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Reflecting on Trump's Rise
A primer for possible parallels. Many of the factors that made Trump's ascendancy possible are once again at play, and the MSM and elite class haven't changed their tune.
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On Tuesday, November 8, 2016, 135 million Americans voted in arguably the most momentous presidential election in American history. This was no ordinary affair.
In the Blue corner stood one Hillary Rodham Clinton, she of the feckless email etiquette, wife to the promiscuous William, former senator and secretary of state and darling of the corporate media, an arrestingly — we might even say magnificently — mediocre candidate who labored under the permanent delusion that she was rightful heir to the Oval Office.
And in the Red corner was the notorious Donald J. Trump, he of the occult talent for driving liberals absolutely bat-shit crazy with remarkable regularity due in no small part to his knack for rhetoric wholly inappropriate to social intercourse between civilized ladies and gentlemen, a man with the lexical proclivity of a peeved 12 year-old on Xbox Live and writer of some of history’s greatest tweets who possesses in spades the key attribute for success in twenty-first century America: shamelessness.
The outcome had been foretold with rare certainty. The New York Times gave Trump a 15% chance of winning, pronouncing the race essentially over, telling us to expect a “sweeping victory at every level” for Clinton. Other outlets offered worse odds. Memorably, the Huffington Post predicted Trump had a 1.8% chance.
To say that Trump’s victory was an upset would be to indulge in the drollest understatement. For the elites it was like a cruel joke, a sinister farce that could only be explained in terms of lies and conspiracies, and to which it was imperative that they “resist” and reject. In the same breath, Democratic state and city governments talked about defying the election outcome. “We’ve got the scientists, we’ve got the lawyers, and we’re ready to fight,” proclaimed California’s Jerry Brown. Some even pushed for members of the Electoral College pledged to Trump to vote for Clinton instead.
In retrospect, it’s clear that a good deal of people seemed to be under the impression that a collective tantrum, if spastic enough, might nullify the election results.1 The media class, whose job it is to exercise narrative temperance, took to shouting from the rooftops about the imminent fall of democracy and the specter of Republican fascism, as if we were witnessing the resurrection of the Third Reich.2 There remains no shortage of politicians and pundits who love themselves an opportunity to forewarn the Republic’s collapse, so long as Trump exists. These people share the inability to talk about the 45th president in anything but the language of civilizational catastrophe.
Given that Trump is running again, it’s worth reviewing the seismic shifts that carried him to the White House and to consider whether those same circumstances might do so again. After all, it’s beginning to look like we might be in for something of a 2015-16 repeat, as many of the factors that contributed to Trump’s stunning ascendancy are still important.
The Why of Donald Trump
First it must be said that Donald Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, was a lifelong institutionalist at a time when trust in American institutions was at an all-time low.3 I point this out because Trump was (and in many ways still is) the perfect foil.
The second thing that must be understood is that Trump is champion of the people whom the Left continues to treat with outward disdain, and who could very well carry him to the White House for a second time. These people tried to teach the Left a lesson in 2016: that those who’ve been rendered invisible will do anything to make themselves visible; and those who feel humiliated will avenge their humiliation. Trump didn’t win because he had excellent foreign policy proposals. He won because he made the white working class feel heard.
This man isn’t the sort of candidate you’d vote for lightly. Trump’s voters meant it. It’s hard to see his support as anything less than a gesture of supreme repudiation, the political assertion of an insurgent and highly mobilized public reacting to a stifling left-wing orthodoxy intent on either erasing or replacing everything from merit and our shared sense of history to free speech and biological dimorphism, essentially rebuilding Western thought from first principles while racializing everything. In the face of such idiocy, many Americans rightly balked. “Make America Great Again” was just as much about nostalgia and stopping the Left from bulldozing the country as it was a call to sweep away the ruling order.
