Bringing down Donald Trump

“America is so much better than Donald Trump; our people so much smarter,” writes Bill Curry. “Remember that, and forget about Trump.”[1] Curry’s analysis is worthwhile reading, but his conclusion does not, in fact, follow from that analysis, and if people in the U.S. were indeed “so much better” and “so much smarter,” Trump wouldn’t be getting the traction he is.

To understand the Trump phenomenon, one must understand authoritarian populism, a phenomenon that dates back to the founding of the U.S. and which currently goes under the label of the “Tea Party.” Which is to say, in large part, that it is inexplicable, that it can’t be understood.

Curry mentions Trump’s rage,[2] and I think he gets this part right. Authoritarian populists share the emotion, but have different causes. As Curry writes,

On Thursday [August 6, 2015] Trump was his usual self; a bully and a fraud and anyone with eyes to see it did. Long made foolish by ego, he lately seems unhinged by his narcissistic cravings. The slightest embarrassment enrages him. Any challenge to the image he toils to project and protect elicits unbridled fury. Anyone who gets in his way is a “pathetic loser” or a “stupid leader,” or fat, or homely, or whatever he thinks hurts most. It’s not how an adult in full command of his instincts, appetites and faculties behaves; not even close. On Thursday it was all on display, the whole sad, unsightly package.[3]

I don’t think most authoritarian populists are narcissists, that is, unless we can apply an individual psychological disorder to a group—a dubious move at best. Authoritarian populists do feel persecuted and, unlike the Donald, they have a legitimate grievance in the deindustrialization of the U.S. economy (figure 1). They direct their rage, however, not at the industrialists who have moved their jobs overseas or at the capitalist system that makes such displacement inevitable, but rather at other subaltern people—people of color, women, and immigrants.[4]

Fig. 1. U.S. Manufacturing Employment, January 1970-December 2014, as a percentage of population. From Economic Policy Institute and Bureau of Labor Statistics data, fair use.

By contrast,

when [Trump] went into the family business, his dad had already built or acquired 14,000 New York City apartments. Lacking access to company records, no one can appraise their value with any precision, but anyone can do better than Trump. So here it is on the back of a napkin. In those days, city apartments sold for about $45 a square foot. Most Trump apartments were outside Manhattan, which lowers the price, but many were family units, which raises it back up some. A reasonable inflation adjusted estimate of their value back then approaches $3 billion. But New York real estate prices have since skyrocketed. If Trump had just paid down the mortgages and kept up the apartments, they’d be worth $8 billion today. In other words if he’d done nothing at all he might now be worth what he says he’s worth.[5]

According to a couple of the sources that Curry cites, Trump is worth half that—or less. Maybe much less: “In 2006 former New York Times business editor Timothy O’Brien pegged the number at $150 to $250 million. Trump sued O’Brien for $5 billion for defamation but was thrown out of court.”[6] Which is to say that this allegedly “smart person” who “went to the best schools” and “was [a] great student”[7] blew at least half of the wealth he inherited, but is running in part on the basis that he “built a great empire, [he] did ‘The Art of the Deal,’ [and he] did ‘The Apprentice.’”[8]

Trump, who channels authoritarian populist rage, thus differs from authoritarian populists in two important ways: 1) the plight of workers in the U.S. is largely not of their own making; and 2) Trump abuses,[9] while workers are abused.[10]

Curry writes that “henceforth [Trump’s] coverage won’t be ‘fairly negative,’ it will be awful and focused not on any fanciful independent run but on his basic mental fitness.”[11] In fact, such attacks will only increase authoritarian populist identification with Trump. As Thomas Frank has explained, authoritarian populists resent elites, especially including intellectual elites,[12] whom they blame for, among other things, the bank bailouts.[13] They’re going to choose their own ‘common sense’ over anything intellectuals or big city elites have to say about Trump’s intelligence or ‘basic mental fitness.’[14] They’ll see such attacks as attacks on themselves as much as against Trump.

So bringing down Trump means emphasizing the differences between him and authoritarian populists. That’s a hard thing for any mainstream politician to do, because they’re all beholden to wealthy interests. But it’s the weakness that can and probably ultimately will be Trump’s undoing.

