A dangerous experiment that should frighten us all: Donald Trump and the triumph of "anti-politics"

Liberated from political norms, Trump's free to say or do whatever he want — the end result could be chilling

By Sean Illing
May 25, 2016 9:22PM (UTC)
main article image
Donald Trump (AP/Greg Allen)

Donald Trump's appeal remains a mystery to many in the media. He breaks all known laws of political nature, he offends key demographic groups, he lies with impunity – and his transgressions are continually rewarded at the voting booth.

In a new piece, Robert Reich says Trump is perfecting a new form of politics, what he calls “anti-politics.” Reich writes: “The old politics pitted right against left, with presidential aspirants moving toward the center once they clinched the nomination. Anti-politics pits Washington insiders, corporate executives, bankers, and media moguls against a growing number of people who think the game is rigged against them. There's no center, only hostility and suspicion.”


Anti-politics isn't about policy or even politics in the conventional sense. It's about rage. People are being screwed and they want to punish the people they hold responsible, the establishment. A strongman character (and I emphasize “character”) like Trump acts as a conduit for all the anger and discontent.

This puts Trump in an enviable position. He doesn't need a positive agenda of any kind. Instead, he rejects politics altogether and defines himself against the establishment. His freewheeling style and outrageous demeanor are perceived as a middle finger to the political class. Never mind that he lacks the experience or knowledge to improve things. What matters is that he's different, politically incorrect.

If Reich is right and this is a new form of anti-politics, then we're about to test the limits of its power. Trump, the ultimate anti-politician, is the face of the Republican Party. It's clear by now that he can't be controlled, and whenever he tries to transition into a more traditional candidate (read: dignified), the bile-spewing child within always re-emerges.


As I noted yesterday, Trump will campaign until the very end without so much as feigning interest in policy. Instead, we'll get a heaping of silly platitudes about making America great and a renewed emphasis on Bill Clinton's cocksmanship. We'll hear about Vince Foster and Monica Lewinsky and every other salacious story Trump can dig up. He'll hurl insults and sling mud every time he's in front of a camera. This is how he avoids talking about things that matter. It's a diversionary tactic designed to obscure what is otherwise obvious: He has no idea what he's talking about.

That he's come this far is already a great victory for anti-politics. Even if he loses badly in November, he's changed the way politics is done on the right. Typically, candidates stick to their mildly inspirational talking points (whatever gladdened the focus groups) while allowing surrogates and operatives to peddle the nasty misinformation on talk radio or friendly websites. With Trump, however, the process is inverted. His campaign has blazed a frightful new trail. “They've reverse-engineered the way it has always worked because they now have a candidate willing to say it himself,” said Danny Diaz, a high-ranking aide in Jeb Bush's campaign.

Totally liberated from political norms or basic decency, Trump is free to say or do whatever he wants, no matter how crass or untrue. Jonathan Martin of The New York Times sums it up:


“With Mr. Trump as the Republican standard-bearer, the line separating the conservative mischief makers and the party's more buttoned-up cadre of elected officials and aides has been obliterated. Fusing what had been two separate but symbiotic forces, Mr. Trump has begun a real-life political science experiment: What happens with a major party's nominee is more provocateur than politician?"

Well, so far what happens is he catapults to the top of the polls and energizes every latent force of hatred and bigotry the country has to offer. Anti-politicians exist to provoke the establishment. Trump has done this better than any politician in my lifetime. It's a dangerous experiment because there's nothing useful on the other side of that rage. If the angry masses get their wish and Trump becomes president, then what?

It appears this is a question nearly half the country has yet to ask.

Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at silling@salon.com.

MORE FROM Sean Illing

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Donald Trump Editor's Picks Elections 2016 Republican Party Robert Reich