The Winning Versus The Woods
In 2014, the Republican Party grassroots, consisting largely of people who identified themselves as constitutional conservatives, backed Matt Bevin, a strong senate challenger to Mitch McConnell in the Kentucky primary. The most prominent name to come forward in McConnell’s defense, both as a public advocate and a major campaign donor, was Donald Trump, who directly attacked the Tea Party in defense of the establishment.
Two years later, the same Trump was successfully transforming the grassroots, through a combination of hypnosis-by-fame and purge-by-trolling, from a civilized, limited government minority voice into a rabidly irrational personality cult — from a group of loosely allied individuals who were reading the same ideas into a collective of indistinguishable idol-worshippers whipped into an illiterate frenzy of anger and fear.
One of the final turning points in the undoing of the Tea Party constitutionalist movement Trump had been so active in helping to destroy from behind the scenes for years (heavily supporting both McConnell and John Boehner in their establishmentarian endeavors) was Trump’s clever cynicism in sidling up to the establishment in the run-up to the first voting days of the 2016 primaries. The key to that maneuver was his all-out attack on previous Tea Party favorite Ted Cruz, an attack grounded entirely in Trump’s attempt to paint Cruz’s consistent public stand against McConnell’s senate leadership as a vice, rather than as his anti-establishment bona fides. Thus began the Trump cult’s “Everybody hates Ted” mantra — where “everybody,” if we recall the context, meant everybody in the Republican establishment.
With that move, and especially with the fact that this method of attack — criticizing his most accomplished opponent for being too anti-establishment — was successful, Trump certified once and for all that his following was in no way aligned with the old Tea Party movement, although, to be sure, many of his cult members were crossovers from the Tea Party who had lost their marbles in the heat of partisan wrangling. Trump effectively identified himself, as usual, as a crass, blustering, attention-craving demagogue for the establishment. His cult did not mind. They had no interest in adhering to an idea, to liberty. They were adhering to fame and money, to “winning.”
When Trump, as president, filled his cabinet with establishmentarians of all stripes — the same people many of his cult had previously despised with all their hearts — the cult fell in love with each new establishmentarian on cue — and then of course fell back out of love with each of them when Trump threw a temper tantrum over their career-saving resistance to this or that instantiation of Trump’s utter stupidity. They followed the fame and money, “winning.”
When Trump lost his reelection bid, but immediately declared it a “stolen victory” — on the basis of no evidence and no concept of how elections work — the cult simply believed him, facts be damned, for the same reason he almost believed it himself: It was too humiliating to accept that the perfect man, the man who always wins, the man who was God’s choice to save America, was just another failed Republican, losing the popular vote twice, once to the most hated woman in the country, and once to a semi-senile old clown.
So naturally, the party establishment having used him for all he was worth, and having now decided to detach itself at last from his failed and humiliating legacy of ignorance and vulgarity, Trump is out there again, desperately trying to save face as always. But this time, by necessity, his schtick is “Tear down the establishment.” Most amusingly, to this observer, Trump has set his sights on Mitch McConnell, both in verbal attacks and in an attempt to replace him as senate leader: the man he personally endorsed as senate majority leader when the grassroots was dying to oust him; the man to whose primary campaign against a Tea Party challenger Trump donated $60,000 just a year before announcing his run for president; the man whose leadership and honor he defended against Ted Cruz’s criticism in 2016; the man whose wife he appointed to his cabinet (and never criticized or replaced); the man, truth be told, who more than anyone else made the entire ugly charade of Trump’s nomination and presidency possible.
Such longtime association, affiliation, and mutual support against common enemies (constitutionalists primarily, Democrats secondarily), might complicate a personal attack strategy for any other politician, i.e., for anyone nominally adult and semi-mature, with supporters to match. For the perpetual twelve-year-old mean girl Trump, however, as well as for his Trump-is-Truth cultists, yesterday’s alliance of convenience can become today’s “I hate you! I hate you!” faster than you can say, “No, Mr. Trump, you cannot simply declare yourself the winner and stay president forever.”
McConnell remains the cleverest manipulator and most cynical power-broker in American electoral politics, the real champion of “winning.” Trump remains the most simple-minded demagogue and political fraud in the history of American politics. The Trump cult remains the most contagious virus of unthinking idol-worship that America has ever seen — the manifestation of the nation’s most disturbingly nihilistic “it can’t happen here” moment. It happened. The American mind, always in the minority position in a republic of wealth and practical opportunity, has been overwhelmed by the worst temptations and most irrational passions lurking in its midst. Intellectual and political recovery from such a grand collapse, if it is to come at all, will come only after generations of slow renewal in the shadows.
Americans today — and I speak only of those few who have not already lost themselves to cultish demagoguery or neo-Marxist indoctrination — are faced with a choice similar to that which has long faced freedom-lovers in the rest of the world: Chase bandwagons, which invariably means racing blindly after implausible hopes, until everyone involved forgets what they were even hoping for in a desperate lunge at winning the key to the city; or live in the shadows, walking in spiritual woods, and inviting the most gifted of tomorrow’s children to stroll through those woods with you in thoughtful conversation, until perhaps the wheel turns again someday.
In any case, people beaten into dismay and disillusionment by life in the city of “success” would do well to recall the pleasures of silence and leaves, of thinking and foraging.