I Underestimated Us (from March 2016)

By Philip Martin

Philip re-posted this on Facebook in March of 2017

I thought it would never come to this, that there was a bottom to be struck from which we might rebound. Now I’m not so sure. There’s a lot of evidence that suggests we are an infantilized nation, uninterested in hearing any message that doesn’t pay tribute to our not-so-secret image of ourselves as the best, brightest and most persecuted people on the planet. I thought that when it came down to it, the American people–the everyday folks who watch Jeopardy! and work the Sunday crosswords–would not be having any of this cult of personality strongman jive.

I thought we were too smart for that, that we’d seen the movies about Lonesome Rhodes and Howard Beale, that at least enough of us knew about Father Coughlin and Gerald L.K. Smith and that there were limits to how far we’d let some amusing con man go before we’d yank hard on his chain and tell the boy to settle down. A fake reality TV star with special-effects hair? The American people might string him along a while for laughs, but eventually he’d push it, he’d refuse to disavow the Ku Klux Klan or passively plagiarize Il Duce, spend a week apologizing and then drop out.

Yeah, Ronald Reagan was an actor, but it’s not fair to compare him to Donald Trump, for whatever you think of Reagan, when it came down to statecraft there was a deep seriousness to the man. You mightn’t have agreed with his philosophy, but as The Big Lebowski’s Walter Sobchak once said of National Socialism, at least a guiding ethos was present. Trump offers nothing more or less than his super-powered self–he’ll bat his eyes to melt Putin’s heart, he’ll make those rapey Mexicans pay to build their own wall. He’ll make us all winners again.

And sure, it’s not surprising he did all right at first. After all, name recognition is what matters more than anything else. And Trump’s name is everywhere; if he’s good at anything aside from inheriting money it’s self-promoting. I stayed in one his hotels eight years ago, and every week I still get emails inviting me to enjoy a special rate to return or to play golf on one of his courses.

He’s got a sense of humor and he’s utterly shameless–he made his own bad taste a trademark, and his brand is so ubiquitous that some people even believe he’s whatever he says he is: smart, handsome, a good businessman, a scratch golfer. It’s disapppointing, but a lot of Americans support Trump simply because he’s rich. (Because you know, the rich are always doing stuff for the little folks, like leaving $100 tips and moving their manufacturing plants to China.)

(Not that Trump supporters will listen, but there are any number of ways to become a billionaire, and one of the easiest ways is to inherit $200 million. As a lot of people have pointed out, though Trump is worth about $4 billion now, if he’d just stuck his inheritance in an index fund and spent his time walking the earth he’d be worth about $13 billion.)

But the real reason people support Trump is because he doesn’t require anything of them but their free-floating anger. I’m not ready to give Trump credit for doing this on purpose, but at times it seems he’s conducting a kind of Stanley Milgram-type experience on the body politic. He rants all this racist, extremist ugly stuff because it’s what frustrated people who don’t like to be challenged want to hear. He doesn’t believe it any more than he believes in the common sense of common folk, but it’s working so he’d be a fool to change. And a lot of his supporters understand how unworthy Trump’s message is, but they don’t care because he’s not coming for them. He’s after the other guy.

Trump is like a professional wrestler in that while he engages with reality, he does so in a odd, almost metafictional way. He understands he’s fake, and that at least some (most) of his potential audience knows he’s fake. He’s playing a character called Donald Trump. But he’s also real; he’s been validated–animated like Frankenstein’s monster–by poll numbers and primary results. He knows he can really be the nominee, despite the GOP’s best efforts to stop him. (And it’s saying something that a lot of serious people don’t think Trump’s the worst the Republicans have on offer this time around.)

While a lot of Democratic partisans might see that as the best thing that could happen for presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton, that doesn’t give me a lot of comfort. Nobody has tomorrow promised to them, and I’m not at all comfortable with the Donald getting that close to the big chair. I don’t imagine a Trump presidency will be any worse than disappointing to all involved (especially to Trump himself). I think that the legislative and judicial branches would frustrate Trump at least as much as they have Barack Obama, but I’d rather not play chicken with the Constitution, and I’m not all that curious to see if he nominates Howard Stern or Judge Joe Brown to the Supreme Court.

(It would be funny to see Trump govern more or less like the moderate Democrat his history would suggest he might be. There’s absolutely nothing to suggest he’d take any steps to make the federal government smaller.)

Frankly, you all are scaring me. This should have been put to bed a while ago, the grownups should have swooped down and taken us in hand. But the problem is, there really aren’t any grownups anymore, are there? We’re a nation that lives on fast food and idiot television. The only kind of thinking we like to do is magical. We can’t even be grammatical in our anonymous comments.

Someone told me we get the government we deserve. Let us pray that isn’t true.

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