Kurt Andersen is the author of True Believers and host of the Peabody Award-winning public-radio program Studio 360. In 1986, he co-founded Spy magazine, the satirical monthly whose cast of louche New York characters included “short-fingered vulgarian Donald Trump.”
Paul Berman, Tablet’s Critic At Large, is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, and other books.
David Samuels is Tablet’s literary editor, and a longtime contributor to magazines including Harper’s, n+1, and The New Yorker.
Sean Wilentz is the Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor of the American Revolutionary Era at Princeton University. The author of historical studies and cultural essays both large and minute in scope, his Bancroft Prize-winning The Rise of American Democracy is the definitive account of the Jacksonian revolution in America.
David Samuels: You have all spent your lives thinking and writing in and about New York City. As a lifelong New Yorker myself, I can’t get the weird flashback image of Trump and Giuliani together on stage on election night out of my head. What was it about the temper of New York City in the 1980s and ’90s that had such resonance in what is suddenly Donald Trump’s America? Or are these guys canny old-school New York operators who saw their opportunity and took it, pulling one over on the downtrodden rubes?
Sean Wilentz: As some cop is supposed to have extolled while he sodomized Abner Louima with a toilet plunger, “It’s Giuliani time!” Louima denied it later, but you get the point. That’s part of it, the nastiest part. But also (and it really goes back to Koch), a perverse form of New York schtick did finally catch on nationwide. They weren’t just putting one over: The rubes had wised up to how the GOP exploited them every four years, and Trump’s funny, what-the-fuck but fuck-you style (watched by millions for years and years) blended perfectly with their frustration and his message. The GOP ran out of cowboys; now they get this.
Kurt Andersen: Yes, after contemplating it for 28 years, waiting for the right ripe moment, Trump is a canny New York operator who saw his opportunity and took it, pulling one over on the rubes. And network TV did make New York City more likable to Americans during the ’90s, especially via Seinfeld but also Friends (and maybe even metro-NY tough guy Tony Soprano softened up some Americans for … the Don). There was also the city’s miraculous reduction in violent crime and refashioned Times Square. And the Sept. 11 attacks made us lovable American martyrs.
But I think the most important New York source of Trump’s appeal is an old-fashioned bridge-and-tunnel one: The Manhattan elite considers him a contemptible vulgarian even though he’s rich and famous, an Archie Bunker who won the lottery—and he knows it, and hates it, the way Nixon hated the Kennedys. Trump’s fervent supporters sensed that resentment palpably, which made them feel: He’s just like us, except rich and famous!
Giuliani? And de facto New Yorker Chris Christie? They were supporting characters, comic grotesques who served as Trump’s pathetic Establishment beards and lapdogs and, if anything, thereby should’ve reminded Republicans why they didn’t want to nominate either one for president.
Paul Berman: How is it that, when the rest of the country finally came to accept and love New York, it was the worst of New York—not the Honeymooners’ blue-collar New York, which everybody loved on Sept. 11, and not late-night glamorous New York, which does attract tourists, but the New York of swindler real estate, than which nothing is lower?
Kurt, my first real acquaintance with Donald Trump was as a character in your magazine, Spy. I loved the whole “short-fingered vulgarian” bit, but why did you then decide to let him out to wreak havoc on our country? How do you explain the fact that the local real estate mogul you ridiculed so memorably and for so long is now president of the United States?
Yes, I’ve been a student of Donald Trump for half my life. According to an analysis Bloomberg did recently, Spy mentioned him an average of a half dozen times per issue. In fact, he was in the cover story of our first one—“Jerks: The 10 Most Embarrassing New Yorkers,” in which we referred to his “hustler-on-his-best-behavior manner,” and the subject of several scathing cover stories afterward. Every couple of months I recapped chapters of a nonexistent serial novel called Casinos of the Third Reich, in which Trump was a principal character. After he first flirted with running for president in 1987, we publicly begged him to do it—it was a joke!—then commissioned a national poll that found 4 percent of Americans were disappointed he wasn’t running.
And yes, we started calling him short-fingered vulgarian Donald Trump whenever possible. So when the short fingers and small hands became a campaign trope it was astounding to me. I’ve never had an acid flashback, but when he defended the size of his hands during a debate, I felt for the first time as if I was having one. True to form, he (and Marco Rubio) coarsened our dopey epithet by turning it into a dick joke, which we never intended it to be.
Speaking of Rudolph Giuliani and late ’80s New York, does the result of this election make Barack Obama look a little bit more like David Dinkins than he did six months ago? Isn’t Obama’s legacy now in some large part Donald Trump?
Obama’s legacy is about to be wiped out. He will be remembered as the first black president. I fear that nothing else will survive. But at least he had a legacy to lose; did Dinkins? In 1992, Giuliani, gearing up to run for mayor, inflamed a Police Benevolent Association rally where racist placards slurred Dinkins as “the washroom attendant.” Today, Obama is a far more compelling and popular leader than Dinkins, but birtherism was and is still rampant inside the GOP base. Will Trump/Giuliani be seen as the result of liberals pushing too far by electing a black man? Interesting parallel. …
No! While the new administration will obviously dismantle as much as it can of what the current one built, I predict the opposite of what you suggest: The experience of President Trump will only goose Americans’ fondness for Obama, which is already at 55 percent. He will be remembered as the most decent, thoughtful, intelligent, honest, good-humored, scandal-free president of my lifetime so far. Who also, for starters, prevented a Great Depression and saved the auto industry and cut the unemployment rate in half.
The 55 percent who like him now obviously includes some Trump voters. Given that a lot of Obama voters became Trump voters (in places like Scranton and Wilkes-Barre), I don’t think this election is a repudiation of Obama. After he leaves office, more and more Trump voters will start saying they like Obama, partly because that proves to themselves they aren’t racist.
By the way, his famous 2008 gaffe was an astonishing precognitive vision of the 2016 election: ”You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” He was right, then and now.
If Obama was right then and now, as you suggest, that means his policies have failed those benighted people pretty miserably for the past eight years, no? Some of them may tell pollsters that they approve of Obama personally, and why not? He’s a handsome, charismatic, witty guy who avoided even a hint of personal scandal. It’s presumably also, as you also suggest, a way of declaring “I’m not a racist” to the stranger who called them on the telephone.
I will certainly remember the Obama years fondly. But it seems like plenty of other people won’t—whether they lived in Wilkes-Barre or in Aleppo.
Obama’s foreign policy has always been a contradictory bit of this and that, an ambiguity. Trump is going to iron out the contradictions by making Obama’s policy appear to have been the first step toward the surly new isolationism that will be Trump’s.
I saw a young CNN commentator explain the other night that “political correctness isn’t the problem here, it’s the solution.” Do you think this mode of analysis is likely to have a future on the left—which will respond to this shock by retreating into even more stringent orthodoxy, and if history is a fair guide, probably wind up handing out mimeographed tweets outside Fairway?
Or do you think that Trump’s election is in part a logical extension of the vogue for identity politics —namely the establishment of a white people’s voting bloc, animated by the same kind of politics of entitlement and resentment that conservatives decry on the left?
The PC/identity side of the Democratic campaign was permitted to occlude everything else, which proved fatal. The Trump phenomenon isn’t about race like identity politics on the left is. But it is about revenge. Which is where Giuliani and Christie come in.
One-hundred percent yes: A big part of the Trump vote is an extension of identity politics, a travesty of it; white people, some of them actually unfortunate and some of them just jerks, wallowing in resentment and a sense of victimization.
As for political correctness, what sensible liberal hasn’t been annoyed or occasionally appalled by some piece of PC overreach during the last few years? In fact, just the other day, after I tweeted a fashion-model photo of Melania Trump wearing a ridiculous dress in an aircraft cockpit, I was accused by very serious progressives of “slut-shaming” her. The problem with “political correctness” is that the rubric is now dangerously broad, giving bigots and misogynists cover for saying any horrific thing they want.
The freelance Trump-empowered racist-nativist-anti-Semitic-misogynist backlash by “anti-PC” citizens is apt to be much, much, much worse than the PC irritations have been.
America is a big country that has never lacked for racists, anti-Semites, gynophobes and other bigots, and I’m sure that many of them voted enthusiastically for Donald Trump. But I don’t see much evidence that a surge of bigots at the polls decided the election. In fact, I saw maps showing entire counties of two-time Obama voters in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida and Pennsylvania that went for Trump. Did eight years of Obama turn all those people into bigots? I doubt it.
The post-election focus on Trump’s bigotry, and the bigotry of some of his supporters, has more than a whiff of self-flattery and self-exculpation to it: We are the beautiful ones, we who have checked our privilege–so this result must be the fault of the deplorables, who must be corrected.
