Donald Trump is a bully and a bullshitter. His fans love him for the first part and don't recognize or don't care about the second. They love him because he hates the people they hate and vows to inflict pain on those other people, who aren't real Americans or full citizens in one way or another, due to their skin color, national origin, religion, gender, sexuality, or just beliefs slightly more moderate than those of the conservative base. In one sense, Trump's nothing new in conservative and Republican politics – like many before him over the past 50-some years, he stands for bigotry and plutocracy – but he's made the past subtext more explicit and harder to deny. In this election, Trump and his supporters have given an increased, starring role to spite.
Republican hopefuls Scott Walker and Chris Christie also sold themselves as bullies, but Walker's working style is stealth to achieve right-wing aims without providing the reassuring hatred of angry speeches for the base. Christie, although unquestionably a bully, was damaged by the bridge closure scandal and couldn't compete with the appeal of Trump's explicit bigotry. Ted Cruz, although undoubtedly right-wing and favored by some religious conservatives, was extremely disliked by others on the right. Ben Carson was both right-wing and clueless enough for the gig, but his somnambulist, soporific style didn't really fire up the base. Carly Fiorina showed she could be vicious, but not in the league of Trump. John Kasich's actual positions are pretty right-wing, but during the primaries, he chose to portray himself as reasonable, practical and comparatively moderate, which contrasted him with Trump, but didn't win over a majority of Republican primary voters in most states. Sure, all the 16-some candidates could be counted on to preach "small government" and push for even more tax cuts to the rich (the chief goal of the Republican establishment), and most were game to throw in some racist dog-whistles per usual, but they couldn't match Trump's belligerence, nastiness and complete lack of shame. Trump knew what the conservative base wanted, and was determined that he would be the last, biggest asshole standing.
Trump lies much, much more often than Clinton, and over five days, "averaged about one falsehood every three minutes and 15 seconds over nearly five hours of remarks." Using Harry Frankfurt's definition, Trump is a bullshitter more than a liar, because he simply doesn't care if what he says is true or not. Unfortunately, many of his supporters are unconcerned, too – as The Washington Post reported in June:
Many of Trump’s fans don’t actually think he will build a wall — and they don’t care if he doesn’t.
Many also don’t think that Trump as president would really ban foreign Muslims from entering the country, seize oil controlled by terrorists or deport 11 million illegal immigrants. They view Trump’s pledges more as malleable symbols than concrete promises, reflecting a willingness to shake things up and to be bold. . . .
Perhaps more than any other presidential candidate in history, Trump has mastered the art of putting forth a platform that is so vague — and so outlandish — that supporters can believe what they want to believe about his plans, even when it comes to something such as a concrete wall on the southern border.
They also don't care about his many scandals, or that he's a horrible businessman who screws over nearly everyone who works for or with him. Nor do they care that he'd cut taxes for the wealthy and explode the national deficit and debt. (To be fair, the tax cuts for the rich are Trump's main appeal for the Paul Ryan crowd, but they wouldn't help most Americans, including most Republican voters.) Alas, political coverage spends little time on actual candidate policy positions, a dynamic that has helped out Trump tremendously – he gives few specifics about his policies, but as he himself has pointed out, his voters don't really care. His standard approach is to bluff and bullshit his way through any question – bragging that he's great, he knows everybody, he'll hire the best people; his opponents are awful, idiots, the worst ever. This approach works well enough for short interviews, especially with friendly or nonconfrontational outlets, but exposes him as an ignoramus when a more in-depth answer is required or follow-up questions are allowed, as in the three presidential debates (although the moderators still could have spent more time on policy). Whatever one thinks of Hillary Clinton's policies, she actually has some – policy papers on her website amounting to 112,735 words compared to just over 9,000 for Trump's site. For that matter, other Republican candidates offered more substantial policies than Trump, too, that conservatives might like more than Clinton's – but Trump's appeal is mostly image and little substance, all swagger, viciousness, a game of dominance.