  1. [1]Bill Curry, “The destruction of Donald Trump: How the billionaire with a rage problem became the frontrunner — and then fell apart,” Salon, August 10, 2015, http://www.salon.com/2015/08/10/the_destruction_of_donald_trump_how_the_billionaire_with_a_rage_problem_became_the_frontrunner_and_then_fell_apart/
  2. [2]Bill Curry, “The destruction of Donald Trump: How the billionaire with a rage problem became the frontrunner — and then fell apart,” Salon, August 10, 2015, http://www.salon.com/2015/08/10/the_destruction_of_donald_trump_how_the_billionaire_with_a_rage_problem_became_the_frontrunner_and_then_fell_apart/
  3. [3]Bill Curry, “The destruction of Donald Trump: How the billionaire with a rage problem became the frontrunner — and then fell apart,” Salon, August 10, 2015, http://www.salon.com/2015/08/10/the_destruction_of_donald_trump_how_the_billionaire_with_a_rage_problem_became_the_frontrunner_and_then_fell_apart/
  4. [4]Chip Berlet, “Taking Tea Parties Seriously: Corporate Globalization, Populism, and Resentment,” Perspectives on Global Development and Technology 10 (2011): 11-29, doi: 10.1163/156914911X555071; Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (New York: Henry Holt, 2005); Robert E. Scott, “Manufacturing Job Loss: Trade, Not Productivity, Is the Culprit,” Economic Policy Institute, August 11, 2015, http://www.epi.org/publication/manufacturing-job-loss-trade-not-productivity-is-the-culprit/; Scott Sernau, Worlds Apart: Social Inequalities in a Global Economy, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge, 2006)
  5. [5]Bill Curry, “The destruction of Donald Trump: How the billionaire with a rage problem became the frontrunner — and then fell apart,” Salon, August 10, 2015, http://www.salon.com/2015/08/10/the_destruction_of_donald_trump_how_the_billionaire_with_a_rage_problem_became_the_frontrunner_and_then_fell_apart/
  6. [6]Bill Curry, “The destruction of Donald Trump: How the billionaire with a rage problem became the frontrunner — and then fell apart,” Salon, August 10, 2015, http://www.salon.com/2015/08/10/the_destruction_of_donald_trump_how_the_billionaire_with_a_rage_problem_became_the_frontrunner_and_then_fell_apart/
  7. [7]Stephen Dinan and David Sherfinski, “Donald Trump maintains front-runner status despite furor over Megyn Kelly comments,” Washington Times, August 11, 2015, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/aug/10/donald-trump-megyn-kelly-should-really-be-apologiz/
  8. [8]Stephen Dinan and David Sherfinski, “Donald Trump maintains front-runner status despite furor over Megyn Kelly comments,” Washington Times, August 11, 2015, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/aug/10/donald-trump-megyn-kelly-should-really-be-apologiz/
  9. [9]Jonathan Allen, “Donald Trump’s new misogynistic low: Fox’s Kelly had ‘blood coming out of her … wherever’,” Vox, August 7, 2015, http://www.vox.com/2015/8/7/9119897/donald-trump-blood-wherever-Fox; Caitlin MacNeal, “Trump Rails Against ‘Unfair’ Debate Questions From Fox News,” Talking Points Memo, August 7, 2015, http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/donald-trump-fox-news-unfair-debate; Leonard Pitts, Jr., “Here’s hoping cooler heads prevail in GOP,” Miami Herald, July 18, 2015, http://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/leonard-pitts-jr/article27531262.html; Eugene Robinson, “Attacking Donald Trump seems to only make him stronger” Washington Post, July 20, 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/a-questionable-strategy-against-godzilla/2015/07/20/66b58220-2f17-11e5-8353-1215475949f4_story.html; Betsy Rothstein, “Donald Trump Agrees That Megyn Kelly Is A ‘Bimbo’,” Daily Caller, August 7, 2015, http://dailycaller.com/2015/08/07/donald-trump-agrees-that-megyn-kelly-is-a-bimbo/; Ben Schreckinger, “Donald Trump’s war on Megyn Kelly,” Politico, August 7, 2015, http://www.politico.com/story/2015/08/donald-trumps-war-on-megyn-kelly-121171.html; Niall Stanage, “Can anything bring down Teflon Trump?” Hill, August 8, 2015, http://thehill.com/homenews/campaign/250639-can-anything-bring-down-teflon-trump
  10. [10]Donna Ballman, “Your Employer Wants To Erase Your Personal Cell Phone And Computer,” Screw You Guys, I’m Going Home, October 4, 2013, http://employeeatty.blogspot.com/2013/10/your-employer-wants-to-erase-your.html; Daniel D’Addario, “Amazon is worse than Walmart,” Salon, July 30, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/07/30/how_amazon_is_worse_than_wal_mart/; Democracy Now! “Over 110 Arrested as Record Black Friday Protests Challenge Wal-Mart, Major Retailers on Low Wages,” December 2, 2013, http://www.democracynow.org/2013/12/2/over_110_arrested_as_record_black; Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (New York: Owl, 2001).; Josh Eidelson, “How Walmart got government support, despite