"But it's not about Donald Trump."
This sentence brought me up short the first half-dozen times I heard it come out of the mouth of someone smart who was implausibly but passionately arguing that I should support Donald Trump. It is now very familiar. It is the response I got every time I pointed out that Donald Trump is not reliable, has a wicked character, is enslaved to his passions, and is kind of stupid. Now I recognize this sentence for what it is. "But it's not about Donald Trump" is the verbal initiation into what I call the esoteric case for Trump. It comes in many forms, but they all share a basic outline.
Esoteric Trumpist argument #1: Trump is moving the Overton Window
This argument proceeds something like this: The range of what is politically acceptable fits into the “Overton Window," and Trump has dramatically changed what can be said or done in our political conversation — in a good way. On immigration, for instance, the whole consensus was fixed on granting amnesty to millions of immigrants. Trump has injected restrictionism, vetting of immigrants, and even a physical barrier into a conversation that was only about the size of amnesty and modest limits to the inevitable increase of immigration.
Perhaps a more advanced version of the argument will say that Trump's proposed ban on Muslim immigration amounts to the first frontal challenge on the classical-liberal assumption that political man can be reduced to homo economicus. Trump has allowed us to finally see people as they are: members of communities that have divergent interests and that may be in conflict.
Why it's wrong: Trump's campaign have shifted the Overton window. But his failures can also make it slide the other way. Any major change to America's immigration policy will naturally involve the consent of liberal Americans. And after Trump's permanently damaging rhetoric, they are increasingly convinced that any enforced legal limits on immigration, and any form of deportation of illegal immigrants, is a concession to white supremacy and a betrayal of their commitments to egalitarianism. Trump has hurt the conservative cause of immigration reform more than he has helped it.
Esoteric Trumpist argument #2: Trump is helping us kill a Republican Party that has stopped working
The premise here is that Republicans and conservatives have failed, and are an obstacle to some nationalist or other right-wing vision to come. Maybe the old players lacked nerve, or their mode of analysis was wrong. In any case, Trump was sent, as if by the gods themselves, to tear these time-servers and professionals down from their high places. This is a just punishment.
Why it's wrong: There is no sign the Republican Party or the conservative movement can just be "proved irrelevant" and then caused to disappear in a poof of embarrassment by Trump's candidacy. The same movement could not control Richard Nixon in 1968 or 1972. And yet it grew and thrived for a long time. The Republican Party may be concussed, but it is not moribund.
The most likely scenario is that Trump loses the election, but Republicans of the usual type prove powerful enough to stymie most of Hillary Clinton's agenda. Trump's success at winning the nomination puts into doubt some conservative assumptions about primary voters. But his failure to win the presidency will prove that a nationalist-populist makeover led by him was a loser. Trumpist challengers of congressional candidates are failing.
The conservative movement took decades to build. The idea that its replacement will be fully functional in one electoral cycle seems like an overestimation of the volatility of American politics.
Esoteric Trumpist argument #3: America is broken, and only someone as radical as Trump can fix it
Maybe it was the New Deal, or the Civil Rights Act, or simply that America lost its spiritedness. Or perhaps it was just the end of the Cold War, which caused the interests of America's political class to diverge too wildly from those of America's citizens. In any case, Trump's imaginative world is pre-1989. In Trump we have a candidate who wants to recover the more paternalistic model of American life, where big companies create the bulk of new jobs, and presidents can personally persuade CEOs to do thus and so.
The multiplicity of "lost Edens" in America proliferate because Trump is happy to promise extravagantly. And because his slogan is vague enough for people to project their own wishes onto it.
Why it's wrong: The problems here are many. No president is able to command the global economy to do his will. And even bending the rule of law to coerce companies to play nice for awhile is destined to fail. Trump doesn't have a great attention span or loyalty to principle. He is likely uninterested in restoring some lost Constitutional limits on government. There's also the fact that Trump rarely keeps his promises. They are a sales pitch, not a blueprint.
Esoteric Trumpist argument #4: We're using Trump to imagine a new and better future
This most esoteric of the esoteric arguments for Trump comes from people who genuinely embrace marginal views. Some Christians with royalist instincts try to envision Trump as a new Constantine. Some white nationalists have attached their cause to the Trump campaign not only to achieve greater visibility, but as a kind of imaginative project. Richard Spencer, of the white nationalist National Policy Institute, cited all the bizarre memes that spread on the internet repainting Trump as Napoleon or some other near-mythic figure.
"All of that stuff is silly, all of that stuff is ridiculous, but it actually gets at something real and that is that we want something more, we want something heroic, we want something that is not defined by liberalism or individual rights or bourgeois norms. We want something that is truly European and truly heroic." [Richard Spencer]
Why it's wrong: Envisioning Trump as the restorer of heroic Western life — whether imperial, kingly, or mythical — is quite an act of creation. There is nothing about Trump that suggests he can hasten the end of Enlightenment principles through political rule. (Although an itchy nuclear trigger finger could.) These dreams are funnier still when considered next to Trump's style, which is lamely democratic; his culture, which derives entirely from cable television; and his personal taste, which resides about one remove from Uday Hussein's debauches. The man is clearly a product of a decadent society, not the scourge or redeemer of one.
So what can we learn from these esoteric arguments for Trump? They have much in common. First, a belief, not unfounded, that Hillary Clinton is a candidate of an unsatisfactory status quo, or that she is hostile to one's short and long-term interests. The second commonality is a kind of historical despair that is extravagant. The causes one holds dear are about to be lost, and lost irrevocably. Everything is proceeding along a grim, downward path, and only a dramatic interruption can arrest it. And finally, they have in common Trump himself.
Many in the Republican Party or on the right correctly perceive Clinton as a political enemy. But the esoteric case for Trump is only possible because Trump is so obviously a buffoon, a bluffer, a kind of living cartoon. The only way people with a certain kind of dignity or intelligence can convince themselves that he would make a worthy president is through an elaborate form of self-delusion. The esoteric case for Trump is just that, a form of hypnosis.
Snap out of it, people.