Which party is going to instigate the violence?
Over at Alt-Right Poop (formerly Right Scoop), the top two headlines as I wake up on this Sunday morning, Korean Time, are “TRUMP TWEETS that impeachment Dems are ‘SAVAGES’!” and “Rashida Tlaib is trying to raise money with ‘Impeach the motherf**ker’ shirt.” Which leads me to ponder this strange question: When the election year rioting starts, which party will have instigated it?
The reason I call this question “strange” is that until the recent past, there would have been no doubt which of America’s “two parties” — i.e., two corporate-progressive-owned, stage-managed media representatives of the Washington political establishment — was more likely to revert to revolutionary optics and the language of social upheaval to initiate violence in the streets as a means of achieving its ends. Things have changed substantially over the past few years, however, specifically since the “reasonable side” of the binary choice let the cat out of the bag and selected as its figurehead a progressive authoritarian windbag willing to say or do anything to achieve his primary objective, which is to puff up his own ego and shield himself from danger.
The progressive left (Democrats) have always, and ever more blatantly, used the kind of incendiary rhetoric standard to all Marxist internationalist factions, as part of their strategic ratchet toward complete communist takeover. The progressive right (Republicans), however, have hitherto usually sought to portray themselves as the sane party, the party of cooler heads, the “responsible adult” party willing to conciliate and bend a little rather than get all worked up over disagreements. This has, for generations, been the heart of their claims of adhering to “the rule of law,” even as they calmly, maturely sell off every underlying principle that made the republican concept of the rule of law meaningful and important.
Today, however, the Republican Party is, for popular optics purposes, the party of Trump, which alters the game in two essential and interrelated ways, the first related to Trump’s own character, and the second to the nature of his supporters.
Trump, as I have said on many previous occasions, is a vain, ignorant man, which is a dangerous combination, as it effectively weaponizes his ignorance precisely to the degree that his vanity finds its fulfillment. That is to say, in his breathless race for attention and admiration, Trump repeatedly, unthinkingly propels himself ever further beyond his level of real competence and knowledge, such that the distance between what he actually knows and what his assumed responsibilities require him to know is continually growing. At this point in his life trajectory, it is hardly an exaggeration to say he is like an eight-year-old who has just finished flipping through The How and Why Book of the Human Body, and is suddenly given a scalpel and asked to perform open heart surgery.
The problem is that due to his voracious hunger for approval and admiration, Trump is perpetually attracted by precisely those areas of endeavor that are furthest beyond his uneducated and incurious mind’s range of competence, while at the same time being too woefully ignorant of his own ignorance to recognize how troubling his deficiencies are, such that he seems incapable of experiencing the self-doubt or circumspection that causes most of us to resist the urge to leap into our areas of incompetence, however superficially exciting the idea might be. (I sometimes fantasize about composing music, for example, but I would never fool myself into thinking I actually knew enough about the technical aspects of that art to try to pursue it seriously, let alone engage a chamber orchestra to perform my “works.”)
I recently heard John Cleese describing the theory of a social psychologist he admires regarding the human capacity for self-assessment. In a nutshell, the theory was that evaluating one’s own competence in any area requires almost exactly the same skills as it requires to be competent in that area, which carries the alternate implication that if you lack competence in a given area, then you also lack the very skills needed to know that you lack competence. If you combine this consideration with the profound immaturity of a maniacally vain poseur like Donald Trump, you end up with an eight-year-old who wants to perform open heart surgery, who is certain he would be a better heart surgeon than Christiaan Barnard, and who becomes indignantly entrenched in his declared self-certainty precisely in proportion to the level of skepticism he senses from others regarding his surgical skills.
Such ersatz self-certainty, however, since it is grounded in nothing but uncontrolled indignation, which in turn implies a deep-seated but unacknowledged self-doubt, is kept aloft only by means of continual efforts to avoid exposure. That is to say, Trump lives in fear, as Plato warned would always be the case with a tyrannical soul, although, living twenty-four hundred years before reality television and social media, Plato probably had no idea such a soul could rise to real power without any minimal form of competence in ruling, even the basic competence for overt brutality typically required of a successful power-monger in the past. In practice, this weird soup of frightened, incompetent vainglory seems to have made Trump the most brashly self-promoting coward in human history. His presidency has been built largely on surrendering behind a megaphone, or, as I have previously described it, speaking loudly and carrying a tiny stick. Internationally, he surrenders to Russian, Chinese, and even North Korean interests, begging for mercy and acceptance from despicable tyrants, but all the while publicly framing his shameful weakness as daring deal-making. Domestically, he has reneged on virtually all of his campaign promises, or at least the ones that would pit him against serious opposition from the mainstream Washington establishment which has propped him up and covered the tracks of his stupidity for four years. His strategic goal is merely to have the largest and most ferociously loyal band of followers he can muster, regardless of what he has to say or do to win such a band, or of how many contradictions he has to embody to sustain it.
