Is Trumpism toxic?

Has the right gone wrong? Or was Trump its last chance? A debate between two Spectator writers

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Matt Labash
Chris, thanks for stepping with me inside the squared circle, the Octagon or whatever they call the place where the kids like to fight these days. (The Capitol Rotunda?) Ordinarily, in one of these types of dialogues, this is the part where we’d exchange pleasantries, make throat-clearing small talk, and tell each other how much we admire each other’s work.

But let’s skip it, because I’m feeling a bit vexed. Can’t quite put my finger on why. Oh yes, I just flipped on ‘MSDNC’ and opened my Failing New York Times, and now I remember: because I’ve been watching my country set ablaze, and Donald Trump and…

Matt Labash

Chris, thanks for stepping with me inside the squared circle, the Octagon or whatever they call the place where the kids like to fight these days. (The Capitol Rotunda?) Ordinarily, in one of these types of dialogues, this is the part where we’d exchange pleasantries, make throat-clearing small talk, and tell each other how much we admire each other’s work.

But let’s skip it, because I’m feeling a bit vexed. Can’t quite put my finger on why. Oh yes, I just flipped on ‘MSDNC’ and opened my Failing New York Times, and now I remember: because I’ve been watching my country set ablaze, and Donald Trump and his faithful Trumpsters are holding the flamethrower.

By now, we’ve all sat rapt and horrified, watching the highlights: the MAGA-bots following the Dear Leader’s call to riot, invading the Capitol building, smashing windows, battering down doors, stealing the Speaker’s lectern and literally covering the floors in shit, for fans of too-on-the-nose metaphors. They accosted police, threatened to hang the traitor Mike Pence and trotted through the legislative chamber in full tactical gear holding flex cuffs in the hope of taking hostages. (Possibly before executing them: someone did erect a gallows on the grounds.) Five people died. Four of them Trump supporters, one of them a Capitol Police officer, hit in the head with a fire extinguisher.

I doubt Mr Trump wanted anybody to die. He just wanted to put a good scare into Congress, while trying to overturn a free and fair election, the very bedrock without which the whole system collapses. So nothing to see here, folks. Let’s talk about what really matters, Trump getting banned from Twitter!

If you haven’t gathered by now, I’ve had it. Plenty of us have always been Trump skeptical; my skepticism dates all the way back to 1999. But it’s time for his acolytes to reckon with the cancer that they’ve let metastasize. I haven’t been terribly subtle, so let’s just go ahead and lay it out: Donald Trump is a sociopathic cult leader, a moral black hole with a weird tan and a combover. Yes, I know it’s old hat to make fun of his hair, but his confidantes have told me it wounds him. And I just want him to hurt like he’s hurt America.

So now that we’re coming to the conclusion of DJT’s first and only term — which has ended in impeachment and could include imprisonment — it’s time to legacy-assess the effects of Trumpism. As several have already noted, after everything from Trump’s social-media meltdowns to him falling asleep at the wheel during the deadliest pandemic in a century, Americans are now poorer, angrier, dumber, meaner, more divided, sicker (both physically and mentally) and deader than they were four years ago. But how ’bout that wall?! (The one that’s one-fourth of the way built, that Mexico didn’t pay for.)

I wasn’t a big fan of The Establishment, either. But we threw them over for this?

I don’t detest Trumpsters: that would leave me hating roughly 60 percent of my friends and 80 percent of my family. But I would like to know how so many good people of my acquaintance could be so blind to the glaringly obvious. You edit American Greatness, one of the house organs of the movement. But by my lights, America isn’t looking so great right now. Feels more like American Mediocrity. Or America Needs Improvement. Lots of it. Give me something. Give me hope. Give me Xanax. Give me shelter from the storm. Or I might do something truly unthinkable, like quote Dylan lyrics in print. Nobody wants to see that.

Chris Buskirk

Gosh, Matt, please don’t quote Dylan lyrics or I’m going to have to give you both barrels and quote ‘Both Sides, Now’, written by Joni Mitchell, first recorded by Judy Collins (and later covered by Sinatra!). So in the name of all that is good, let’s back away from what would surely be Mutually Assured Destruction.

The one thing I’ve noticed over the past five years is that the only people more consumed by the person of Donald Trump — from his psychology to his physiognomy — than the most diehard, plan-trusting, steal-stopping, Trump super-fans are his obsessive detractors. However large the number of actual Trump cultists is, the anti-Trump cult is orders of magnitude larger, more intense and more powerful. That’s not surprising, because Trump’s rise to power is less a direct threat to the established order and the ruling class it serves than it is an indictment of their failure. Of course they react with visceral hatred. Perhaps we can stipulate that a country with a healthy culture and competent, trusted (and trustworthy) institutions would not have elected Donald Trump as president. Yet, Donald Trump has received more votes than any other Republican ever. Twice.

That suggests two possibilities. Either half the country is comprised of Deplorables, reprobates, morons or sociopaths (I’d love to see the Venn Diagram). Or something has gone quite wrong and America isn’t working very well for a lot of Americans.

Option one is the default answer of the ruling class and its aspirants and retainers. But in fact something has gone wrong. Late-stage liberalism isn’t able to keep its promises. That’s why both Trump and Bernie Sanders were so popular. That’s why there is so much social and political conflict. And Trump-obsession of any kind is a distraction and a coping mechanism.

Over the past 50 years median real wages have barely budged. Worse, the growth that has occurred has all happened at the top. The top 10 percent did OK, the top 1 percent did very well and the top 0.1 percent blasted way ahead of everyone else. Everyone except the very top fell a little behind the group ahead of them, but the group below the top 10 percent fell further and faster. This made it harder to get married, buy a house and raise a family. The cost of being middle class kept rising faster than middle class wages. That created — and continues to create — a lot of people who are socially and economically precarious.

You say ‘I wasn’t a big fan of The Establishment, either. But we threw them over for this?’ Yes. Why? Because there wasn’t a better option. Look at the group of Republicans running in 2016 and Democrats in 2020. All of them are standard-bearers for a shattered consensus. And there are a lot of mediocrities and has-beens. Biden himself is a retread of a retread. The ‘uniparty’ that runs the country either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that for a lot of people the American Dream is dead. In the cohort of people born in 1940, about 95 percent did better economically than their parents. For the cohort born in 1980 (border line millennials), only about 40 percent of those raised in middle-class families are better off than their parents at the same stage of life. These are people who were raised mostly by boomer parents to follow the program that worked so well for them: go to college, maybe grad school, trust the plan and you’ll have a life filled with grilling and long weekends. But it hasn’t worked out that way. It’s been tough. And for those that didn’t go to college, it’s even worse.

What do we do about it? That’s a big subject. But Trump offered answers in 2016 that made some intuitive sense and resonated with a lot of people. We sent our factories and their high-paying jobs to China? Let’s bring them back. Mass immigration undercuts wages? Let’s slow it down. The ruling class is corrupt, self-serving and doesn’t give a damn about anyone else? Let’s take the country back from them.

Trump accomplished some of the good things he was talking about back then, though not as many as I would have liked. But he was often stymied by a combination of internal incoherence and external opposition. In 2017, Trump had both unified government and the most political capital to spend. The fact that the Republican party’s primary goal and signature achievement was a reduction in corporate tax rates says something about the depth of institutional decay that Trump had taken advantage of when he sought the nomination.

Since late 2015, when it became apparent to me that Trump was likely to win the Republican nomination and had a chance to pull an inside straight and beat Hillary Clinton, I’ve been telling people that the best way to understand Trump is that he is not a solution: he’s an opportunity. You can change those verb tenses now from present to past, but it was true — and it was the best thing about the Trump era. It brought these issues to the forefront and created a space amid the chaos to start working on answers. That work continues, as does the search for new and better leaders.

Matt Labash

Well, Chris, I see you are a skillful polemicist, having mastered the most important Trumpster rhetorical art of all: changing the subject. Not to beat a dead horse, but in early January the President of the United States led an insurrection against his own government — with his droogs storming the Capitol, seeking to hang his vice president — which saw five people killed.

This after two solid months of trying to overturn an election in which he was smoked, while spinning one nutcake conspiracy theory after another about voter fraud, thus souping up citizens’ rage and prepping them for civil war. That, after ten months of dereliction of duty during the pandemic. Unless you count fulfilling your presidential duties as claiming credit for a vaccine you didn’t invent in between rounds of golf, while conducting super-spreader rallies all over the country in which you mock people for wearing masks as 382,637 of your citizens succumb to COVID-19 (over 3,000 a day as we write).

And none of this warrants a moment of self-reflection as a Trumpster? You say we had no better choices? There are 328 million people in America. Roughly half of them are conservatives. I could swing a cat on a DC Metro platform and hit 10 people who wouldn’t be as reckless and irresponsible as Trump has been. But of course, that’s probably my Trump Derangement Syndrome talking.

A malady invented by Trumpsters to reflexively discredit anyone who criticizes the obvious. Such as the matters of life-and death you just conveniently dodged. Trump Derangement Syndrome, of course, is always interchangeable with invoking ‘the elites’. You know, elites like me. Driving a 16-year-old Honda. Getting paid in beef jerky by the editors of this magazine for our little exchange (did you get teriyaki-flavor, by the way?). Shopping at Walmart because there are few places elites like me can push a cart in our pajama bottoms with our ass tattoos hanging out without raising eyebrows.

Faux-populists like Sean Hannity (he of the eight-figure salary, the private helicopter, the multiple homes) and demagogues like him are the Trump spear-carriers who are really looking out for you, the little guy. This, after the Hannitys of the world cheered on everything The Donald purportedly stands against for decades, from George W. Bush to the Iraq war. I didn’t vote for Bush by his second term, and I didn’t support the Iraq war. But I’m protecting the ‘uniparty’, because I dare criticize Trump? That’s rich. Though not as rich as faux-populists like Sean Hannity.

What if I told you I disliked the ‘uniparty’ and Trump? In the binary world that is Trumpism (us vs them typifies all cults), it’s impossible. You’re either with the Dear Leader at all times or against him, as his once loyal lapdog Pence learned the hard way, having nearly been lynched by Trump supporters. But it is possible, you know? Moral consistency. I tell my Trumpster friends all the time that they ought to look into it. Human oil slicks like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, who have helped corrupt the party beyond recognition by presenting dopey loyalty tests to a man who doesn’t deserve our loyalty, might want to try the same.

Be consistent. Don’t just root out the evil on one side. Root out the evil on all sides. This isn’t my advice: it’s the Good Book’s Matthew 7:5: ‘Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast the mote out of thy brother’s eye.’

I don’t dispute your notion that plenty of the things Trump had on offer made intuitive sense. Some of them appealed to me. But even if he did half the things he promised, I’d still think he was ‘the most flawed person’ I’ve ever known. (His former chief of staff John Kelly’s assessment.) And of course, even by Trump’s own yard stick, he failed. Middle-class tax cut? Great! Bring it on! Corporations (the ‘elites’) got a 40 percent cut in their tax rate, while plenty of corporate behemoths like Amazon weren’t paying federal taxes to start with. I, the fake ‘elite’ of Hannity’s fever dreams, on the other hand, received enough tax-refund to maybe buy dinner for four at the Olive Garden. Meanwhile, much of what I should’ve been refunded was clawed back when half my tax deductions were eliminated by Trump. This is but one example of the shell game that Trump Nation buys into: ‘I’m working for you, even when I’m working against you.’ Trump wasn’t working for you, the little guy, when he delayed the stimulus deal in a hissy fit from his Palm Beach golf course resort, after five months of congressional stalemates in which Trump didn’t lift a (short) finger to move things along. He elected to do this, of course, just in time to delay people’s much-needed unemployment benefits around Christmas — and as he was tweeting like a madman that his wife wasn’t getting fashion magazine covers like Michelle Obama did. Food bank lines are longer than they’ve ever been, and Trump’s more concerned that his wife isn’t getting Vogue covers? You can’t make it up.

Trump wasn’t working for you, the little guy, when he promised to drain the swamp. What actually happened instead? One swamp creature after another, hired or appointed by him, went to prison or resigned in disgrace for corruption. Trump sure as hell wasn’t working for you, the little guy, when he poisoned you with conspiracy theories about how your voice wasn’t being heard in this election. Back on Planet Reality, your voice was heard loud and clear. Problem was, the other guy (Biden) had more voices. A lot more: 74 more Electoral College voices and 7,059,741 more popular voices. Where I come from, we had a word for this. We called it ‘democracy’. Trump calls it ‘massive voter fraud’. But the actual results aren’t hard to believe, for anyone who takes half a second to think about it.

