I started these Dispatches five years ago with the idea of trying to explain the curious ways of Americans to the English. I viewed the carnival of American politics with the ironic eye of an outsider. In the last Presidential Primary season I wrote this piece imagining the Republican debates as a kind of reality TV show. I presumed I would write in the same vein this year. The 2016 campaign promised another season of harmless entertainment before the serious fall campaign would begin. The entry of a vulgar, buffoonish clown into the race was a bonus, a bonanza for writers, cartoonists, and comedians everywhere. Even better than Sarah Palin. He would put on a spectacular show before inevitably imploding on his own excesses, leaving the field to the more serious candidates.
Of course it didn’t happen like that and it’s not funny any more.
Absolutely no one predicted what has actually happened. Not any of the highly paid TV pundits, the esteemed writers for major newspapers, the seasoned campaign operatives, or the professional politicians in Congress. I saw one distinguished program host drop her head onto the desk on live television, lost for words. Normally eloquent commentators have stumbled and stuttered through their reports in disbelief. So I don’t feel so bad that I can’t come up with much of a rational explanation when I receive plaintive emails from England asking me what’s going on. You might as well consult a soothsayer or a clairvoyant or read tea leaves instead of a newspaper. Looking for a rational explanation is futile. You have to look at the irrational.
When a candidate for President opens a debate by mentioning the size of his tackle you know we are in uncharted territory. Perhaps the only satisfying part of this spectacle is watching the so-called Republican establishment go from hand wringing to wailing and gnashing of teeth. I’m in the camp that believes they brought it on themselves. For decades Republicans have used their reliable dog whistle to win votes by stoking fear and resentment of “the other.” Well Trump threw away the dog whistle and let all the anger and hatred out into the open. To explain what’s happening you have to look into a very ugly place in the American psyche. A place where intense race hatred still exists despite so many claims to the contrary. A place where race hatred and anger are purposefully whipped up by a certain segment of the political/media complex for their own ends.
We’ve been waiting for Mr. Trump to go too far, finally, for his supporters to follow. He didn’t get there by trashing a war hero, by referencing a female reporter’s menstruation, by debating with bullying name-calling rather than arguing ideas, or by urging violence against peaceful protesters at his rallies. (Indeed the first “protesters” did nothing more than stand quietly wearing a hijab or holding a Black Lives Matter sign. More vocal protests only followed video of the hateful and violent behavior of Trump rally attendees). It was not even going too far when Mr. Trump asked for Pledges of Allegiance to himself along with the Nazi salute! Today he opened to question the number of delegates needed at the convention and threatened riots if he is denied the nomination. He is trying to bully his way to the Presidency.
The urgent question today is whether the minority who follow Trump will control the future, or whether their insurgency will be the failed last gasp of an angry mob whose time is past.
It’s no laughing matter.