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Beyond Trump: Why We Need to Take Our Eyes Off the Show

The real threat to US democracy is the cult of personality in our political campaigns that got Trump the nomination.

Part of the Series

Ever since the idea that Donald Trump might run for the presidency came about, the media have been salivating. The thought that they had a guaranteed ratings boost on their hands for months on end was too good to be true. At the White House Correspondents’ dinner of 2011, Seth Meyers seemed to have put Donald Trump in his place, in front of the press corps and in front of the world. The nail was driven into the coffin. But Trump did not let that be the last word. He rose like the ghoul he is — and he had a disaffected and virulently angry mass of people to feed on. Thus, what has developed as an essential and constant dynamic of this race is the convergence of two insatiable appetites: the media’s thirst for sensationalism and Donald Trump’s 24/7 hunger for attention — of any kind. But we should not get trapped in this back-and-forth; we need to break the cycle of our own proclivity to be caught up in this spectacle. Why? Immanuel Wallerstein once wrote with regard to McCarthyism, “It was a locus of a historical revolt, utilizing certain prejudices and anxieties,” and asserted that, “McCarthy himself [was] but the accidental rallying-point” of a larger movement. In many ways, we can say the same about Donald Trump. We have to break the fascination-horror we have of him to find a real explanation for the dynamics of which he is an effect, not the cause. And this holds true even if there is a possibility he may drop out of the race, and, in fact, no matter what the outcome of the election.

At the early stages, pundits guffawed and memes exploded, all ridiculing the idea of a Trump run. Everyone was waiting for him to fall flat on his face. But as Trump chalked up victory after victory during the primaries, and as crowds swelled — even despite Trump making mistakes that would have been fatal for any other candidate (take his disparaging remarks about a decorated veteran, sitting senator and a leader of his own party) — the guffaws have been joined by an overwhelming tonality of anxiety and fear. The latest offense — Trump’s brutal and as usual self-serving and egotistical response to the bereaved parents of a Muslim-American soldier killed in Iraq — have whetted the public’s appetite for the finale to this show. Surely, this is the turning point, as not only veterans groups but also Republican politicians are voicing dismay and anger. People are waiting for this painfully slow train wreck, so long in the making, to finally occur so that anxiety can finally be released. We are witnessing, if not participating in, a collective psychodrama.

For more original Truthout election coverage, check out our election section, “Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016.”

Along with pollsters measuring the precise moment and dimension of his demise, bloggers are scrutinizing Trump’s mental health and psychoanalyzing him. These intimate inquiries into Trump’s inner worlds are so much like the reality TV whose world and behaviors Trump is a master of. But this spectacle is making us take our eyes off of what really matters.

There is a real danger of making this only about him, of inadvertently giving him exactly what he wants: all the attention. So much so that after he finally drops off the edge, we will change the channel and think, there goes the problem. We dodged that bullet. But we haven’t.

All those Trump voters and sympathizers (that is, those who may not have had the stomach to vote for him, but still harbor some taste for the toxic substance of his campaign and his ideology) are not going anywhere. They will be exploited by another, perhaps less unappealing candidate or party. It comes down to this: What frightens us should not be Donald Trump, but his success in getting the nomination.

There are two problems then for progressives. First, to be on guard against the reformulated Republican Party, which will surely have learned a lot from all this. They will breed a slicker, more “human” candidate who will have learned the most important and effective tactics and strategies from Trump, and also learned from his mistakes.

Second, the Democratic Party’s centrist, neoliberal identity will be cemented, especially as more and more moderate Republicans will have come into the Clinton camp.

Furthermore, provided that Donald Trump is swept off stage, the feeling afterward will be, even more than it now is, that the Democratic Party is the “normal” one. It’s a norm of which progressives are and should be extremely wary. Under its supposed mandate, all sorts of horrors, domestic and foreign, have been and will continue to be perpetrated. The illusion that Hillary Clinton is in any way “progressive” will have long been shattered and be beyond repair, but it will take all our energy to hold her accountable because we will always hear, the moment criticism of her is voiced, that the alternative to her presidency would have been terrible.

Therefore, progressives must avoid even murmuring: “Well, it could be worse, it could have been Trump.” So what? This is not about him. It’s not about Hillary Clinton either.

The cult of personality that drives our political campaigns, as frighteningly entertaining as it may be, should not be at center stage, and the tensions that drive voters should not be resolved after one or another candidate disappears. The anger, violence, paranoia and deep racism that propelled Trump to the nomination, even beyond the control of the Republican Party management, will still be there, waiting to find a new champion. We had better be watchful of the new slick package that the next candidate will come in. Whether we end up in the next round of elections with “new Democrats” or “new Republicans,” the essential thing is to understand the actual realities that inform our political, social and historical lives, and to probe into the institutions and powerful interests that deliver justice and well-being, unevenly and often brutally.

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