The Enduring Personal Appeal of Donald Trump--and What We Can Learn From it

by William Hausdorff

Give 'em the old razzle dazzle
Razzle Dazzle 'em

Give 'em an act with lots of flash in it
And the reaction will be passionate

Give 'em the old hocus pocus
Bead and feather 'em

How can they see with sequins in their eyes?
What if your hinges all are rusting?
What if, in fact, you're just disgusting?

Razzle dazzle 'em
And they’ll never catch wise!

(sung by the character Billy Flynn, from Chicago, the Musical)

At least 40% percent of Americans currently retain a favorable opinion of President Donald Trump.  He is even more popular within the Republican Party, as shown by the unwillingness of any Republican official to call him to task for his blatant personal conflicts of interest, or for any Senator to declare they will vote against ANY of his cabinet nominees, no matter how unqualified, mendacious, or corrupt.  Why?

1.  It’s not because President Trump has an attractive personality.  His demeanor is unpleasant, if not repugnant.  He has no sense of humor.  He’s sarcastic in the worst New York way, like Rudolph Giuliani, with a mean edge (disclosure:  I’m a New Yorker too).  He has zero charm.  Even women who voted for him, who excuse his boorish behavior, say he reminds them of their ex-husband. 

That’s unusual in a winning Presidential candidate, but he was facing Hillary Clinton, also not perceived as a warm person.  In contrast, Obama was the hands down winner in the charisma department compared to John McCain and Mitt Romney.  Pundits in 2000 and 2004 seriously suggested that election outcomes then had a lot do with the perception that it would be more fun to have a beer with George W. Bush than with either of the wooden public personae of Al Gore or John Kerry.

(Although I loathed his politics, I have little difficulty believing that George W is a truly likable guy in person—think of his little nicknames—primarily because I remain perplexed what else he had going for him besides his name and the Bush organization.)

To complete the picture, Bill Clinton was much more charming than either the passionless George Bush Sr or the stern Bob Dole, and the cinematic Ronald Reagan had much more charisma and a better public sense of humor than either the dour Jimmy Carter or the earnest but not scintillating Walter Mondale.

Trump’s personal shortcomings may ultimately cause problems.  It’s fun to fantasize that he won’t last long in the Oval Office. Like Nixon, Trump is pathologically insecure and appears to have few friends or even sympathetic ears.  Both seem inherently self-destructive.  If and when the public tide turns against Trump, it seems likely there will be little goodwill to draw on and his reign will crumble fast.  Of course, then we get Mike Pence.  (But maybe we already have him--see below.)

2.  Trump’s willingness to be blunt and bold (even if often offensive and/or insulting and/or petty) continues to appear as a major positive attribute in interviews with Trump supporters, and distinguishes him from most other politicians, Republican or Democratic. 

The Democrats have something to learn here.  The Democrats could have seized Bernie Sanders’ and Trump’s signature issue of “the rigged system” by bluntly refusing to participate in hearings with any nominees whose ethics forms aren’t filled out or have refused/or not yet dealt with their conflicts of interest.  This would have pushed the issue to the forefront, and made it clear that the Democrats were simply not going to accept the violation of this fundamental norm.  Even if the Republicans chose to held Republican-only hearings, it would have looked bad for them and for Trump, and the Democrats would have appeared to have stood for something.

However, to be most credible the Democrats would need to start acknowledging their own complicity.  For example, it was reported that 

 [Education secretary nominee Betsy De Vos’] family gave $250,000 to five of the 12 politicians who sit on the Committee of Health, Education, Labor and Pensions”

of which $31,000 came from De Vos herself.

Yet later in the same article her supporters gleefully point out that 

“Billionaire [Penny] Pritzker donated $20,000 to Democratic senators who then voted on her confirmation as President Barack Obama’s commerce secretary.”

3.  Outside of angry tweets, Trump’s main interest appears to be implementing the Tea Party-dominated Republican Party agenda.  Almost all of the people Trump has named for his cabinet are Tea Party Republicans. One after another of his prospective Cabinet members indicated in their hearings they don’t agree with those instances in which he appeared to deviate from Republican orthodoxy.  This is why the Republican Party loves him.  They know that someone seriously looking to shake up the system would have put in place a team of like-minded individuals. 

None of Trump’s more egregious nominees would be sailing through their respective Committees, and soon the Senate, if it weren’t for the votes of the media-savvy pseudo-maverick and pseudo-moderate Republican Senators who somehow manage to always fall in line with the most conservative elements in the party when it matters.  This is the real story, and they should be the real targets of Democratic actions.

