The other day, my nineteen year-old daughter tried to murder me by declaring her intention to vote for Donald Trump. She’d just registered to vote for the first time and was eager to exercise her sacred civic duty, and Trump, as it turned out, had caught her electoral fancy. First, I asked her if she was being serious. (She was insulted.) Then I lost consciousness.
Later, when I was able to stand, I announced that it was time for a family “discussion.” Upon further interrogation, my daughter, (who’s a college sophomore at a legally- recognized university) explained her choice at the family dinner table. “Duh,” she snarled. “I’m voting for Trump because he’s a frickin’ genius!” “Yeah!” (my fifteen-year-old chimed in.) “And I like his hair!” Frightened and fearful about the future, I did what I always do when confronted by evidence of the paranormal…I washed the dinner dishes with scalding hot water, using the steam to hide my tears.
Needing fresh air, light bulbs and a reason to live, I decided to visit my favorite mom and pop hardware establishment. Fifteen minutes later, I found the owner of the shop and two employees watching coverage of the November 2015 Paris terrorist attacks on the small television suspended over the counter. As we stood together watching the grim news unfold, the owner of the store, a normally friendly Italian- American gentleman in his late fifties, muttered, not quite under his breath… “Goddamn Muslims.”
The other gentleman manning the counter nearly fit the same demographic as the owner, except for his Irish surname. “Trump’s right,” he grunted. “Maybe now people in this friggin’ country’ll wake the hell up.” It was then that I understood something vital about our political system: Americans were afraid, my daughter was not alone, and Donald Trump was about to change the world.
The older men went on to discuss how they would solve the problem if only they were the president; which “scumbags” they’d bomb first, and which countries would be flattened and turned into parking lots. Meanwhile, nearby, a young employee was restocking shelves: a dark-skinned, neatly bearded hipster of indeterminate ethnicity. The friendly young man sometimes answered my questions when the older men were out, presumably drinking, or strafing Sikh music festivals. The bearded employee shot me me an awkward grimace as the older men began to opine about how many nukes it would take to straighten out those sons o’ bitches, or teach a lesson to that bunch of friggin’ animals, then he ducked his head and tip-toed away, suddenly intent on restocking other fully stocked shelves.
Within twenty-four hours of the attacks Trump was calling for a nation-wide ban on Muslims entering the country and demanding an end to the recent nuclear negotiations with Iran; negotiations in which he’d played a crucially non-existent part. In the weeks to come he would insult approximately eighty-five percent of the human species. He would also sweep up a string of victories in numerous Republican primaries across the United States, collecting endorsements from evangelical Christians, white separatists, celebrities and Kanye West. He would call for a return to torture as a form of national service; the slaughter of terrorists’ innocent families and, in accordance with Senator Ted Cruz’s call to “carpetbomb them until the sands glowed,” he proposed a general policy of nuking “the shit out of ‘em.”
Soon enough, random groups of angry, mostly white Americans began to trumpet the same messages to anyone unfortunate enough to live within earshot; “Yes!’ they cried. “Build that wall! Make it huge! “Blow up more Iraqi wedding parties! Don’t worry about sorting ‘em out: Hell, they all hate us, right? That’s why they live where the terrorists are!” Soon enough, Trump was publicly longing for the “good old days,” when dissenters could be dragged before a firing squad or boiled in front of their children.
Even as I write these words, Muslim women are being assaulted at (or around) Trump rallies; Black Lives Matter protesters are regularly attacked by Trump supporters only to be tackled and arrested before they can raise a hand in self-defense, and all of this accompanied by a rising roar from the ever-maddening mob, a “not-racist, just really passionate” mostly-white wrecking crew intent on helping Trump realize his campaign promise to make America great again by chanting, “Kill the Mexicans!” and, “Eat it, jungle bunny!”
Like many people, I was confused and disturbed by these displays. What did Trump’s momentum say about our country? Why was this puffy creature thriving while more “traditional” candidates dropped like flies? I needed answers the way a yacht-racer needs a stiff wind at his back, and it only took a brief survey of recent news archives to uncover the answers I sought: Trump is sailing toward the Republican nomination because he’s tapped the power of the rising storm that has always troubled the murky depths of the American mainstream. He’s winning the imperial Regatta because he’s being propelled by the powerful winds of fear, hate and cultural short-term memory loss.
