There is something all-American about Donald Trump -- late vintage all-American perhaps, but in the American grain. At the same time, there is something profoundly scary about him. Philip Roth once referred to “the indigenous American berserk.” He didn’t have '60s suburban radical gone over to the dark side of nihilism and terror. But Trump belongs inside that aperçu. Only he is more frightening, more alien.
Looked at from one angle, Trump is hardly unique; on the contrary, he shares the traits common to the tribe of jumbo-size businessmen: smug, cocksure, in love with money, semi-educated, rough around the edges, inclined to pontificate, fond of trophies (wives, houses, hotels, girlfriends, the mansion de jour). Indeed, The Donald by his larger-than-life presence has helped to burnish that image, like a living advertisement for living large.
An aura of the Confidence Man also hovers around The Donald. His braggadocio pumps up grandiose if iffy projects that rise and fall on the tides of speculation, and sometimes require bank bailouts to keep things afloat. But what could be more all-American than that?
The Confidence Man is a national archetype invented early in the 19th century that comes in relatively benign and more malignant versions. The nastier kind we are all familiar with at least since the debacle of 2008, Goldman Sachs, Bernie Madoff and the gang. “Yankee Jonathan,” who amused the multitudes, especially men-on-the-make back in the early 19th century, was a kinder type and more fetching. Imagine a peddler roaming from village to village; he might seem a comic country bumpkin. But he turned out to be shrewder than that image suggested, a clever, versatile wheeler and dealer adept at getting people to “buy a pig in a poke.” He was fast-talking, inventive and seductive, never totally honest and always sexually notorious, all in all someone it was dangerous to be near, but hard to stay away from. It’s hard to picture The Donald as an itinerant village peddler. Still, if The Donald and Yankee Jonathan are not twins, they clearly share a genotype.
The Donald, then, is a piece of Americana, maybe not the most edifying or appealing, but part of the family. He embodies that well-worn if still stinging observation about the country he hails from: that “America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without passing through civilization.” He is his own cartoon. Self-parodying, easy to laugh at so why worry? Because we sense that he also hails from the land of the berserk, that for all his familiarity we may never before have seen his like, and that the last laugh may be his.
After all, he is enormously popular. He has been for decades. Qualities that might repel some, attract others. An inventory would include: megalomania, narcissism, sociopathy, chest-thumping self-promotion, theatrical excess, bullying, moral elasticity and an insouciant penchant for the outlandish. These are the attributes of the wannabe Great Man as irreverent pathfinder. Although these might read like a roster of epithets, they are not meant that way. Market society nurtures these traits in people preoccupied with mastering it, and once having done so offer that up as their credentials to superhero status. That they might also be thought of as symptoms and the person presenting them as clinically diseased is cold comfort. Because if Trump suffers or rather indulges a Napoleonic complex, that too appeals to legions who have grown weary and cynical about the shadow-boxing that passes for democracy in 21st-century America. They are beguiled by someone unafraid to talk outside the box, to scoff at the propriety that camouflages the disconnect between the people and their governors. They imagine Trump as The Force that is with them. Moreover, scratch most tycoons anytime over the last two centuries and you’re likely to uncover a latent Alexander the Great, a Caesar of the counting house, a conquistador of the marketplace. It comes with the territory and The Donald walks in well-trodden paths.
Still, he is more than that. He is the leading candidate to become the nominee for president of one of the country’s two main political parties. That brute fact sets him apart. From its earliest days, the nation has witnessed its fair share of demagogues, some from the left, some from the right, even some from an elusive zone that overlaps left and right, but is neither. Some have aspired to high office, others have even managed to get there (Huey Long and Joseph McCarthy, for example). But none of them – except one – shared Trump’s profile. None of them – except one – rested their claim to political preeminence on their previous careers as titans of industry and finance. None of them – except one – threatened to breach the borders of conventional political protocols and established hierarchies to seek approval instead from the streets.