Lying isn't new to politics, even if the depth and breadth of it from Trump is significant. (Although let's not forget the 917 falsehoods from Romney that Steve Benen documented, especially as some folks are pining for Romney as so much better than Trump – he was, but when judged fairly, still awful.) The lying is a serious problem, but even more troubling is that conservative political figures don't stop telling specific lies after being directly called on it. This disdain for fact-checking and truth didn't start with Trump. Back in 2008, vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin kept claiming “I told Congress thanks but no thanks to that Bridge to Nowhere" even after fact-checkers had shown it wasn't true and their work was widely reported. In 2009, Palin, Betsy McCaughey and other conservatives were hawking lies about the Affordable Care Act creating "death panels," a falsehood that was debunked, but they keep on saying it. In 2015, during the Republican primary debates, Carly Fiorina told a despicable falsehood about a supposed undercover video of Planned Parenthood: "Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says, ‘We have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.’ " Fiorina was referring to fake footage, and was fact-checked on her statements, but when directly pressed on the issue, she insisted on repeating what by then she had to know was a lie, and a monstrous lie at that – one that demonized her political opponents for political gain. Fiorina simply didn't give a damn, effectively saying "screw you" to the press and anyone who cared about the truth. She knew how the lie would play with the conservative base; its members would take her statements as further proof that the people they already hated were monsters. These dynamics also describe what Rush Limbaugh has been doing since his career started in the 80s – some of his listeners will even admit he exaggerates, but don't much care. As I've written before, Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck and their ilk "aren't selling facts, they're selling grievance, cultural solidarity, an emotional truth, and the Two-Minutes Hate. Right-wing audiences simply do not care if their leaders are corrupt, incompetent and lie to their faces – as long as they get their scapegoat." (Tom Sullivan and others have made similar observations.) Lying on this level, especially from a politician running for national office, is a power play, authoritarian and antidemocratic – it says, essentially, I can tell bald-faced, horrible lies and you can even call me on it and it still won't matter, because it'll fire up the base and win me votes and give me power – and then we'll see what you say about me, huh?
This brings us to Trump himself and his good pal and campaign surrogate, Rudy Giuliani. More than any other figures in this election, they've adopted the belligerent smear as a key campaign tool, and tried to bully any critics into silence. Trump has threatened to make it easier for him to sue reporters, revoked the credentials of The Washington Post because he didn't like their (accurate) coverage and has encouraged his crowds to boo the media. (His supporters issued death threats against a reporter who tweeted about the atmosphere of hatred at a Trump rally. That proved him right, but their driving impulse isn't persuasion – it's intimidation.)
Bigotry and spite has been central to Trump's campaign from the beginning (and let's not forget his earlier racist birther bullshit). When Trump announced his run for president on 6/16/15, he attacked undocumented Mexican workers by saying, "They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists." In late November 2015, he repeatedly claimed that "thousands" of Muslims and Arabs in New Jersey cheered during the 9/11 attacks when the Twin Towers fell, but such cheering never happened. On 12/7/16, he announced that "Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States." (One doesn't have to be a lawyer to know that's unconstitutional, but I'd add it's clearly immoral – we know how discriminating against a group based on their religion can go, and it's not just ugly, it can be deadly.) In June 2016, he claimed that American Muslims knew who potential terrorists were but weren't turning them in. (Muslims aren't real, full Americans, you see, and can't be trusted.) In July 2016, Trump pulled something similar. I'll quote Josh Marshall at length, who wrote (his emphasis):
Trump claimed that people – "some people" – called for a moment of silence for mass killer Micah Johnson, the now deceased mass shooter who killed five police officers in Dallas on Thursday night. There is no evidence this ever happened. Searches of the web and social media showed no evidence. Even Trump's campaign co-chair said today that he can't come up with any evidence that it happened. As in the case of the celebrations over the fall of the twin towers, even to say there's 'no evidence' understates the matter. This didn't happen. Trump made it up.
The language is important: “When somebody called for a moment of silence to this maniac that shot the five police, you just see what's going on. It's a very, very sad situation.”
Then later at the Indiana rally: “The other night you had 11 cities potentially in a blow-up stage. Marches all over the United States—and tough marches. Anger. Hatred. Hatred! Started by a maniac! And some people ask for a moment of silence for him. For the killer!”
A would-be strong man, an authoritarian personality, isn't just against disorder and violence. They need disorder and violence. That is their raison d'etre, it is the problem that they are purportedly there to solve. The point bears repeating: authoritarian figures require violence and disorder. Look at the language. "11 cities potentially in a blow up stage" .. "Anger. Hatred. Hatred! Started by a maniac!" ... "And some people ask for a moment of silence for him. For the killer."
At the risk of invoking Godwin's Law, if you translate the German, the febrile and agitated language of 'hatred', 'anger', 'maniac' ... this is the kind of florid and incendiary language Adolf Hitler used in many of his speeches. Note too the actual progression of what Trump said: "Marches all over the United States - and tough marches. Anger. Hatred. Hatred! Started by a maniac!" (emphasis added).
The clear import of this fusillade of words is that the country is awash in militant protests that were inspired by Micah Johnson. "Started by ..."
We're used to so much nonsense and so many combustible tirades from Trump that we become partly inured to them. We also don't slow down and look at precisely what he's saying. What he's saying here is that millions of African-Americans are on the streets inspired by and protesting on behalf of a mass murderer of white cops.
This is not simply false. It is the kind of wild racist incitement that puts whole societies in danger. And this man wants to be president. . . .
These are the words – the big lies rumbling the ground for some sort of apocalyptic race war – of a dangerous authoritarian personality who is either personally deeply imbued with racist rage or cynically uses that animus and race hatred to achieve political ends. In either case, they are the words of a deeply dangerous individual the likes of whom has seldom been so close to achieving executive power in America.
