Donald Trump reminds me of every bully I’ve ever had to stand up to. That’s a personal statement, not a political one, but as there’s been very little actual politics in this horrible election, it’s one that I don’t hesitate to make. Trump opened this campaign by calling people names, and he’s gone right on doing that, straight to the bitter end. His behavior is familiar to me: just like every other petty tyrant I encountered while growing up in New Jersey, he’s punched down and lashed out at everybody he could. When I watch him in action, I get flashbacks to abusive little league coaches, older boys who liked tripping younger ones just to see them fall, foul-mouthed jerks who used verbal and physical intimidation to make girls uncomfortable, playground shysters and lunch-money stealers, greasy back-of-the-classroom know-it-alls who spoke over the teachers and demonstrated contempt for anybody who actually wanted to learn something, brutal born-rich ignoramuses whose final answer to every question was either money or power.
None of this is new. As a person who has always lived in Jersey, I have become painfully familiar with Donald Trump’s operations. To me, he will always be the obscenely rich playboy who used Atlantic City to launch his personal brand and then tossed the city away like a fast-food container when he was finished. In the process, he bilked Garden State taxpayers for millions upon millions of dollars. What he did with that money is anybody’s guess. I presume he used some of it to pay down the enormous debts that people who live recklessly, and selfishly, and pompously, always accrue. But since he won’t share his finances with the public, we can only speculate about what he owes to whom. My guess is that it is plenty. Otherwise, he would not be dragging America through this charade — a nuisance campaign that has somehow taken on a scope as big as the globe, and which has reverberations that have already been felt by everybody on the planet. A man as self-involved as Trump does not suddenly catch the religion of public-spiritedness after seventy years of hucksterism.
There are people who will vote for Trump because they believe he’s a great businessman. I’m forced to the conclusion that they don’t know the first thing about Donald Trump. Elevating Trump to the presidency would not be like electing Steve Jobs, or Henry Ford, or even the owner of a corner store who plays fair and does what he can to turn a profit every month. That’s not who Trump is. Over the years, he’s primarily demonstrated skill in throwing away other people’s money, stiffing his creditors, doing everything he can to avoid contributing a cent to the commonwealth, threatening litigation, and puffing himself up.
American business is loaded with sharks, but even the most ferocious honor their debts and pay small contractors for the work they do. They recognize that the entire system they depend on would topple if all of its rules were flaunted. We’ll never know if Donald Trump could have become one of those real businesspeople, because it’s never been his intention to make himself one. The telos of the Trump enterprise has always been for Trump himself to gaze upon the Trump name in lights, and, in pursuit of that vanity, he has burned through unbelievable amounts of money — money that a true businessman would have salted away. Although he has no talents to speak of, he did have two advantages that the average limelight junkie did not: complete amorality, and a multi-million dollar bankroll. As such, he is much closer to Paris Hilton than he is to Michael Bloomberg, and come to think of it, that’s a terrible insult to Hilton, who, as far as I know, didn’t ruin anybody’s life or bankrupt herself in a ferocious pursuit of celebrity. Trump, on the other hand, has always been a fast-acting poison. We should not have to get stuck in his mile-wide trail of slime to recognizes him for what he is: one of the most transparent con men in American public life.
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When I write that everything about Donald Trump ought to be anathema to Republican voters, I do it from personal experience. I was brought up in a large, traditional, mainly working-class Catholic family, in a conservative automobile suburb, at the height of the Reagan era. Republicans speak wistfully of the Reagan Eighties, and for good reason: it was the high-water mark of postwar Republicanism, an ideology so pervasive that it felt to young me like its hegemony would never end. For better and for worse, upright Republicanism was everywhere around me, and from family members and other authority figures, I was taught about traditional values as if the fate of my immortal soul depended on learning them. Humility, honesty, studiousness, marital fidelity, attention to detail, keeping your word, fiscal prudence, religious piety, courtesy, respect for women, distaste for braggarts and complete disdain for rich people who showboat around and piss away their money — all of this was hammered into me ferociously at elementary school, at CCD, at the town recreation center, and at countless family dinners. Since Reagan, Republicanism has fallen on rough times, so maybe its adherents can be forgiven for taking desperate measures. But the fact that so many traditional Republicans have declared support for a guy who represents the opposite of everything they purport to stand for — well, this makes me suspect that there was always something deeply dishonest about both the lessons I was taught and the people who were teaching them.
So just in case any of those people are reading, let me make this completely clear: it’s because of how I was raised — by Republicans — that I have always considered Donald Trump unqualified for any position of authority. By 2014, I’d already made the determination that Trump was just about the last person in America I’d ever vote for, and that was before he opened his mouth and a whole bunch of bigoted nonsense about Mexicans and Muslims came out.
Millions upon millions of Americans feel otherwise, and will vote accordingly on Tuesday. In the name of camaraderie and common American-ness under the flag, I’d like to extend a hand of friendship to these people, respect their struggle and treat them as worthy adversaries, but I know too well that they’ve been playing themselves. Should Donald Trump win this election, he isn’t going to lift a finger to help any of the chumps who got him there. Bilking people and breaking promises — those are the things his whole life have been about. In the more likely event that he loses, he will deliver the White House to an entirely beatable Democratic candidate who’ll absolutely accelerate the concentration of wealth and influence in the major urban centers — the exact thing that the Trump movement is supposed to be dead set against.
