Paul Berman first published this piece in Tablet on December 7, 2015, two months before a single vote was cast in the Iowa Caucus or the New Hampshire primary. We think you should re-read it. —the Editors
Donald Trump’s supporters turn out to be (as discovered by the statisticians, as reported by the political analysts) 55 percent white working-class, many of them males from age 50 to 64, without college degrees. And, in the analysts’ view, a political logic accounts for these people’s sympathies. The white workers are submerged in economic insecurity, and they blame their circumstances on illegal immigrants from Mexico, and they appreciate their candidate’s forceful anti-immigrant hostility. Nor do they want the United States to accept refugees from Syria. Their feelings on this matter draw them to Trump yet again. Such is the explanation. It makes sense. But I worry about explanations that make too much sense.
The whole phenomenon of people being upset over the Mexican immigration, to begin with—isn’t there something odd in this? We are right now experiencing an unemployment rate nationally of 5.5 percent, which really isn’t bad. Naturally people feel insecure economically, but the grounds for this are multiple: the competition from other countries (e.g., from Mexicans who do not immigrate); the fact that technological advances are always rendering one craft or another obsolete; the likelihood that one of these days the entirely American banks or the stock market will bring about still another financial crisis. And so forth. Why the emphasis on Mexican immigrants, then?
The first of the primaries will take place in a few weeks in New Hampshire, where Trump is said to be doing well. Is there something special to be learned from New Hampshire? Googling about, I discover that, at the University of New Hampshire this past July, the Carsey School of Public Policy issued a report saying that—I quote—“migration from Mexico to the U.S. dropped more than 50 percent in the last five years.” Other reports go further: More Mexicans are returning to Mexico than are coming to the United States. Immigration has mutated into emigration. However terrible the competition from Mexican immigrants may have been in the past (but how terrible was it?), the terribleness appears to be diminishing. You will recall Trump’s much-discussed outburst about Mexico: “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems to us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people!” To judge from the University of New Hampshire report, though, rather a lot of the immigrants are “good people”: “Those migrating tend to have higher socioeconomic status, are older, and are more likely to be women.” The crisis of immigration appears to be, in short, substantially a non-crisis.
The late-middle-aged white workers, then—what do they see in Trump? And what do they make of his proposal for dealing with the not-really-a-crisis? His proposed deportation of 11 million people would amount to the largest mass deportation in world history. You have only to picture for a moment the massed police and immigration agents and National Guard mobilizations to recognize that it is not going to happen. Suppose that a President Trump managed to do it, anyway. It would out-Stalin Stalin. The economic consequences alone would be catastrophic, given the unemployment rate. Entire industries would sink into the underpopulated sands. In my own town, which is New York, the restaurant industry would fall apart in 30 seconds if someone were to issue arrest warrants for the undocumented laborers from the city of Puebla, Mexico, who are toiling in the hellish kitchens. But then, Trump’s idea about deporting the millions is no more preposterous than his other proposal in regard to the Mexican immigration, which is to build a wall between Mexico and the United States and get the Mexican government pay for it. Not a soul on earth believes in the possibility of such a thing.
For that matter, does anyone honestly believe that Trump is going to be elected president? Pollsters tell us that people do believe it. But Trump has never actually tried to present himself as a presidential personality. When he stands in the row along with the all the other Republican debaters, he makes no effort to appear like any of the others. His look is a combination of dapper and bedraggled. The weight of his hair appears to have crushed his face like a pumpkin. He speaks with the peremptory tone of a New York gangster, sometimes with a trace of humor, which is charming, but always with an overtone of threat. Never does he sound like a man trying to assemble a coalition of supporters. Nor does he appear to aspire to be anyone’s second choice, though in a race with 16 candidates, a second-choice candidate has a shot at winning.
His supporters, then, the ones who have been around the block, who know how presidential elections go—what are they dreaming of? I think they support the Donald precisely because he is ridiculous. His impudence is his appeal. They cannot have given any serious thought to the economy or immigration or any of the major issues. They like how he insults his interviewers. Has he mocked a woman journalist’s period? Hah hah!—what other politician would dare do such a thing? Has he insulted John McCain? Here is bravery, given that everyone knows that McCain is a war hero. Has he ordered Jorge Ramos, the Univision news anchorman, to be escorted from the room? All the better! They like the fact that Trump doesn’t give a damn about being respectable or likable or courteous. He burps in your face. They will vote for such a man.
It has to be conceded that Trump is good at being bad. It comes to him naturally, even biologically. According to his biographer Gwenda Blair, Trump’s grandfather was an immigrant from Germany who made a fortune running brothel-restaurants in Seattle and the Canadian Yukon during the Klondike gold rush of the 1890s (where the brothels contained, in each room, a scale for weighing gold dust in payment). And the grandfather knew how, in a feat of reverse alchemy, to turn gold into real estate. Trump’s father expanded the holdings into a real-estate empire in the New York outer boroughs. The Donald himself succeeded in expanding the empire into Manhattan and then into businesses of all sorts: the Miss USA beauty pageant, hotels, golf courses, a gambling casino (which failed), an airline (which he was obliged to sell), men’s clothes, chocolate, restaurants, and more, some of them his own properties, others merely arrangements to license his name. And, with each new acquisition or product, he inscribed that name in ever gaudier letters into the American landscape. “Trump: the Fragrance” was always a joke, along with “Trump,” the vodka (which failed, though my own liquor store stocks it). But the jokes and non-jokes cleverly established a brand, which stands for a combination of good workmanship (Trump has constructed many buildings, none of which have fallen down) and execrable taste. He has also made a point of inhabiting the gossip pages, married to one fashion model or another, or dating this lady or that in a spirit of conquest—Carla Bruni, though he claims to regret having failed to date Princess Diana—which, after a while, led to a television career, where he turns out to be exceptionally talented.
