There is a shrinking but still very real possibility that a pumpkin-faced blowhard who lives like a Borgia, talks like a child, and wears a dead Tribble on his head may soon be in possession of our nuclear launch codes. To call this a national embarrassment is to implicitly hold our nation in higher esteem than I’m any longer prepared to do.
The other night, on Don Lemon’s show on CNN, I made what I thought were three fairly uncontroversial points about Donald Trump’s reaction to the massacre of 49 club-goers in Orlando, Florida. The first was that he was wrong to describe Omar Mateen as “Afghan-born” when in fact the wife-beating, possibly self-hating gay jihadist was—like Trump—born in Queens. The second was that Trump’s call for a moratorium on Muslim immigration to the United States would have done nothing to prevent an American-born citizen, whose parents migrated to these shores during the Reagan administration, from carrying out a homegrown, lone wolf terrorist attack (whereas stricter regulations on semi-automatic guns might have at least lowered the total death toll of such an atrocity). The third was that Trump is both an imbecile about our national security as well as a clear and present danger to it.
It is one thing, after all, to criticize politicians for declining to use “radical Islam” or “Islamism” to describe the ideology of our enemy. (Both of these concepts are perfectly acceptable in the academic discourse and are in high circulation among the intelligence services of various U.S.-allied Middle Eastern countries; added to which, the first “I” in the State Department-preferred acronym “ISIL” stands for something far less discriminating and more encompassing.) It is quite another thing, however, for a candidate for high office to echo the sentiments of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in suggesting that a secular Western democracy is no place for practicing Muslims.
I’m used to hostile criticism and usually have fun with my online trolls. But I was unprepared for what greeted me on Twitter in the next 72 hours, namely a wave of anti-Semitic abuse that I’ve not experienced from Syrian or Iraqi jihadists in the three years or so I’ve been writing about them.
Some anonymities with green frog avatars or handles such as “Proud white devil” (surely his mohel stage-name) wanted to know what was inherently bigoted about interrogating “Jewish politics.” Others assumed that any criticism from someone with the surname Weiss—or (((Weiss))), as the Trumpkins would have it—was special pleading about the Holocaust. Still others wondered why I was putting Israel’s interests ahead of America’s by arguing in favor of Muslim integration, a matter I’ll leave to Benjamin Netanyahu’s general staff to answer on my behalf at a later date.
After realizing that my social media had become a rallying ground for Der Stürmer cartoonists and semi-literate John Birchers, I poured myself a bracing cocktail and wondered: Where, exactly, did this come from? How did a New York real estate tycoon whose mentor was a gay Jewish lawyer and early AIDS victim and whose daughter and press baron son-in-law are now weekly parishioners at the Orthodox Kehilath Jeshurun synagogue on East 85th Street become the imago for David Duke and an isolationist cabal that proudly espouses its candidate’s “America First” foreign policy platform? Trump made explicit reference to Mateen’s wanting to “execute gay and lesbian citizens, because of their sexual orientation,” a comment that is unlikely to endear him to Bob Jones University or The 700 Club, once the sine qua non of securing the GOP leadership, to say nothing of his wavering—you might even call them liberal elitist—views on abortion.
Any number of essays on the so-called alt-right, the empurpled, sneering movement that thinks it’s providing an intellectual ballast to Trumpism, have been published lately, but none is so thorough and convincing as Jamie Kirchick’s in Commentary. Kirchick notes that two of the movement’s architects, Milo Yiannopoulos and Allum Bokhari, intriguingly liken themselves to the ’60s counterculture; they glory in subversion for its own sake, divorced from any underlying principle or ethos. They insist that by coopting the sloganeering and genocidal vitriol of the reactionary-right, they advocate “not racism, the restoration of monarchy or traditional gender roles, but lulz,” or an epater la bourgeoisie for the Reddit generation. Trump’s loudest backers are the Merry Pranksters of fascism.
For them, identity politics—in this case, a sort of minstrelsy of white nationalism—is not so much a deadly earnest covenant, as it is on the campus left, but rather a blank slate for constant self-invention and reinvention. Yiannopolous, for instance, is openly gay, professes a love for “black cock” (even while denigrating establishment conservatives as “cuckservatives,” or cuckolds of black men) and says that, as a half-Jewish media personality, he’s only disclosing an open tribal secret about Jewish control of the media.
Trump is everything and anything to this camp because he is the first postmodern authoritarian in American history, a man for whom truth is a relative concept defined exclusively in relation one’s perception of the central, overriding object: the authoritarian himself.
His electoral indemnity against pathological lying and serial fabrication is a national homage to the postmodernist conceit that “there are no facts, only interpretations.” He hates muckraking or objective journalism and desires to either criminalize it or create his own bubble empire of flattering stenographers who don’t already work for Breitbart.com. If a news organization debunks a Trump falsehood, then it is merely a sign of the system’s being “rigged” or the wicked press being out to destroy the self-financed slayer of harmful and dishonest political correctness, because such is the solipsism of the postmodernist that there is no reality beyond his own perception of it.
Trump’s positions are wildly inconsistent and galvanizing at the same time. He hates the Iran deal, which he thinks was a snow-job by the mullahs, but he wants to partner with Iran’s principal allies, Syria and Russia, to fight ISIS. He thinks America under Obama has become a weakling superpower that doesn’t stand up to its manifold adversaries, but he wants to destroy NATO and see Britain leave the European Union, the institutions that remain the main obstacle to the revanchist ambitions of America’s foremost adversary, whose leader is really a “decent” guy because he praises Trump even if he has ordered journalists killed. But hey, who hasn’t?
