In this silly season for American politics, I read daily a respectable smattering of serious journalism about Donald Trump, the now more-than-presumptive Republican nominee for the presidency of the United States. I read, daily, the Wall Street Journal op-ed pages, where the stable of staunchly right-wing regulars ranges from Bret Stephens, a conservative think-tanker who is philosophically appalled and personally offended (as he often is) by the Trump candidacy (http://www.wsj.com/articles/nevertrump-for-dummies-1473722261), to Carl Rove, perennial Republican apparatchik and pitch-perfect Porky Pig impersonator, who offers panicky corrective exhortations to the wayward, self-satisfied, seemingly ad hoc Trump campaign.
I also read the New Yorker, which in its pages and online has unleashed an unremitting fusillade of passionately literate anti-Trump material, from Adam Gopnik’s anguished calls to understand Trump as a harbinger of pure fascism (http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/being-honest-about-trump); to Jane Mayer’s methodically incendiary piece (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/07/25/donald-trumps-ghostwriter-tells-all) on Tony Schwartz, the repentant ghostwriter of Trump’s own Mein Kampf, “The Art of the Deal,” in which Schwartz describes Trump as a ruthless narcissist whose election would create “an excellent possibility that it will lead to the end of civilization” (not to put too fine a point on it); to Lauren Collins’ deadpan dissection of Melania Trump (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/05/09/who-is-melania-trump); to Amy Davidson’s sanguinely trenchant daily reportage from the floor of the Republican National Convention (http://www.newyorker.com/news/amy-davidson/mike-pence-becomes-the-anti-cruz?intcid=mod-latest).
This is all a heck of a lot of fun for your average centrist political news junkie, but does it move any needles? It has the feel of an echo chamber, a self-reinforcing media feedback loop, which we’ve each managed to construct for ourselves, in which the already-converted preach eloquently to each other and no one else listens. I find myself, like any good liberal, eagerly consuming anti-Trump journalism, whether emanating from the right or left, like candy: it’s abundant, it goes down easy, you want more. But after a while it starts to make you nauseous.
This isn’t the nausea that comes from a dire recognition of the spot we’ve gotten ourselves into as a nation. Rather, it’s the nausea of excessive self-indulgence. Adam Gopnik touched on this briefly in his above-linked piece when he noted that “while the habits of hatred get the better of the right, the habits of self-approval through the fiction of being above it all contaminate the center.”
I’m old enough to have been aware of Donald Trump for several decades, and for some of those years as a resident of New York City, where he was an ongoing joke long before his goofy self-caricature on “The Apprentice”: the kid of a local real estate mogul throwing his money around, womanizing, serially bankrupt, serially reinvented, but consistently self-promoting in a comically obvious, ham-handed way, like the ads for kitchen implements on late-night TV, or a latter-day Hugh Hefner. If you paid attention to him at all, it was with the nearly universal condescension that New Yorkers bestow on pretenders and neophytes. He was the harbinger of an era when unbridled narcissism could pass for a profession rather than a pathology. It was impossible to take him seriously.
Now we must. Not the man himself, of course, but what he represents and the risks that it poses to the republic: a hate-baiting indifference to fact and nuance posing as candor, a disdain for civil discourse, a blinding self-absorption posing as personal strength. It’s not that he’s evil; no one who’s watched his career unfold thinks he’s much worse than a boor. It’s simply that he is utterly unqualified for the post he’s seeking.
But enough with the piling-on of anti-Trump rhetoric, the reaching for new metaphors in an effort to capture the tawdry essence of what his candidacy tells us about ourselves and our politics. No one’s going to be persuaded one way or the other by the next story about Trump’s treatment of women, his companies’ bankruptcies, his yet-to-be-uttered, inevitable insults and falsehoods. We get it. Conservatives get it. This is easy. We need to return Trump to his natural habitat of real estate deals and cheap celebrity, and elect grown-ups with plausible backgrounds to represent us in government. We need to mark this down as a remarkable if sporadically entertaining aberration in our national life, and move on.
To do that, we must discard “the fiction of being above it all,” stop enjoying the anti-Trump diatribes and gloating over his serial gaffes. We must escape a media narrative that, inadvertently or deliberately, tends to normalize the extreme abnormality of what we’re witnessing: a thoroughly unprepared man to whom consensus is an alien notion, with no experience in elected office or in representing anyone but himself, offered up as the Republican Party’s nominee for the presidency of the most powerful nation on earth.
We must, above all, vote this November, and urge our fellow citizens to vote, rather than sit this one out because one dislikes Hillary only slightly less than Donald. This is not the time for prissy ideological purity or disdain for the entire political process; a pox on both houses will surely be a pox on us all.
Trump is an easy target, and the tsunami of anti-Trump journalism is loads of fun for most of us. But from here on out, the ballot is the only statement about Trump that matters.