Donald Trump lost the popular vote to one of the most reviled politicians of all time, Hillary Clinton. He lost 99 out of 100 national polls going back to August in this cycle. And he averaged a 41 percent job approval rating, the lowest of any president since Gallup started taking the measure in the 1930s.It wasn’t a miracle that he lost. In fact, it would’ve been a miracle if he’d won.

But do you know who Trump was working for when he tried to get Trump voters to smoke the Kraken and buy into his fraudulent election-fraud theory? I bet, by now, you can guess. Hint: the name rhymes with ‘plump’. As in Trump plumped his own good fortune, dumping abject lies on the American people while raising well north of $200 million since Election Day.

And the ‘uniparty’ is corrupt? OK, sure. Yeah, it definitely is. Conceded. But on their worst day, they’re not as corrupt as Trump, the guy who was supposed to save us from their corruption.If the cure is worse than the disease, it can’t be considered a cure.

Chris Buskirk

I was just perusing your latest dispatch and, though I’m not great at reading between the lines (just ask my wife) and, forgive my presumption, but, well, I don’t know how to say this… OK, I’ll just say it: I’m starting to get the impression you don’t like Donald Trump. I don’t want to come on too strong since we’ve just met, but I sense he’s not your cup of covfefe. I was intrigued so I kept reading, and by the time I was finished I was relieved to find that, in fact, you agree with me and the millions of others who voted for Trump when you say, ‘And the “uniparty” is corrupt? OK, sure. Yeah, it definitely is. Conceded.

’Wonderful! We’ve had a meeting of the minds and ‘love is in the air’. Somewhere John Paul Young is smiling. Those two points (that there is a ‘uniparty’ and that it is corrupt) are essential to understanding modern American politics. Trump is just the manifestation of something that’s been growing since the Perot candidacies in the Nineties and then the Tea Party in 2008-10. There’s a left version of this too, but that’s for another time.

The existence and corruption of the ‘uniparty’ goes a long way to explaining why people backed Donald Trump as opposed to, say, John Kasich (did you know that his father was a mailman?) or Ted Cruz, who was strongly opposed to Trump but then wasn’t, but then was again, just before seeing the light and going all-in on Trump, which lasted until sometime last Wednesday afternoon at which point he, well, who can tell anymore? Anyway, you get the point.

It’s not just the existence of the ‘uniparty’. It’s that it’s become a farce: all form, no substance; all catechism, no faith; in short, a cargo cult. Managed decline is depressing, but mismanaged decline is insulting, and that’s part of what’s brought us to the place where our choices for president were Donald Trump and a 78-year-old whose main qualification for the Democratic nomination seems to have been that he was not unlikable (as opposed to most of his competition) and he looks pretty in aviators.

Which brings me to the corruption you mentioned. Let’s face it, corruption and government go together like chocolate and peanut butter. They’re old pals. But unlike chocolate and peanut butter, nobody likes corruption. Well, OK, not nobody. The folks who get rich off of it never seem to complain. The Dowager Empress of Chappaqua and co-founder of the Clinton Foundation seems to like it. So do the Bidens. Apparently Hunter is quite a businessman. When his dad was vice president, he was able to score a consulting gig with a Ukrainian oil company paying him top dollar, and get a billion-dollar investment from China for the fund he set up with John Kerry’s son. What a coincidence! Those were some sweet years for the Bidens.

Of course, you’d be right if you said that, for example, there are some pretty good questions about where some of the money donated to the Trump reelection campaign went. Tens of millions of dollars seem to have been funneled through companies in which Brad Parscale had a financial interest. Who else was involved in these companies and why did they get all of that money? It’s unclear but it would be interesting to find out. One thing I do know is that in 2019, Parscale kept sending me emails insisting that I buy a Trump-themed straw. Maybe you got one too. (An email, not a straw.) Why a straw? I have no idea, but they weren’t cheap. If memory serves, they were 20 bucks, plus shipping and handling (natch).