What I surmise is that Trump was the biggest wrecking ball that many of his voters could propel at the elites of both political parties, which they equally despise.
I do see evidence for a surge of bigots—not polling evidence (God help us), but the tone at Trump’s rallies, which was unlike anything we have seen since the George Wallace campaigns. I agree that people have looked on Trump as a wrecking ball, which they would like to see go into action. But that is the minor part in his appeal. Mostly he gave to his supporters permission to indulge in public expressions of mass loathing. He liberated his followers. They could experience the joys of chanting “Build a wall!” and “Lock her up!” They are hoping for more such opportunities.
But the main thing is something else, which is not a matter of hot emotions and mass hatreds. The main thing is what is going to happen to the immigrants, and not just the Mexicans and the Muslims—to everyone whose papers may be slightly amiss or lacking. Life for immigrants without green cards has been frightening during the Obama years, and now we have entered an era of terrorized fear. It will be a largely invisible fear because no one wants to stand up and say he lacks a green card and has his worries. But the deepest fears are always invisible. Masses of terrified people, too frightened to say a word—that is not how we picture America. But that is our America.
Look, Trump destroyed the Republican establishment with the party’s own base. That’s the key to his success. For 50 years, the GOP stoked that base every four years: It’s what kept them in power. But the party never really delivered, not on what really mattered to its hardcore rank-and-file, even as the party’s Washington leadership grew ever more radical, starting with Gingrich.
All along, bien pensants supposed that the base really bought the entire Reaganite supply-side package. It didn’t: just the resentment part. Post-2012, and despite the Tea Party two years earlier, an official GOP autopsy—a document announced, ironically, by Reince Priebus—pushed to soften the party line on immigration and gay rights. Jeb Bush was the poster boy for the chastened Republicans.
Trump saw that opening: He knew the party leadership had officially abandoned the party. So he took out Bush and from there on in, it was smooth sailing. Trump was the only real Republican in the race, it turns out, or the most real Republican.
Which brings us to misogyny. This is an all-male round-table in part because my wife, like the two other distinguished female writers I contacted who might have ordinarily enjoyed this conversation, was too depressed to get out of bed because she feels that Trump’s election is a victory for institutionalized misogyny—and proof that women, no matter how accomplished they are, and how many boxes they check, will always get shoved aside by some bloviating male. On the other hand, I watched Rachel Maddow and her colleagues on MSNBC for six hours on election night, and as far as I can recall, no one mentioned the word “misogyny.” So who is right here—Rachel Maddow or my wife?
I’d bet Clinton’s gender was a political net negative for her. Maybe not a big one, but in an election this close may have kept her vote down just enough. I looked at the exit polls by race and gender for the last few elections. Clinton and Trump got exactly the same fractions of black women and men as Obama and Romney did … which suggests not much sexist-driven voting there. Among white men, on the other hand, between 35 percent and 41 percent voted for Obama and Kerry, whereas only 32 percent voted for Hillary Clinton. Which definitely suggests some sexism going on. And among white women, she did as well as Democrats have lately—at 43 percent, 1 percent better than Obama last time, 1 percent worse than Kerry.
What is undeniably true and shocking is that Trump’s manifestly awful treatment of women didn’t seem to affect his vote much and, even worse, his election has encouraged deplorable men to harass women in public. A 50-year-old female friend of mine was driving in New York City on November 9th; a guy driving a pickup with a Trump sticker roared past her and shouted, “Move, bitch—we won!”
I think misogyny was, in fact, a main factor, but not in a simple or straightforward fashion. Maybe Elizabeth Warren or some other female candidate would not have aroused it. But the loathing for Hillary was Trump’s main issue—Hillary as corrupt criminal—with the loathing expressed in a sexually-laden style. This was a loathing that got its start in the politics of the 1990s, aimed principally at Hillary’s husband, though also at her, and a good deal of it arose and arises from a continuing shock at the spectacle of an egalitarian marriage. Half of America is content with egalitarian marriage, but the other half feels more comfortable even with Trump and his own marriages and affairs and scandals and creepiness. People may disapprove of Trump, but they feel that, at least, he is old-fashioned. About Hillary, they feel a nameless horror, which I think amounts to fear of the egalitarian revolution.
The election was a jacquerie against the Clintons’ egalitarian marriage? I award you the silver escargot, Paul.