Trump holds a lurid attraction to elements of the far-left because his improvisational, anti-establishment style is seen as revolutionary and sincere. There are those like aging New Leftist Tariq Ali who have come to believe that the self-proclaimed billionaire is serious when he speaks about transforming the GOP into a “worker’s party,” who think the ultimate one-percenter CEO now inherits the mantle of a tub-thumping Jewish socialist from Vermont as a viable alternative to “crooked” Hillary. Mark the admiring notices so far in Salon (twice), The New Republic, The Nation. Even the British Stalinist George Galloway has endorsed the Babbitt of Fifth Avenue, whom he considers less “dangerous” than Clinton.
Postmodernism got its fullest articulation on the European left, but it’s always been at home on the international right: its forerunner theorist was Martin Heidegger, who infamously embraced National Socialism, which of course didn't stop him from becoming an icon to French radicals once Hitler was defeated. “Not since the death of Tamerlane,” wrote Robert Hughes of Andy Warhol’s warm relationship with the avant-grade-loving Shah, “had there been so much kissing of Persian arse.” As the Italian philosopher Maurizio Ferraris has written in his Manifesto for a New Realism, the “postmodernists’ dreams were realized by populists, and in the passage from dream to reality, we truly realized what it was all about.” The denial of truth, moral relevance, and the wised-up ironizing of knowledge weren’t tools of emancipation but of reaction. Shape-shifting public relations wedded to celebrity culture, which believes in anything and nothing, has usurped ideology as the main driver for democratic, or pseudo-democratic, politics. The internet has only given these fiefdoms of infinite “interpretation”—climate change denialists, the anti-vaxxers, chemtrails obsessives—more stridency and organization.
Trump has previously been compared Silvio Berlusconi and the surface resemblances (the bank accounts and artificial coifs that defy physics as much as good taste) are indeed striking. But where the Italian media mogul was motivated by the more classical pursuits of power and bunga bunga parties, the former seems only to want good press as its own reward. He has boasted of being the recipient of $2 billion in free publicity thanks to a 24-hour news cycle that cannot stop talking about how outrageous or ridiculous he is.
Trump will take what he can get on the house, but that doesn’t mean he has to like it. “Instead of being like, ‘Thank you very much, Mr. Trump,’ or ‘Trump did a good job,’ everyone’s saying: ‘Who got (the money)? Who got it? Who got it?’ And you make me look very bad,” he said after The Washington Post, a newspaper to which his campaign has since denied press accreditation, explained that he lied about giving $5.6 million to veterans’ charities. The broadsheet that broke Watergate should evidently be trafficking in Hallmark platitudes for good deeds that were never done in the first place. (Though why the vets should even need Trump’s largesse after he accused them of being on the take is another mystery.)
The triumph of McKinsey and TMZ in electoral politics has, up until now, never succeeded so well as it did in one country—post-Soviet Russia. “And at the center of the great show,” writes Peter Pomeranzev in Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, his extraordinary book about contemporary Russia, “is the President himself, created from a no one, a gray fuzz via the power of television, so that he morphs as rapidly as a performance artist among his roles of soldier, lover, bare-chested hunter, businessman, spy, tsar, superman.”
Putin, too, has no belief system other than an abiding confidence in his own good judgment, leadership and fortune (which he, unlike Trump, downplays rather than inflates). He has railed against “neo-Nazis” in Kiev but lends money to France’s Le Front National and seeks the British National Party’s endorsement for his annexation of Crimea, while finding favor with marxisant Syriza and Podemos. He indulges in Orthodox Christian religiosity, dispatching a feminist punk band to a labor camp for blasphemy, while dumping his longtime wife on the sly and taking up with a rhythmic gymnast. His fake-news channel, RT, which has made a mission statement out of abjuring the verifiable, extols the virtues of Occupy Wall Street while being wholly funded by a government that is the apotheosis of corporatist crony capitalism. Putin institutionalizes homophobia while befriending gay TV presenters and entertaining a possible meet-up with Elton John in the Kremlin.
In 2004, Putin’s grey cardinal, or chief vizier, Vladislav Surkov was dispatched to Ukraine to stop the Orange Revolution and keep a kleptocratic goon from Donetsk, Viktor Yanukovych, in power. He failed. But in his failure was born something much more lasting than regime change in Kiev. This was the point at which the sober, “stabilizing” Russian president whose soul had been glimpsed by George W. Bush became the neo-imperialist, spy-irradiating KGB rock star sowing instability in order to make Russia great again.
Paul Manafort, now Trump’s top campaign strategist, was hired by Yanukovych in 2005 to do what Surkov couldn’t—rebrand the reviled and ousted Ukrainian ex-president. Despite having worked for several conservative cold warrior presidents, Manafort instructed Yanukovych to denounce NATO, stoke pro-Russian resentment in Ukraine, and transform himself from mining town homo sovieticus into globalized executive. Yanukovych regained the presidency in 2010, only to lose it in a hail of his own bullets directed against pro-democracy protestors in Maidan Square four years later.
Surkov invented Putin. Then reinvented him over and over again, modeling this new Russia on what Pomeranzev calls “one great reality TV show.” Yesterday, he founded a brownshirt youth group tasked with beating up pro-democracy activists, who were all cast as either agents of foreign governments or nobodies. Today he writes metafictional novels and expounds on the genius of Tupac Shakur and Allen Ginsberg, while finding time to corral separatists in east Ukraine. Yesterday, Trump fucked around on his wife, hung out with Mick and Bianca at Studio 54, and spent other people’s money on failed casinos. Today, he wants to fuck up China, hang out with Kim Jong Un in the White House and spend other people’s money to build a wall with Mexico. Anyone who opposes him is either a loser or working for Saudi intelligence or maybe ISIS.
As in the Kremlin, so in Trump Tower. The ratings are all that matter.