Monday, August 22, 2016

What do Trump's promises reveal about his motives?

If there's one thing I've learned from the rise of Donald Trump, it's to trust my instincts more. I had a dream about a year ago that Trump would be the Republican nominee in 2016; after I woke up, I shrugged it off as a laughable fantasy. In early December (though the scenario had been in my head for a while) I wrote this post, where I mused about the possibility of Trump winning the nomination then suddenly announcing at the convention that it was all a giant practical joke. Even then, I was quick to add that I still saw his nomination as "unlikely."

A lot has already been written on how Trump managed to win the nomination, less about why pundits and others considered it so unlikely in the first place. Partly it was his lack of experience in political office, partly his extreme positions, partly his bucking of party orthodoxy, and partly his utter lack of support from the GOP establishment. All those are important factors, but there's another that especially had an effect on me. It goes back to my memories of an earlier presidential candidate you have probably never heard of: Mike Gravel.

Mike Gravel is a former U.S. Senator from Alaska who unsuccessfully sought both the Democratic and Libertarian Party nominations in 2008, nearly 30 years after the last time he held office. There are two things I remember most about him. One was his involvement in what has got to be the weirdest political ad of all time. The other was an interview he gave with a Jewish publication, where he declared that, if elected president, "I will bring peace between the Israelis and Palestinians and thereby diffuse the entire confrontation between the Islamic world and the West."

What struck me about this remark was its complete lack of qualification. He didn't say he was going to try to bring peace in the region, he said he was going to do it, full stop. And he assured us that not only would he singlehandedly solve this immensely complicated problem that has eluded generations of past presidents, but that doing so would all by itself diffuse "the entire confrontation between the Islamic world and the West." Did he also say something about giving everyone a pony?

In other words, it was a proto-Trumpian statement.

Why would he make a statement like this? At the time my thought was that it reflected his own cynical self-awareness of his marginal status. He could make the boldest and most far-reaching promises of what he'd achieve as president, secure in the knowledge he'd never be held to a single one of them. Candidates with a realistic path to the White House never talk that way. Despite the stereotype of politicians promising the moon before they're actually elected, serious candidates usually exercise at least some caution in their campaign pledges, because they know that when they don't ("Read my lips: no new taxes"), it can actually get them into trouble.

Donald Trump, alas, has blown that theory out of the water. In 2013, he said, "I don't think I'd be cutting Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid. I think what I do is make the country so rich, you wouldn't have to bother." He began his 2015 campaign promising not only that he'd build a wall across the US-Mexico border, but that Mexico would pay for it. In December one of his spokesman told the press that Trump was going to win 100%--yes, 100%--of the black vote. He has more recently downgraded that goal slightly: "And at the end of four years, I guarantee you that I will get over 95 percent of the African-American vote."

You'd think a candidate with his eyes set on the White House would avoid the sorts of statements that are very, very, very, very likely never to happen. That was a major reason why I didn't take Trump seriously when he first began running. It all struck me as a game--an exercise in provocation.

And what would be the purpose of the game? One popular conspiracy theory holds that he's a "Clinton plant," a candidate who got in the race with the secret intention of helping Clinton win. This theory provides a neat explanation for all his past heresies, not the least of which is his apparent support for Bill and Hillary Clinton in the past. In some versions of this theory, his run was part of some private deal he made with the Clintons, though what they could possibly have had to offer him is a deep mystery. In other versions, the Clintons aren't involved and it's just Trump's own personal attempt to screw with the populace. According to one Internet hoax, he told People magazine in 1998, "If I were to run, I'd run as a Republican. They're the dumbest group of voters in the country...I could lie and they'd still eat it up."

I have to admit that my (mostly facetious) post from December was expressing a variant on this theory. I never bought the notion that the Clintons were in on it, but I did at least flirt with the idea that he deliberately wanted to hurt the Republicans. And it's weird, because I'm not the sort of person usually tempted by conspiracy theories of any kind, least of all ones popular on the right. Yet there's just something about Trump that makes me think--makes a lot of people think--that he's somehow putting us all on, that it's all some kind of elaborate gag.

In the end, I do still believe he didn't enter the race with any intention of getting this far, that it was some kind of publicity stunt aimed at drumming up media attention he could use to funnel into some other venture. But now that he's here, there's no turning back, and whether he actually wants to be president or not, he definitely doesn't like the thought of being a looooooooooooooser. That we don't even need to speculate about.