The satirist H.L. Mencken once described democracy as “the worship of jackals by jackasses”. It’s a characteristically neat line, but in the USA circa 2023, reading it makes one yearn for the days when the line between jackal and jackass wasn’t so damn blurry. Few exemplify this better than America’s enduring id, Donald J. Trump, who has spent the past four years hanging around like the Ghost of Christmas Past, and who — lest we forget — may yet find himself back in the White House a year from now, a fact that inspires both despair and disbelief the world over.
More generally, many spectators outside the US struggle to understand Trump’s appeal — and look, even as someone who experienced Trump’s first ascension first-hand (I lived in NYC between 2010 and 2017, and returned in July this year after an unscheduled five-year pitstop in my home city of Melbourne), it can be hard to explain. Trump is a bully, a blowhard, and the genuinely terrible boss we’ve all had at least once — which makes the adulation he inspires in his fanbase all the stranger. The appeal of his policies, such as they are, is equally hard to explain: from afar, the idea of a shameless grifter promising to “drain the swamp” was as absurd in theory as it proved to be in practice.
But while Trump’s brand of authoritarianism, its jackaldom lurking beneath a veneer of jackassery, isn’t unique — history groans with strongman types who’ve been seen as something of a joke right up until they seized power and made it clear they weren’t super keen on giving it back — Trump’s particular brand of buffoonishness is something quintessentially American. And if you look at the American political scene as a whole, the reasons for his appeal start to come into clearer focus.
For a start, Trump is genuinely box office: charismatic, entertaining, and sometimes very funny. (And boy, do Americans love a charismatic celebrity.) His “Washington outsider” schtick tends to inspire incredulity abroad, but relatively speaking, Trump is an outsider. The best parts of the 2016 campaign — before the awful night when it became clear that Donald Trump was going to be the fucking president — were the moments when he gleefully piled onto the Republican establishment, because it was very clear that none of the recipients of his invective had ever been subjected to such treatment before, and none had the faintest idea how to deal with it.
People loved that Trump came in like a wrecking ball, able to say and do pretty much whatever he wanted because a) he had no career in politics to safeguard, and b) he never expected (or wanted) to win anyway. The results were really something. George W. Bush? Didn’t keep America safe during 9/11. Jeb Bush? Low energy. Sleepy. Sad. Ted Cruz? A liar, owned by Goldman Sachs, and probably worse than Jeb Bush. John McCain? Not a war hero. And so on.
It’s a testament to just how much alienation there is in America from both politicians and politics in general that the sight of anyone making the likes of Jeb Bush and, yes, Hillary Clinton uncomfortable was enough to hand him the keys to the White House. Even on the left, Trump’s willingness to say the quiet part very loudly has inspired grudging respect: it’s hard to imagine a Democrat suggesting that Americans killed in foreign wars had been played for fools, for example. There’s a curious bipartisan consensus on what can and can’t be said that’s developed in Washington over the years, and one of the few things that seems to bring Trump happiness is puncturing it.
To be clear: none of this is to suggest Trump has been anything remotely like a force for good in American politics. He’s been a racist, sexist, transphobic, incompetent, deeply unpleasant disaster, and his election denial may yet send democracy in his country into a terminal tailspin. It’s just that in the middle of the USA’s goths-at-the-gates era, you take entertainment where you can get it.
In 2023, one such source of entertainment is — in a lovely piece of cosmic synchronicity — the spectacle of Trump being subjected to something he’s never experienced before: being told to sit down and shut up, and hating it. Arthur Engoron, the presiding judge in the ongoing New York state fraud trial, has warned Trump multiple times not to attack the court’s integrity. Each time, Trump has basically walked straight out of the courthouse and attacked the court’s integrity. In the federal election subversion case, meanwhile, Judge Tanya Chutkan imposed a gag order from the outset, aiming to prevent Trump from attacking witnesses. The order was suspended earlier this month while lawyers argued about it, but Chutkan reimposed it this week after Trump let loose with a bunch of posts on Truth Social that seemed to be pretty clear cases of… attacking witnesses. Truly, the man cannot help himself.
Chutkan’s initial order got to the heart of the problem: “[Trump],” she told the court, “does not have the right to say and do exactly what he pleases.” Given that a) Trump’s entire public persona is built on doing exactly this, b) he’s spent his entire life doing so, and c) continuing to do so constitutes his best shot at staying out of jail, it’s no surprise he has reacted with all the grace of a teenager whose Playstation privileges have been revoked.
But while Trump likes to portray himself as an avatar of American values — especially, deep breath, free speech — he’s still what he’s always been: a deeply spoiled, insecure man who inherited his wealth and has spent most of his life surrounded by yes-men. Denied the chance to insult his true tormentors, when he hasn’t been banging on about free speech, Trump has been lashing out at a bunch of second-tier targets — which brings us to the reason Trump’s been in the news in Australia of late, i.e. his alleged conversation with Anthony Pratt.
I don’t doubt that Trump boasted to Pratt about submarines, Iraq, and God knows what else. But ultimately, as someone who respects power and nothing else, Trump has little time for toadies, even very rich ones, and for all his billions, Pratt was still trying to cozy up to Trump without anything tangible to offer. The results were predictable, but it’s hard not to think that a couple of years ago, the whole incident would have been far more entertaining: “red-haired weirdo”, while accurate, is definitely an F-tier Trump insult. In fairness to the man, though, he has a lot on his mind.
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