Donald Trump seems poised to give us the general-election campaign we wanted all along, in which he goes bananas and tears apart the Republican Party before—this part is really important—losing. Yesterday, Paul Ryan told Republicans on a conference call that he would no longer campaign for Trump and direct his energy toward protecting their majority in Congress instead. Although he did not withdraw his endorsement,1 the announcement was widely understood to capitulate the presidency, and narrowly understood to betray the nominee. Trump himself took the narrow view. This morning, he used Twitter to issue an ominous…promise? Threat? Status update? You can decide what this is:
It is so nice that the shackles have been taken off me and I can now fight for America the way I want to.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 11, 2016
It is nice. I assume he means he can finally focus on detailed policy proposals and rebuilding the dignity of the working class. But maybe he’ll just bash Muslims.
Let us consider, in this thrilling moment, the gap between what we hope to see and what we know is good. If you already think of Trump as a dumb charlatan, the next four weeks promise a satisfying meltdown. As it becomes more clear he has lost the election, his antics will become at once more desperate and more safe, since we won’t have to worry about him becoming president. This is the moment when Trump becomes funny again.
Of course, the reason Trump stopped being funny was that he brought so many awful ideas out of the woodwork. Most of Trump’s stupid views are fascism of the ethno-nationalist variety. Breitbart, a staunchly pro-Trump website that claimed 31 million unique visitors in July, refers to middle-eastern immigrants as “kebabs” in its headlines. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this is the year Rep. Steve King (R-IA) took up explicit white nationalism. This election’s equivalent of the Tea Party has been the alt-right, a collection of race supremacists, authoritarians, and reactionaries who have achieved the mass critical to, if not a political movement, at least a series of trend pieces. Those people will not disappear when Trump loses.
They may be shamed into silence. That would be nice. But it seems unlikely they will watch Trump lose his mind/the election over the next few weeks and decide proto-fascism doesn’t make sense. It is more likely they will be invigorated by Trump unshackled and, when he loses, decide the problem is American democracy.
The problem with a Trump freakout is that it will whip up the fascists in the month before they are disappointed. If you despise the man’s politics, you should probably hope that he becomes sad and boring in the month before he loses, not spectacularly awful. But here our democratic spirit and our visceral desires come into conflict.
We want Trump to behave erratically, because part of seeing through him is astonishment that other people don’t. This phenomenon explains the Trump cycle: he was funny last summer, when it seemed like only a fraction of Republicans were dumb enough to fall for him. Then he won the nomination and became scary, as roughly half of America’s democracy lined up behind him. Now that the Republican Party is abandoning him and his loss is assured, we want the I-told-you-so moment when he goes berserk. It cements our own superiority to the general public while simultaneously assuring us this superiority is not a problem; we are ahead of the curve but not watching the rest of the country fly off the road.
But what if a different metaphor applies? What if Trump is the splinter around which infection gathers? He may be easily removed, but the wound can fester. It’s not the splinter that kills you. It’s the process it sets into motion, the things that breed in the hole where it used to be.
Imagine if Ted Cruz ran on Trump’s platform instead of Trump. There is no recording of Cruz bragging about assaulting women. He doesn’t show up to debates unprepared. The worst thing about Trump is that he has established a blueprint more competent assholes could follow. He has solidified an audience to which they might pander more ably. I enjoy the prospect of a public Trump meltdown. But I worry about the fallout.