The most informing analyses of Donald Trump have come from Donald Trump. Speaking in Iowa last January, he boasted, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”
The past year has proven Trump right. There is no corruption, no bullying, and no lying that has made any difference. He is the anti-Superman, and that much more awesome for that. He works not out of phone booths but in a Hall of Mirrors in which he sees no one but himself. His supporters stand outside the hall and cheer into a vacuum.
On the day before the November election, I wrote a piece for the Times of Israel entitled, “Why Nations Destroy Themselves.” Some friends found the blog to be too psychological. There was not enough about the failures of neoliberalism, about elites and their bubbles, about the understandable resentments of the white working class. It was as though I was blaming the victims for being, as I wrote and still believe, on a death trip.
What gave pause to some is that I had predicted Trump’s victory several months earlier. In May, I wrote that he would win; that the key states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin would go his way; that the “anti-Trump” Republicans would all fold; and that all three branches of the US government would be under Republican control. If nothing else, I have been convinced for a long time that the train was heading toward a cliff. And now, within hours, it will go over.
I had no special data for these predictions. Once again, the best source was Trump himself. As he bragged, nothing mattered. Despite one outrage after the other, he won most of the GOP primaries and the nomination by a wide margin. What happened in the primaries, and not the general election, has always been the important story but insufficiently recognized as such. Nothing, however grotesque, would stop him. And nothing has.
Most Americans still have not confronted the fact (among others) that a presidential candidate committing arbitrary murder would not deter voters. Normally, that would be considered crazy — first, that a candidate would flat out say it; second, that he would be right.
This does not mean that most Trump voters are themselves insane. It is, rather, that they gave their support — for a wide range of reasons — to a campaign that was itself mostly delusional. On one level, it was one of those American circuses on which we periodically gorge — whether OJ, Tonya, or Monica. We could not turn away, as we cannot turn away from a gruesome car wreck or a crime scene, with one victim or many.
Crime scenes and their investigation, like surviving in the wilds, are, in fact, the staple of American televised fantasy. But the Trump saga took American spectacles of crime and precarious survival to a new level. One had the chance, through one’s vote, to put the whole country in jeopardy–the ultimate crime scene and the ultimate “survival challenge.”
This was too tempting to resist. Enough Americans, entranced by the possibility, said some version of “F it, why not?”
During 40 years of teaching the Holocaust, I emphasize one theme especially: the Holocaust, like all genocides, overturns any hope that history is not often fueled by delusion. We are not always rational actors; perhaps we are rarely rational actors. Sometimes we say “F it” and do crazy, which stops seeming crazy after a while, partly because of habit and partly because knowing the truth about what we are doing — and have done — is too difficult to bear.
The Trump presidency is not genocide. But it confirms the point. In my class, I cite Norman Cohn in his classic Warrant for Genocide, a study of the fraudulent Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
There exists a subterranean world where pathological fantasies disguised as ideas are churned out by crooks and half-educated fanatics for the benefit of the ignorant and superstitious. There are times when this underworld emerges from the depths and suddenly fascinates, captures, and dominates multitudes of usually sane and responsible people, who thereupon take leave of their sanity and responsibility. And it occasionally happens that this underworld becomes a political power and changes the course of history.
What Trump has taught us is that fantasies are enough — their disguise as ideas is unnecessary.