It is because he is a fanatic of his own cause. He is at ease with himself, which makes him easy to watch. He looks absurd spreading his arms to show how absurd is the world, which allows him to make his points and amuse his audiences at the same time. And it was no small thing to come up with The Apprentice, his reality TV show, featuring the cult of his own personality. At its height this show attracted 28 million viewers, which is more than have watched any of the political debates of the campaign season, so far. On The Apprentice, Trump plays Donald J. Trump, who is the tycoon of a business empire. He summons his underlings to a meeting. They grovel. They discuss each other’s faults and failures. He listens. His demeanor appears to be almost kindly. And yet, he makes clear that, unlike all of his employees, he commands insights into the ingredients of business success. He sees what ordinary mortals cannot see. Therefore he sees how lamentable are his employees’ flaws and errors. And he fires someone. Or he fires them all. He does this because he understands how the world works. It is a matter of tragic wisdom. He understands that the world is cruel, even if he himself is not cruel, and he has no choice but to do as the world commands, which is to liquidate those who must be liquidated.
“You’re fired”—his most famous phrase—has got to be the ghastliest slogan ever heard from a presidential candidate. The fired employee receives the news in shock. The victim’s face freezes, then quivers. The employee knows there is no appeal. Mr. Trump has spoken. He is a Hollywood Mafia don—the crime chieftain who does not enjoy ordering the murder of his best friend, but who understands that, in the world of crime, there is no forgiveness. Afterward, Mr. Trump, like the Mafia don, is serene, perhaps even slightly pleased at the spectacle of his own competence.
And people like this man! They want to vote for him, yes, they do. It is because Trump is the nihilist candidate. There are people who would like to see Trump become president because, for the next four years, television news would be better even than The Apprentice. Trump’s supporters are losers, and they know they are losers. Trump knows how to be the loser’s idea of a winner. He wallows in the material extravagance of his triumphs, the fame, the leggy women, the television cameras, the gold, the platinum, the lush carpets, the airplanes, the servile workers, the orgy of arrogance that appears to be his life, the bad taste as a display of macho. And the deeper he wallows, the greater is the freedom that he grants to his followers to wallow in their own fantasies of grandeur. Their own fantasies cannot of course be material. Such is the fate of the working class. But grandeur can be emotional. And so, the followers indulge their urge to hate. The Donald tells them that hatred is OK, and they yield to it. The wonderful thing about hatred is that it does not require a particular object. Any object will do. Sartre made this point in his book Reflections on the Jewish Question. The Mexican immigrants will do perfectly, even if in reality Mexicans are crucial to the American economy and are diminishing in numbers. The Donald tells his followers not to accept the poor refugees from Syria, and the followers feel entitled to shiver in horror and fear. The Donald is right now whipping up a hatred for Muslims in New Jersey. I would imagine that, all over the country, his followers are pounding the table in contemptuous disdain for New Jersey Muslims. Who will it be next week? Probably more Muslims. Trump has discovered that, for him, there is no downside in conjuring hatreds of this sort. The respectable journalists indignantly reveal that his claims vary from the reality, but this merely allows him to display still more disdain for the respectable journalists, who surely figure in his own mind as the true enemy. And so he will continue, and his followers will feel that, during the course of his campaign, they have been able to live life more intensely even than in the glorious times gone by when they used to watch Trump dismiss his flunkies on The Apprentice.
The Trump candidacy ought to remind us of the ancient reality that politics is not necessarily the home of the rational—a truth to be found in the pages of Suetonius. I point to Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, from 1852. It is a study of the aftermath of the revolution of 1848 in France. Louis Bonaparte was a laughable character, but in the aftermath of the revolution public life was unsettled, and it was not clear what sort of government France was going to have. The laughable character happened to be the great Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew, and this sufficed to bring him to power. The stupid peasants voted for him. He established a dictatorship. It was absurd, but it happened. The story of Louis Bonaparte was the occasion for Marx’s remark about history taking place twice, the first time as tragedy (Napoleon), the second time as farce (the nephew). Marx wanted to draw from these events a lesson about the class struggle, but I think that he stumbled on a different and eternal truth, which has to do with the place of theater—of tragedy and farce, theatrical genres—in political life. Reality TV, in Trump’s version of it, is our modern farce. There are people who demand their daily farce: This was Marx’s unwitting discovery. They insist on being entertained. About the realities of their own political situation, those people may understand nothing. They understand a personal reality, though. They want to sit in the audience and laugh and cry. Especially they want to shake their fists at villains. They want to boo and hiss. They want to tremble in loathing. If someone comes out on stage who is capable of making them do so, they will clap. It is pathetic.
To read more of Paul Berman’s analysis for Tablet magazine, click here.