Or maybe the deplorables are horrified because they feel they got played by two presidents in a row. Bush promised them no more nation-building and to build a compassionate society along conservative principles. What they actually got was two failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the disaster of the Freedom Agenda, followed by the collapse of the banking system—and Republicans are supposed to be good at stuff like wars and money. Then Obama promised to stand up for the little guy—and what they got was more big trade deals, open borders, tech monopolies, the Obamacare mess, ISIS, and an ever-tightening noose of PC crap. Welcome to the new Democratic Party, where tech billionaires pay zero in taxes and you will be fired from your job tomorrow for saying the wrong thing about Caitlyn Jenner. Then Hillary arrives with her private email server and her $200 million personal fortune from her career of helping the poor and so forth. I mean, Americans may be dumb, but they can still spot when the baseball toss at the fairgrounds is rigged—and so now they are marks in an even bigger con.
That said, my one dim memory of a political moment of this magnitude was Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, when all the good socialists in my Brooklyn household believed we would shortly be immolated in a nuclear war. Might the shock over Trump’s election turn out to be another such moment?
This is very different from 1980, when, as you will recall, the old Democratic majority still controlled the House and Senate and the Court had yet to include the likes of Nino Scalia. The GOP—a GOP much further to the right than Reagan’s—now controls every level of American government, from the majority of state houses and governors to all three branches of the federal government (with the Court about to become maybe the worst since the Taney Court). Add to that the reality that the Democratic Party, which was simply a fractured and largely brain-dead congressional party in the early ‘80s is now effectively in ruins, and you begin to see the difference. Then there is no check internationally either—indeed, the U.S. looks like it’s likely to become the biggest junior partner in Putin’s Whateverintern, joined by Le Pen in France and whomever the Germans throw up (and the Dutch and…).
Since the Cold War, we who were raised on the Cuban missile crisis don’t think so much about nuclear Armageddon. But at this moment, the politics look much, much worse. There is no point of leverage whatsoever—except, maybe, the futile hope that Trump will revert to becoming a louche Democrat. More likely he’ll push for “entitlement reform” in order to fund infrastructure which will become the biggest kleptocratic boodle in American history.
It’s obviously too early to say with certainty, but my bet is that President Trump will do much more damage than President Reagan did. Is chief strategist and senior counselor Steve Bannon more horrifying than the wing-nuttiest member of Reagan’s first cabinet, Interior Secretary James Watt? Absolutely. In 1980 I was 26, probably a bit left of where I am now, and not really frightened by the prospect of President Reagan—and I don’t think I was much different than the average Carter voter. Whereas now, much older and possibly wiser, I am frightened by the prospect of President Trump.
On the other hand, as appalling as he is, I’m loath to keep our fear and loathing dials at 11 from the get-go. Because we’re almost certainly going to have to turn them up.
Moreover, Reagan and Trump, like six of the seven nonincumbents elected president since 1968, both ran as anti-establishment outsiders. Trump is a mutant Reagan, an old B-list showman not much for detail—but in all other respects the opposite: no deep beliefs, no political or governmental experience, dark, undignified, unhappy, charmless, pathetically insecure.
It’s Trump’s apparent psychopathologies that worry me most, along with his profound ignorance, more than his retrograde thoughts and quasi-beliefs.
I think that Trump’s victory is the product of a cultural collapse—the partial collapse of the journalism world and its supplanting by social-media rumor and hysteria, the collapse of the trade unions or of their prestige (a Rust Belt catastrophe), the collapse generally of ideas of cultural authority, and so forth. This is not something we have seen before, even if there is always a doom-sayer who is predicting doom. The collapse ought to be obvious with a glance at Trump himself—the first president with repulsive manners in American history.
What are we in for, then? We have no idea.
Paul, one of the things I like best about you, especially in troubled times, is your ability to channel the spirits of Walt Whitman and Nathaniel Hawthorne. I can imagine a slim but funny volume of Trump’s poetry that would sound a lot like a scrambled, reality-show Whitman. Is this a symptom of my disordered thinking, or is there something very 19th century New York-ish about Trump, a kind of vulgar Whitmanism mixed with a heavy dose of Barnum?
And how do you think Hawthorne, who was a canny observer of politics and promoter of politicians, might interpret the results of this election?
Whitman reassures me; Hawthorne does not. Whitman reassures me because, if you read Democratic Vistas, or better yet, The Eighteenth Presidency!, you can see that he always knew that America is sometimes dreadful. The corrupt ugliness that he rails against in Democratic Vistas is Trumpiness itself. And yet he never thought that all was lost. He loved Hegel. He thought the dialectic was in our favor.