Since declaring his candidacy, a curious problem has enveloped Trump’s campaign; a problem that (at least for Trump) must be as infuriating as it is annoying to people like me, because no sooner had the public who adored him begun taking his campaign seriously than the Republican establishment began plotting to take him down: He was experiencing a backlash, one fomented by the very political party whose cause he’s supposedly advancing.
Trump has scored astronomical ratings during an endless series of typically boring Republican debates. His wildest conspiracy theories and outlandish accusations have been repeated ad nauseum across multiple media outlets for years. He’s even talked about the size of his penis. Trump’s competitors (or, as he’s fond of calling them, “a bunch of wack-jobs and losers”) ride his coattails while he stampedes across wider and wider swaths of the Republican electorate. They cling to his buttery flesh like remora fish attached to the belly of a deranged great white shark, hungrily collecting the electoral scraps left in his wake. And when the monster eats one of the little fish, the survivors look away, blame Obama and hold on even tighter.
But as Trump began to swallow more and more co-demagogues the Republican establishment panicked and united to find a “suitable” replacement. Ben Carson wandered off somewhere. The G.O.P. repurposed Marco Rubio, and even took Mitt Romney out of cold storage, all to no avail. But why? Why should the establishment try to distance themselves from Trump in the first place? He’s a Republican and he’s winning. Isn’t he?
Ever since House Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stood before the American people and vowed that his party would make the newly-elected Barack Obama a “one-term President,” the legally invisible mega-funders of the Republican establishment have directed all their energies toward blocking Obama’s every attempt to promote actual democracy. Using their unofficial policy boosters like Fox News, and conservative talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, they happily filled the airwaves with “birther” conspiracies generated by Trump himself. They gleefully repeated rumors of hidden Obama scandals guaranteed to horrify, if only they had the decency to exist, and all manner of provocative nonsense designed to undermine the President’s legitimacy. They noisily cast doubt on his faith, denied his citizenship and even his humanity. (Think I’m kidding? Google “Obama is Secretly a Reptilian Extraterrestrial Antichrist.” Happy reading!)
Using a Tea Party movement financed by reliable billionaires, the Republican elite effectively throttled any hope of bipartisan support on key issues like the Affordable Care Act and raising the debt ceiling, while simultaneously finger-banging common-sense gun control, marriage equality and protecting voting rights for certain Americans.
The Republicans’ greatest public feats of obstruction, however, regularly occur, not on the floors of the House or Senate but via the deluge of apocalyptic jibber-jabber that continually blasts out of our television screens, over social media and talk radio channels. In 2009, South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson was so incensed by Obama’s perceived duplicities that he stood up during the president’s address to a joint session of Congress and called him a “liar.” He was overwhelmingly reelected in 2010, 2012 and 2014 despite the awkward fact that he was formally reprimanded by Congress (wink-wink).
Speaking of meaningless gestures: since her recent return from obscurity, former Alaska governor and right-wing party-favor Sarah Palin was regularly cheered when she first popped up to support Trump, spouting her ever- lengthening litany of mystifying proto-babble. Palin remains all too eager to defend John and Jane Q Public’s God-given right to cling, swing, drill or shoot anything with a pulse. Despite her dotty syntax and questionable grip on reality, she still greets hugely enthusiastic crowds as she stumps for Trump, playing to fans that willingly suspend their disbelief without the slightest concern for whether anything Palin says makes even a smidgen of sense. I will admit, however, that Palin’s once formidable stupefactor seems to be weakening: At a recent stump speech in Wisconsin the audience greeted her routine with the kind of embarrassed silence usually reserved for surprise bowel-movements.
Through it all, the Republican establishment watches, unable to mask their dismay as the House burns down around them.
