Trump and His Successors
Updated: Nov 1, 2018
It’s not every day you read something thoughtful about President Trump. Most of the analysis is so outraged, skewed, and focused on destroying him personally that it leaves very little room for principled careful thought. In the scheme of history, it would be interesting to know what the record will look like surrounding the Trump presidency; I would imagine that even if this administration goes down in flames very little of the coverage will be worth rereading. By virtue of being the most recent president, and his inclination to “stoke the fires of political rage,” President Trump has to have more words written about him at this point in his presidency than any of his predecessors. Many of them weren’t worth a first read.
The root issue is many in the media are still in denial two years later. What would it look like to accept the reality of Trump and work toward a better future? That’s not even an imaginative possibility most of the time, even though I think most people would agree it’s the best path forward.
Here’s the major problem: the fabric of American society can withstand 2-6 more years of Donald Trump, but it may not be able to withstand his successors. The reason is simple, if you respond to something horrible with an equal and opposite reaction you’re only going to make things worse. For the sake of argument, let’s say Trump’s less than ideal qualities are like an infection, and the MSM is lobbing the strongest antibiotics they have at him, even though they know there is little to no chance of actually eradicating the infecting. Is anyone surprised that Trump is becoming resistant? Calling him the same old names isn’t working anymore.
What’s also true is that ramping up the tactics is an equal opportunity activity, and as Trump has fanned the flames, the mindless hit pieces have added gasoline. And out of the raging fire walk individuals of Trump’s ilk: Michael Avenatti and friends. They say that wartime leaders often struggle in peace. The usual implication is wartime leaders don’t stay around for very long after the war, but in our case, we’ve posed the question: why can’t it be war all the time?
So, what’s the alternative? I came across a refreshing article in the Financial Times this week, written by their chief foreign affairs commentator, Gideon Rachman, titled, “Donald Trump Embodies the Spirit of Our Age.” Rachman isn’t just being self-deprecating - leave it to the Brits. He looks at Trump through the lens of Hegel’s view of history, in which the ongoing clash of cultural trends and movement is embodied in certain “world-historical figures.” These are the people who capture the zeitgeist. Maybe the Trump phenomenon is that kind of historical moment. The article was written before the results came in from the election in Brazil this weekend, but even outside of Bolsonaro’s rise to power, there are plenty of other examples around the world that a rise in populism and an ebb in the tide of liberal democracy are occurring. Pretending as though this isn’t the case is only naive.
This is one of the reasons I was intrigued by Emmanuel Macron’s early attempts to get to know Trump, work with him, and figure him out. Macron is not a novice in dealing with men like Trump. His background with Rothschild’s prepared him for high stakes international politics, and as a student of history, he understands the world-historical figure role. Rachman quotes Macron in the article, “Hegel viewed ‘great men’ as instruments of something far greater… He believed that an individual can indeed embody the zeitgeist (world spirit) for a moment, but also that the individual isn’t always clear they are doing so.” I’ve yet to read a more apt description of Trump’s immense popularity.
What Hegel’s position requires is an acceptance of the flow of history for long enough to examine it. That’s a missing piece on both sides of the political spectrum. The breakers have been blown, but everyone refuses to change the fuse. The only way to move forward is to commit to understanding the situation we’re in, what the results will be, and the best way to move forward.
Understand the Moment The days are gone when journalists and historians engaged the president thoughtfully, and many of the things he’s said and done in the last two years make it easy to see why, but the American people are worse because of it. Although it’s been this way for some time, there are a few examples of creative, meaningful engagement that will endure far beyond the current administration.
During the campaign, Arlie Hochschild, a liberal from New England, decided she wanted to find out why it was that people were supporing Trump. So she packed her bags and headed south. She spent time in small towns, blue-collar work environments, conducted hundreds of interviews, and came up with a pretty good theory. Although Strangers in Their Own Land still contains some passages that are derogatory toward Trump supporters, I think Hochschild nailed the ethos of a particular section of the MAGA crowd.
She imagines the U.S. like a gigantic line that’s going up a hill, and everyone is standing in the line on the way to the American dream, or a better future. The white, middle-class, Trump supporter types (even though this isn’t the whole story) are standing in the line patiently waiting to get to the front. All of a sudden, people start passing them and walking right up to the front of the line. There are immigrants, minorities, people who refuse to work, and people who haven’t waited in line at all going right up to the top of the hill and they’re being let in. All the while, if the people standing in line voice their frustration, they’re told that they’ve already gotten their share, and that to try to move up in the line is racist, sexist, xenophobic, etc. And then, a person appears at the top of the hill, it’s President Obama, and he’s waving everyone else in! They’re giving each other high fives, celebrating and gloating. It’s time to get this line moving. It’s time to vote. It’s time they had someone who would look out for them.
Now this is a repulsive narrative to progressives - it was to Hochschild - but it’s extremely enlightening, and probably pretty accurate. While there are a few flawed assumptions that produced this mindset, like the thought that only one group of people can progress at a time, its a real feeling that real people have. She captured the frustration, anger, and animosity a lot of Americans feel. Whether you agree with it or not, it’s really important to understand that feeling.
