Trump’s boring meeting in Mexico killed the possibility of an Orange President. Trump, whatever the media said, was running as an act of political performance, like Kaepernick refusing to stand during the national anthem.
The media and pols never understood that the act itself was the point. Trump didn’t fail because he changed his message – he changed that daily on the campaign trail. He didn’t collapse by deciding to become a different kind of politician.
Days later, I understand the truth—Donald lost by acting like politician at all. He had one bullet in his holster but it was the best one — in retrospect, almost magical. It was this: You don’t have to trust or like me, you don’t even have to think I’m always honest — but if this system was working, I wouldn’t be here. We could forgive anything but a bad performance.
WHAT I SAW IN MEXICO CITY
Our editor, Shane Ryan, refused to send me to cover the Trump-Nieto meeting in Mexico City, mostly because I didn’t ask at all, just stared at a map on the wall and kept poking at Ciduad de Mexico and repeating the word “Me There Now.” Making a real-boy request would have been unseemly, somehow.
Nonetheless, I got to see it all: Trump, the loudmouth, awkward candidate of America, went down south on the invitation of the unpopular, awkward president of Mexico, Nieto. You know, when the Prophet Sanders retired from the field, I thought “this is the end of the Curb Your Enthusiasm section of the race.” Now I see the episode never ended. The Orangeman made a series of anodyne, politician-like statements about how Mexico was less of a tar pit than he imagined. Then he flew back North. In Arizona that evening, he rattled off the usual albino tone poem about how great the country’s internment camps would be when he got the steering wheel between his manicured, microscopic hands. The details were simple, simple.
One conservative writer described the meeting thus: “All in all, it looked like any other meeting of an American leader at an international summit.” In a much-revised article, the Times described Trump as displaying “an almost unrecognizable demeanor during his afternoon in Mexico, appearing measured and diplomatic.”
They’re wrong. Trump’s visit was the end.
You have to understand why Trump matters, and why he has been so misjudged. When I say misjudged, I don’t mean Donald himself. Everything they say about Trump is true. He really is a gargantuan, racist, loudmouth fraud, who will probably pass away in some hilariously poetic mishap ten years from now, perhaps while choking on a falafel after bulldozing a Mexican children’s zoo for a series of single-man condos.
But there is this one factor, the American people, which you cannot get around. After the Dems went on their convention riff about how America was already awesome, the gruesome old bastard sent out this Tweet: “Our country does not feel ‘great already’ to the millions of wonderful people living in poverty, violence and despair.” For the sake of the election, it doesn’t matter if Trump actually believes this or not.
The alt-right loves to mock safe spaces and trigger warnings, but the irony is that Trump is the most prominent emotional shepherd of the entire election: “Our country does not feel.” The Orangeman deals in emotional reality, not factual truth. When Trump says that America’s military is weak, or that Muslims were celebrating on 9/11, or that Hillary is already medically dead, he is either oblivious or lying. But the emotions he taps into are real feelings, from real people. This doesn’t validate beating up reporters—Matt Lauer justifies that—but it explains why Donald has any traction at all. The neoliberals can’t Vox-splain this one away.
The people who support Trump are not empty-minded rubes ready for any strongman to fill them full of purpose. These aren’t extras from To Kill a Mockingbird, but real people, with real FOX News subscriptions. Their outrage may be expressed in ways which are odious, backwards, and misspelled, and aimed at the wrong targets, but their ache is real, as reactionary as it seems to me and everyone else who covets the BBC’s fine programming lineup. Trump would have no power if people were not actually hurting.
If you are part of the higher stratus of this country, this seems like the best of all possible worlds. It’s good to be prosperous and well-connected in America. From this perspective, to be outraged about the distribution of goods would seem perverse, almost Floridian: who could resent anything about our shining meritocracy? Indeed, from the high castles on both coasts, who could be bothered to care that one in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime, or that suicide among middle-aged white people without university degrees has skyrocketed? The world was made for you, and you were made for the world.
If you accept the meritocracy and economic system we live in, you probably think this is already a just enough country. From this perspective, resentment seems unnecessary, a lark one does during college, like swing dancing, questionable tattoos, or improv classes. If the world is just, then the people who are complaining either A) like to complain or B) are dupes being led astray by a Pied Piper. Option B is what the media has seized to explain the Orange Horde.
WHAT TRUMP IS DOING
This is why the media keeps getting Trump wrong, trying to fit him with the wrong shape. Writers love to creep around what they really want to say, which is that Trump is Hitler, Trump is Biff Tannen, etc. None of these are accurate. But they keep treating him like an actual normal politician. This results from a fundamental misunderstanding of Trump and what is function is.
Trump is a new game. Trump isn’t the spokesman for a single idea, because he doesn’t have one. This is what gives journalistic hacks in Washington the easy short path to fascism or populism as Trump’s descriptors, but that won’t do. Trump voters know what he is, and anyone who thinks for longer than five minutes knows the man doesn’t have much of a deep self beyond the hat. Nor is Trump simply viewable as that old canard, the mouthpiece of the people. His personality, like the dyer’s hand, is too stained in what it works, and his personality is too well-known, too cultivated, to be masked over with any kind of embodied yearning. Trump is supported by the resentment, but his theories are his own.
The Orangeman is not an avatar of Goldman Sachs-level evil. Far from it. He is the logical, rational result of the American public’s desire to be entertained at a level commensurate with their knowledge of the frailty and fraudulence of our national politics. Irony Twitter was inevitable. Feminist Disney heroines were inevitable. Long-form TV wonder dramas like The Wire and Breaking Bad were inevitable. And Donald Trump, the ultimate satirist of our political process, was inevitable.
