This article is adapted from a correspondence published in Quarterly Essay 64: The Australian Dream (Black Inc.), out November 21.
If you are reading this and Donald J. Trump is the president-elect of the United States, we will, thanks to Don Watson, know why.
Nearly two centuries after the appearance of Democracy in America, Watson is within the august penumbra of Alexis de Tocqueville and, for contemporary tragics of the American experience, on par with AdT’s twentieth-century heir, BHL (Bernard-Henri Lévy), whose American Vertigo a decade ago similarly made sense of America and its place in our universe. For this, we are greatly indebted. Watson is the keenest observer, scholar and analyst.
Indeed, if Trump wins – an increasingly unlikely prospect in mid-October – it will be because of what Watson found in his journeys, such as to Janesville, Wisconsin, unknown, we dare say, to 99.999 per cent of Americans, much less the world, until now, with the ascension of its Member of the US House of Representatives, Paul Ryan, to become Speaker, the third-highest constitutional office, and clearly an aspirant, in a post-Trump world, to the presidency itself.
Watson writes of Trump’s appeal:
Trump says, Hand your fear over to me. Hand your loathing over too. I will deal with your enemies as I have dealt with mine. I will give you back your freedom, and your country. Your old lives will be yours to live again. I will halt the terminal decline. American exceptionalism, in which you all hold shares, will be underwritten by an exceptional American.
If only the Donald could read that from a teleprompter and stop getting up at 3 am to attack a former Miss Universe on Twitter. Or get into a fight with the Pope. Or impugn a Vietnam War hero and prisoner-of-war. Or stomp on the grief of an American Muslim family whose son sacrificed his life to save fellow American soldiers in Iraq. Or disparage the integrity of a judge because his parents were from Mexico. Or raise the implicit spectre of unleashed vigilante gun violence against his opponent.
As Watson shows us through his wonderful reporting, a good part of America is ripe for Trump’s message. The anger and frustration of less-educated white men in particular, whose lives have been harmed by economic forces they do not understand and that are beyond their control, who see the country becoming strange to their eyes as its demographic face changes in their life- times, who rage against an Imperial City that is dysfunctional, obsessed with itself and its power, greedy and unresponsive to their needs – Watson brings this home to us.
Any Republican candidate can tap into this – and, indeed, the ticket the Democrats feared most was Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Governor John Kasich of Ohio. They would have been on-message for the angry populist cause, and formed a potent generational, cultural and ideological force to go up against Hillary Clinton. But alas, a split field of fifteen could not stop a determined authoritarian narcissist from his hostile takeover of the Republican Party – his biggest business deal ever, and a massive expansion of the Trump brand. Could be worth billions.
For all of this that Watson chronicles so well, there remains a nagging question. It is not about Trump’s pedigree. His political identity contains many slivers of American extremism and radicalism: Huey Long, Charles Lindbergh, Joe McCarthy, George Wallace, Barry Goldwater, Pat Buchanan, H. Ross Perot. In this mix lies the demagoguery, the racism, the isolationism, the protectionism, the pugilism, the crony capitalism that defines Trump.
The nagging question about Trump is not about his psychological infirmities, which David Brooks has explored in the New York Times, and which many learned medical practitioners will assess in books yet to be written.
The nagging question about this horrible and dangerous man is: how has he been able to persist in a parallel universe in which the normal laws of political gravity do not apply? Where he can say and do the most outrageous and unacceptable things and not be driven from the race? (As a contrast, can you imagine what would have happened if, in 2008, Senator Barack Obama had said at a political rally where some were demonstrating against him, ‘I want to punch that guy in the face’? He would have been called an uppity racial epithet and been driven from the race within a day.)
Trump commits these political atrocities all the time – and survives. To his tens of millions of supporters, these acts seem not to undercut his legitimacy as a presidential candidate. Why is that?
An explanation may well lie in our culture. In fact, as Trump seeks the West Wing, it may be said that the Trump problem we face began with The West Wing. Aaron Sorkin’s magnificent and magisterial fictional creation of a modern American presidency brought home to tens of millions a demystified – but heroic – White House. It showed us inside the Oval and the Situation rooms, the Lincoln Bedroom and Air Force One, the limo and Camp David, and displayed all the high-intensity people and their purposes, and the toys that make the functioning of the modern presidency possible. It was wildly popular. Indeed, the series has a cult following, even in Australia, and has spawned other shows that have also brought to tens of millions more people, over two decades, the reality television view of Washington: Scandal, State of Affairs, Commander in Chief, Madam Secretary, Veep, Homeland, 24 … and House of Cards.
