Ok, first, let me be clear: I do not believe Donald Trump is a genius, evil, or otherwise. His words and actions often suggest uncontrolled narcissism and the outward incoherence typical of a person in the throes of severe cognitive decline.
That said, he’s no dummy either. Whatever one may say about his mediocre track record in business — multiple bankruptcies, far more failures than successes, and all despite the boost of about $400 million in cash and assets from his dad throughout his life — one thing he knows is marketing.
He’s the kind of guy who could have sold Mary Todd Lincoln tickets to Ford’s Theatre the very next night, or successfully hawked extra ballast to the captain of the Titanic, even after it hit the iceberg. Neither are meant as compliments, by the way, either to him, or those to whom he peddles his wares.
I mention his skill as a salesman, as the nation’s most gifted carnival barker since P.T. Barnum, only to suggest that he doesn’t say things — or at least doesn’t repeat them over and again — if he doesn’t think they serve a function. Marketers learn this. To sell your product (or yourself), you cut away the unnecessary filler. You keep it simple.
He did this with “You’re fired,” on the reality show which subjected us to his churlish grimace — not to mention Gary Busey — for several years, and he did it with Make America Great Again. He did it with chants of “Build that wall,” and “Lock her up” at rallies, both of which serve to reinforce the us-versus-them loyalty of the cult. They (the brown-skinned interlopers and wicked she-devil Hillary) must be stopped or punished. I (meaning Trump) can stop them. Chant, repeat — no need to rinse.
Of course, not everything Trump says seems to be so calculated, let alone brilliant from a marketing perspective. And perhaps it isn’t. In fact, sometimes the things Trump says seem so absurd, we assume that in those moments — those weird, stream-of-consciousness riffs at rallies — he must be losing his mind, or perhaps that he lost it long ago. And then we decide to mock him, splicing together hilarious mashups of Trump’s wackiest verbal moments, labeling them “must see,” or insisting that “OMG you have to watch this!”
And in that moment, Trump wins.
Because while much of that content is laughable — and I can see the value of well-aimed ridicule — it often serves more of a purpose than the satirists and mockery brigade would like to believe. Even if he might have stumbled into it at first, as marketers sometimes do, that doesn’t mean he fails to notice how it pays off for him. Once he does that, he knows the formula: repeat those tropes and narratives as often as possible.
And while we’re laughing, we are missing the more significant point he’s making, even in those seemingly incoherent moments.
To wit, the widespread derision aimed at Trump’s oft-repeated complaints about fluorescent and LED lightbulbs, water-saving toilets, and energy-efficient dishwashers.
To the untrained ear, these seem like the rantings of your conspiracy-minded uncle. You know: the one on oxygen in the Hoveround, who’s on disability but hates big government. That guy. Or to others, Trump’s bizarre paeans to the wonders of the incandescent bulb and old-school commodes (which he would probably prefer we call them), simply reflect his vanity or reveal something untoward about his colon. As in: “Hahaha! He’s just worried those LED bulbs make him look even more orange,” or “Oh my God, we always knew he was full of shit! HAHAHAHAHA.”
But while we’re approaching Trumpism as material for SNL sketch writers and a gaggle of late-night talk show hosts, we are completely missing the point. And he knows it. Because while liberals spend a lot of time contemplating the buffoonery of the rubes and enjoying the smug progressive circle-jerk it affords us, all while basking in the glow of Bill Maher’s latest self-satisfied monologue, the president is keeping the band together, so to speak.
When it comes to Trump’s longing for appliances and lighting like in the old days, these narratives serve precisely the same function as almost every other element of Trumpism.
It is the same function served by his fond recollection of the days when you could beat up protesters or when cops could crack heads of suspects as they pushed them violently into the squad car.
It is the same function served by his yearning for a time when the NFL allowed the most brutal of head-to-head contact, without the least concern for safety, and before football “went soft.”
It is the same function served by his suggestion that the Navy should go back to using steam propulsion to launch planes from aircraft carriers.
It’s the same function served by lamenting those Jesus-hating killjoys at Target who insist on saying “happy holidays” because they forgot it’s Christmas, by God, and no one else’s traditions matter.