But Hawthorne was a Calvinist. He always knew that darkest sin was part of the American reality. Elegantly he protested on behalf of the persecuted Indians. He identified an American war crime even at the heroic and revolutionary Battle of Concord. He could live with that. But America eventually broke his heart. He did think that all was lost.
Trump is a very 19th-century character indeed, Barnum-esque in his brazen lying and self-promotion and press manipulation and instinct for public taste—although without the charming self-awareness. (Barnum also entered politics late in life, but after a few years returned to show business.) He also reminds me of Barnum’s contemporary William Henry Harrison, the candidate of the first fully marketed and advertised presidential campaign, which convinced voters that a born-rich plantation heir was a rough, tough regular guy. And speaking of con men—it was also then, in the second quarter of the 19th century, that the term confidence man entered the language, as well as bunkum, sucker, double-cross, show business, celebrities and salesmanship.
I feel at home talking about Trump as a con man, because he is one. But I don’t believe that America is divided between the children of light and the children of darkness. Rather, we are all sick from a common disease, which is not racism or misogyny—which are real enough—but something even more of this moment, which seems to spring from the disintegrating effects of new information technologies, and from the tensions created by the attempt to use the existing order of nation-states as the foundation for a new global economic and political order that hugely benefits a tiny number of people and is administered by a suffocating class of bureaucratic managers, who manipulate data. Seeing the dangers of that system laid bare may be the one silver lining of this election.
On a lower level of importance, I do take some discreet pleasure in the public humiliation of an entire class of smug, self-satisfied pseudo-journalists and political operators who insisted that they could understand the world through their TweetDecks, and that everything was right in America—that PC politics were awesome, the economy was booming, Obama’s foreign policy was a big success, none of Hillary Clinton’s obvious problems as a candidate actually mattered to anyone except for a few misogynists and Bernie bros, and that there was zero chance that Donald Trump would be elected president. It’s hard for me not to draw some solace from seeing the manipulative con game these people practiced at the expense of actual reporting exposed by a master con man.
If I thought that the smug political media—which aided and abetted Trump about as thoroughly as the FSB did—would be corrected because of this, I’d be delighted. But then again, any correction would probably end up being for the worse. The inflatulent (my word) establishment pundits you and I despise are revealed to be the careerist chumps that they are. Breitbart rules!
For years I’ve proclaimed Paddy Chayefsky the greatest prophet of the late 20th century. But Network was funny. Now it’s not funny in the least.
Actually, David, there was a lot of good reporting on Trump supporters around the country.
Possible silver linings? The Trump administration could separate the principled and decent true conservatives from the hacks and deplorables, and the so-called constitutional conservatives should get a chance to earn their self-ID. The parties’ ideological boundaries and certainties should continue to be in flux, which could turn out to be a good thing.
And furthermore, a few unprompted thoughts:
—Americans want to live in Bedford Falls. Too many of us now live in Pottersville. In this election, Old Man Potter pretended he was George Bailey and got elected.
—For a long time, I’ve had two theories of presidential elections. One is that the apparently happier candidate wins, the one more comfortable in his (or her) own skin. Clinton doesn’t radiate contentment, but Trump strikes me as joyless, so that one didn’t really work this time—but since Nixon was the last clearly unhappier, twitchier winner against Humphrey in 1968, maybe at times of acute national anxiety the Law of Relative Happiness doesn’t apply. My other one is the Pendulum Theory, that presidents are so often and so strikingly the opposites of their immediate predecessors: JFK versus Ike, Carter versus Nixon, Reagan versus Carter, Obama versus George W. Bush—and now, maybe the most extreme switcheroo ever, Trump versus Obama.
—People draw absurdly overdrawn conclusions and binary Large Meanings from presidential elections, either wishful or dreadful, just because there’s a winner and a loser. We soon realized after 2008 that Obama’s election had not begun a “post-racial” era. Likewise, after an election in which Trump lost the popular vote by 2 million, let’s not be too quick to decide America has ratified full-on racism and misogyny and fascism.
A lot of misguided citizens voted for Trump, and for four years he’ll do damage and be a grotesque symbol of America, but he is not the American avatar. Yet.
Silver lining? We have just witnessed a rupture in the American political tradition. We have never seen such a thing before. The requirement on us right now is to take it seriously, and the first way to do so is to avoid talking ourselves into supposing that, give or take a few colorful details, everything is normal, when it is not.
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