William Randolph Hearst is that exception. He was the media king of his day, commanding an armada of newspapers, the Rupert Murdoch of turn of 20th-century America. What he shared with Trump and what he emphatically did not can tell us something about that American road to decadence and where it might terminate.
Hearst evinced all those attributes of Napoleonic command, certitude, and delusion that Trump is famous for. The most unforgettable record of that psychological state is Orson Welles’ masterpiece "Citizen Kane." The movie is fiction, of course, and without any pretense to being factually faithful to the events of his life, purely speculative when it comes to suggesting the childhood sources of his megalomania. But the film nonetheless captures Hearst’s peculiar forms of commercial cunning and his insatiable, imperial business ambition. This combined with a vainglorious, evangelical zeal about himself as a kind of popular messiah to make him a figure that loomed over American public life, not just its economic affairs, for the first several decades of the 20th century.
Like Trump, Hearst was born wealthy. Like Trump, he was a ruthless competitor in the industry he came to dominate: newspaper publishing in Hearst’s case, real estate for The Donald. Like Trump, Hearst did not have to chase after publicity; he was the story. In his case he made sure of that by owning newspapers in cities all over the country, and if there happened to a city without a Hearst paper he bought one or started one. Garnering the lion’s share of attention has never been a problem for Trump, who benefits from living in the age of journalism of the picaresque, of reality masquerades, of news as entertainment. Known as “The Chief,” Hearst, like Trump, was a seasoned practitioner of the Great Lie. Both men lived large. Hearst was a sport, liked to party, married a showgirl, dressed brashly, spent lavishly (one thinks immediately of San Simeon, his grotesque palace in California where the haunting final scenes of "Citizen Kane" are set). Despite his enormous fortune, the Establishment of that era frowned on all this. Like Trump at a different moment in time, Hearst was their bad boy.
Patrician enemies first laughed and then grew alarmed. They deplored him as a “low voluptuary,” called him a “degraded, unclean thing.” As his political ambitions surfaced, they spied “a new horror in American politics.” And that was what really rankled. So long as he thumbed his nose at the social protocols of the Social Register elite, he was considered noxious, not dangerous. Once his more grandiose yearnings to run the country became clear, matters grew more serious.
Hearst, like Trump, had nurtured those desires for years before acting on them. When he did, he let loose with a kind of wild bilious rhetoric that only The Donald could match. Historians credit the jingoism of his newspapers with helping incite the Spanish-American War. During it he accused the secretary of war of poisoning American soldiers with “ancient” and “diseased’ beef. But what really bothered the country’s elites was his fulsome assault on the plutocracy.
How strange! He belonged to that plutocracy. Here is just where “The Chief” and “The Donald” converge and radically diverge. On the one hand, both held in contempt the sachems who ran the two major political parties, in Hearst’s case the Democrats, in Trump's the Republicans. Neither held any elective or appointive office before reaching for the top. Both had the resources and chutzpah to stage their own campaigns, dealing with and bulldozing party hierarchs when they had to or because they enjoyed doing it.
Like Trump, Hearst showed total confidence he could realize his ambitions with or without an established political machine, boasted for that reason he couldn’t be bought, and set out to create one for himself. He had his own media megaphone after all, and used it to tap into something new in American political culture then that has become old news today. One of his closest advisers commented: “The American people – like all people – are interested in PERSONALITY… Hearst appeals to the people – not to a boss or corporation…” “The Chief” represented, according to one observer, “a strange new element. He is the first one-man party to have gained anything like national headway in the history of our democracy… His power has been gained purely by advertising himself… He is a celebrity who is guaranteed four million readers every day.” Sounds familiar.
Hearst tried his hand first at the vice-presidential nomination in 1900, assuming he’d be William Jennings Bryan’s running mate even though his connections to the inner circles of the Democratic Party were thin to none. He was rejected. Then he initiated a 10-year plan to become president. Along the way he secured a congressional seat (the Democrats hoped they’d bury him there) that became his platform for provocative attacks on the power elite. Then he ran for mayor of New York on his own independent party and nearly won. He probably would have won except for undercover machinations by Tammany Hall – the municipal machine that ran the Democratic Party – to steal the necessary votes. The Hall was notorious for just this. Fearing his power, the party nominated him to be governor in 1906. He lost. Even after the defeat, he kept his eyes trained on the White House.
