Sigh. Donald Trump. The erstwhile joke campaign of America’s favorite, squirrel-bouffanted, braggadocious billionaire has heretofore beat the Washington punditocracy’s expectations and not only survived the first presidential primary summer, but also thrived.
Need proof? The Donald’s poll numbers are through the roof. He’s racked up approvals from two-thirds of Republican primary voters, and he’s crushing more traditional GOP nutballs like Ted Cruz and Jeb “Son of Poppy, Brother of Dubya” Bush. Former neurosurgeon — and current bedlamite — Dr. Ben Carson has enjoyed some movement in the polls, but his numbers haven’t been YOOOOOGE like Trump’s. But if you want some REAL data on why Trump has more and more Republican voters basking in the glow of his combed-over Collossalness, just take a look at the September 14 speech he yawped out in Dallas, Texas.
In a characteristically impressive spectacle of random rhetorical bloviation peppered with nonchalant narcissism, Trump managed to tongue-bath a major American shibboleth even as he remained safely within the confines of softball generalities and ventured nary a step into the thorny briar patch of actual policy recommendation. This ain’t coincidental. Americans like their politics the way they like their fast food: cheap, totally lacking in substance, but still filling enough to snap a double-x girdle.
The bacon and double-cheese of Trump’s Dallas speech — heck, of every one of his speeches — is that America used to be the biggest, baddest, ballsiest, bawdiest country to ever exist — untill pantywaists like Barack Obama and a host of other invertebrate political milksops decided to slice off America’s collective gonads and apologize for their country’s former yoooge-ness. “We wanna win!” Trump bellowed, as ten-thousand Corticosteroid-pumped bald eagles collectively shed red, white, and blue tears. “We’re tired of being pushed around by incompetent people.”
More than anything else, the gold-studded heart of the Trump phenomenon boils down to a single concept: VICTORY. “We’re gonna’ have so many victories, that, at some point, they’re just gonna’ be coming out of your ears!” Trump proclaimed. Central to his emphasis on victory is, of course, the idea that the U-S-of-A ain’t all that great at WINNING anymore. It’s a theme he hammered on all summer.
“Our country is in serious trouble. We don’t have victories anymore. We used to have victories, but we don’t have them,” Trump stated in his June 2015 Presidential Announcement Speech. With his obsessive emphasis on winning, Sir Donald is offering — through his patented boardroom bombast — an ode to the age-old American myth of destined greatness cut short by a tragically unspecified fall from grace. Referencing foreign labor competition from places like Mexico and China, for example, Trump warned that, “We lose on everything. We lose on jobs, we lose on money, we lose on everything!” It’s no secret why Trump famously roasts his critics as “losers:” his brand is all about winning, and he knows that’s the (perceived) American brand as well. In Trump’s world, the only thing worse than being a loser is being a former winner who doesn’t win anymore — and a whole lot of people agree with him.
By framing America as an heretofore winner that has inexcusably taken a third-class Greyhound to Loserville, Trump is strategically invoking a declension narrative of American history. Historian Will Macintosh defines a declension narrative as “any story we tell about something getting progressively worse (not just different) over time, in a non-cyclical way.” In other words, the United States started out great — it started out YOOOGE — but, over time, it has steadily declined in influence and power. A declension narrative of U.S. history first requires an ascension; a peak that America was destined to reach and from which it has regrettably fallen. The single biggest driving force behind the Trump candidacy is the idea that The Donald — a billionaire and thus, the ultimate embodiment of American-style “winning” — is the only Chosen One who can restore America to greatness; the only Jesus-in-an-Armani who can reverse the decline.
Of course, the obvious question remains: from what point does Trump identify the start of America’s decline? He never really says, but in Dallas he invoked an era that ruffles the greying feathers of legions of pasty-white conservative culture warriors: the 1960s. “They [referring to the ever-squawking punditocracy] mentioned a little while ago…about the silent majority,” Trump bellowed. “It’s back, and it’s not silent,” he continued, “I think we should call it, maybe we should call it the noisy, the aggressive, the wanting to win, wanting to win majority. That’s what it is.” To anyone familiar with recent U.S. history, the term “Silent Majority” ought to ring a bell. As I noted in a previous piece, the Silent Majority refers to the culturally conservative coalition of disaffected white voters who rallied behind the 1972 “Law and Order” campaign of Richard Nixon in an attempt to purge the festering plagues of liberalism, cultural decline, and rampant lawlessness from the American body politic. Even long after Nixon’s own fall from grace, the Silent Majority remained, and it’s been a reliable, pasty-white-and-bulgy-neck-veined conservative voting block ever since.
Trump’s Silent Majority supporters tacitly locate the beginning of American decline in the 1960s and its attendant debauched horrors: the beginning of the end of the post-war boom, the counter-culture, the horrifying heresy of Great Society Liberalism (itself a continuation of FDR’s dreaded New Deal socialist Hellscape), and, perhaps most symbolic from a “victory” standpoint, Vietnam. The mythological American ideal that Trump’s followers embrace is an ideal in which America never lost the Vietnam War. Heck, it’s an ideal in which America never lost, PERIOD.
In this respect, Trump isn’t re-fighting the wars of the sixties, he’s pretending like the sixties never happened. And the 20,000-plus people who attended his Dallas pomposity pageant are all-too-willing to play the role of bubbly cheerleaders on the sidelines of The Donald’s ahistorical American political Super Bowl. American voters aren’t interested in wussy concepts like nuance, historical context, and the realities of 21st century globalization. It’s much easier to imagine that some brash Bruce Wayne clone can just swoop into the presidency, beat the living hell out of the declensionist Joker, and once again proudly display the American Bat Signal for the world to admire.
The problem with declension narratives, however, is that they attempt to straighten out history’s endless twists, turns, dead-ends, double-backs, and outright free-falls into a single, linear timeline marked only by good and evil, strength and weakness, winning and losing.
Alas, history ain’t like that. Trump may or may not know this, but I doubt he’d care either way. “You’re going to say to your children, and you’re going to say to anybody else, that we were part of a movement to take back our country,” Trump told his Dallas audience, “and we will make America great again.” The Donald has built an unlikely campaign juggernaut on a potent combination of historical mythology and unabashed assholery, and it’s hard to look away. After all, Trump embodies the American path to victory — at least in the minds of non-losers everywhere.