He’s a real estate and media tycoon with a scandal-studded past. He’s known for his super-inflated ego, his penchant for young and beautiful women and his tendency to let his mouth get him into trouble. He tried to encourage investors by saying “we have the prettiest secretaries.” He responded to an unwanted question from a journalist by making a gesture of a shooting pistol with his hand. He said that President Obama was “tanned.” He claimed he’s the best leader in the world “and there’s no reason for me to feel inferior to anyone in history.”
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It sounds like Donald Trump, but actually it’s former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Like Trump, Berlusconi was the bane of liberals and intellectuals but a hero for the common folk, many of who viewed the world through the prism of Italian television, which was gaudy and vulgar way before American TV caught up. As Italian-Palestinian journalist Rula Jebreal wrote in the same comparison she made last September in the Washington Post “Italians were endlessly entertained by the comedy Berlusconi brought to politics.”
For the time being, Trump is not only entertaining his fans and riveting the media, if we put aside concerns for the future of the human race, he is also delighting many of his critics. It’s hard to resist deriving some joy, after all, from Trump’s hostile takeover of the GOP in particular and unexpected domination of American politics in general. Just as Chance the gardener, played in the movie Being There by Peter Sellers, was used by Polish-Jewish author Jerzy Kosinski to mock politicians and other high society types who are enthralled by hollow generalizations, Trump’s run for the presidency has exposed the feeble foundations of the ideological right wing as well as the easy conquest of digital-age politics by a master of entertainment and reality TV.
For anyone who is not a registered and caring member of the Republican Party, Trump’s amazing race provides both Schadenfreude and poetic justice. Just as the forces of reactionary conservatism were about to eliminate the last pockets of moderate and open-minded resistance in the GOP, Trump came out from nowhere to rearrange the forces and redraw the battle lines. While other Republican candidates were priming themselves to bend their wills and adapt their positions to those of the fundamentalist minority that sets the tone during primaries season, along came the thrice-married Trump, unrestrained by ideology or consistency, and stole the party from under the watchful eyes of its zealots.
While the party was preparing to choose between a pragmatic conservative like Jeb Bush, a congenial conservative like Marco Rubio and a devout conservative like Ted Cruz, it was Trump who was enticing actual voters, including dedicated Evangelicals, with his mishmash of fly-by-night policy positions which are often anathema to the party faithful. He’s against ObamaCare but in favor of universal health insurance. He opposes free trade, which they support, and supports entitlements, which they oppose. He’s a pro-lifer, ostensibly, but has good things to say about that Satan’s spawn, Planned Parenthood. Archconservative columnist Eric Erickson pledged he would “never” vote for Trump and condemned Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr, who tweeted support for Trump, for “joining the whores of Moloch”, no less.
Hawks and neocons are also in panic mode. As MSNBC’s Chris Matthews has noted, some of them were probably lining up for administration appointments under President Jeb!, or, even better, President Rubio. Now they have to deal with Trump, who says he opposed the Iraq war, pins the blame for it on St. George, the other Bush, refuses to toe the GOP’s Israel right or wrong line, and disdains democratization, nation building or otherwise unnecessary interventions in the world’s affairs that don’t directly threaten the United States. Yesterday it was reported that some of the neocons are floating the idea that Rubio concede the race to Trump in exchange for a vice presidential appointment, a move that would at least get his hawkish supporters to the Old Executive Building near the White House. (On the Democratic side, and possibly from similar motives of fear and apprehension, some people are touting the possibility that potential also-runner Michael Bloomberg would be picked as Hillary Clinton’s number two.)
“The main problem with Trump is that he isn’t a Republican” is how Senator Lindsey Graham summarized it, in his usual pithy manner. Trump’s surging popularity has exposed the fact that the GOP leadership is far more reactionary and doctrinaire than many of its rank and file supporters, that it’s electoral base cares far less about the purity of the family or the sanctity of the constitution, as evidenced by the fact that they are now following a candidate devoid of any commitment to core values, conservative or otherwise. More ominously, perhaps, Trump’s supporters don’t seem to care that he said white yesterday, black today and grey tomorrow, they are unperturbed by his racist comments or his combative nature or his willingness to insult the Pope, mock the disabled or strangle hecklers, and they are completely unmoved by his lack of consistency and lackluster devotion to the truth.
The normal political rules of accountability simply don’t apply where Trump is concerned. He said that he opposed the war in Iraq until recordings showed this week that he didn’t? He repeated as fact an urban legend about General Pershing executing Muslim guerrillas in the Philippines a century ago with bullets dabbed in pigs’ blood? He says “thousands of Muslims” were dancing in the streets of New Jersey on 9/11? Obama wants to allow a quarter of a million Syrian refugees to enter? Unemployment is at 42%? Mexico sends criminals over the border? America has the highest taxes? Ot er Gezugt, as they say in Yiddish, so he said. Who cares. Water under the bridge.
And if fact checker PolitiFact says Trump is 2015’s liar of the year and Facts on File dubs him the biggest liar ever, it’s only because they are part of the “hostile media” that Trump likes to ridicule, even though it is the media’s complete capitulation that brought him to this point in the first place. CNN is even bragging about its sagacious decision to “invest in politics” even though said investment for many weeks amounted to turning into a Trump Channel that broadcast hours and hours of uninterrupted feeds to Trump’s speeches. As in politics, ratings rule the news these days while journalistic and public responsibility are outdated values of a long gone past, presumably.
In this and other ways, Trump is actually a practitioner of post-modernist politics. Just as the political fight for gays, women and African Americans were defined in the 60’s and 70’s of the last century as leftist post-modernism, so Trump engages in “identity politics” from the right, but with a twist: with Trump, the white man is not the evil representative of the status quo but the underprivileged group which is deprived, depressed and discriminated against. Trump is leading their struggle for liberation from the repression of political correctness and the dictatorship of the upstart minorities.
Trumps adherents care less about the substance of his positions and more about the combative, in your face way he presents them. They are excited by him more than they actually agree with him. They want him to make America great again, whatever that means, and to reclaim their own lost honor. They dream, first and foremost, of being exactly like him: fabulously rich and famous, with supermodel wives at their side, free to say whatever they wish, racist and vulgar as it may be, like a combination of their childhood heroes, Archie Bunker of Queens and J. R. Ewing of Dallas.
It would be hilarious were it not for the fact that it has become a bit scary. The notion that Trump could actually be the Republican candidate for president is earth shattering in and of itself but the possibility that he could also be elected President is a mind boggling gamble, at best, and a clear and present danger to America and the world, at worst. Philosopher and linguist Noam Chomsky said yesterday that Trump’s triumphs are a result of widespread fear and the disintegrating social order stemming from the excesses of neoliberal ultra-capitalism, the same elements that saw the rise of Fascism in Europe in the 1930’s. He didn’t mention Berlusconi’s predecessor Benito Mussolini and certainly didn’t evoke Adolf Hitler by name, because, really, there is no room for comparison, except for the fact that like Trump, Hitler and Mussolini were also regarded initially as clowns.