None of this looks good. And if all of the facts were public it would probably look even worse. But one thing I’ve noticed is that in electoral politics, voters aren’t generally too concerned about some self-dealing if they otherwise like the candidate. They’re
against it in principle, but they usually do the math, and if it’s not too egregious they just chalk it up to the reality of life east of Eden. They’re more interested in what the people they vote for can do for them than what they do for themselves. But there is an important exception, and that’s when politicians sell out the interests of the country to make a few bucks.

That was the real scandal behind the Clinton Foundation. It wasn’t the Clintons hoovering up hundreds of millions through the foundation. It’s that there was an apparent quid pro quo going on when Her Royal Hillary was secretary of state: if you’re a foreign country needing a favor from Uncle Sam, a quick way to get a meeting is to make a seven or eight figure donation (deductible on US income!) to the Clinton Foundation.

So when it came to Trump, a lot of people ran the calculation and determined that, yep, there was definitely some smarminess, but it was garden-variety self-dealing, not taking money from foreigners to align American power against American interests. This explains why Trump did better than Romney too. Sure, Trump was a garish real-estate promoter from Queens. But he never tried to pretend he was anything else. There’s something to be said for ‘what you see is what you get’. Pierre Delecto (Mitt Romney’s former Twitter alter ego), on the other hand, made his millions as a vulture capitalist. His company sucked hundreds of millions of dollars out of targets like American Pad & Paper, KB Toys and Staples. They all went bankrupt and their employees lost their jobs. But hey, Mitt says please and thank you and never sends mean tweets. The decorum über alles crowd goes gaga for this. The people who lost their jobs or saw their friends and family lose jobs don’t seem to like it as much.

That’s just one example of the parasitism that is increasing political conflict in our country. It’s worth remembering that in the years leading up to Trump’s unlikely rise to power, banks spent years pushing predatory mortgages on people and then creating the largest financial fraud in human history when they sold them to investors — eventually tanking the world economy. When the music stopped, Wall Street got bailed out, while the people got kicked out. It’s all part of a system that works for a few and beggars the many. Trump tapped into that, just like Bernie.

So while you mentioned that you’d be all for a middle-class tax cut, a better idea would be a raise. The last time the Republican party was formally in favor of rising wages was in the 1956 party platform (yeah, I like Ike!). After that the GOP became the party of lower wages. That was a mistake. America’s biggest exports became agricultural products and good-paying jobs. Trump had the good political sense to talk a lot about bringing high-wage, working-and middle-class jobs back to America, and to stop exporting the ones we still have. It’s more than I can say for most Republicans.

And by the way, Trump is the first president in a couple of generations who didn’t get America into a new foreign war, er, I mean kinetic military action. There’s a lot to be said for that. By the way, whatever happened to Stormy Daniels and her lawyer?

Matt Labash

The jig’s up. You caught me on the Trump animus. Sometimes, my sunny disposition is belied by my seething rage. I don’t know why he rubs me so wrong, exactly. (That’s what Stormy said!) I mean sure, he’s brainwashed half the people I know, tried to overturn an election, attempted to overthrow the government and sacked the Capitol by unleashing his violent goons. But I will say this for him: he could be worse. At least he’s not Ted Cruz.

So we found agreement! Ebony and ivory, living together in imperfect harmony. A NeverTrumper and a 4EverTrumper agreeing that the ‘uniparty’ is like a unitard worn by Ted Cruz: snug, ill-fitting and self-abasing. The Republican party, even sans Trump, is a dung heap of corruption, chiselers and confidence men (sorry, confidence ‘people’, as Democrats would have it) looking to exploit the hopes and fears of normal Americans who are too soul-sick, disillusioned and eager to have their paranoia fed to know better, or to care if they do. Why’d we ever become Republicans again?

And here’s some more common ground, however unintended. When you wrote of the ‘uniparty’ that it’s ‘become a farce; all form, no substance; all catechism, no faith; in short, a cargo cult’, it not only had the ring of truth, it had the ring of familiarity. That’s exactly how I’d describe Trumpism, minus the ‘cargo’.

