What is the worst thing about Donald Trump? The lies? The racist stereotypes? The misogyny? The alleged gropings? The apparent refusal to accept democratic outcomes? All these are bad enough. But they’re not the worst. The worst thing about Donald Trump is that he’s the man in the mirror.
We love to horrify ourselves with his excesses, and to see him as a monstrous outlier, the polar opposite of everything a modern, civilised society represents. But he is nothing of the kind. He is the distillation of all that we have been induced to desire and admire. Trump is so repulsive not because he offends our civilisation’s most basic values, but because he embodies them.
Trump personifies the traits promoted by the media and corporate worlds he affects to revile; the worlds that created him. He is the fetishisation of wealth, power and image in a nation where extrinsic values are championed throughout public discourse. His conspicuous consumption, self-amplification and towering (if fragile) ego are in tune with the dominant narratives of our age.
As the recipient of vast inherited wealth who markets himself as solely responsible for his good fortune, he is the man of our times. The US Apprentice TV show which he hosted tells the story of everything he is not: the little guy dragging himself up from the bottom through enterprise and skill. None of this distinguishes him from the majority of the very rich, whose entrepreneurial image, loyally projected by the media, clashes with their histories of huge bequests, government assistance, monopolies and rent-seeking.
If his politics differ from those of the rest of the modern Republican party, it is because he is, in some respects, more liberal. Every vice, for the Republican trailblazers such as Ted Cruz and Scott Walker, is now a virtue; every virtue a vice. Encouraged by the corporate media, the Republicans have been waging a full-spectrum assault on empathy, altruism and the decencies we owe to other people. Their gleeful stoving in of faces, their cackling destruction of political safeguards and democratic norms, their stomping on all that is generous and caring and cooperative in human nature, have turned the party into a game of Mortal Kombat scripted by Breitbart News.
Did Trump invent the xenophobia and racism that infuse his campaign? Did he invent his conspiracy theories about stolen elections and the criminality of his opponents? No. They were there all along. What is new and different about him is that he has streamlined these narratives into a virulent demagoguery. But the opportunity has been building for years; all that was required was someone blunt and unscrupulous enough to take it.
Nor can you single out Trump for ignoring, denying and deriding the key issues of our time, such as climate change. Almost all prominent Republicans have been at it. In fact, across the four presidential debates, not one question about climate change was asked. Even when politicians and journalists accept the science, it makes little difference if they avoid the subject like the plague.
America’s fourth president, James Madison, envisaged the United States constitution as representation tempered by competition between factions. In the 10th federalist paper, written in 1787, he argued that large republics were better insulated from corruption than small, or “pure” democracies, as the greater number of citizens would make it “more difficult for unworthy candidates to practise with success the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried”. A large electorate would protect the system against oppressive interest groups. Politics practised on a grand scale would be more likely to select people of “enlightened views and virtuous sentiments”.
Instead, the US – in common with many other nations – now suffers the worst of both worlds: a large electorate dominated by a tiny faction. Instead of republics being governed, as Madison feared, by “the secret wishes of an unjust and interested majority”, they are beholden to the not-so-secret wishes of an unjust and interested minority. What Madison could not have foreseen was the extent to which unconstrained campaign finance and a sophisticated lobbying industry would come to dominate an entire nation, regardless of its size.