Despite these striking similarities, The Chief and The Donald didn’t really speak the same language, even if both were masters of political invective and the Great Lie. What they didn’t have in common is a commentary on the evolution of American public life over the last century.
Hearst rose to the surface on a tidal wave of populist anti-capitalist sentiment. The Populist Party and its call for a Cooperative Commonwealth preceded him. So did a vast labor insurgency that faced off against the armed might of the nation’s mightiest industrialists. Those often violent confrontations continued as Hearst established his media empire. So too did a nationwide anti-trust movement that captured the imagination of millions of working- and middle-class people and even influenced the country’s political establishment. Immigrants toiling in the nation’s sweatshops made common cause with middle-class reformers to expose the scandal capitalism had become in urban ghettoes from coast to coast. The Socialist Party elected local officials all over the country, including some congressmen. The Chief tried and to some considerable degree succeeded in convincing all these foes of the new order of industrial and financial capitalism that he was their champion, their “chief.”
Relentlessly, Hearst denounced the trusts, local monopolies that dominated New York’s economy, and national ones that lorded it over the country and preyed on workers, consumers, and small businessmen alike. He talked about the “Trust Frankenstein.” He loathed Teddy Roosevelt (who hated him in return), for his “preening, bombastic, and aristocratic airs.” Like many populists and progressives of the day, he called for the direct election of senators, an income tax, and public ownership of public services. He was staunchly pro-union, arguing that without them the country would be like “China and India where rich mandarins and rajahs lord it over starving populations.” He campaigned for shorter hours and higher pay and portrayed himself as a hero of the immigrant working classes. He came so close to becoming New York’s mayor precisely because he did so well among those immigrant workers as well as the emerging white-collar proletariat and small business people. Not only did Tammany lose the loyalty of its immigrant base, but so too did Hearst take away votes from the Socialists, who were a party of real weight in the city.
Was The Chief a populist? He was after all a warmonger, called for the annexation of the Philippines, indulged in anti-semitism, and traded in sensationalism as much as or more than he did information. Later on he became the bitterest foe of the New Deal. He lived in that interstitial zone between left and right, but not in the middle. There would be others like him that would haunt the American imagination in novels like Lincoln Steffens’ "It Can’t Happen Here" or in movies like Frank Capra’s “Meet John Doe.” But in real life there was no one from the same prepossessing background, no plutocrat gone native. Call him what you want, his political dreams and delusions and his extraordinary political ascendancy rested entirely on a fierce culture of anti-capitalist resistance abroad in the land. Did he mean it? What might he have done in power? We will never know.
One thing is certain, however. For The Donald, this is terra incognito (think immigrants for starters). If Hearst was the inheritor and master manipulator of a widespread left-leaning populism, the prodigal son of Jefferson, Jackson, Bryan and Debs, then Trump is the bastard son of Richard Nixon. Himself a maestro of political choreography (until it did him in), Nixon invoked something he famously anointed “the silent majority” to grease the wheels that landed him in the White House. What nearly got Hearst there was the polar opposite; we might call it “the vociferous majority.” (There is of course no mathematical realty behind either of these “majorities.”) It is the silent one that Trump now speaks for and that makes him a salient component of our public life.
Silence can be dangerous. What after all is it saying, who is it speaking for, how do you break its vow of silence. What does it want? The “vociferous majority” was loud and clear about all that. The “silent majority” required a ventriloquist… or rather a translator.
