heads and pseudo-sincere candidates who have been made to look ridiculous by a maroon-faced billionaire with a comb-over. Trump’s audience is self-evidently and aggressively not interested in truth or reason. His bottomless reservoir of Dionysian, rageaholic bullshit is his greatest strength. That quality may also lead to his defeat, in due course, but not because eggheads with expensive degrees who sit behind desks in New York and Washington say so.

It’s all very well to talk about racism and nativism and the distinctive small-mindedness and paranoia of white America, and those things unmistakably nourished the soil from which the Trumpian flower bloomed. But he is tapping into something that runs much deeper than any of that. There’s a reason the Trump spectacle is mesmerizing the media and dominating public discourse, and why those who find him despicable and disturbing are just as addicted as those who are delighted that someone is speaking for them at last. Trump is like the answered prayer of those South Baltimore boozehounds, made incarnate and blown up to superhuman scale. How long?, those guys plaintively demanded, and even if they’ve all drunk themselves into the next world by now, their sons and grandsons have worse jobs and worse attitudes and at last the wait is over.

Trump expresses the irrational and forbidden desires that more calculating politicians deliberately suppress, and as with my teenage response to that Khomeini cartoon, that feels exciting and dangerous. He channels primitive and incoherent tribal emotions that stretch way back into our species' history, before America, before modern conceptions of race and nationality, before any of that stuff. He gazes upon us with his dreadful, melted countenance, looking like a Play-Doh replica of JFK blown up in the microwave by a malicious child, assuring us in half-bullying, half-benevolent tones that, sure, America is a great country founded on important values and stuff.

But beneath that pablum lies a knowing wink, and beneath that wink lies the understanding that the most important American value is the one-in-a-million shot (putting it very generously) that we might wind up half as rich and half as vulgar as Donald Trump. Even if we never get to ride in that helicopter -- since we are not quite dumb enough to believe that will really happen -- we take solace in another layer of hidden, shamanic meaning beneath the Trumpian wink and the Trumpian bamboozle. We thrill at our secret shared understanding that the veneer of civilization, with its “political correctness” and its insistence on facts and reason and the logic of causes and consequences, is basically a scam and that the true nature of human existence is about jamming a nuke up somebody’s ass every so often. And we've gotten soft and out of practice!

Stepping back from the thoroughly insane dynamics of the 2016 presidential campaign to this point, the larger philosophical problem posed by Trump is that it’s no good pretending that none of that has any validity or resonance. Nothing he ever says about specific issues makes any sense, but as Paul Solotaroff’s fascinating profile in Rolling Stone makes clear, Trump’s campaign is not about issues or specifics or making sense. He doesn’t even pretend to be a normal presidential candidate armed with a vaguely coherent set of policy proposals and a supposedly consistent ideology, largely because we’ve all realized that those candidates are full of crap anyway.

Trump represents something else. Call it the call of the wild, the allure of that long era of cruelty and brutality that preceded recorded history and human civilization, when the weak were ruled by the strong and little or no justification was required to inflict terror and violence on our perceived enemies. Anthropologists may dispute the proposition that this was universally true everywhere in the world, but however you slice it an awful lot of trauma and bloodshed was implicated in the nasty, brutish and short lives of our distant ancestors. More to the point, we all have moments when we wonder how much that has really changed after a few millennia of despotism and a few hundred years of high-minded Enlightenment thinking about human rights and democracy, applied with a notable lack of consistency.

What Trump understands, and may genuinely identify with, is the sense of embattled tribal identity found among too many white Americans of the 21st century, the belief that they are “living in a state of war in a small community, the existence of which is continually threatened, and the morality of which is the strictest possible.” What is the highest form of enjoyment to be found in such a community, “for souls which are vigorous, vindictive, malicious, full of suspicion, ready to face the direst events, hardened by privation and morality?” It is “the enjoyment of cruelty,” as Friedrich Nietzsche put it in 1881. “Such a community would find its delight in performing cruel deeds, casting aside, for once, the gloom of constant anxiety and precaution.”

That pretty much covers it, right? Nietzsche was actually writing about primitive human society before it had been afflicted or transformed by Christian morality. But he would be amused and not altogether surprised to learn that we have come out the other side of that process, and that the nation that pronounces itself the world’s arbiter of democracy and human rights has fallen to its knees before a third-rate imitation of King Ludwig II of Bavaria who promises to bring us back to the old gods and the old truths. “Nothing has been more dearly bought,” Nietzsche writes later in the same section of “Daybreak” (also translated as “Dawn”), “than the minute portion of human reason and feeling of liberty upon which we now pride ourselves.”