There was definitely a nihilistic undercurrent that carried Trump to the White House. He was like a club wielded by the “basket of deplorables” to strike a blow against everything Hillary Clinton represented and abetted, including the Left’s flouting of political secularism and its primary tenet, the very bedrock of liberal democracy: No matter how strongly you believe your belief system to be true, or how essential you think it is that all of society abides by it and lives according to its moral dictates, you do not have the right to impose it on anyone else. Much of the resentment that fueled Trump’s rise could be traced to this dogmatic encroachment. And it’s not like things have changed much.
I don’t think 2016 should have been as shocking as it was made out to be. In many ways it was unexceptional; the U.S. was following in the footsteps of other countries during the same time period. The populist movement driven by white working and middle classes in America joined its counterpart in Great Britain, with the Brexit vote; Marine Le Pen’s Front National, in France; and the Alternative für Deutschland party, which threatened Angela Merkel’s centrist coalition in Germany. One way or another, they all represented a reaction against globalism and elite rule.4
In America specifically, the public mobilized not out of a desire to reform, but out of a collective spirit of revolt against the elite-enforced status quo. It was a movement driven by a near-universal perception of failure at the top. The impetus was born online, and when it translated to the real world it radicalized political rhetoric and inherited the vitriolic, no-holds-barred characteristic of online dialogue, which so often devolves into obscenity-laced tirades. This language of pseudo-outrage usually takes the form of the nihilistic harangue, and nobody is better at this than Trump.
“But Trump is an asshole,” they cry. “He’s a smug billionaire who says impolite things and he’s belligerent and he’s always lying and he doesn’t do things the way you’re supposed to—he doesn’t follow the rules!”
As if his supporters aren’t aware; as if they don’t love that he’s a brash and cantankerous brawler who represents a deep and visceral aesthetic injury to the sensibilities of those who reside in the highfalutin ivory tower. Trump is not a restrained diplomat who delivers polished, platitudinous hope in the form of seemingly eloquent messages. That is a strength of his, not a weakness. While his competitors trade in pompous oration anchored with pious generalities, Trump rants and insults in much the same way that so many online dwellers do. His detractors despise him for this uncouthness; his supporters love him for it.5
The How of Donald Trump
For starters, it certainly helped that the Clinton campaign was entirely comprised of educationalist elites who had no idea how to talk to the wider American public, and who had no desire to make any overtures to the white working class. These hyper-educated morons believed big data was more important than public opinion and common sense. An algorithm nicknamed “Ada” was said to play a role in virtually every strategic decision Clinton aides made. Clearly, this computer algorithm, which “the campaign was prepared to publicly unveil after the election as its invisible guiding hand,” was a proxy for the public as the elites wished it to be rather than the grotesque, unclean masses.
It must also be said that Trump’s stunning ascendancy to the presidency would not have been possible without the tectonic collision between a public empowered by digital platforms and the elites who control our ruling institutions. By 2015, social media had transformed the public from a passive audience into a hyperactive one whose numbers are unprecedented in human experience, and which has managed to bleed institutions of authority.
The internet’s democratization of information forever changed society’s traditional power dynamics. Whereas before the digital big bang a scarcity of sources in possession of a scarcity of information endowed those sources with authority and allowed dominant media to operate within a system of centralized, one-way news dissemination — meaning to consume the news was to ingest a diet of information pre-selected by the elites — after the internet, information was no longer limited to a newspaper and the 10 o’clock roundup, nor was it dispensed one to many via a rigid, top down pyramid. Media luminaries and government officials alike had always played an intermediary role in the way citizens received and processed information, but the internet’s sheer speed and scope completely upended the concept of authority as a belief system anointing the chosen few.
This development, which Obama capitalized on in both 2008 and 2012, was reaching a tipping point when Trump announced his run in 2015. Somewhat luckily, he stepped right into an institutional vacuum, using Twitter to bypass the traditional gatekeepers of information and communicate directly with the public. Ever media savvy, the Bad Orange Man w/ Mean Tweets knew that as “a peacock among the dull buzzards of American politics,” he could elevate himself above opponents. At one point in The Art of the Deal, Trump states:
One thing I’ve learned about the press is that they’re always hungry for a good story, and the more sensational the better . . . The point is that if you are a little different, or a little outrageous, or if you do things that are bold or controversial, the press is going to write about you.
