Friday, December 04, 2015

The troll primary

For some reason I've been having the following fantasy lately:

Donald J. Trump sweeps the Republican primaries, easily collecting enough delegates to nab the nomination. The mainstream GOP press starts to panic. After a few stray comments by a couple of pundits and operatives hinting at the idea that the convention should ignore the results and pick a more conventional candidate, the right goes berserk. Erick Erickson accuses the RINO establishment of attempting a coup d'etat, and Michelle Bachmann says they're working in cahoots with ACORN and the IRS. After a few days of this, most mainstream Republicans start to make peace with the idea of a Trump nomination. They note that it's really not so bad: they won't have to worry about turning out "the base," and they're relieved to see that some polls show Trump trailing Hillary by only 10 percentage points, well within striking distance. The convention is set up in Cleveland. A slot of speakers is introduced including Rubio, Kasich, Jindal, and a host of other figures who had once bashed and ridiculed Trump, but who now tout Trump's business acumen and talk about how he's going to bring back greatness and to save America from the horrors of the Obama years and "the Clinton machine." Several days pass until finally Trump is introduced to speak. He walks triumphantly across the aisle, chin set, bird's nest on head, and he steps up to the podium. After a lengthy pause, he opens his mouth and speaks, in front of America and in front of the entire world:

"Fooled ya! This whole candidacy has been a joke, and you fell for it! I just did this to prove once and for all how dumb Republican voters are, and to destroy their chances of winning. Which I just have, ha ha ha! Of course Mexicans aren't rapists and Muslims didn't cheer on 9/11, but by giving me your support you just proved beyond any doubt you're all a bunch of racist, backwards lunatics who are so moronically predictable you'll believe someone who's totally faking it! What a sad, pathetic bunch of assholes you all are, and don't blame me: you brought this on yourself. And oh, one more thing: God bless America."

He steps to the side of the podium and makes an up-yours sign straight at the camera. He then turns around and walks back down the aisle, leaving everyone in stunned silence.


Is this really as far-fetched as it sounds? Well, for the record, I don't think Trump is going to win the nomination--I don't even think he wants it--and in the unlikely event that he does win it, I doubt he'd have the balls to pull off something like the above scenario. But I do seriously believe there's a decent chance this hypothetical speech represents what he truly thinks about the GOP.

After all, his public persona as an unreconstructed wingnut basically goes back to 2011, the first time he flirted with a run for the Republican nomination--there's no record of him ever holding such views prior to that year. Some of this has already gotten a lot of press, such as his defense of single-payer health care or his donations to Democrats. Other past statements of his have been surprisingly overlooked, as when he praised President Obama to high heaven in 2009. Now, I'm well aware there are people who soured on Obama in the course of his first term. Still, it's really hard to reconcile these statements with the birther stuff he got into in 2011. Not only did Trump never sound this right-wing, he simply has no history of embracing lunatic conspiracy theories of any sort, and it's not as if the stuff he complains about now weren't part of Obama's agenda from the start.

I'm not saying his candidacy is necessarily some Borat-like social experiment to expose the GOP base's stupidity and bigotry. But I do strongly believe it's an act of some kind. I agree with those (like Nate Silver) who have described Trump as basically an Internet troll. (That's actually one of the reasons I think it's quite likely he will go third party in the end; it will enable him to milk this thing for as long as he can without having to worry about actually winning.)

Truth be told, I've had similar feelings about other figures on the right--Ann Coulter especially, though it's a style that goes back at least to Rush Limbaugh. I'm not saying any of those people are closet liberals, but they do very often give the impression that they’re engaged in some bizarre type of trolling. When Coulter says that women should be denied the right to vote, does she really mean it? Or is she simply reveling in the reaction this statement provokes among liberals and the media? Whatever the reason, I've never been able to bring myself to be actually outraged by anything Coulter says, because I get the sneaky feeling I'd be reacting exactly the way she wants me to. I'm reminded of something Roger Ebert once wrote about a Monty Python film: "This movie is so far beyond good taste, and so cheerfully beyond, that we almost feel we're being One-Upped if we allow ourselves to be offended." So whenever I hear someone react to a Coulter remark by exclaiming "That's terrible!" I'm almost tempted to roll my eyes and say, "Whatever." Coulter has another thing in common with Trump: she has never publicly apologized for anything, ever. Their consistent response to criticism is to double down on their controversial remarks.

This places him in a different category from demagogues of the past he's often been compared with, such as Charles Coughlin or George Wallace. If you've ever read any of Coughlin's monologues (I have), he sounds almost intellectual. And while Wallace was somewhat of an opportunist ("I will never be outniggered again"), I wouldn't describe him as trollish. True believers or not, these men were either extremists or pandering to extremists for political gain. People who think that's all what Trump is about are missing something, in my view.

The point isn't to make excuses for Trump, whose rhetoric is deeply dangerous regardless of his motives for engaging in it. The real lesson of his candidacy is what it says about a large segment of the Republican Party. It's like an experiment I read about years ago in which scientists designed a robotic honeybee that real honeybees ended up accepting as one of their own. The fact that it was fake didn't take away from the fact that it did a good enough impression of the real thing.