This was the most pressing question I had towards the end of his now infamously incoherent press conference.
What we can be certain of – it provided everything his detractors and his supporters wanted.
Ponder the plot synopsis sans Trump – a reality TV show host, an inconsequentially boorish vacuous costal socialite and obnoxious television personality (the UK equivalent being Jim Davidson with a large property portfolio) decides to run for the US presidency as a joking publicity stunt, only, to his great surprise, to win behind a slew of populist doublespeak that’s subliminally racist, openly xenophobic, sexist, incendiary and lurid. Maybe it was pitched as an episode of Black Mirror but didn’t make the cut? Charlie Brooker and the writing team thought it was just too out there.
No doubt Trump, having already experienced a significant level of fame and notoriety, was seduced by reaching fame’s highest echelon, particularly as a self-fulfilling prophecy for his narcissism. The only remaining question was the what and the how? At worst someone like him winning the Republican nomination and running for president in his way would be memorable. At best, being in charge of everything is the zenith of power and attention. The president of the United States is never irrelevant.
Defining Trump’s popularity concisely, or at all, is a tenuous endeavour. ‘Make American Great Again’ is an enticing slogan, but there’s more merit to the theory that because it’s impossible to take Trump seriously as a politician it enhances his appeal. He doesn’t act or talk as a normal human in his position would. There’s calculation of a sort, but little diplomacy, no mediation or ideology, a sprinkling of carelessness, a large dollop of myopia and contempt for convention. Then there’s the lingering suspicion that he’s happily winging it, that having not expected this, he’s treating being president as a game – which saw him employ and embolden some really unhinged sorts. Throw in Trump cutting such a ludicrous sui generis phenotype: an obese orang-utan, hairless and excessively Tango’d, who’s had its chromosomes damaged by a decades long regimen of chemotherapy, junk food and Wotsits, that it creates a sense of make-belief and general dis-belief that he’s the POTUS. It should be noted that this phenomenon would be replicated if you put Paul Rutherford, circa 1983, in Trump’s place, though he’d surely do a far better job just handing out MDMA and condoms. While tempting and so easy to do, petty sniping and gloating – hey, writing the above description of Trump was fun for me – only now that Trump’s lost the job, avoids why he ascended to begin with.
Also achieving very little, and helping to boost Trump as a genuine alternative – the po-faced charisma vacuum of mainstream American politics, which churns out disingenuously technocratic candidates, mixed with the smug, condescending, self-righteousness of Trump’s critics and advocates, both have a repellent potency for some and foment disinterest for many more. The left wing wokers and intellectual elite claim to be open minded but they’re just as intolerant and belligerent as Trump. He’s the perfect opponent to excuse a hardening of their position(s) and settling of their grievances. But it’s a mistake to unduly credit them for Trump’s success four years ago, or recent failure.
Sam Harris, among others, overstates the influence of their insufferable brand of sanctimony (and it’s boring too). Keith Oldermann’s rants are amusing but it’s also preaching to one side of the divide. Without the Trump punching bag around, the hatred for Trump and what he’s come to represent will lose traction. The aversion to Trump is mostly superficial, it’s motivated by embarrassment that a country that’s offered so much to literature, art and modernity would elect such an imbecilic luddite and as such it’s certainly not seeking to be inclusive or win the argument. Group identity politics is incompatible with the mainstream modern sociological construct. The recent success of Trump, who, as an individual, puts his sense of self-worth above all others, is proof of this.
That there was even an opportunity for Trump to become the fucking president in the first place should be terrifying enough to encourage change. However, the remedy requires a level of introspection on a mass scale. This is difficult when all social media platforms continuously offer a stage to display unfiltered hedonism, neuroses and egotism, that easily morph into callous abuse, dismissive one-liners and snide digs, especially as the consequences are often negligible when accompanied by anonymity. Trump’s popularity partly stems from him replicating his online persona in public. It’s a brazen conviction most of us are inherently incapable of and removes the dubiety under which we often operate in the virtual sphere. No wonder it appeals to the despised and marginalised; anti-vaxers, pro-lifers, gun nuts, white supremacists and bible thumpers. He screams ‘stop the count’ on Twitter then later doubles down in his press conference with the voter fraud, stolen election angle.
Social media wasn’t supposed to be this insidious. It would connect, educate even. It would be the perfect vector to rationally debate each other’s differences and views. The opposite, as we’ve found out, is true. It’s made us even more intolerant, prejudicial and judgemental. Faced with this reality many now choose to believe what suits them, remaining confined to echo chambers, which reaffirm confirmation biases, makes life easier. With social media, the narrative can be what you make it, like Scientology, or any cult, surround yourself with enough believers, it can be a movement, and the message can be true. Trump’s weaponised social media’s discordant predilections, where genuine disinformation and conspiracy theories can spread before they’re refuted and facts can be dubbed ‘fake news’.
Thankfully imagining a Trumpian figure reaching power in the Netherlands, Japan or Sweden remains far-fetched. But such enclaves of sanity are shrinking. Which brings us to the worst facet of Trump and what can be tritely termed Trumpism, it has normalised political fecklessness or cynical modes of populism. Comparatively, every other leader of a secular country, no matter how inept or self-interested they are, now looks normal or sane. It could even make you momentarily thankful that Boris Johnson is your PM, until you remember he’s a fucking two-faced cunt and bumbling charlatan. Even Bolisaro benefits, he shouldn’t, and in his case while he’s perceived to be less ridiculous and clownish than Trump, ideologically his actions have proven to be far more damaging.
Given this wider context, how can Trump’s defeat be celebrated as a victory? Will all of the discord it took to get rid of him prove to worth be it? Or is it all about optics and feeling selfishly assured that you’re on the right side of history in the moment? Is it enough that Trump might degrade himself further, acting like a failed dictator on a world-wide golf course tour? Publicly putting on a front but privately still haunted by such a humiliating failure, who, when the cameras aren’t rolling, allows his rage to boil over by clubbing Gophers after he’s shanked another five-iron into the bunker. Those who believe he fiddled his taxes certainly wouldn’t think so. Nothing short of prison will suffice. Imagine thinking making an example of Trump will solve any of the issues that dog the culture. But that’s all you’re being offered.
But rather than bash Trump, the far left, the far right, anti-vaxers, or other general kinds of idiocy, is there a solution to this malaise? I don’t have one, and I’m not sure there is one. I reckon, just as Trump’s presidency perished due the immediacy of his botched handling of Covid-19, so too will the collective psyche suffer a similar longer-term fate through other forms of neglect to secularism, fairness and compromise. Factions will grow wider, positions more extreme as we retreat to our conformation biases. The irrationality of white guns nuts, Antifa, pro-life picketers, pious wokers, xenophobes, Islamic terrorists, nihilistic online trolls will set the tone and continue to encroach and cannibalise the space rest of us occupy, as we look on bemused, helpless, unable to find the appropriate reaction.
Trump’s defiantly talking of running again in 2024. And why wouldn’t he? He accepts the rules of the game for what they are, not what he wishes them to be. Four years from now, given the direction of traffic, what will the paradigm look like? It’s not a far-fetched prediction to say Trump and his ghoulish brood could easily benefit again.