Trump remains a master manipulator of sensationalist air time. Despite his campaign spending far less money on advertising than Clinton or his Republican opponents, he received far more media coverage. There’s no doubt that this will be the case again in ‘24. On May 25, MSNBC and CNN mentioned Trump 399 times between 6:00 AM - 4:00 PM. This is what one hour of CNN looks like:
Along the same vein, Trump was keenly aware that the media was rapidly approaching an existential crisis due to the advent of social media and the epistemic free-for-all that is the internet, and that he could take advantage of the industry’s desperation for clicks and views and subscriptions. Ironically, he was able to campaign against an institution hemorrhaging public trust while simultaneously benefiting from its free publicity. The distaste was mutual. Members of the mainstream media colluded with the Clinton campaign to maximize the chances of Trump’s defeat, as was revealed in a hack of her campaign manager’s emails, which suggests objectivity was never an option. As Howard Kurtz wrote in Media Madness, “Donald Trump is staking his presidency, as he did his election, on nothing less than destroying the credibility of the news media; and the media are determined to do the same for him.”
In his 1993 book Out of Order, Thomas Patterson averred that the power to select presidential candidates had essentially passed from political parties to the media. But today, nothing could be further from the truth. Trump showed that a complete novice at politics, even one up against the money, endorsements, and state organization of a sprawling campaign like that of Hillary Clinton, could win a presidential election by navigating a fragmented media industry divested of authority and public trust more intelligently than his competitors.
Elites Untethered From Reality
Reflecting on the reaction to Trump’s win is instructive, if only because it underscores how forces on the Left turned morality-injected mainstream media coverage into an exercise in doctrinal enforcement. When Trump won in 2016, they insisted that he had subverted the election with Russian help. When he lost in 2020, the electoral process miraculously regained its vestal purity. But if he wins in 2024, we can expect his victory to be once again attributed to any number of malevolent forces Extremely Dangerous to Our Democracy™, and for the ruling class to withdraw into another defensive crouch as every one of its propaganda organs coalesces around some kind of scapegoating narrative that’ll be used to attack Trump.
Shocked by the outcome of the 2016 election, elites were wholly ignorant of the forces at play. They struggled to make sense of what happened and why, but arriving at the truth would require considerable self-scrutiny, at which they do not excel, and so they engaged in laughable attempts at revisionist history. Disoriented, grasped for explanations in electoral post-mortems. Eight days after Trump’s win, Buzzfeed posted a soup sandwich of an analysis that made the following assertion:
In the final three months of the US presidential election, the top-performing fake news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, NBC News, and others . . .Of the 20 top-performing false election stories identified in the analysis, all but three were overtly pro-Donald Trump or anti-Hillary Clinton.
Without elaborating on the actual impact this had on the public, the article instead sounded the alarm: “This new data illustrates the power of fake election news on Facebook.”
Days later, the New York Times gave it a go: “How Fake News Goes Viral: A Case Study.” The case in question involved a false story on Twitter that aimed to discredit anti-Trump protests in Austin, Texas. After this story was published, it was as though the mainstream media got together on a conference call and decided that they would all begin suggesting, without actually affirming, that fake news had helped Trump win the election. This effort reached its zenith when the Washington Post published an article that claimed Vladimir Putin was behind the fake news favoring Trump.
The flood of “fake news” this election season got support from a sophisticated Russian propaganda campaign that created and spread misleading articles online with the goal of punishing Democrat Hillary Clinton, helping Republican Donald Trump, and undermining faith in American democracy, say independent researchers who tracked the operation.