As for Giuliani, who's always been an authoritarian, he claimed in early July that he had softened Trump somewhat on the "ban on Muslims," but by the end of the month, "said he would be in favor of forcing Muslims on the federal government's terrorism watch list to wear electronic monitoring tags or bracelets for authorities to track their whereabouts." In mid-July, Giuliani gave a screaming speech at the Republican National Convention (video here). As he has at past conventions, Giuliani trotted out his beloved 'the Democrats didn't use the magic words' bullshit argument, but it was his combination of bigotry, apocalyptic framing and shameless demagoguery that really struck me. (Honestly, I found the speech chilling, and not in the way Giuliani intended – the first word that came to mind was "Nuremberg," same as for Blue Gal. By the way, Godwin's law doesn't apply if the analogy is valid, and Mike Godwin himself has weighed in on this in relation to Trump.) Trump and other speakers at the convention took a page from Nixon's book (really, it's a conservative staple) and talked a great deal about "law and order." But the truth is, they don't truly care about "law and order"; they certainly don't care about due process. They only care about punishment of the people they hate. That has always been the scared and spiteful essence of their pitch. Trump and at least some of his surrogates are willing to lie, fear-monger and stir up racial anxiety and hatred for political gain. On some level, beneath any denial or self-delusion, they know what they are doing. They are consciously choosing to do this. It's sadly nothing new, but it remains despicable and even evil.
Unfortunately, Trump and his surrogates haven't been pushed nearly hard enough on this. Nor have their followers. I'd occasionally see Fox News segments in which people endorsed Trump, saying they liked him because he said what was on his mind and wasn't "politically correct," but tellingly, the hosts never really pressed such guests on what exactly they meant by that. It'd be nice if we could have an honest conversation, where such people would say outright, "I want to treat Muslim-, Arab- and Mexican-Americans as second-class citizens," but of course they won't, nor will they admit to being scared of Muslims but knowing very little about them. As soon as Trump proposed banning Muslims – which was a campaign statement, not an off-the-cuff remark – every single interview should have pressed him on it (or any of his other bigoted statements). He and his supporters have the right to express their views, but I've been dismayed that haven't been challenged nearly enough. ("Do you realize what you're saying? Do you realize what this would entail?") At least a few folks have pressed Trump on how he'd deport over 11 million undocumented immigrants or how he'd build a border wall, but he's never given convincing answers. Of course, the conservative base doesn't care if such things are impossible, because a promise of hostility from Trump against their chosen foes is enough. But it's important that such insanity and extremity be put on display, front and center, for the rest of the electorate.
Any number of Trump's positions, statements and actions are disqualifying, and I've barely touched on some of them. His economic plans are horrible. His personal character is atrocious –he doesn't pay people who do work for him. He's a rampant misogynist who's bragged about sexually assaulting women. Trump's also endorsed torture repeatedly: "I would bring back waterboarding, and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding." His attitude is driven, as usual, by his machismo and his ignorance – as Rear Admiral John Hutson put it, "Torture is the method of choice of the lazy, the stupid, and the pseudo-tough." There's virtually no admirable position or trait Trump possesses – yet he was the Republicans' choice for president. And despite efforts to disown him, Trump's ascent is a feature, not a bug, of movement conservatism and the choices the Republican Party has made over 50-some years (much more on that in a future post).
The Washington Post has an editorial titled, "History will remember which Republicans failed the Trump test," and The New York Times has an ongoing feature titled, "More than 160 Republican Leaders Don’t Support Donald Trump. Here’s When They Reached Their Breaking Point." (The number went up throughout the campaign season.) These are valuable pieces, but Brad De Long did something similar with George W. Bush back in 2007 – it would be a grave mistake to forget how horrendous Bush and other Republicans and conservatives were and are, even if Trump weren't in the picture. It is Republican dogma never to raise taxes and to cut them on the rich; conservatives have been fighting against a sustainable fiscal and economic model since Reagan, and have likewise been fighting against a responsible model of governance. Liberals criticize the Democratic Party all the time, and there's certainly room for improvement there, but Republicans have become much more conservative over the years, have enacted unprecedented obstructionism in the modern era and simply are the major problem in American politics. Unfortunately, many Republicans and conservatives will deny this, as will the many shallow "both sides" political commentators around (see Digby, driftglass or my archives for much more).
Step one is defeating Trump, but efforts can't stop there. I'm always in favor of outreach and discussion, but it's important to acknowledge that they might not work – some people will never be persuadable – especially if they're primarily driven by spite. We can't count on 'cooler heads to prevail' or 'the better angels of their nature' to hold sway for everyone. The conservative base hates many of their fellow Americans and will not be dissuaded. So while we're trying to convince the crowd charmed by the season's latest bigot or snake oil salesman to reconsider, it's essential to get out the vote in case such outreach fails. Voting is crucial, and sustained activism is even more so. Even if Trump loses this election, there's much more work to be done.