union pleas,” Salon, September 23, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/09/23/white_house_rebuffed_union_pleas_to_ditch_walmart/; Josh Eidelson, “Wal-Mart faces warehouse horror allegations and federal Labor Board complaint,” Salon, November 18, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/11/18/breaking_wal_mart_faces_warehouse_horror_allegations_and_federal_labor_board_complaint/; Josh Eidelson, “Senators blast Wal-Mart ‘trampling’ workers’ rights as dozens of activists are arrested on Black Friday,” Salon, November 29, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/11/29/senators_blast_wal_mart_trampling_workers_rights_as_dozens_of_activists_are_arrested_on_black_friday/; Josh Eidelson, “Tens of thousands protest, over 100 arrested in Black Friday challenge to Wal-Mart,” Salon, November 29, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/11/30/tens_of_thousands_protest_over_100_arrested_in_black_friday_challenge_to_wal_mart/; Josh Eidelson, “Wal-Mart arrests could fuel “a new political movement of the disenfranchised,” Grayson tells Salon,” Salon, November 29, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/11/29/wal_mart_arrests_could_fuel_a_new_political_movement_of_the_disenfranchised_grayson_tells_salon/; Josh Eidelson, “Amazon Keeps Unions Out By Keeping Workers in Fear, Says Organizer,” Alternet, January 22, 2014, http://www.alternet.org/labor/amazon-keeps-unions-out-keeping-workers-fear-says-organizer; Steven Greenhouse, “The Changing Face of Temporary Employment,” New York Times, August 31, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/01/upshot/the-changing-face-of-temporary-employment.html; Erin Hatton, “The Rise of the Permanent Temp Economy,” New York Times, January 26, 2013, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/01/26/the-rise-of-the-permanent-temp-economy/; Simon Head, “Worse than Wal-Mart: Amazon’s sick brutality and secret history of ruthlessly intimidating workers,” Salon, February 23, 2014, http://www.salon.com/2014/02/23/worse_than_wal_mart_amazons_sick_brutality_and_secret_history_of_ruthlessly_intimidating_workers/; Allison Kilkenny, “Cleveland Walmart Holds Food Drive For Its Own Employees,” Nation, November 18, 2013, http://www.thenation.com/blog/177241/cleveland-wal-mart-holds-food-drive-its-own-employ%C3%A9es; Mac McClelland, “I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave,” Mother Jones, February 27, 2012, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/02/mac-mcclelland-free-online-shipping-warehouses-labor; Hamilton Nolan, “What Is Life Like For an Amazon Worker?” Gawker, July 29, 2013, http://gawker.com/what-is-life-like-for-an-amazon-worker-949664345; Alex Seitz-Wald, “Amazon is everything wrong with our new economy,” Salon, July 30, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/07/30/amazon_is_everything_wrong_with_our_new_economy/; Alana Semuels, “As employers push efficiency, the daily grind wears down workers,” Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2013, http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-harsh-work-20130407,5976597,1009581,full.story; Alana Semuels, “How the relationship between employers and workers changed,” Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2013, http://www.latimes.com/business/money/la-fi-mo-harsh-work-history-20130405,0,716422.story; Alana Semuels, “Tougher workplace makes home life worse too,” Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2013, http://www.latimes.com/business/money/la-tougher-workplace-makes-home-life-worse-too-20130407,0,4926425.story; Yves Smith, “The Rise of Bullshit Jobs,” Naked Capitalism, August 22, 2013, http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2013/08/the-rise-of-bullshit-jobs.html; Spencer Soper, “Inside Amazon’s Warehouse,” Morning Call, September 18, 2011, http://articles.mcall.com/2011-09-18/news/mc-allentown-amazon-complaints-20110917_1_warehouse-workers-heat-stress-brutal-heat; Lindsay Wise, “Report: Temp jobs at all-time high in U.S.,” McClatchy, December 2, 2014, http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2014/09/02/238327_report-temp-jobs-at-all-time-high.html?rh=1
  11. [11]Bill Curry, “The destruction of Donald Trump: How the billionaire with a rage problem became the frontrunner — and then fell apart,” Salon, August 10, 2015, http://www.salon.com/2015/08/10/the_destruction_of_donald_trump_how_the_billionaire_with_a_rage_problem_became_the_frontrunner_and_then_fell_apart/
  12. [12]Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (New York: Henry Holt, 2005).
  13. [13]Thomas Frank, Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right (New York: Metropolitan, 2012).
  14. [14]Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (New York: Henry Holt, 2005).

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