For years, conservatives wondered where their Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert was. Here he is.
What is Trevor Noah next to him? An amateur, a hack. Jon Oliver is a pop gun, and Samantha Bee a sputtering flare in the night. As a political satirist, Trump is the second coming of Voltaire, Jonathan Swift. Here’s a satire which could actually destroy the world.
The Daily Show
was inevitable. Although it’s thought of as the principle launching pad for smug, enlightened liberal snark, the program’s subject was not actually the conservative movement, but the lack of substance or seriousness in our national dialogue. In other words, they were there mostly to mock cable news. When it became clear that our media had become mortgaged to massive information conglomerates, something had to give, and it happened to give on Comedy Central.
And when it became obvious that the American working class (and in time, the American middle class) were being hollowed out and absolutely nobody in either party gave three hoots in hell about it—when our political process was shown to be an audition for the Kochs and Merill Lynch—Trump’s rise became a piece of destiny.
Trump the satirical performance is the living embodiment of our political system’s failure. It happens to be a great show, so we watch it, even if we hate it, even if we feel guilty about enjoying it. Because Donald is so obviously objectionable, in so many clear ways, and because he lies, the political elite of our two major parties disregard his command over the electorate as a hidden proof that the voters are profoundly stupid. They aren’t. They earnestly believe they have no better choices. Trump is the focus point of rage against the system. Point out that he does not deserve to be president, which a child could see, is like telling someone eating cardboard that their nephew is not quite Boston Latin material. Trump’s existence in the race is a Kaepernick-level performative act.
It may seem odd to compare this grotesque bigot and the Colin Kaepernick, a legitimate crusader for social justice, in the same sentence. Kaepernick is engaged in a brave, principled gesture of public defiance that could seriously damage his career and his future in the league. Trump is a leather bag of race science pamphlets found on a Queens park bench.
Yet they are alike in one way, and one way only. Trump, like Kaepernick, operates in an institution where there is a bullshit consensus that serves the interest of the people at the top. A little discussion is allowed, but not much. The NFL, like the American governing class, is so obviously full of it, but nobody inside the system, nobody with power, will call them on it.
For an insider to flagrantly defy their own institution is so against expectation, so unusual, that it almost doesn’t matter what you say: what counts is the act of refusal. That is what is meant by a performative act.
How you feel about Kaepernick refusing to stand or Trump insulting Ted Cruz probably depends on how unsatisfied you are with the status quo. Unusual public acts of prominent people, no matter how irrelevant they may seem, show the real possibility that this reign of thieves will not continue forever. Much as I would not expect Kaepernick to have a detailed twenty-page program of how to stop young African-American men from being killed by the police, Donald’s followers aren’t bothered when he lacks a fleshed-out agenda for bombing ISIS.
Trump’s stance showed how little he thought of the political process, and by extension, how little we ought to think of it. All of his opponents’ attacks weren’t just the sad counterattacks of lanyard-fetishizing dipshits or Beltway vegetables. They were the actions of befuddled men and women who did not understand what was happening. Rubio’s approach must have worked very well in front of the Koch think tanks or Tea Party gatherings. Ted Cruz’s debate club patter probably scored big with his fellow gigantic centipedes in whatever underground civilization he originally called home. Jeb’s hard sell, I’m sure, worked well in the mirror at Dillard’s. They would have dazzled the faithful back in 2000 or 2004. Not now.
The Mexico meeting finishes all of that. Moreover, not only was the Nieto appearance the end of the opera, but a tragic loss for the art of satire. I was promised WrestleMania and I got C-SPAN’s Booknotes. Was this the great tin god army of socially-awkward Twitter tweens? Is this the best you can do, Donald? A fumbling, clean-shaven press conference? I wanted Foxcatcher rich dude weirdness, and all I got was the awkward last act of a Bill Murray vanity project.
In his article on recent Trump, Taibbi argued the folly of Trump 2.0 is Donald’s yearning to be presidential: he began to play the part of a normie. He is halfway correct. Trump’s problem is not merely that he is throwing out less raw meat, or that his spiel has changed.
He broke character, and that was the master-sin. He forgot the joke. It was as if Jon Stewart started writing Tom Friedman’s column. Commentators have speculated that Trump 2.0 isn’t running for president any longer, but setting up a media platform, an unholy breeding of Breitbart and FOX News. Rumor has it that the whole campaign is a yuge Napoleonic gambit by Trump. Even if he loses, they say, Donald will make himself over into the William Randolph Hearts of lying to old white people and young alt-right dorks.
But how will this strategy suffice? Trump has already begun to lose ground on this very level. How will he sell his news channel, when the very things he could have pushed – himself and his brand- has come down in value? Trump gave up his edge so easily. For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his Pepe memes?
I remember the RNC debates. It was a funny thing, watching them. Here was a man who, rationally, I was pretty sure would end the Republic, if not all animal life on the planet, in a reign of raw nuclear fire. But I was delighted all the same. It was like watching Satan appear onstage a ball of fire and mock his feckless understudies for doing such a piss-poor job of corrupting the Earth. How could anyone look away?
Indeed, at a basic, unconscious level, the thought of a Trump campaign was somehow an exciting thought, like image of every bank in every city in the world spontaneously erupting into flames. It sent a thrill through the observer, much as leaning too far over the railing from a high balcony does. But this alt-right Godspell only worked so long as the performance did. When Trump silenced the joke, he stopped his chances, and that is the last, and best, laugh of all.