Over the course of the past three and a half decades, the Republican far right has resembled the successive generations of William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, offering up politicians who act more and more inbred over time. Their stunted thinking frequently makes sense only within their own circles; their words and actions can not only be incomprehensible to outsiders, but they often seem unprecedented and outrageous, beyond the bounds of known political practice and etiquette.
The succession from Reagan goes through Gingrich, who impeached a president; DeLay, who attempted to create a permanent Republican majority in the House of Representatives through the K Street Project and unprecedented redistricting tactics; and Bush-Cheney, who declared the Geneva Conventions “outdated” when it came to pursuing their wars.
From the ashes of the manifest failures of Bush-Cheney rose the Tea Party movement, the latest generation of Republican radicalism which speaks of defaulting on the national debt and cannot let go of fantasies about the president, which range from alleging his foreign birth, to alleging his Muslim faith, to alleging his planning to round up the political opposition into concentration camps.
Enter Donald Trump. The novelty he brings to the current Tea Party mix is: vulgarity. His speech has brought an element of the coarse, the bellicose, the unprincipled, which is a qualitative leap beyond the feisty maleducated discourse we have become familiar with among Tea Party candidates.
Trump’s is a particular style of vulgarity. He specializes in a braggadocio which essentially runs like this: “Wassamatter with those morons? Just let me at it. Immigration? I can build a wall. Easy. ISIS? Can you believe those morons can’t put them away?” It is the vulgarity we expect to encounter from a barroom loudmouth. It bespeaks a dedicated connection between brain and mouth where messages whiz past any mechanism of censorship. Truth or realism counts for little or nothing in Trump’s boasts; rather, he invites his supporters to participate in his fantasies of omnipotence.
There is no recent precedent for Trump in American politics. Ross Perot may have started the American right’s flirtation with wealthy businessmen as political saviors, but he recognized (“I’m going to get under the hood”) the need for hard work and study to problem-solve in the political realm. George W. Bush, who ran promising to be the “CEO president,” and Mitt Romney, had long since become professional politicians.
In politics, as others have pointed out, Trump’s model is Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, who succeeded in the leap directly from running his media empire to his country’s prime ministership. Specializing, as does Trump, in contempt for women, Berlusconi managed to vulgarize a worldly and sophisticated national culture almost beyond recognition. His domination of Italian politics rendered his country politically and economically stagnant for more than a decade.
No doubt Trump is moving in the steps pioneered in American politics by the Tea Party. His most notable previous mark in national politics was moving to the head of the birther movement a few years ago. (Yes, a Birther is running for president, and leads the Republican polls!) Trump’s braggadocio of 2011 — he had dispatched investigators and was going to get the goods on Obama’s forged birth documentation — fell flat, without serious consequences for his credibility among the Republican base.
But if American politics does not offer us a model for Trump’s vulgarity, American culture is more availing. Trump’s characteristic argument-by-insult follows in the trail blazed in the 1970s by Archie Bunker.
Archie’s foil was his son-in-law Michael, and Trump summarizes Archie’s core beef against Michael when he says, “I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct.” Archie could not abide when his well-worn ways of thinking and speaking ran into the new fangled judgments of them that Michael regularly had on offer. And Archie summed up Trump’s unfailing habit of labeling his targets stupid or ugly by simply referring to Michael as “Meathead.” Facts? In classic Archie style, conviction and spontaneity take the place of evidence. Trump in Phoenix, July 11, when some people in the crowd unfurled a critical banner: “I wonder if the Mexican government sent them here. I think so.”
To watch Trump in 2015 has the feel of an episode in which Archie runs for president. Or, perhaps, Archie runs for president after an episode in which he wins the lottery. One will remember, of course, that after All in the Family, Archie had a followup series in which he owned and ran a bar.
It is important to bear in mind that one of the effects of vulgarity is for others, observers outside the loop, to dismiss the vulgarizing movement. Analysis after analysis of Trump as a candidate for the Republican nomination begins with an almost ritualized nod in the direction of: “but, of course, he’s not a serious candidate…his lead will melt away…he will never be the nominee…” There is a significant precedent for this point of view, in that during Republican race for the nomination in 2012, Tea Party favorite after Tea Party favorite (Bachmann, Cain, Gingrich, Santorum) rose to leads in the polls only to succumb to precipitous downfalls.
But this year the animosity of the Tea Party base toward the Republican establishment is greater than ever after both McCain and Romney fell to Obama, proving their conviction that only a “real conservative” — i.e. a Tea Partier and not a RINO (Republican in Name Only) — can win the presidency on the Republican ticket.
Analysts who marvel that Trump’s over-the-top gaffes do not dent his lead in the polls (rather they seem to enhance it!) miss the point that his Archie Bunker appeal inoculates him against declines owing to gaffes. Gaffes are fully part of the appeal. And this year, the established party has been weakened as never before, as Superpacs funding individual candidates have usurped much of the party apparatus’s power and functions, diffusing the primary race into a battle of mini-parties one against another.
The Tea Party base looms as a potential whirlwind on the ready, seeking that transcendent individual around whom to take shape. This is the game that Trump is playing.
A footnote on Trump: There is a little-noted tendency for conservative politics to produce unlikely side effects of a progressive nature. For example, Ronald Reagan deprived the right of its longstanding argument, ruthlessly deployed against Nelson Rockefeller, that a divorced man was too impure and managerially challenged to be president. Similarly, in his famous Senate confirmation hearing, Clarence Thomas had his white wife seated behind him in the gallery; furious, sometimes murderous, opposition to black-white intermarriage took the hit. Sarah Palin’s daughter’s pregnancy throughout Palin’s vice presidential run has quieted the voices that railed for years and racialized childbearing out of wedlock.
Trump followed in this under-the-radar tradition in the Fox debate on Aug. 6. Recounting at some length his practice of donating to a wide range of politicians, Trump was very clear that his motive for giving was an unreconstructed quid pro quo.
“I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them, two years later, three years later, I call them, and they are there for me.”
Trump was even specific in claiming that he commanded Hillary Clinton’s appearance at his wedding as donation payback. In so doing Trump shattered the thin fiction that has sustained impeding campaign finance laws and which was raised to constitutional principle in Citizens United: that political donations, even those that reach to tens and hundreds of millions, are a species of expression and not payola; that money is speech, not corruption, and deserves unlimited First Amendment protection. Trump went on to call this a broken system, and you can be sure his words will become a prime exhibit in the crusade to overturn Citizens United.