There’s no drug quite like the confidence of a mediocre white man, and even lifelong users like Donald Trump have to be careful when mainlining in public. Witness, if you will, the epic meltdown captivating headline-writers across the globe as the Republican nominee for president of the goddamn United States of America disintegrates into a hot mess of misogynist sleaze, jawing fascist buzzwords as the global audience he always craved looks on in disbelief. Trump’s supporters may be shamefaced, but the whole cringeworthy spectacle is hardly less humiliating for anyone who still half-believes in democracy and the rule of law.
The second presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump resembled an extended exchange between a piece of online political punditry and the comments section beneath it. On the eve of the debate — a mere 48-hours after the leak of the now infamous video which featured Trump bragging that his celebrity status enabled him to kiss, grope and try to have sex with women — he held a press conference to which he invited any female he could find who had ever made a sexual complaint against Bill Clinton, attempting to smear Hillary by association. The man who boasted about “grabbing” women “by the pussy” had no compunction about showcasing alleged assault victims to aid his own sleazy fumble for power.
Hillary didn’t rise to it. She remained the picture of dignity throughout, which wasn’t hard given what she was standing opposite. It was clear from the start of the debate that there was something badly wrong with Trump: that the yammering personification of the white male nationalist id was not just unprincipled but actively unwell. Over 90 excruciating minutes, he prowled about the stage, gurning and muttering to himself like a matinee murderer debating the devil on his shoulder. At one point he seemed so incensed that the cameras were not on him that he actually started humping his own chair. It was the sort of slow-moving car-crash that sends reality TV ratings through the ceiling, specifically, in this case, a glass ceiling.
This whole election campaign has been like a wet dream that David Lynch might have had after falling asleep watching Fox News. Trump rapidly lost his grip not just on propriety but on human language, shouting made-up words and incoherent statements such as “Syria is no longer Syria. Syria is Russia… I believe we need to get ISIS” and promising to “bring economics to the people.” He threatened to prosecute his opponent as soon as he became president. He sounded, more than anything, like a conservative hatebot of your drunk racist uncle, algorithmically spunking out gobs of truthiness.
The rhetorical model was less Abraham Lincoln than Tay, Microsoft’s short-lived artificial intelligence Twitter chatbot, who was taught by armies of alt-right trolls with time on their hands to say things like “feminism is cancer” and “I love Hitler”. I was reminded that back in the heyday of what was once called the blogosphere, editors went through a phase of believing that the comment section amounted to the voice of the people, rather than whoever was bored, angry and hateful enough to dedicate hours to recreational harassment, particularly of women, people of colour and anyone with the temerity to hold an opinion who was not white, male, straight and conservative. We learned, but not quickly enough. The comments section is now alive and chewing at the heart of Western democracy.
This is no accident. Trump’s entire campaign is an exercise in industrial-scale trolling, which does not for a second mean that it is not dangerous. It means that he is playing to an entirely different set of win conditions whereby victory goes to whoever screams the loudest. Democracy, to this man and his followers, is just a new system to game, and if it doesn’t deliver, they’ll try something else. What they want most is not the presidency — not in any serious way. I’m sure that Trump wants to sit in a shiny chair in the Oval Office and have people tell him all day that he’s the most powerful and impressive man in the world, and I’m just as sure that he doesn’t want to be bothered with the actual business of government. No, what his followers want is to scream and throw things until someone tells them they’re still special. Why? Because they can. Because it’s cathartic. Because they feel they have little to lose. Because it’s fun and it makes them feel big and powerful, and so little else does.
I’m sorry to say this, because it really doesn’t help, but some of us did warn about these people years ago. Back then they were confining their recreational bigotry to women and people of colour who were told to shut up and stop being so sensitive — it gives me no pleasure to be proved right on this one. Right now, anyone who fails to see the connection between gender politics and geopolitics either has their hands over their eyes or is looking over their shoulder to a time when a bit of boyish sexual violence didn’t disqualify you for elected office. But this is not just about feminism. This is, specifically, about consent. This is about people who feel entitled to dominate and control the bodies of one half of the population also feeling entitled to run the world, and the pathological pattern at play.
What we’re dealing with is a man who wants to grab the whole world by the pussy and is bewildered and furious when the pussy grabs back. And he’s not the only one of his kind. This has, lest we forget, been the patten of patriarchal power-play for generations. For years, we’ve had to deal with household names, politicians, entertainers being revealed as serial sexual predators. We’ve had to come to terms with the truth that they were allowed to get away with it because that was just what it meant to be a successful man. You could grab whatever, whoever, you wanted. Women and girls were status objects there for the seizing, willing or not. That’s changing, because there are a lot of people out there who want that to change, but there are also a lot of people who found that model of social violence comforting, people who are angry at these so-called “feminazis” and their hormone-crazed demands to be treated like human beings with agency, people whose sense of being cheated out of their male birthright is an outlet for a more dangerous sense of socioeconomic betrayal — most of those people have been rooting for Trump since day one. The new assault allegations are unlikely to damage his standing in their eyes.
Most Republican commentators with any sense are already consigning their party to cold storage, putting it into an induced coma to preserve whatever might survive this humiliation. The lemming-like rush to the political precipice may be premature. Trump is not going to pull out. He decided he wanted the presidency and now he believes himself entitled to it. He’s determined to fuck the world whether or not it’s willing, and you’d better hope the US is on some sort of birther control. People who do not respect the consent of individuals also tend to lack respect for the consent of the governed. They conceive of democratic consent exactly as they conceive of sexual consent — nice if you can get it, but if you can’t, you still deserve the spoils. This is the dictionary definition of chauvinism, and it is unlikely to be purged from the public mood come 9 November when this deeply unpleasant spectacle is finally over.
The kamikaze chauvinism of the alt-right did not emerge from nowhere. It’s the inevitable end-point of decades of popular discontent channeled and chaperoned by vested interests, the same vested interests that have funded the Republicans and their ilk for generations. For all their maidenly blushes over Trump’s crass misogyny, their tardy protestations over his attitude to the half of the population who are mothers, wives and daughters and, somewhat inconveniently, voters, conventional conservatives know that what Trump has done is simply take contemporary right-wing rhetoric to its logical conclusion. He has torn away the modesty curtain of mainstream neoliberal debate and shown the jabbering psychopath behind it. That is profoundly embarrassing, and embarrassment is as likely to make people lash out as it is to make them roll over.
If your entire identity is built on a certain narrative, it is very hard to abandon that narrative even if it is destroying your chances of winning. Living with that sort of dissonance does strange things to the psyche. All sorts of wild, weird notions start creeping in. Words start coming out that make you sound cruel, crazed or both, although if you’re running for office, you usually try to hold back from saying them when there are cameras in the vicinity.
Trump is unusual only in that he lacks a filter. He really does say what many people are thinking, and the problem is that just because many people are thinking something does not make it right, or safe, or true. What America and the global conservative consensus see in Trump is their own faces in the haunted mirror of the modern media engine — they are not the only ones staring in horror.
The problem with being an arrogant sack of hair with the raw energy of the American id sustaining your own swollen ego is that when someone punctures it, you deflate with a fart sound that echoes around the world. Trump deserves every bit of this humiliation, but the movement behind him is driven by the wounded pride of millions — it is ferocious, unpredictable and not at all funny. I’m not laughing. This got beyond a joke years ago. Trump may lose the race, but the war for decency and democracy will continue, and right now all of us are losing.
This article appears in the 19 Oct 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood