The Nasty Rise and Fall of Donald Trump

With the candidate flailing in the polls, some on the right are wondering if a better version of the man wouldn’t be winning. But that kinder, gentler Trump would’ve lost in the primaries.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Last week, Peggy Noonan argued in the Wall Street Journal that an outsider like Donald Trump could’ve won handily this year, touting skepticism of free trade and immigration, if only he was more sane, or less erratic and prone to nasty insults:

Sane Donald Trump would have looked at a dubious, anxious and therefore standoffish Republican establishment and not insulted them, diminished them, done tweetstorms against them. Instead he would have said, “Come into my tent. It’s a new one, I admit, but it’s yuge and has gold faucets and there’s a place just for you. What do you need? That I be less excitable and dramatic? Done. That I not act, toward women, like a pig? Done, and I accept your critique. That I explain the moral and practical underpinnings of my stand on refugees from terror nations? I’d be happy to. My well-hidden secret is that I love everyone and hear the common rhythm of their beating hearts.” Sane Donald Trump would have given an anxious country more ease, not more anxiety. He would have demonstrated that he can govern himself. He would have suggested through his actions, while still being entertaining, funny and outsize, that yes, he understands the stakes and yes, since America is always claiming to be the leader of the world—We are No. 1!—a certain attendant gravity is required of one who’d be its leader.

A figure like that would probably be polling better right now. But I don’t think “Sane Trump” could have won the Republican Party’s primary election. Only “Nasty Trump” could’ve managed to beat the huge field of more experienced rivals.

“Trump's nastiness is one of the reasons he will lose the election,” Josh Barro writes at Business Insider. “But it's also a key reason he got the Republican nomination in the first place.” Barro argues that it helped Trump appeal to a particular faction:

Over the last few decades, as racism and sexism have become impolite, a substantial number of voters on the right have decided politeness itself is a problem. Trump's absolute commitment to nastiness — often taking the form of crude sexual insults of women or claims about the criminality of minorities, but expansive enough to include many put-downs of white men as well — signaled to his voters that he was one of them, a committed opponent of the forces of politeness that seek to make "regular Americans" feel guilty about "speaking their minds."

Trump, of course, prefers to frame his nastiness as a rejection of "political correctness," as do many of his supporters. There are cases of real excesses in sensitivity norms, as you may learn if you try to wear a Halloween costume or make sushi on a college campus. But the problem with the term "political correctness" is that it does not mean anything — or rather, that it can be used to impugn whatever norms governing social discourse from which the speaker would like to be liberated. As it turns out, most of the norms around social discourse are good ones. For example, they include "don't call women 'fat pigs,'" and "don't categorize large chunks of nationalities as rapists and criminals," and "don't brag about how big your penis is on the stage at a presidential debate." But if you violate any of these norms and say you're just being "politically incorrect," tens of millions of boorish idiots will cheer you on.

Trump has undeniably run a campaign of unusually naked animus against Hispanics, Muslims, and women. A minority faction of his supporters do delight in his bigotry. And Barro is right that “political correctness” is a vague term that can collapse important distinctions between offenses against oversensitivity and deplorable behavior. But I don’t think Trump’s animus against Hispanics or women was the x-factor in his victory. Put another way, I think he could’ve won over the GOP base without racism or sexism... but could not have won without nastiness.

Consider Trump’s most important forerunners.

Circa 2008, when Sarah Palin was plucked from Alaska’s governorship to be on the GOP ticket with John McCain, many Republicans rallied behind her not because they were impressed by her record as governor, or believed in her policy agenda or competence, but because they loved that she stood up for Team Red in the culture wars, praised “real America,” and denigrated coastal elites with folksy zingers.

They wanted a champion to channel their animus and anger towards managerial elites and their frustration at not feeling as heard or influential. An exquisitely polite person with a sunny disposition and exactly the same policy agenda would not have done. A willingness to lash out angrily at RINOs and the left was a litmus test, though Palin managed to pass that test without denigrating Hispanics or women.

Circa 2011, when Andrew Breitbart, the late architect of the most important pro-Donald Trump website, published his book Righteous Indignation, he explained in its first chapter that his life’s work was spurred by his grudge against Hollywood celebrities. "If America's pop-cultural ambassadors like Alec Baldwin and Janeane Garofalo didn't come back from their foreign trips to tell us how much they hate us," he wrote, "if my pay cable didn't highlight a comedy show every week that called me a racist for embracing constitutional principles and limited government, I wouldn't be at Tea Parties screaming my love for this great, charitable, and benevolent country." He insisted that "the left made me do it! I swear!"

He added that he would not be expanding his Internet media empire to cover higher education “if the college campus weren't filled with tenured professors like 9/11 apologist Ward Churchill and bullshit departments like Queer Studies, and if the academic framework weren't being planned out by domestic terrorists like Bill Ayers,” and that he would not have launched a career as a commentator "if the political left weren't so joyless, humorless, intrusive, taxing, anarchistic, controlling, rudderless, chaos-prone, pedantic, unrealistic, hypocritical, clueless, politically correct, angry, cruel, sanctimonious, retributive, redistributive, intolerant..."