“Tricky Dick” Nixon sensed that a converging series of discontents among “The People” might be steered in the direction of the Republican Party, a party that had always seemed an unlikely safe haven for “The People.” White ethnic blue-collar and lower-middle-class white-collar workers were anxious about their own economic decline, suffering the early onset of deindustrialization and the long regression in the standard of living for ordinary folk. They were as well scandalized by the sexual and gender and cultural revolutions of Nixon’s times. Above all, they were angry that the racial status quo was being overturned, and at what they not wrongly considered their expense. More maddening still was that much of this was happening with the connivance of elites, most of them affiliated with the Democratic Party, that one-time party of the New Deal which they had long thought of as their true safe haven and now seemed traitorous. Thus was born that incendiary image of the “limousine liberal,” which remains part of our political lingua franca to this day.
Americans experienced a seismic cultural revolution. Issues that had once been treated as matters of economic equality and social justice, as face-offs between the forces of organized power and wealth and those they exploited and disempowered, got deftly translated into cultural antipathies. The struggle over “family values” and all that that rubric evokes about sex, patriotism, religion, education, race, masculinity and the specter of the nanny state followed on. It was a brilliant piece of political invention. Nixon won, not only in the South and Sunbelt, but across broad stretches of the working class in the Northeast and Midwestern heartland. The Republican high command therefore remained committed to the genie of the “silent majority” he had conjured. But genies have a way of misbehaving.
Donald Trump is the genie grown monstrous and no longer silent. His arrival has caused enormous consternation among the party’s old guard, an old guard which itself is not that old but still accustomed to the conventions of the beltway. Those whom these wise men once controlled now vie to control them as the party drifts inexorably to the outlands of the right. The official leadership trails behind the ideological fervor that animates the rank and file, and it’s no longer clear who’s converting whom. The populist right evinces serial animosities toward immigrants, big banks, secularists, sexual deviants and the politically correct corporations that pander to them, the racially suspect, bureaucrats of every rank and order, and anything that can be identified as an establishment, even their own Republican one. The Donald can thumb his nose at party honchos because it is in his nature to do so, but also because that natural inclination is buoyed up by a new “vociferous majority” that has turned on its creator.
What is scary is that new “vociferous majority” has been so formless and fractured. Until the formation of the Tea Party it was without organizational definition and easily steered. Unlike the old “vociferous majority,” for a long time there was no there there. One is reminded of the shadowy people’s hero in the film "Nashville"; but that character was far too vague and softy contoured, if nonetheless worryingly mysterious. Trump has more than enough edge on to suit the edgier times we live in. So too the old “vociferous majority” had offered a set of reasonably clear propositions and programs about an alternative future. If the new insurgency has a program for the future, that program should be called The Past.
While it shares with Hearst’s earlier “vociferous majority” economic and cultural suspicions about the corporate powers that be, today’s right-wing populists are hardly about to invoke the anti-capitalism that impassioned the people Hearst counted on. On the contrary, part of what draws them to The Donald is that he is an ubermensch risen atop the capitalist order whose Darwinian ruthlessness as a money-maker presumably fits him to command outside that realm. For a generation saturated in the romantic heroics of the free market and that idolized those who triumphed over its daunting riskiness, that is, for some, an elixir hard to resist. Notwithstanding the financial debacle of 2008, the free market remains a compelling realm where people supposedly self-invent, prove their mettle, light out for the territories.
Moreover, this oddly composted milieu of upwardly mobile Sunbelt professionals and techies and downwardly mobile working people, small town evangelicals and billionaire dynastic entrepreneurs, lives in emotional ambivalence. It resents being told what to do but wants a tough guy to command it. This is what happens when the myth of the free market meets the myth of the enemy alien.
As the unthinkable becomes at least thinkable, if not probable, the auguries are not reassuring. What used to be largely confined to the dark corners of the American imagination at a time when fascists and Nazis controlled large portions of the planet, now may be prefigured in this yearning for a Great Man: someone rude and muscular, trading in half-truths and bald prevarications, preying on the fears and anxieties that a predatory capitalism he so well embodies has visited on us all. Hearst and Trump, two ubermenschen from the plutocracy but somehow not of it, the first promising to dethrone it, ours promising… we know not what.