As Trump seeks the West Wing, it may be said that the Trump problem we face began with The West Wing.
The theory posited here is that Donald Trump the Presidency is and reflects this declension – that the Trump candidacy is the bastard descendant of The West Wing: that if a real-life candidate appears, with cunning theatrical skills, who has all the presidential accoutrements – the airplane, the chopper, the entourage, the luxury playgrounds, the command over media and television networks, the omnipresence in commentary and analysis – that by having all these stylistic elements of presidential power, millions of people can indeed see, because they have seen it for years on television – and not just heroic versions of the presidency but revolting and perverted depictions of the presidency, such as in House of Cards – that yes, that man Trump could be President of the United States. Who today can know that Frank Underwood would never make it to the White House?
The primal intersection of the Trump parallel universe with the real-world presidential campaign was the ‘birther’ moment in 2011, when the Trump helicopter landed in New Hampshire (gee, looks just like Marine One landing at Camp David! And with breathless wall-to-wall live cable TV coverage of the event!) and Trump took credit for the release of President Obama’s birth certificate. From that moment in New Hampshire, he – and we – were truly off to the races.
And five years later, Trump shows no contrition, makes no apology, for a racist canard designed purely to undercut the legitimacy, for Trump’s supporters, of the first African American president: was Obama really an American by birth and eligible to serve? And still today Trump lies about a tie between the ‘issue’ and Hillary Clinton, a lie he uses to justify his original pursuit of the ‘issue.’
In September, the Washington Post was told by Leonard Steinhorn, a professor at American University who is teaching a course on communications and the election:
He [Trump] had a lifetime of experience with TV, and he under- stands the power of the medium in a way that many presidents have not. Donald Trump set out in this campaign to dominate the [TV] experience, to keep people glued in and to define the parameters of how we all experience this election.
The context, the echo chamber, for today’s Trump reality show is a rich cinematic library. In addition to the TV series, we are seeing this man through the lens of a panoply of motion pictures whose actors exhibit presidential virtues, save the country, and sometimes the planet: The American President, Air Force One, Independence Day, Deep Impact, Primary Colors, Dave, In the Line of Fire, White House Down.
The context, the echo chamber, for today’s Trump reality show is a rich cinematic library.
To be sure, we see the real-world White House for what it is. But as we are seeing it, we are seeing it through the lens of our entertainment culture. What does everyone say after they see a terrible, violent tragedy in real life, such as a terror attack, a building exploding, a bridge collapse, an airplane crash? ‘It was just like a movie.’ No, it was just like real life.
So the issue is not just that the Trump candidacy resembles a reality television show – something President Obama strenuously called to account in May:
This is a serious job. This is not entertainment, this is not a reality show. This is a contest for the presidency of the United States. What that means is every candidate, every nominee needs to be subject to … exacting standards of genuine scrutiny.
The answer to the nagging question of Trump and why he has got this far, and is only one vote away from becoming president, is that America’s entertainment culture, in the way it portrays the presidency, legitimises even a Donald Trump as a serious contender for the highest office in the land.
As Obama’s former speechwriter Jon Favreau told the New York Times in September:
I worry that if those of us in politics and the media don’t do a lot of soul-searching after this election, a slightly smarter Trump will succeed in the future. For some politicians and consultants, the takeaway from this election will be that they can get away with almost anything.
Trump’s secret to success is not simply being identified with celebrity. Presidents have associated with Hollywood and entertainment since motion pictures were born. In modern times, to cite a handful of examples, Kennedy hung out with Marilyn Monroe, Peter Lawford, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. Ronald Reagan, an actor himself, was close with Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Jimmy Stewart and dozens of Hollywood moguls and powerbrokers. Clinton with Streisand and Sheryl Crow. Obama with Beyoncé, Oprah, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney and so many more.
The issue is not presidential candidates and celebrity. The issue is not reality television. The issue is a culture that has corrupted our view of politics to such a point that perhaps 45 per cent of the country cannot distinguish the virtues of a Trump and a Clinton.
That is our problem.
So what’s the answer? Aaron Sorkin’s team knows what to do. In September, the cast of The West Wing campaigned for Hillary in Ohio. Thank you, President Bartlett! Surely you will prevail again, so that your successor in the Oval Office is worthy of the job and the trust of the American people. This is what it comes down to. A key swing state swayed by the cast of The West Wing. A cultural legacy redeemed.
As Don Watson sincerely hopes will be the case. Me too.
Don Watson’s Quarterly Essay 63 – Enemy Within: American politics in the time of Trump is available now at Readings.
Quarterly Essay 64: The Australian Dream is released 21 November.