That unjustified pride in our superior moral status, Nietzsche continues, prevents us from observing that the long period before the beginning of “world history” was ”the real and decisive epoch that established the character of mankind: an epoch when suffering was considered as a virtue, cruelty as a virtue, hypocrisy as a virtue, revenge as a virtue, and the denial of the reason as a virtue, whereas, on the other hand, well-being was regarded as a danger, longing for knowledge as a danger, peace as a danger, compassion as a danger: an epoch when being pitied was looked upon as an insult … and every kind of change as immoral and pregnant with ruin! You imagine that all this has changed, and that humanity must likewise have changed its character?” (Italics are in the original. I’m using the 1911 translation by John McFarland Kennedy, which is a little old-fashioned but admirably clear, and easily available in the public domain.)

That list of deliberately perverse virtues and values was meant to shock the enlightened German reader of the 1880s, committed to the upward narrative of human progress. In the wake of what happened in Nietzsche’s homeland and numerous other places over the ensuing five to seven decades, his concluding question takes on a darker character. Even Donald Trump would not come right out in 2015 and say that he’s in favor of cruelty and hypocrisy and the denial of reason, but he doesn’t have to. He demonstrates his devotion to those virtues with every second of every public appearance, every hateful comment directed at women who presume to challenge him, every poisonous calumny about the immigrants who do the worst jobs in our society for the lowest wages (and pay taxes for which they receive no benefits), and every preening pronouncement that he plans to exert power and authority well beyond that allotted to the president by the Constitution, or that he possesses a magical solution for some nonexistent problem but won't tell us what it is.

If we turn the Trump phenomenon around and gaze at it in the mirror, the reflection we see bears a resemblance to Bernie Sanders, the other populist insurgent of 2015 to channel widespread discontent with bipartisan politics. Sanders and Trump are thematically connected in that respect, you might say, and they have jointly performed an enormous public service by injecting unexpected energy into what seemed likely to be a monumentally boring presidential campaign and by sowing terror in the hearts of the string-pullers and bankrollers behind both major parties.

I argued early this summer that there were important similarities between Trump and Sanders, and that has become such a tenet of journalistic wisdom that it now demands some ideological pushback. When it comes to political philosophy and their implicit relationship to human history, Sanders and Trump are almost negative images of each other, so much so as to represent alternative and perhaps impossible pathways for the human future. If Trump stands for the orgiastic embrace of atavism and a wholesale rejection of the Age of Reason, Sanders embodies that pride or overconfidence in Enlightenment thinking and “the minute portion of human reason” that Nietzsche warned might blind us to the darkness in human nature. Trump is all about performance and evil charisma and paranoid fantasies that we can only hope will never come to pass. Sanders’ appeal lies in his lack of artifice, his rumpled, cantankerous anti-charisma and his thoroughly rational program of radical policy realignment that will in all probability (and however regrettably) never come to pass.

I swear on the graves of our forgotten ancestors that I was not about to tell you that Hillary Clinton is the happy medium between those extremes. If anything, Clinton’s 2016 problem is that she appears bereft of all the above-mentioned qualities. She cannot present herself as the fist of tribal cruelty (nor would she want to, even in her most extreme moments of strategic triangulation), but after her long career of compromise and calculation she doesn't much resemble a beacon of Enlightenment idealism either. She is supposed to be the voice of common sense and the force who gets things done, and she now faces with a public that suspects, not without justification, that common sense is useless and that nothing ever gets done. (As Clinton no doubt tells herself every time she turns on the TV, at least she’s not Jeb Bush, playing the role of chubby kid to Trump’s playground bully.)

As to whether my barroom buddies in South Baltimore were joking about nuking Iran: It’s not the right question. Is Trump “joking” when he claims that Mexico is deliberately shipping murderers and rapists across the border, or that once in the White House and endowed with mysterious special powers, he will round up and deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants? You should never sell short on the ignorance and self-delusion of the American public, but even in the Trump demographic many people must halfway grasp that the first of those things is not true and the second is not possible, at least not without transforming the entire country into a police state. Like the juvenile fantasy of buggering the Ayatollah with the Bomb, those are not facts or proposals or ideas but forbidden desires that can be spoken aloud at last by the Trumpian fireside, tribal invocations meant to connect us to the long and thrilling history of human cruelty and rally us for the great deeds ahead.

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Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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