While one can point to many forerunners — PT Barnum, Ross Perot and George Wallace come to mind — Donald Trump also represents something new. After all, he called Mexicans rapists, blamed a female reporter’s questions on her menstrual cycle, denounced a war hero for his bravery, threatened to destroy his party’s chances by running as a spoiler, and bragged about “violating” a former wife. While comments like these would normally be disqualifying, Trump now leads dramatically in the Republican polls. This requires explanation.
Two recent efforts have been notable. In the New Yorker, Evan Osnos has linked Trump to the far right, remnants of American nativism and racism, Nazis and survivalists, Ku Klux Klanners and the like. In the New York Review of Books, Michael Tomasky has situated Trump as the logical outcome of the Republican Party culture, citing in particular “resentment against a fast-changing, more openly sexual America,” and “the unrelenting push toward a rhetorical style ever more gladiatorial and ever more outraged (and outrageous), driven initially by talk-radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh.” Both of these explanations have merit, but neither is adequate because both scapegoat Trump — that is they assign to him and his followers negative characteristics that are better understood as belonging to the society itself. (This is especially true of Tomasky.)
In this piece I want to suggest that Trump has to be understood as a kind of mirror of America, but in a very specific sense. To create a context for understanding him, I propose that we do not consider Trump in isolation, but rather look at him alongside Hillary Clinton. My starting point for this is the career of Catherine Beecher in Jacksonian America.
America had no medieval villages, little experience of monarchy and aristocracy, no national church. What it had was land — cheap, nearly free land. While the rest of the world was still suffering under feudal constraints, this country filled up with ambitious, largely middle class hustlers, attracted by the possibility of owning land. It was a country without much culture other than religion (except among the slave-holders!), backwards in global terms, generally facing a harsh environment. It was at root a Hobbesian marketplace, a brutal war of all against all.
Beecher saw this and sought to remedy it by teaching Americans manners: not to curse, not to spit, and to be nice to women. She was a pioneer of women’s education, of the kindergarten, and of domesticity. Historians of women miss so much when they see gender only in terms of power and domination. Of course, Beecher wanted to advance women’s status, but she was also leading a moral revolution, one that won support from many writers, clergy, editors and middle class men. Its purpose was not to change the market but to pretty it up, link it to ideals of service, fairness and decency, and above all to the cult of women’s moral superiority — women were superior precisely for the reason that made them unsuited for a Hobbesian world: they were nice.
We must also add here the historical links between pragmatism and the cult of women and domesticity. As Louis Menand showed, the pragmatists responded to the Civil War by emphasizing moderation, avoidance of “ideology,” not raising one’s voice in politics, bipartisanship, and the uniquely American “gift” for compromise. Of course, just like Catherine Beecher’s doilies and antimacassars, pragmatic homilies obscured the fact that this is a country of sharks, killers, drone-assassins and snipers. Anyone who pointed this out historically was consigned to the freak show at the back of the carnival, where “conspiracy theorists” and “crazy leftists” were put on display.
Against this background we can understand both Barack Obama, the Harvard Law School pragmatist, and Hillary Clinton, the latter of whom emerged in national politics around the slogan that we can get two instead of one. Together, Obama and Clinton exemplify the moralistic, superior, goody two shoes tradition that American capitalism has used as a cloak for greed and violence. Only the cloak has frayed as neo-liberals have taken the gloves off. Since the seventies, non-partisan pragmatism looks like weakness and the cult of woman has given way to political correctness and its complement, “leaning in.” Hence Obama’s disappointing Presidency, and Hillary’s equally disappointing campaign. Enter Trump.
Trump is reminiscent of the characters in the SNL skit that live in a society where people do not know how to lie. They are always saying things like “I just farted” or “I slept with your wife last night.” Here is the kind of rhetoric we hear from Trump: First, to an official who denied him a New York City tax abatement: “I don’t know whether it’s still possible for you to change your decision or not. But I want you to know that I am a very rich and powerful person in this town and there is a reason I got that way. I will never forget what you did.” Or recently to his audience at a campaign rally: “I do deals — big deals — all the time. I know and work with all the toughest operators in the world of high-stakes global finance. These are hard-driving, vicious cutthroat financial killers, the kind of people who leave blood all over the boardroom table and fight to the bitter end to gain maximum advantage.” Trump is American capitalism without its frills. Readers who find these kinds of statements reprehensible should ask themselves whether we really want to go back to the core hypocrisy and deceit that seeks to cover up the greed and violence at the center of the American story, or go forward to some more truthful politics.