What Trumpism was ever purportedly about — besides Trump’s own political fortunes — now seems lost in the mists of time. I mean, QAnoners at least believe he’s delivering the world from cannibalistic pedophiles who enjoy cheese pizza. (I might have that slightly wrong.) But all the regular Trumpsters I know — and I know a lot — never talk about issues. Their only issue is Trump, and all the people who take issue with him. And the fact that they do take issue with Trump proves that these are people worth taking issue with: ‘He might be a corrupt, undemocratic jackass, but he’s our jackass, by God.’

I get it. It’s tribalism at its finest. The guy who perpetually throat-punches my enemy on Twitter is my friend. It’s good bar-fight logic. But I’m not sure it’s helping the country. In fact, I know it isn’t. As I often tell my rightist friends that have gone wrong, using the other side’s wrongness as their justification (antifa riots, Big Tech censors, the wokerati), it’s fine to dislike all those things. I dislike them, too. But the reason you presumably choose the side you have chosen is because it’s better. And the only way to be better, is to be better. Which is much harder work than being the same, or worse.

As a reporter, I have stood in the middle of indiscriminate antifa beatdowns. They were ugly and violent and wrong, and made me almost physically sick. Made me hurt for my country. But what I saw in the Capitol on January 6? I couldn’t tell the difference. Same guys, different hats. Red hats, saying ‘Make America Great Again’. ‘Yes, why don’t you?’ I wanted to ask them. Because they were doing precisely the opposite. They were desecrating something they pretend to love.

Chris Buskirk

Lil’ Marco. Lyin’ Ted. Low-Energy Jeb. Pocahontas. Crooked Hillary. And, of course, Sleepy Joe.

I keep wondering if the folks Donald Trump would call the ‘losers and haters’ might find that they miss him more than they expect. In the not-too-distant future they won’t have Trump to kick around anymore.

Let’s face it, for a lot of folks, especially in the media, Trump was good for business. The activist groups and NGOs that took in hundreds of millions of anti-Trump outrage bucks might miss him too. He was the perfect bogeyman for hyperventilating fundraising letters and morally indignant opening monologues: the right age, the right color, the wrong accent, all of the wrong opinions and a pathological attraction to the media. It made for a great, if destructive, bonfire.

Terry Sullivan, Marco Rubio’s former campaign manager, described it just about right: ‘When the folks over there at CNN get all high and mighty about their journalistic integrity — that’s just not real. They’re running a reality TV show. That’s what Zucker’s good at.’ And not just Zucker either. It’s been the entire media-entertainment cathedral and its entire magisterium. The problem was, they were playing their role, but Trump wouldn’t play his. He was supposed to be Herman Cain 2.0 then go back to firing people on TV. But then they found out he was serious: he wanted to fire them.

Worse than that, (they figured it could never actually happen) Trump committed the unforgivable sin and broke the fourth wall. He talked directly to the audience while everyone else was still in character giving the performance of a lifetime. Just ask them, they were really nailing it. Mommy told them they were fantastic. And talented (very). Smart too. Please show your appreciation for the performers, but do so with jazz hands only as clapping may inflict unintentional emotional distress on some members of our audience. But they didn’t even get their jazz hands. They just got some guy from Queens calling them names.

And a lot of people liked it. No surprise, really: ridiculing the powerful is always popular. Plus, he’s good at it. Trump’s mockery cut deep because he could see through their carefully constructed personas, no doubt aggravating the imposter syndrome they had buried deep under layers of credentials and affectations and thought they had under control. It was satisfying for people who mistrusted the system to see a rich guy puncturing massive egos swollen with self-regard, but it was equally disturbing and disorienting for people who were part of that system or aspired to join it. So it cut both ways, which is why Trump inspired both such passionate loyalty and disdain.

Trump, at his best, was ‘wise enough to play the fool’. It separated him from the pack. But Feste’s job was to tell the king uncomfortable truths he needed to hear. He couldn’t be king himself. Trump spoke some of those truths, and, now as the Trump era is coming to a close, let’s hope that the detractors of Trump the man can separate the parts of the message he got right from the messenger. As Jeb Bush might say, please clap.

Matt Labash was a senior writer at the Weekly Standard. Chris Buskirk is the editor of American Greatness. This article was originally published in The Spectator’s February 2021 US edition.