There are few greater pleasures in life than being able to say “I told you so”; it was, after all, the only pleasure granted to Cassandra, the prophetess who was always right and never believed. But it is a special pleasure for pundits, since we get to say it so rarely. Nevertheless, I take little pleasure in noting that I called the Republican primary on January 29th, when I wrote that a Trump victory was inevitable.1 And I take no pleasure at all in prophesying that The Donald will defeat Hillary, and it won’t even be close; Trump will trounce Clinton.
Trump’s victory, back in January, was considered impossible. While Trump could win with 30% of the vote in a crowded field, the political class was convinced that as candidates dropped out, their votes would go to anybody but Trump. And when he proved he could win elections outright, they were convinced that he could not win enough to avoid a brokered convention, at which time the adults in the room would choose the candidate. And now they are convinced that he cannot unite the party sufficiently to win. What they forget is that the parties no longer count, and that the biggest party is “independent.” And this party is Trump’s party and Bernie’s party. And the Bernie part may become more Trump’s than Hillary’s.
I wrote in that article, “They cannot out-talk Trump because they do not know the language he is talking. His words might as well be written in cuneiform; those who run cannot read the writing on the wall.” And the writing on the wall is about one issue alone. This issue is not where the transgendered ought to pee, an issue that has surprisingly little resonance for most Americans. Rather, it is where we all ought to work, or whether we will have any work at all worth mentioning. And American workers see that issue in terms of one factor alone: Globalization.
The mere fact that Trump’s positions make no sense will not matter one whit. He can contradict himself three times in the same sentence, and nobody will care. He can insult everyone, and no one will feel insulted. He can say the most absurd things, and his supporters will love him all the more. This is not an election about the head, but about the heart, and at the heart of American politics is a burning rage. Rage that our livelihoods have been sacrificed to abstract economic theories; rage that our communities have been destroyed and scattered; rage that the ordinary citizen has been abandoned by our leaders, Republican or Democrat; rage that the concerns of all have been trumped by concerns of marginal groups, like the transgendered. But mostly, Americans feel rage that their interests have been ignored in favor the interests of the Rich, the powerful, the banker, the foreigner. And all of these concerns are summed up in one word: Globalization.
Hillary cannot address this issue because she herself is a globalist. Her faux repudiation of the Trans-Pacific “Partnership” does not convince anybody, not even her own supporters. She can move as far to the Left as she likes, but no one will take her seriously. Indeed, Trump will pull off that most complex of maneuvers, the double envelopment: he will flank her on both the left and the right, and often on the same issues. And no one will care about the contradictions. He will be Hannibal at Cannae; she will attack in the center, only to find herself engulfed on either side. The Sanders voters, or considerable numbers of them, will not consider her at all, considering the tactics she used to defeat him. She will find herself limited to the party faithful, and that platoon will not carry the hill for Hillary.
The voting public, as evidenced by their votes for Trump and Sanders, want to break the system that no longer serves them. But in this, Sanders is the conservative; he merely wants to fix the system with a little welfarism. It is Trump who wants to break things; it is he who is the true revolutionary. And the revolutionaries in the Sanders camp will man the barricades of the Trump revolution.
The great irony here is that while Trump may run as an anti-globalist, there is doubt that he is actually that at all. That is, he has no actual theory. Is he a localist or even a regionalist? That’s doubtful. He’ll talk with Putin; he’ll talk with Kim Jong Un. But he’ll tear up the treaty with Iran. He’ll destroy Daesh by means yet unknown. He will make “America Great Again,” by whatever means necessary. His positions are vague enough so that people can read into them whatever means they favor. But the truth is that even The Donald doesn’t know what the truth is; he’ll make it up as he goes along. He is a big, blank whiteboard upon which his supporters can map out their hopes and fears. Hence, they will give their ardent support to a creature of their own imaginations. And no one will be more surprised than Trump himself.
So what will the Trump Presidency look like? That’s hard to say, but the combination of super-ego and superpower is not promising. He has no reverence for the rule of law and no patience with the complexities of democratic institutions. He is used to calling the shots, and negotiating with big shots who only need to give their word to get a deal done. And he wants to be the biggest Big Shot of them all. He is used to the benign dictatorship of the personal firm, in which the fear of the big man who can say “you’re fired” forms the basis of the corporate culture, a culture in which sycophancy is the key to success.
It may be that he is running just to get an upgrade to his aging jet plane. And hence, once safely ensconced on Air Force One, he may be content to play with his new toy and leave the actual job of governing to that collection of neocons and neoliberals who even now oversee the slow decline of the nation and the world.
But that would seem to be contrary to his history and his nature, and he may wish to speed up the process. He likes to be in charge, to call subordinates into his office, assign them absurd tasks and say “you’re fired” when they can’t complete them. And he is likely to have a cowed congress and a compliant court, as well as an angry citizenry behind him. It is a dangerous combination, particularly when he discovers that the world will not bend to his will. He will explore the enormous power of his office, and find it too small. And that power will be expanded. Obama has the reputation of rule by Executive Order, even though he has issued fewer of them than any modern president. With Trump, the reputation is likely to be the reality. But however much power he has, he will not find it sufficient, because no power on Earth can make reality bend to his will.
And of course, in his impatience with the limitations of power, he will turn to the military to enforce his imperial will, since nothing distracts from domestic failure like a good foreign adventure. But here he is likely to find his biggest and most dangerous disappointments. In this hollowed-out country, the most hollowed-out institution is the military, and the more funding it gets, the more hollow it becomes. Although the Army is the smallest it’s been since before World War II, it has more generals than it had in that war. More generals does not mean more leadership, but more politics. And the prize is not victory in battle (do we do that anymore?) but plum corporate directorships and consultancies with military contractors upon retirement. We have a senior officer corps of sycophants commanding a military equipped with weapons systems that do not work. With the F35, for example, we have shot down our own Air Force. And we are behind the Russians in tank technology, and likely many other areas as well. It is serious question as to whether our military could mount an operation against a serious opponent. Our experience with “small” wars should not give us much confidence about the big ones. But a president who believes our own propaganda will be as dangerous in the future as it was in the past, only more so since the world is a more dangerous place.
Of course, I could be wrong, and I hope I am. Clinton could win (although that is hardly a pleasant prospect, or even the preferred outcome) or Trump could prove to be competent. After all, they say the office makes the man. But I doubt it. This I know: Trump is at his best when he does his worst; he is the most serious threat when people fail to take him seriously. He has grasped our rage, even if he is clueless about its solution. But for now, I am content to speak in the spirit of Cassandra, even as I hope that for this time at least she really is wrong. That is to say, I hope I never have the pleasure of saying, “I told you so.”
- “The Art of the Deal and the Writing on the Wall,” Front Porch Republic (January 29th, 2016).