And why are the size and especially the loyalty of his support group so much the focus of his concerns? The answer has always been somewhat apparent to non-worshippers, I suspect, but it becomes increasingly obvious over time. He needs people behind whom he can hide. He craves protectors. His insistence on blind devotion and loyalty from employees and fans alike — the whole “Mr. Trump” thing — which is mistakenly presumed by many to be a projection of (excessive) power, is in fact the very opposite, namely a projection of weakness. It is the demand of a child who feels he cannot reason his way to agreement, cannot persuade anyone of anything, and therefore simply stomps his feet and shouts, “It’s mine!” or “I hate him!” or “She’s ugly!” or “I want it!” Due, however, to a certain instinct or idiot-savantism for playing a crowd, and for sensing which crowd will be most emotionally susceptible to his Mussolini-like, emperor’s-new-clothes brand of demagoguery, Trump has found a most useful instrument in his ceaseless search for a protective shield or cocoon: a cult following at least as devoted to his personality as any Democratic voter is to the cult of leftist progressivism.
This is a fairly new phenomenon in Republican Party politics, which has hitherto been more or less free of personality cults or mass identification with a particular leader. Even Ronald Reagan — the closest thing to such a case in recent history — appealed to people as much through the refreshing clarity of his ideas as through his personal character and manner. And of course the GOP establishment despised him, whereas they actively chose Trump. (Their own version of weaponizing ignorance, we might say.) With Trump, by contrast, the personal presentation is all there is; the pretense of ideas, however flimsy (the wall, making America great again), has never been anything but a convenient mantra on which the simple-minded could hang their hats and salvage their pride in their teeny-bopper idolatry of this stupid, classless — but very rich and famous! — man who deigned to declare himself their champion, even when, as his most ardent followers are wont to say with deferential awe, “he didn’t need to.”
On the contrary, he absolutely did “need to.” And he needs those supporters now more than ever. He calls his rivals “savages” for the same reason he told his supporters at a rally during the 2016 primaries that he would personally pay their legal fees if they punched a protester for him. The reason is as obvious as can be, and it has nothing to do with “fight” or “guts.” Rather, he cannot fight his own battles, and lives in constant dread of being placed in a position of real danger, real crisis management, or a real test of his courage and dignity. He therefore needs — and the need is ever more desperate as the disparity between his assumed position and his real competence grows beyond measure — the security of feeling that someone will indeed rise to his defense in any pinch, that he has both clever establishment handlers and a feverish unthinking mob prepared at a moment’s notice to ensure that nothing and no one will ever really be allowed to challenge or endanger him, lest he be exposed as the paper tiger that he is.
Traditionally, the Republican establishment was dedicated to holding the allegiance of principled conservatives and constitutionalists with moderate feints toward those people’s sincere principles, though in the end they consistently deflected away those conservatives’ demands for similarly principled elected representation within the national party. There was no significant faction, let alone a dominant faction, of the blindly faithful within the GOP’s voter base — the kind of people who might be riled up to violent anger and action on behalf of mere politicians. There is something essentially unrepublican about such a sentiment, is there not? But the party has changed its strategy considerably of late, choosing for the first time a genuine personality cult leader as its figurehead, and in the process cultivating a new kind of base, namely a latent lynch mob just waiting for word that their god needs them to leap to his defense.
Would Trump actually try to prod his followers into violence if he felt this was necessary to protect himself in any way? We already know the answer, as he has been testing and teasing the borders of such a call to arms on a semi-regular basis for over three years, and there have already been several isolated outbursts of this sort on his behalf, to which, on each occasion, he has responded with approval and encouragement.
Do I mean that Trump might directly call on his followers to take up arms and storm the Capitol, for example? No, I don’t mean that. Such a direct action would itself require more chutzpah than I believe he has. But neither do I believe he would directly condemn any threatening behavior undertaken by his cult members in his defense. He would do what he always does: Make light of it, play moral equivalency games with it, and thus indirectly encourage and incite more of the same. (This is how, for example, he has kept the white supremacist bunch on his side, without actually espousing their position.) His only standard of judgment in such a case would be which course of action might best advance the cause of Donald Trump’s vanity, i.e., best promote his preferred public image and stoke his cult’s love, while shielding him from any sort of personal risk or harm.
Which of the two major parties would be more likely to turn to the rhetoric of violent hatred to promote their own cause in the coming election year and beyond? The answer would have been obvious until 2016. Today, with both parties, along with their most engaged supporters, completely in thrall to the cacophonous strains of progressive authoritarianism, whether of the socialist or “populist” varieties, all bets are off. Except this bet: As political rivalry becomes increasingly irrational and mindlessly sectarian, the resulting riotousness, whether rhetorical or otherwise, will completely drown out the minority voices of sanity and principle that, until just a few years ago, still seemed to stand a sliver of a chance on the American political scene.