The flurry of media content on this subject matter is easy to explain. If fake news had tricked the ignorant masses into electing Trump, and if shadowy Russians were behind this deluge of fake news, then the mainstream press and ruling class were in effect absolved from doing any soul-searching or critical thinking. The prevailing notion was that fake news had burrowed its way into the consciousness of voters, hence Trump—a nice, neat explanation. Very convenient. The question was never asked why people would believe fake news over the real stuff, nor was anyone curious as to whether or not the cratering trust in the corporate media might have made Americans more susceptible to falsehoods.
Here’s the thing about fake news: Clicks do not equal persuasion. Just because a fake story maligning Hillary Clinton may have received millions of clicks does not mean that fake story was persuasive. An analysis of online media election coverage by Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center suggests the opposite: “Although fake news—fabricated and verifiable false reporting—was a phenomenon during the election, it had a minor effect on the media ecosystem of the presidential election according to our findings.”
And yet as we all know well, it became an article of faith that falsehoods and Russian conspiracies had given Trump the presidency. The top issue covered by mainstream news sources over the next four years would be collusion between the administration and Russia. By some counts, the New York Times alone produced more than 3,000 articles on the subject between 2016-2019, with the vast majority either implying or proclaiming collusion and predicting the imminent fall of Trump. Blind monomania. This was journalism as if conducted under the impulse of a pathological personality.
The elites and their Democratic handmaidens were obsessed with cancelling the 2016 election results, and, much like today, desperately wanted the pre-Trump status quo back. They were willing to sacrifice their own standards to try and make it happen, abandoning any pretense of serving the entire country.
At the same time, and in a show of supreme hypocrisy, the corporate media effectively handcuffed itself to commercial imperatives that didn’t even necessarily require a story to be correct so long as it was maximally compelling. Time and time again, when objectivity and accuracy were at odds with the anti-Trump narrative, fealty to partisan messaging took precedence over fidelity to the truth.
The hysteria over fake news contributed to a theory of universal self-deception. And that self-deception has not abated. The advent of post-journalism — that is, fitting facts to the narrative while avoiding any facts that undermine it — is founded on the notion that opinions can be transformed into facts if held passionately enough, and along with a obsessive fixation on all things Donald Trump, it has characterized much of the reporting at the New York Times et al.
We’re in a very curious situation.
The Left didn’t want Trump to run again. Between the impeachments, the Jan. 6th dramaturgy, the Mar-a-Lago6 raid, and the Alvin Bragg circus it’s obvious that Trump’s foes have been looking to make it impossible for him to see a second term.
But with Trump indeed running again in ‘24, this changes things quite a bit. I believe that in many ways they now want him to be the Republican nominee. The mainstream media wants Trump to be the nominee so they can wage another jihad against the arch-fiend to the Democratic faithful and watch as the coffers once again overflow.7 And the Democrats want Trump to be the nominee because they believe he’s the only candidate Biden can beat. As Martin Gurri wrote last year:
The best hope for Democrats in this bleak landscape is the second coming of Trump. Despite improved polling numbers that, at 42 percent approval, make him the “most favorable” political figure in the country, the former president strongly unites and galvanizes the opposition while having the opposite effect on his own party. Like Biden, Trump would enter the contest burdened by an immense weight of baggage. Like Biden, he would be an old man seeking redemption rather than a fresh face on the offensive. And if Biden can be said to bar the way to more attractive Democratic candidates, Trump does much the same to Republicans: He’s too volatile to embrace but too important to ignore.
But here’s what I find especially concerning, and this was a point made by Michael Anton, a former National Security Council staffer in the Trump White House: “He who says A must say B.” Rhetoric is rhetoric, of course, and this era has been heavily defined by rhetorical grandiosity, but politics, when influenced by a toxic moral certainty, is an entirely different matter.