This should have been a big Republican year. The Republicans have a legitimate case to make: rural America really has been getting hammered, and drugged, and condescended to, and ignored by wealthy people on the coasts. Small towns and small businesses really are struggling, and power has, increasingly, come to rest in the hands of an urban elite that turns its nose up at the unwashed. The state is increasingly enormous, and increasingly authoritarian, and increasingly comfortable peeking into your phone records. When Trump and his surrogates have pressed this case in coherent language, they’ve been moderately successful.
Unfortunately for America — and all too predictably for anybody who knows Trump’s act — he’s wasted his podium time pulling faces, running down his perceived enemies, airing bad Breitbart conspiracy theories, and promising to jail his opponents just like a tinpot dictator might. The crass public persona he’s cultivated — a bizarre fusion of Andrew “Dice” Clay, Benito Mussolini, and a masher at a sleazy bar — seems so perfectly calibrated to repulse educated female voters that I have believe it it’s an intentional affront and part of a perverse brand-building strategy. He’s made it impossible for anybody to hear any traditional Republican arguments over the pink noise of his own monstrous ego, and win or lose, the American conservative movement is going to be in an absolute shambles after this election. If the party had nominated a reasonable adult, rather than a clown who casually alienates huge segments of the electorate, they’d probably be coasting to victory. As it turned out, they were less interested in winning the election than they were in pissing me, and people like me, off. Mission accomplished, guys.
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In the torrent of bad news that has accompanied election 2016, I’ve clung to a few branches. I’m proud of the campaign Senator Sanders ran; I don’t always agree with him, but I am glad he showed that it’s possible to lead a successful political movement based on humility and compassion. He’ll be coming out of this election with his decency intact and his reputation elevated, and that’s not nothing. It also cheers me to learn that most young people find Trump, and Trumpism, repellent to its core. Our elders have been loud and cranky and ready to torch the village out of spite, but they’ll be out of the picture soon enough. The future belongs to voters who have no appetite for bigotry or scapegoating, and who largely see Donald Trump for what he is. I’ve read pessimists who argue that the Trump ascendancy proves how easy it would be for a genuine fascist — rather than the pathetic, self-parodic, cartoon version we’re currently coping with — to attain power in the United States. I don’t believe it. I think Trump is the death rattle of something terrible that we’re getting out of our system, and which is, even now, receding from the body politic.
Most of all, I’ve been comforted by precedents in American history. Although the language has been uncommonly coarse and the show worthy of a fierce tomato-chucking, there is nothing particularly new about the Trump phenomenon. Donald Trump is hardly the first candidate for office to resort to bigotry on the stump, or the first public figure to harness white working-class resentment against coastal elites. Huey Long did that, too; so did George Wallace. Trump’s plan, if you even want to call it that, feels like little more than a patchwork of discredited ideas from long-gone reactionaries. He has pinched his defeatist isolationism (not to mention his America First slogan) from Charles Lindbergh, his flirtation with scary foreign autocrats from Father Coughlin, his nativism from the Know-Nothings, and his vindictive paranoia from Joe McCarthy. All of these men had their day. Some of them even won elections. But eventually they were all swamped by the rising tide of justice, and we now remember them, correctly, as the heavies in the American story. I am certain that the same fate eventually awaits Donald Trump. We’ve beaten back much smarter and much more capable villains. This inarticulate buffoon is not going to be the one who breaks the pattern and, in the process, cheapens and humbles America.
Yet while he’s up, and he’s got the cameras on him, he can do a heck of a lot of damage. He already has. If you think you’ve been on edge about this election, consider how a devout American Muslim must feel. Imagine the anticipatory anxiety that undocumented immigrants have had to deal with for the past twelve months. You’ve probably heard from women who’ve had post-traumatic stress attacks because of the Billy Bush tape and the parade of accusers who’ve found it necessary for their own self-esteem to testify to journalists that Trump sexually assaulted them. Engendering those feelings of destabilization and alienation in Muslims, and Mexicans, and women, and people like me who are no fans of the patriarchy is, without a doubt, part of the point for many of Trump’s supporters. Donald Trump is the sharp end of the same stick that they’ve always shook at us. They really do believe that if they push us, we’ll fold.
They’ve made their usual mistake of underestimating us. What they fail to realize is that we’ve been dealing with bullies all of our lives. We don’t win the fight every time we’re provoked, but we learned a long time ago that backing down is never an option. On Tuesday, we’re going to stand up for our mothers, our sisters, our girlfriends and wives, for our neighbors, for our communities, for everybody who believes in the republic, for Latin Americans, for African Americans, for queer Americans, for Muslim Americans, for Jews, for all sincerely religious people, for scientists whose life’s work has been trashed by ignorant partisans, for nerds pushed around and shouted over by anti-intellectuals, and for everybody who is sick of the belligerence, the trolling, the name-calling, and the neverending disrespect. We’re going to look the villain in the face and show him that we are not intimidated by his threats. We know what to do. Let’s go beat this bum so badly that he never gets off the mat again.