It is the exact same function as Make America Great Again: namely, nostalgia as political motivator; nostalgia as a life force for the cult.
It’s basically Donald Trump doing his own version of “Those Were the Days,” the theme song from All in the Family. Only his rendition is earnest, without the tongue-in-cheek humor of Norman Lear, or indeed, any humor or irony at all.
Trump doesn’t care about lightbulbs. But by bashing newer ones, he says to his faithful minions, “remember the way things used to be?” Both in general, and especially before goody-goody environmentalists started telling us to save energy.
He doesn’t care about dishwashers, but by nostalgizing the water-wasting types — and mentioning the women who supposedly tell him how much they hate the newfangled versions — he does two things. First, he again throws shade at conservationists (presumed to be liberals); and second, he slyly reinforces the idea of women as domestics who cook and clean all day.
He doesn’t care about steam propulsion on aircraft carriers, and likely knows nothing about either. But he knows that millions of Americans have seen footage of fighter planes launched by steam in old war reels, back when we were kicking everyone’s ass. So mentioning it reinforces a longing for those bygone days when no one dared question the United States, or if they did, they paid the price.
For Trump, everything is nostalgia and nostalgia is everything because he knows it sells. It is, indeed, the cornerstone of conservative political thought, and especially at its most extreme, authoritarian end. The seedbed of Fascism, after all, is the idea that the nation was once great, a pristine and noble place from which all good things flowed. But then it was hijacked, its glory squandered, its promise sullied by evildoers who have despoiled the once bucolic state. If we could just get back to the way things were, all could be good again.
Enter the strongman.
In such a despairing cosmology, progress is not just sometimes scary or unpredictable — something about which even progressives, despite the label, can agree — but something to be resisted. It is seen as an existential threat to the very fabric of the polity.
So, in this case, the makers of electric cars and plant-based burgers are harbingers of impending doom, just like immigrants and Muslims and feminists, and the acceptance of gender fluidity. To the right, the scream has always been “stop!” Under Trump, it goes further, becoming a command to throw the gears in reverse, not merely to undo all things Obama, but most of the twentieth century, and the first fifteen years of the twenty-first.
If we don’t understand this, we’re in trouble. If we mistake the seeming lunacy of Trump’s verbiage for bumbling incoherence, rather than noting the function it serves, we’re doomed. There is a method to the madness, a connective tissue that runs through all of the President’s meanderings. Everything he says or does — at least if he says or does it more than once or twice — is intended to prime the masses to pick a side: the scary future or the comfortable, recognizable past?
And if you don’t think there is a frightening number of Americans who have already chosen the latter, you haven’t been paying attention.
Meanwhile, as the Democrats beat each other up with grand plans and the minutiae of public policy, arguing over who’s the real progressive, who’s the realist, who can reach swing voters, and who can motivate the base, Trump keeps playing the hits.
And guess who wins in a competition between the band that sticks to the old stuff and the one that wants to turn you on to the new shit, because they’ve “been working really hard on it?”
The Rolling Stones, circa 1972, that’s who.
The only hope for defeating Trump is for the Democratic candidates to relinquish their love affair with being the smartest, best-read, most thoughtful, most radical, most moderate, or most anything in the room.
This election is about the future of the country. It’s about doing triage on a patient who is bleeding out rather than arguing over precisely which vein is the best one for the IV needle. And the only messages that can work against nostalgia are messages that are not themselves steeped in it, whether nostalgia for the New Deal, nostalgia for the collegial bipartisanship of the 1970s Senate, or nostalgia for the supposed common-sense of small-town Midwesterners, once appreciated but now so often overlooked in a nation moving too fast for many of them.
Enough. This election is about moving forward boldly to multicultural, pluralistic democracy or backward to an insular, provincial, and exclusivist conception of America.
Only that message — one that emphasizes the risk Trumpism poses to all that people of goodwill care about (and not just on the left) — can work right now. Only that message can drive the base, while also inspiring current non-voters, capturing true swing voters, and putting a victorious Democrat in a position to actually get things done once in office.
All the rest, as with the mockery so fashionable among the Twitterati, is a conceit we can no longer afford.