What always mystifies some of us is the degree to which, unlike their counterparts in foreign capitals, the alleged government and journalistic heavyweights in Washington prattle on and on about politics, economics, and military might, but pay less than no attention to that real prime mover of global events, culture.
The U.S. entered Vietnam and lost there because we bought the political paranoia of the “Domino Theory,” ignoring the centuries that China, Russia and Vietnam were separate (and often warring) cultural entities, whatever their thin 20th Century slipcover of Communist ideology. We blundered into Iraq splendidly ignorant of its eons of religious tribalism and all that that foreshadowed. We muddied our feet in the “Arab Spring,” blind to the reality that the human culture of daily survival—including governmental services like electric power and clean water—are more important to those in Cairo and Benghazi than democracy.
Now in the U.S. presidential race we are at it again. Editorial and journalistic pooh bahs, who dismissed the notion that Donald Trump could ever win the Republican Presidential Nomination, now scramble to explain how he did so. Some say it was due to voter anger, others to the issues he espoused (to the degree they can identify them in the fever swamp of Trump’s fear-mongering, nativism, and bigotry). He has blustered to presumptive nominee of the Republican Party by demeaning women, blacks, Latinos, former POWs, Republicans, Democrats, congressmen, senators, bankers, stock brokers and the handicapped. Who will he go after next? Cancer victims? He even sought to tie Ted Cruz’s father, for God’s sake, to the Kennedy assassination.
What this “accepted truth” analysis largely ignores is that, to voters, issues are less important than Trump’s swagger. He is first and foremost a familiar television performer—almost the embodiment of our plastic celebrity culture. Fresh from years firing people on The Apprentice, he is running for president as a combination of Archie Bunker and Homer Simpson, fueled by a cynicism and sarcasm wholly untrammeled by truth, or even by facts.
The electorate has been steeped in this sort of reality show for years. Movies and television have celebrated willful ignorance with movies like “Dumb and Dumber” until much of our culture mimics the pimply perversity of a sullen seventh grader. The public has been conditioned to confuse the actions of pop-celebrity narcissists like Trump with events of genuine significance. Just look at the “crawl” scrolling beneath the “news” pictures at MSNBC, Fox News and CNN: “NORTH KOREA FIRES SUB-LAUNCHED MISSILE…DOZENS SLAUGHTERED BY ISIS IN SYRIA…KIM KARDASHIAN SPORTS BABY BUMP.” It’s all the same, we are told: It is all of equal weight, whether blood or tinsel.
Donald Trump not only understands and promotes this, he personifies it. He’s the equivalent of the sneering little boy depicted on the back window decals of countless cars and pickup trucks across America, gleefully urinating on our collective body politic. What’s significant is not what he says: it’s that he can say ANYTHING and be believed, the cruder and more outrageous the better. He’s celebrated for talking back, in effect to the parent/teacher authority figures who used to rule the land. Trump’s willful ignorance of anything approaching governing or statecraft is staggering, but basically unimportant to his supporters. He appeals to those fulfilled by breaking wind in church.
This is not to suggest that his voters have no legitimate grievances. They have plenty. But they need to be asked if they really want to bring down the plane just because they’re seated in the 27th row. If Trump really wants to “Make America Great Again” why, for example, does he refuse to release his tax returns so we can see just how much he has been willing to invest in that cause? Shouldn’t we insist that he do so? If he’s the champion of the little guy against Wall Street, as he claims, how is it that his newly-named finance chief, Steven Mnuchin, made his millions at Goldman Sachs, epicenter of the very hedge fund hog trough Trump denounces?
The culture that permitted the rise of Trumpism is only slightly political or economic. It is more accurately described as a culture of historical amnesia. It’s not just that his followers know nothing, really, about Donald Trump, what he truly believes (if anything), how he made his money or what he could or would do for the country. What they understand is that he taps into their most visceral fears, and promises both to simplify a complicated world and guard them from its demons. Job loss? Build that wall! Terrorism? Export Muslims! Restive wives? Demean women!
Is it just coincidence that Trumpism has surfaced when impotence drugs are marketed on our television screens like Fritos? Two of his best friends are radio and television shock jock Howard Stern, a serial obscenicist who drives the sleaze elevator to the cultural basement, and Mike Tyson, a convicted rapist.
History is part of culture, of course, and it’s more than worrisome that few voters seem to understand how similar Trump’s rhetoric and political tactics are to those of Adolf Hitler in his campaigns for chancellor of Germany in 1932 and 33. How many Americans today even know Hitler WAS elected?
Trump preys on popular feelings of national weakness, economic abandonment and political betrayal. So did Hitler. Trump’s demons are foreign countries and a rigged political system, for Hitler they were foreign countries imposing the Versailles Treaty. For Trump the scapegoats are undocumented workers and Muslims. For Hitler they were Communists and Jews. When violence breaks out at Trump rallies he invokes reprisal against black activists. When violence broke out at Nazi rallies, Hitler called for reprisal against Communists and Jews.
Perhaps the most disturbing parallel between Hitler and Trump is the behavior of rational people who tolerate his behavior or even vote for it. Hitler and his Nazis were thugs, decent Germans told each other in the 1930s. But they’ll shake things up and bring order to the country and then we can get rid of them. How many Republicans today are telling each other the same sort of thing about Donald Trump?
Ken Ringle is a former writer, editor and cultural critic for The Washington Post.
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