4.  Democrats and the media need to refute the outright lies and disinformation, and put pressure on Republicans to do so too, but not get distracted by tweets.  Why it’s necessary to keep correcting these lies is clear by a quick glance at how and Breitbart treated the question of the size of inauguration audience. Both reported the Trump and Spicer rants almost as a press release straight from the White House.

Interestingly, Breitbart, although it derisively characterized the criticisms of Trump and Spicer’s lies as “a media meltdown on social media,” at least quoted several of them, whereas ignored the criticisms altogether.

As a parenthesis, I’m not convinced that the “fake news” epidemic is substantially different from the yellow journalism of the past, when newspapers explicitly affiliated with specific parties or with right-wing publishers such as William Randolph Hearst invented their own versions of events.  People have always chosen which radio or TV shows to listen to, or which papers to read, and these are usually those that reinforce their own sense of reality.

In any case, talk is cheap.  With whatever Trump said yesterday, there is a good chance that tomorrow he will say the opposite, and deny that he ever said it in the first place.  Why do more than correct his falsehoods, even in his inaugural address?

More importantly, Democrats often had a hard time getting beyond the Cabinet nominees’ rhetoric to focus on their past actions, or lack thereof. It doesn’t matter how many nominees say they are not racist and support civil rights, or that they believe global warming exists and that man has a role, if their past actions show just the opposite.

In this regard, the media coverage of Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson and Exxon’s position on global warming was at times embarrassing. Exxon is not “one of the good guys” because it officially acknowledges that global warming is man-made and supposedly advocates for a politically infeasible carbon tax. 

In reality, it is the likely target of major lawsuits for fraud, because it has continued to spend millions funding “think tanks” denying global warming and hiding its own research, with the net effect of overvaluing the potential value of future oil exploration. Furthermore, in his supposed lack of knowledge of Exxon’s core policies, ex-CEO Tillerson seems to have directly lied about the company’s lobbying efforts against sanctions on Russia.  But none of that matters to the pseudo-mavericks Senators McCain, Graham, and Rubio.

5.  Democrats need to recognize that the rules of the game have changed and to stop being enablers--if not chumps.  Witness the repeated willingness of a significant portion of the Republican Congress to shut down the government or default on its debt over Planned Parenthood or any other relatively minor issue.  Or the successful gambit by Senate Majority Leader McConnell to ignore with impunity the existence of a presidential supreme court nominee. 

It seems likely that the new model for federal (and state-level) Republican behavior is the North Carolina state legislature, where the moment a Democratic governor squeaked by in the recent election the Republican-dominated legislature held special emergency sessions to strip him of powers.

These are not conservatives.  In its disregard for the basic norms of democracy, not to mention willingness to dismember core programs of the Federal Government such as environmental protection, defense of civil rights, anti-trust, progressive taxation, or even Social Security (Privatization Ryan), the Republican Party is actually “pseudo-conservative.” In his discussion of Senators Joe McCarthy and Barry Goldwater in his classic The Paranoid Style in American Politics (pp 43-44), Richard Hofstadter quotes Theodore Adorno’s definition of a pseudo-conservative as  

“a man who, in the name of upholding traditional American values and institutions and defending them against more or less fictitious dangers, consciously or unconsciously aims at their abolition.” 

Yet there are some hopeful signs that the Democratic leadership may be slowly getting this.  It seems plausible that the hearings for some of Trump’s cabinet nominees were delayed due to Democratic intervention, until their ethics forms were at least submitted.  But if so, this seems to have been negotiated behind the scenes, with no discernible benefit to the Party.

The most tangible sign, however, was four years ago, when then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid finally got rid of the filibuster for executive branch and lower federal court nominees.  While some recent media reports asserted that the Democrats were “foolish” to get rid of this potential tool to temporarily threaten cabinet nominations, that interpretation ignores why the “nuclear option” was reluctantly adopted in the first place.  

The real story was that the then-minority Republicans in the Senate were threatening to filibuster everything, and had accordingly simply stopped allowing the confirmation of any judges or even cabinet  officials.  De facto, the then-majority Democrats were ceding control to the minority.  Only when the filibuster was killed was Obama able to fill positions.  In other words, it worked. Conversely, anyone who believes the Republicans will hesitate to get rid of the remnants of the filibuster if the Democrats threaten to block Trump’s Supreme Court nomination is also in denial.

Blind obstruction of anything the Trump Administration wants to do, a la McConnell, no.  But targeted obstruction, when traditional norms are not respected, and when there’s a very clear, potentially achievable goal, yes.  The same goes for future demonstrations.  Rather than being diffuse and completely ineffectual, like the Occupy Wall Street efforts, they need to be coordinated with electoral, legislative and perhaps civil disobedience efforts with specific aims. 

--> President Trump.  President Trump.  It’s here.  Need to stop saying “I can’t believe it.”  Now’s the time to be bold.  And blunt.