Last week, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham told the journalists and lawmakers gathered for the Washington Press Club Foundation’s usually light-hearted annual congressional dinner that, “My party has gone batshit crazy.”
Given that Graham lately has emerged as a kind of Republican Cassandra, it’s tempting to add a gloss on Homer’s famous line: Who the gods would destroy, they first afflict with Donald Trump.
The madness of Trump, in fact, is one of this election cycle’s defining forces, and it has many faces. The most mysterious is why, state-by-state, a bit more than a third of the GOP electorate is willing to ignore the fact that the vulgar property developer and failed casino operator is the most obvious and unashamed bully to mount an American political platform in living memory?
I choose the adjective “mysterious” because most Americans of every stripe traditionally abhor a bully. Western novels and films probably are as close as we come to a national folkloric literature, for example, and their most iconic character is the solitary drifter moved into action on behalf of honest folks being bullied. Think Jack Schaefer’s Shane or Louis L’Amour’s Hondo or John Ford’s Tom Doniphon.
Yet the results so far indicate that a bit more than a third of Republican primary voters actually are energized by the blustering reality television personality’s bullying. On the eve of Super Tuesday, most polls have Trump all but running the table and a CNN poll of the national electorate gives him a lead of more than 30 points on both the spaniel-like Marco Rubio and the gloweringly sinister Ted Cruz.
Confronted by opposition, criticism or even ordinary election-year scrutiny, Trump’s instant reaction is to insult and threaten. When a heckler interrupted him during a rally shortly before the Nevada caucuses, Trump lamented his inability to punch him in the mouth and said he wished his supporters had dealt with the guy in way that would have had him “carried out of here.”
It’s not clear whether Trump understands the difference between the presidency and absolute monarchy, though his conception of the office seems closest to those of Vladimir Putin and Tayyip Erdogan
When Trump belatedly realized that members of the wealthy Chicago Ricketts family have contributed several millions to Super Pac’s opposed to him, the developer Tweeted: “I hear the Rickets family, who own the Chicago Cubs, are secretly spending $’s against me. They better be careful, they have a lot to hide!” There’s never been anything “secret” about the Ricketts’ political contributions, which are regularly reported in full, as federal law requires.
Tom Ricketts, who runs the Cubs for the family called it “a little surreal when Donald Trump threatens your mom. . . If we had something to hide, you people (the press) would have found it by now.”
The press is another consistent target of Trump’s attempted bullying, Last week, in response to what he felt were critical stories in the New York Times and Washington Post, Trump went on an unhinged tirade during which he threatened that, as president, he would rewrite the libel laws so that he could sue critical journalists and their papers. (It’s not clear whether Trump understands the difference between the presidency and absolute monarchy, though his conception of the office seems closest to those of Vladimir Putin and Tayyip Erdogan.)
Speaking to a rally in Houston Friday, Trump rumbled that the press generally, but particularly the New York Times and Washington Post are covering him unfairly. “If I become president, oh, do they have problems. They’re gonna have such problems. One of the things I’m gonna do, and this is only gonna make it tougher for me, and I’ve never said this before, but one of the things I’m gonna do if I win … is I’m gonna open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money. We’re gonna open up those libel laws.
“So that when the New York Times writes a hit piece which is a total disgrace, or when the Washington Post … writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money, instead of having no chance of winning because they’re totally protected. With me, they’re not protected, because I’m not like other people… We’re gonna open up those libel laws, folks, and we’re gonna have people sue you like you never got sued before.”
Really? Well, damned inconvenient that First Amendment, which is interpreted by the courts, not to mention that Congress which actually writes the laws. he said.
Not content with threatening protestors, one of the nation’s wealthiest families or two of the country’s three leading newspapers, Trump also has it in for the IRS. He claims he can’t release his tax returns because he’s being audited—again. This he attributes to the agency’s animus against him because he’s “a strong Christian.” It’s not clear, of course, whether until he discovered evangelicals vote in large numbers Trump even was curious about the existence of God. It might be possible that he gets audited regularly because he’s one step removed from being a con man and probably runs his affairs with all the attention to law characteristic of a barber shop bookie operation.
Why, we need to ask ourselves over and over, are so many of our fellow Americans eager to become part of the mob with this puerile, juvenile caricature of a public man at its head?
Then, as that pesky New York Times reported this past weekend, there’s the way Trump uses Twitter to encourage his more rabid followers to harass, insult and threaten anyone who crosses the developer—or who is unfortunate enough to become the target of one of the false accusations that seem to fly from his mouth like spittle. Why, we need to ask ourselves over and over, are so many of our fellow Americans eager to become part of the mob with this puerile, juvenile caricature of a public man at its head?
The best explanation I’ve seen comes from former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan whose stylish and immensely decent column from a conservative perspective appears in the Wall Street Journal. Noonan believes the American electorate has divided itself into two groups: the “protected” and the “unprotected.” She argues that “the protected make public policy. The unprotected live in it. The unprotected have begun to push back powerfully.
“The protected are the accomplished, the secure, the successful—those who have power or access to it. They are protected from much of the roughness of the world.” The protected, of course, live in safe neighborhoods, have retirement schemes or savings on which they can count, educate their children in private schools and are generally insulted from all the insecurity, personal, economic and—worst of all—familial that afflict the unprotected. Noonan agrees with Trump and, apparently, many of the unprotected that undocumented immigrants have created much of this insecurity. I don’t agree, and the reliable economic and social science data argues against scapegoating immigrants with or without papers. The same goes for the free trade agreements that Noonan rather obviously skips mentioning, though Trump is hostile to all of them. The truth is, though, that far too little has been done to protect vulnerable American workers from those pacts’ inevitably disruptive consequences.
Noonan points to “a terrible feature of our age—that we are governed by protected people who don’t seem to care that much about their unprotected fellow citizens.” That is dead on the mark, whether you subscribe to her elegant formulation or Bernie Sanders’ 1% versus the rest of us.
Trump appears likely to win the Republican nomination, though his general election prospects seem far less certain. No mature or emotionally balanced person can wish him into the White House, but neither can they ignore the deep and bitter anger that may take him a good way there. No matter who governs, this country cannot afford to have a third of its voters angry enough to support a bully like Donald Trump.