If you’re someone of the liberal persuasion at the highest echelon of the government, and you’re on record as saying something like, “Trump must be stopped from running for office again,” or “Trump is Extremely Dangerous to Our Democracy™,” or such and such, the logic of that statement inevitably leads to action B, “even if the speaker of A didn’t really mean it, or did mean it, but still didn’t want B. Her followers won’t get the irony and, enthused by A, will insist on B.” For policymakers to not follow through with action B is to suffer a hit in credibility that they might not be able to afford, or to at least be taken less seriously.
Take some time to listen to the mainstream media. It doesn’t have to be long; five minutes should do. Then spend another five or so reading the statements of prominent politicians other than Trump. To round it out, sacrifice another five on leading intellectuals. It should become abundantly clear: They all have said A and so must say—and do—B. And B is that Trump absolutely must not be allowed to take office on Jan. 20, 2025.
Needless to say, this does not portend well. For those who convince themselves that they’re not up against normal political opponents but Literal Fascism™ led by Hitler 2.0 — which it’s no exaggeration to say is a core tenet of contemporary Democratic party politics — then it is not only expected but even rational to embrace authoritarian tactics to stave off this existential threat. Political parties that don’t believe they can win the old-fashioned way will seek to criminalize their adversaries, as criminality renders justifiable any subsequent acts of repression.
And if that doesn't work? Use your imagination. “Democracy is on the ballot” = It’s okay to cheat because the ends justify the means. This includes the “pre-cheating” that the Left boasts about as “election fortification,” i.e. changing the rules in advance in ways that favor Democrats and hurt Republicans, especially in swing states. But these people who’re absolutely convinced that Trump presents an unprecedented Danger to the Republic™—you know as well as I do that they wouldn’t have a problem looking the other way as a few boxes of ballots fell off some trucks near vote-counting headquarters. Americans would never know the difference. It’d be a repeat of 2020: On election night it’ll look like Trump has won, and then overnight the close states will tip to Biden as all the mail-in ballots are “counted.”
Moreover, when the Democratic Party enjoys control of every major institution in American society, from Hollywood and academia to Big Tech and the media, you don’t necessarily need some backroom cabal of nefarious regime actors to orchestrate a coherent effort to wrest control of the government out of the hands of the opposition under the cloak of “saving democracy.”
And we haven’t even mentioned the FBI, which for all intents and purposes has become a rogue agency whose fidelity extends only to the port side of the political spectrum. The Bureau has interfered in the last two elections in very serious, consequential ways. You think they won’t meddle in the 2024 election if Trump is the Republican nominee? That they’ve been properly chastened by the Durham report and will no longer operate as if their counterintelligence remit extends to “election integrity”? That they won’t subvert democracy to “save” it?
It truly should not matter whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican: What we know about the extent to which the FBI has interfered in the previous two elections should be concerning, to put it mildly. This kind of stuff really is extremely dangerous to democracy. But the point I’m trying to make is that if you don’t believe that powerful figures might intervene to stop Trump from becoming president again, you’re high.
Recall that on the day after inauguration, millions across the country joined in a “Women’s March” against Trump’s perceived misogyny, with many demonstrators donning hats in the form of female genitalia.
The Washington Post actually ran a Behind the Curtain–type feature about how it settled on its new “Democracy Dies in Darkness” slogan. Cringe-worthy stuff, is all I can say.
I would argue that Biden is just as much of an institutionalist, if not more so, and that trust in American institutions today is far, far worse than it was in 2016.
“Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo,” Trump declared in his 2016 convention speech. Though this kind of talk is routinely dismissed as “nationalist” or “nativist” or what have you, it does not make someone a bad person to want to live in a cohesive community, or to ask that new immigrants assimilate, or to wish for a zeitgeist based on values other than just ethnic diversity.
Complaints about the nature of Trump are just proxies for objections to the nature of his base, in my opinion.
It appears that an indictment of Trump by the Biden Justice Department’s special counsel, Jack Smith, is imminent. The indictment would be based on Trump’s unlawful retention of national-defense intelligence at Mar-a-Lago, his resort club and estate in Palm Beach, and it would center on his obstruction of a federal grand jury’s probe of that retention.