Breitbart’s fans didn’t form a cult of personality around him because of his vision for how government or culture ought to operate. He had no positive vision or constructive project. He was an anti-leftist. He wanted to destroy the left and gave little thought to the consequences of his approach or what would come after. Little surprise that he built a media empire with angry television appearances and righteously indignant Twitter fights that appealed to people who reveled in seeing their cultural adversaries attacked. Of course that same faction later favored the primary candidate who spent months insulting his RINO rivals and feuding with the liberal media, all to reach a podium across from Hillary Clinton and tell her “you’re a nasty woman” as Barack Obama’s Kenyan half-brother looked on from the audience.

What most Americans saw as a farce was, for them, a fantasy realized.

Early in my career, I was one of numerous young people on the heterodox right who warned about the extent to which Palin, Breitbart, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and others were creating an epistemically closed subculture of cultural grievance. “The political identity of the populist right is too thick,” Julian Sanchez wrote back in 2009, positing that changes in communication technology were making it possible for far-flung individuals to form something resembling the sort of “community” that couldn’t previously exist at a level larger than an individual town.

These populist political communities were significant.

“Between dedicated cable and radio channels and the Internet, you really can live in them in a pretty literal and immersive way,” Sanchez wrote. “But simultaneously—and maybe this sounds a bit paradoxical—political communities are therefore also more culturally autonomous. That is, they need no longer refer to something outside politics. When I enter politics as a small businessman or a Catholic or a philosophical conservative, I’m bringing information from outside the political process into it. What’s really pernicious about a politics of ressentiment is that it cuts that tether—it enables a political identity that’s generated and defined by political conflict itself.”

A subculture on the left has been dubbed “social justice warriors” because its thick political identity seems, to its detractors, to be generated and defined by a constantly taking umbrage and sowing conflict. On the right, Ted Cruz saw back in 2010 that political conflict mattered most to a key faction of the Republican base. He was hated by colleagues in Washington, D.C. in large part because, time and again, he would shamelessly pick public fights with the GOP establishment to show off for the conservative base even when there was no substantive purpose to the fight.

Cruz’s performances won him many votes.

But he couldn’t compete with Trump, who had even less shame, and was prone to lashing out by instinct in addition to strategy. He would praise anyone who said nice words about him, even Vladamir Putin––but savage anyone who criticized him, even those he’d praised the day before. Trump wasn’t just adept at playing on the ressentiment of the GOP base, he embodied it. Here’s the working definition of ressentiment that Sanchez cribbed from Wikipedia in those bygone essays: “a sense of resentment and hostility directed at that which one identifies as the cause of one’s frustration, an assignation of blame for that frustration. The sense of weakness or inferiority and perhaps jealousy in the face of the ‘cause’ generates a rejecting/justifying value system, or morality, which attacks or denies the perceived source. The ego creates an enemy in order to insulate itself from culpability.”

That describes Trump himself better than his voters, many of whom have idiosyncratic reasons for supporting him.

“The general worry: a populist right animated by ressentiment isn’t going to do a good job of injecting conservative ideas into deliberation in a useful way,” Sanchez warned back in 2009. “This is not, to be clear, some kind of white-gloved complaint about ‘tone,’ because really, fuck tone. The ascendancy of angry bluster isn’t the problem; it’s a symptom.  The problem is what the anger obscures.”

Sanchez suggested sex as an analogy.

“If you’re not turned on or emotionally engaged,” he noted, sex “can look kind of ridiculous.” In politics, “charging up the rhetoric prevents the kind of emotional distancing that would make the cultural grievances seem absurd, at least as political issues.” Had Republican primary voters cast their votes with marginally less focus on what charged them up and emotionally engaged them, and relatively more focus on experience, or electability; if trustworthiness would’ve been measured with less focus on emotional intensity of rhetoric and more focus on character, deciding to consummate a general election campaign with Trump would’ve felt ridiculous.

To many Republican voters, it did seem ridiculous. But Trump appealed to the sort of Republican who’s been primed for conflict, so they nominated a Social Injustice Warrior.

What I wish I’d known back when I was analyzing the rise of Limbaugh, Palin, and Breitbart, and lamenting the destructiveness of their doomed, ressentiment-driven approach to politics, is the relevant conservative movement history that Matthew Continetti just sketched in a thoughtful column at the Washington Free Beacon. In it he traces the rise of a new force on the right beginning in the late 1970s, “an oppositional force, antagonistic to all aspects of the Eastern Establishment, Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative, cultural and economic.”

It would “devalue intellect and prioritize activism,” he wrote:

The enemies of the New Right were compromise, gradualism, and acquiescence in the corrupt system. Partisan identification had little to do with their antagonisms. Nor did ideology. William F. Buckley and George Will were just as much targets of media criticism as CBS and the New York Times.