But what makes Trump any more objectionable than the tap-dancing cavalcade of throwbacks, sex fiends and hucksters who preceded him? Is it the scourge of orangeism? Or his infuriating tendency to say out loud what the more traditional establishment types only chuckle about over warm blood cocktails with their lobbyists? In a world where an endorsement by South Carolina senator Jake Knotts, who once described Republican Governor Nikki Haley and President Obama as “f#*kin’ ragheads,” lends Trump’s campaign an air of legitimacy with certain voters… why should the Republican elite get squeamish now? It would seem, at least to anyone who can spell the word “karma,” that “The Donald” is the man the party establishment’s been waiting for. Or, if anything about this race made sense…. he should be.
Even a brief study of conservative media of the last decade, however, leads one to an inescapable conclusion: The G.O.P. establishment, at the insistence of right-wing media and groups like the Tea Party and the Ku Klux Klan, have abandoned thoughtful discourse in favor of red-meat scapegoating parties and “coded” race-baiting so “low-frequency” even a dead dog can hear it. They’ve exchanged statesmanship for Wrestlemania-style public smackdowns, impromptu firearms demonstrations and a mostly make-believe “War on Christianity.” But in states like Texas, where something called “scientific Creationism” is taught as an actual subject in actual public schools, or Idaho, where Republican senator Larry Craig, famous for his support of virulent anti-gay legislation pleaded guilty to charges involving his attempts to score a pre-flight blowjob off an undercover detective in a Minneapolis airport restroom, “keeping the faith” takes on a whole new meaning. For the people who live in such conservative strongholds, one wonders…how much is “too much?”
Every red-faced public meltdown from Glenn Beck, bemoaning Emperor Obama’s “plan” to steal America’s guns; every improvised verbal fecal-fling by Palin or racist rant from aging ranter Ted Nugent…only drives the point even deeper: When it comes to actually governing things, the Republican party establishment has run out of viable ideas. This leaves their elected proponents to contemplate the advice the ancient Roman poet Juvenal offered the leaders of his civilization as it fell to ruin: “Give them bread and circuses.” However, since Republican elites are notoriously squeamish about sharing bread with anyone who votes, walks upright or isn’t a corporation, very little bread makes its way into the hungry bellies of the people they once…sort of… served. Now all that remains in the dark, dusty recesses at the back of the cultural cupboard is the circus: Which brings us back to the Donald.
The aging power brokers haunting the Republican strategy tent should be celebrating a hard-fought victory. After more than half a century of badly-aimed wars and moral shell-games that offer sweet treats but empty calories, thereby dumbing down the general discourse and deboning the services citizens might reasonably expect from the people to whom we entrust our taxes, the Republican faithful are left sitting in a practically empty tent with nothing more nourishing than stale cotton candy.
Meanwhile, the man with the tan draws our attention to the center ring.
As the nearly messianic distillation of decades of dark money-funded intellectual white noise, manufactured hysterias and bad political theater, Donald Trump isn’t merely a high-wire walker dangling over a pit filled with sedated tigers. He’s the megaphone for an angry electorate who’ve conveniently forgotten how good they’ve had it since the end of World War II. Republican political discourse may have degenerated to the level of a Ringling Brothers spectacular or something more akin to the cheap freak shows that once haunted traveling carnivals and beachside boardwalks before time and good taste rendered such terrors extinct, but Trump and his jittery crew of aging right-wing carny-trash have trucked The Shitshow of the Damned right into America’s living rooms. Go ahead and call him a clown…you may be right, but Donald Trump didn’t join the show just to toss a few harmless cream pies and spray seltzer water down the back of your daddy’s pants.
He may actually be the greatest ringmaster of them all.
UNDERSTANDING MARTIN LUTHER KING’S DREAM. http://www.michaelboatman.us/understanding-martin-luther-king-jr-s-dream-an-essay-by-michael-boatman/ (This article originally appeared at AOL’s Parentdish website. 2011)
“DIE, HOLLYWOOD! DIE!” http://www.jeffvandermeer.com/2007/12/14/weird-tales-michael-boatman-on-lady-hollywood/ (Originally appeared at Weird Tales Magazine’s website.)
“ON BEING BLACK WITH A CAPITAL B!” http://unurged.rssing.com/chan-2638709/all_p1.html#item1 (Originally appeared at Huffpost’s, Black Voices website. 2011)