The demagogic genius of Donald J. Trump
In the two weeks since Donald Trump's shocking victory, the press has devoted a substantial chunk of its coverage to enumerating the president-elect's many faults. He's temperamentally unfit to serve as president. He's ignorant of policy. He's corrupt. His early choices to serve in his administration are racist, anti-Semitic, extremist, unhinged. And of course the whole thing is frightening, terrifying, horrifying.
Most of that is true, and it's perfectly appropriate that we focus on the considerable dangers the nation now confronts. Yet it's also the case that our appreciation for the distinct character of the threat Trump poses to the country's political order would be enhanced if we devoted a little more time to acknowledging that the risks are at least as much a product of Trump's talents as they are of his many faults.
The ominous fact is that Trump is undeniably one of the greatest intuitive political geniuses in history. Think about it: A wealthy businessman with no political experience at all takes on more than a dozen experienced politicians and manages to prevail, winning the presidential nomination of a major party. He then runs what an army of experts and analysts consider to be a train wreck of a general-election campaign and nonetheless manages to prevail to become the president-elect of the most powerful nation on Earth. It's an astonishing accomplishment.
This doesn't mean that Trump had it all planned out ahead of time, like some Machiavelli from Manhattan. On the contrary, I suspect he's as surprised as anyone that the quixotic campaign he launched in June of 2015 has delivered him to the front door of the White House. As I said, he's an intuitive genius. Radicalizing certain recent tendencies of the Republican Party and diverging from it in others, Trump tried something new and it worked. The most discontented voters in the party listened to his message and responded to it, probably without realizing that this is what they wanted until they heard it. In that sense, Trump conjured into existence the very populist movement that has now catapulted him to the presidency. In the process, he managed to rejigger the GOP electoral coalition and wrest control of the party away from its leadership.
The revolution was about policy — immigration, trade, and the economic and cultural decline of the white working class — but it was at least as much about attitude. Trump was (and continues to be) George Wallace with a Twitter account — a demagogue spewing venomous anger and disgust about the multiple "disasters" confronting the country directly to like-minded voters with no intermediary at all, circumventing the heads of his party, mainstream media outlets, and even the retinue of advisers who ran his campaign.
Trump's unorthodox actions, regularly ridiculed by pundits, revealed just how institutionally conservative the gatekeepers are. They strive to uphold norms, propriety, habits — and Trump shredded them over and over again. By shredding them, he amplified his message, showing voters what he repeatedly told them: that he wouldn't abide by the ordinary rules of the political game or accept the constraints that they impose on other politicians. And in an act of supreme recklessness, just enough voters in just the right number of states decided to make the leap into an experiment in radicalism with Trump as their demagogic leader.
To see the populist dynamic in action — and catch a glimpse of how its logic is likely to shape our political future — you need look no further than this past weekend's conflagration surrounding Mike Pence's visit to the hit Broadway musical Hamilton. As everyone knows, Pence was booed by members of the audience at the start of the play, and at the conclusion one of the lead actors directed a critical statement to the vice president-elect.
Pence's response was exactly what one would expect from a public figure operating at the national level. He rose above passion to speak high-mindedly, graciously, magnanimously: "I wasn't offended…. That's what freedom sounds like." That's standard politics enacted with competence.
But Trump? As always, he did the "wrong" thing — the thing that everyone from George Washington on down to a present-day political consultant would advise against: For two days in a row, he took to a public forum (Twitter, of course) to lambast the cast of the play, take umbrage on behalf of his running mate, and petulantly demand an apology.
Once again, I don't want to presume strategic intent. Whether Trump's reaction was the product of a conscious decision or an impulsive response to a provocation, it's uncanny how Trump's unorthodox, demagogic behavior just so happens to advance his political fortunes.
- Trump's Twitter outburst distracted media attention from two potentially radioactive stories — his far-right Cabinet nominees and his $25 million settlement in the Trump University lawsuit.
- It ensured maximal, extended coverage of Pence's treatment at Hamilton — an event that instantly became the latest example of liberal elite condescension toward the political views of "ordinary Americans."
- It guaranteed that the faction of the GOP base that responds most passionately to Trump would remain angry and politically engaged. That will be extremely important in ensuring that Trump gets what he wants from the Republican Congress — including a pass on behavior that might otherwise prompt investigations into corruption.
- It provoked an equal and opposite freak-out among liberals, who will now be more inclined than ever to engage in actions that inspire the next round of indignant Trump tweets — which will of course lead the demagogic dynamic that benefits Trump to repeat itself yet again.
According to the normal rules of politics, Trump is a mess who gets nothing right. And yet he keeps succeeding, which just might mean that the normal rules of politics no longer apply — or at least that they apply differently than they used to.
More than anyone else on the political scene, Trump has managed to discern the populist potential of the social media age, and to go a long way toward mastering the funhouse rules that appear to apply within it. Until the rest of us catch up and adapt to the laws that govern this topsy-turvy world, we will remain at the mercy of our troll-in-chief.