Hillbilly Elegy also played this role temporarily, until J. D. Vance, in a head-scratching PR stunt, decided to publicly distance his book from the Trump phenomenon. The statistics would say the book was dead on. Trump earned some of his highest margins in Appalachia, where the book takes place. Vance chronicles the decline of the white middle and lower classes through the lens of his own family’s undoing. Addiction, welfare, unemployment, lack of education, and very few lines of support all wreaked havoc on his family and small town. There are towns in Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia that are absolutely crumbling, and to the people who live there, it feels as though the government is helping everyone but them.
Understand the Man
Some have argued that Donald Trump is impossible to explain or understand. One of the President’s most/least endearing qualities (depending on who you are) is his ability to draw his critics onto his own turf.
Tucker Carlson and Dave Rubin were talking about this on Rubin’s podcast last week. It was one of the best interviews I’ve listened to in a long time, and I did not go into it thinking I was going to like Tucker Carlson. Trump has driven his opponents crazy. From an almost humorous standpoint, just look at what Elizabeth Warren did two weeks ago. To reach a little bit further back, Marco Rubio’s 2016 campaign supernova can only be attributed to one cause, Donald J. Trump. Maybe Nietzsche is the most prescient commentator of our day, not least for his famous aphorism, “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” Is Trump a monster? Sure, but that’s boring; he’s a politician. Is Trump a species of ubermensch? Now that’s a discussion worth having.
On the Ezra Klein Show this week, Ezra Klein interviewed presidential historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin, about her new book Leadership In Turbulent Times. The book is superbly researched and written, and the interview was surprisingly insightful. Goodwin’s book covers Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, and Lyndon Johnson. Of the four, our times and our president most closely resemble TR. Some of the comparisons are eerie. Roosevelt was a populist New Yorker from the highest level of society who identified with the working class, navigated the largest antitrust crisis in American history, and was known for his bravado and bully pulpit. There are a few striking similarities. Roosevelt’s major advantage was he could work with the media when he needed to, a tribute both to him and to them. Imagine if he had Twitter.
When Klein pressed Goodwin on Trump, she engaged a bit, but she was hesitant to say anything other than, let’s wait and see. I’ve noticed this same trend in some of David McCullough’s comments as well. Maybe more than anyone, these historians understand how drastically things can change over time, including public perception, and especially long-term legacy.
Understand the Mission
A few weeks ago, Ross Douthat wrote an article posing an important question: is there any strategic, thoughtful underpinning to the #NeverTrump movement anymore? One of the major hindrances to the conservative cause is Trump’s inability to attract and retain talented people. Whereas President Obama had an army of policy wonks cranking out the scaffolding around his ideology, doing the leg work, and teasing out the details, President Trump has very little support in building out the ideas and policies he’s created that are working. Douthat points to a couple of examples; Reihan Salam’s new book Melting Pot or Civil War is a conservative proposal on immigration, Quillette publishes a lot of thoughtful work, National Review is still a significant conservative force. But there are areas missing in this picture. When it comes to foreign policy, there aren’t nearly enough people thinking about frameworks and political philosophies that could support and strengthen Trump’s agenda. The same could be said for the economy.
In his article, Rachman points to four ways that Trump may be a world-historical figure. Again, to say that he embodies the spirit of the times doesn’t mean that Trump is a calculating chess master. He represents the spirit of the age partly in virtue of the fact that he has been as successful as he has, without being a long-term strategist.
First, Trump is reorganizing the United States’ relationship with the world, particularly in view of globalization. Rachman argues that historians will judge this to be the president’s most essential project: “His method was to use US power more overtly and brutally, in an effort to rewrite the rules of the global order to America’s advantage, before it was too late.” This is the heart of “America First.” The world has changed, and America’s place in the world needs to change as well.
Second, in the past few decades, China has become a potential world superpower, and President Trump doesn’t believe that’s a good thing for America. With an immense population and a totalitarian government that has made a lot of right decisions recently, China could be a significant threat to the U.S. Trump believes it’s worth stepping in to stop China’s ascent.
Third, there is a significant gap in location, social class, and ideology between the liberal elites in America and the middle class. The Democrats have morphed into the part of the rich and famous and the poor and disenfranchised, at least if you believe their PR, and the Republicans have pushed to represent the middle class, until it’s convenient to peg them as the party of the rich. Trump realized that most Americans don’t think like liberal elites and he exploited that difference. He identified the issues that really matter to Americans in the heartland and the rust belt and he campaigned with them in mind.
Finally, he understands, with almost scary intuition, how to dominate social media. No matter what else is going on in the world, Trump knows how to make himself the center of attention. His influence with his base, which he communicates with directly through Twitter, is a significant source of his M.O.
When historians look back, this is going to be a pivotal moment in American history. The best thing we can do right now is think hard about the way things are going in the world and begin preparing for life after Trump, whenever that might be.
Thomas Jefferson wisely said, “if a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was & never will be.” In sober moments, we know this is true, but it’s hard, unpopular work to think critically, evenly, and imaginatively about what’s going on in America, and what we need to do about it. The writing and thinking that escapes partisan outrage will be the fodder for the next generation of the republic. The opportunity to learn from our mistakes and diffuse the outrage arms’ race is too important to pass up for the cheap thrills of clickbait and smear campaigns.
Less yelling, more thinking. Less mythologizing, more reading. Less smearing, more truth-speaking. Less about today, more about 1215, 1517, 1789, and 2055.
Cole Feix is the founder of So We Speak and a regular writer. Follow him on Twitter, @cfeix7.
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