As we near the moment of truth for the Trump campaign, whether in the form of defeat or withdrawal, the prospect of a humiliated Donald Trump should have us steeling ourselves for his, and his supporter's, inevitably ugly reactions. But it is equally important to guard against the narrative of Trumpian Exceptionalism that has taken hold in the media.
I don't mean to say that Trump is not a dangerous person. Of course he is. But we have seen this movie before, many times, and yet we keep calling it "new." The actors come and go, but the story of the American right wing never changes. The incantations of trickle down scripture, the garbled, insurrectionist rhetoric, the GI Joe cosplay, the misty-eyed nostalgia for Jim Crow. It's a decades-long Tragedy d'el Arte, performed in masks handed down for generations.
Like other forms of entertainment, the conservative pageant has been straining to keep up with the times, to top itself with each new season, to pump up the the body count and the gross-out factor, but it's still working from the same, old script.
Donald Trump is promising the same thing GOP nominees have always promised: richer rich people and fewer brown people.
The basic outline of the Republican leading man has barely changed in decades. McCain, Romney and the Bushes were, like Trump, sons of rich and powerful fathers who repeatedly bailed them out of trouble. They all, like Trump, described themselves as self-made, had histories of reckless behavior and cruelty, and despite the occasional spasm of "No Ma'am he's not a Muslim" decency, often indulged the worst impulses of their constituents. More importantly, they promised to be, and often were, reckless and cruel once they took office.
Barry Goldwater was an unpredictable, racist provocateur, running as much against the Republican establishment as his Democratic opponent. His rallies were ugly affairs, featuring calls for the deportation of immigrants and a return to segregation.
Donald Trump’s paranoid fantasies may be even more baroque than Goldwater’s, but they are hardly less substantial, or onerous, than George Bush's mushroom clouds or Ronald Reagan's Welfare Queens.
Trump's belligerent, threatening language may be extreme for a presidential candidate, but it is not unusual among contemporary conservatives. Think of Bill O'Reilly demonizing George Tiller, or Sarah Palin threatening Gabby Giffords. Revenge fantasies, the fetishization of guns and the glorification of violence are fundamental aspects of conservative culture. Fear and intimidation have been essential tools of the right wing for decades.
A figure like Roger Ailes, for instance, is only the latest in a long line of sweaty eavesdroppers, from J. Edgar Hoover to Nixon to McCarthy to Murdoch and Drudge; skittish bullies, builders of panic rooms and grand, improbable theories, any one of whom would be easy to imagine on today's front page.
Puffed-up, Trumpian characters have been with us for a long time, and their spiel has always been the same. In 1952, Nevada Senator Pat McCarran, silver-pompadoured scourge of the welfare state, friend to mobsters and the author of an appallingly draconian immigration law, denounced the entry of European refugees into the U.S. "Unassimilable blocks of aliens with foreign ideologies," he called them, suggesting that pressure to accept the immigrants was being driven by a "pressure group" with "unlimited money"--a none-too-subtle euphemism for Jews.
Donald Trump is the natural heir to Pat McCarran, and to his own despicable mentor, Roy Cohn, and yes, even to Washington's favorite "reasonable" Republican, Paul Ryan, whose Dickensian policy prescriptions on issues like Social Security make Trump's seem like the Green Party platform. It's important to remember this because the battle we need to win isn't with Trump, per se, but with the modern conservatism that created him and has grown more virulent under his banner.
Mitigating the damage done by Trump means pushing back hard, now, on the notion that he represents a radical departure from typical Republican politics.
The people who want us to believe there is no one like Donald Trump want to make people like him more powerful, and the world he envisions more possible. If the GOP manages to convince Americans otherwise, to paint Trump as an aberration, they will have succeed in mainstreaming the dangerous views Trump shares with his former rivals. On issue after issue: taxes, civil liberties, abortion, voting rights, terrorism, those rivals agree with Trump or hold positions to his right. If, come January, they are allowed to present themselves as sane, reasonable correctives to Trump, his world view will have been ratified, not rejected.