Conservatives and Republicans with Ivy League degrees were sellouts, weak, epiphenomena of the social disease. “There are conservatives whose game it is to quote English poetry and utter neo-Madisonian benedictions over the interests and institutions of establishment liberalism,” Kevin Phillips wrote in Commentary... “Then there are other conservatives—many I know—who have more in common with Andrew Jackson than with Edmund Burke. Their hope is to build cultural siege-cannon out of the populist steel of Idaho, Mississippi, and working-class Milwaukee, and then blast the Eastern liberal establishment to ideo-institutional smithereens.” In two sentences Phillips repudiated the cornerstone of Burkeanism—the protection of established order against radical challenges—in favor of upheaval, destruction, and power.

Today, when we think of Wallace and the fight against crime and busing, we think of racial antagonism and bias. But there was also something else going on. “Racism is a part of it, though somewhat muted in recent days,” wrote Kirkpatrick Sale in his 1975 book Power Shift. “But more potent still is a broad adversarianism, a being-against. Wallace has no real policies, plans, or platforms, and no one expects them... it is sufficient that he is agin and gathers unto him others who are agin, agin the blacks, the intellectuals, the bureaucrats, the students, the journalists, the liberals, the outsiders, the Communists, the changers, above all, agin the Yankee establishment.”

In Continetti’s telling, Ronald Reagan, almost unique among politicians, was able to unify the right’s factions. And, of course, Reagan won over broad swaths of the electorate. But once he was gone, conservatives like George H.W. Bush and adversarianists like Pat Buchanan were once again at odds in an increasingly uneasy wing of the political spectrum.

Trump isn’t an anomaly, he is the latest iteration of that feud. His strongest supporters “are drawn from the network of institutions, spokesmen, and causes established by the New Right some 40 years ago,” Continetti argues.

He sketches this “adversarianism”:

Immigration, which emerged as a social issue at the turn of the twenty-first century, was key to Trump’s success. So was his role as outsider, independent critic of the rigged system, scold of elites, avatar of reaction.

The apocalyptic predictions… even the idea of seizing Arab territory and “taking the oil” comes straight from Bill Rusher’s 1975 Making of the New Majority Party. The relentless hostility toward the media, both liberal and heterodox conservative, the accusation that it, the government, and the financial sector is engaged in a criminal conspiracy with Hillary Clinton, the denigration of Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, the appeal to supporters of democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, the charge that the “global power structure” has “stripped” manufacturing towns “bare and raided the wealth for themselves”—this is adversarianism in its purest, most conspiratorial, most totalistic form.

The attacks on National Review, on George Will, on conservatives with elite educations, on conservatives granted legitimacy by mainstream institutions is a replay of the New Right rhetoric of the 1970s. Names have been added to the list of Republicans in Name Only, of false, cuckolded conservatives, but the battle lines are the same. On the one hand are the effete intellectuals based on the East Coast, shuttling up and down the Acela corridor, removed from the suffering of the average American, ignorant of the social issues, amenable to social engineering, fat and happy on a diet of foundation grants, magazine sinecures, think tank projects, speaking engagements. On the other are the blue-collar radio and television hosts with million-dollar contracts, the speechwriter for Wall Street banks who uses a pseudonym to cast aspersions on the feckless conservative elite, the billionaire-supported populist website that attacks renegade Jews, the bloggers and commenters and trolls estranged from power, from influence, from notoriety, from relevance, fueled by resentment, lured by the specter of conspiracy, extrapolating terrifying and chiliastic scenarios from negative but solvable trends.

It is the same discourse, the same methods, the same antinomianism, the same reaction to demographic change and liberal overreach that we encountered in the 1970s.

The difference? It is striking, especially coming from the author of The Persecution of Sarah Palin:

The difference is that Donald Trump is so noxious, so unhinged, so extremist in his rejection of democratic norms and political convention and basic manners that he has untethered the New Right politics he embodies from the descendants of William F. Buckley Jr. The triumph of populism has left conservatism marooned, confused, uncertain, depressed, anxious, searching for a tradition, for a program, for viability.

We might have to return to the beginning to understand where we have ended up. We might have to reject adversarianism, to accept the welfare state as an objective fact, to rehabilitate Burnham’s vision of a conservative-tinged Establishment capable of permeating the managerial society and gradually directing it in a prudential, reflective, virtuous manner respectful of both freedom and tradition. This is the challenge of the moment.

This is the crisis of the conservative intellectual. What makes that crisis acute is the knowledge that he and his predecessors may have helped to bring it on themselves.

So long as a significant faction on the right is driven by ressentiment to embrace adversarianism, so long they’d rather see their enemies attacked than achieve anything constructive, and they choose their champions based on their stridency more than their virtues or competence, it will be extremely difficult if not impossible for anyone to win a Republican presidential primary and a general election. And so long as the Republican establishment fails to grapple with the failures of its foreign policy ideology, to purge its hucksters, and to construct policies for its base more effectively than it does for its donor class, it will fail to win back enough voters from adversarianists, whose grievances have some truth to them.

There is a small core of #NeverTrump conservatives who understand both of these truths. A great deal depends on how much success they have making their case.