It's come to this. An acquaintance says to me: "I think of myself as a liberal, non-violent person. But I'm starting to think that I wouldn't mind if someone assassinated Donald Trump." And so we've come to crazy time in the 2016 Presidential campaign. People are growing more worried about Trump winning the Republican presidential nomination, if not the election. His comments about Muslims only fed a fire that was already burning. If this was all about Muslims it could easily be dismissed. While readers know by now that I'm not as hysterical about the terrorist threat as some people, I can say pretty confidently that Islamic terrorism is a bigger threat to the country than Donald Trump. But while many feel queasy about Trump's plans for Muslims, which are only inconsistent with precedent in their explicit focus on religion, most of those same people have felt queasy about Trump for a while. For some it's as simple as this: Trump is an ignorant, hateful, egomaniacal demagogue unfit to have his finger near The Button. Some fear that he may do something reckless in foreign affairs at dire cost to all of us. Others worry about what he might do domestically. Years ago, when Trump first contemplated a candidacy, I wrote that the problem with him and his supporters is that you can't fire the American people. But the people who deeply fear Trump probably think he can find a way. They weren't thinking about Muslims until a week ago. They were thinking about Hispanics, or maybe the poor in general. Trump embodies the plutocratic dystopia in which corporate American kicks millions to the curb and then runs them over. Except, of course, that he isn't running as the plutocratic candidate or the agent of Wall Street.If that's what he was, he wouldn't be where he is now. He claims to be the candidate of the common man, and the real fuel for Trumpophobia is the suspicion that he actually is. I saw some of the Morning Joe program on MSNBC the other day, and Montel Williams was disparaging those who still won't take Trump seriously, who assume that he still can't win the nomination. What worried Williams was his belief that Trump was drawing on a largely untapped if not unmeasured electorate. In effect, the great fear right now is that the Hidden Majority of reactionary white Christians, the "real Americans" whom Republicans have tried in vain to draw to the polls in the last two Presidential elections, is about to show itself in all its hateful, ignorant majesty, with dire consequences for anyone that is Not Of The Body, so to speak.
I still have my doubts. Trump is running his campaign on free publicity, but from what I read he's also depending on self-motivated fans to vote for him. Not needing to spend money because of all the media attention, he doesn't seem to have the kind of "retail politics" organization on the ground that his rivals will. Retail politics is what beats all insurgent candidates in major-party primaries, be it Pat Buchanan on the Republican side or Howard Dean on the Democratic side. It's what will probably beat Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side next year, and I wouldn't underestimate its chances against Trump. I still say that once it comes down to Trump and the establishment's chosen champion -- who right now looks like Marco Rubio rather than Jeb Bush -- Trump loses. Then the question becomes whether he'll break his pledge and run as an independent, but if it comes to that he may as well not bother. All Ross Perot's money never got him a single electoral vote; I don't see how Trump's money will get him more results as an independent candidate.
Montel Williams said something more interesting that day. He said that Trump was only the beginning of something, the first candidate for a culture shaped by the cut-throat ethos of reality television. Williams dislikes that reality TV is founded almost entirely on conflict; he thinks it fosters even more of an us-vs.-them mentality than prevailed before, and which we need, he claims, even less than ever. I think Williams is close to the mark, but to me its the judgmental attitude of reality TV, whether it's Trump himself firing losers or studio jurists insulting their litigants, that shapes the Trump phenomenon, if not Trump himself. The core of Trump's appeal remains his willingness to speak truth to both power and the powerless, without apology. If there is a Hidden Majority out there, they may not match the Tea Party Republican profile, but they more likely share Trump's apparent contempt for multitudes of people. They even more likely reject the core premise of liberal progressivism that people are generally good and that we should all be able to get along without hassling or judging each other. If Trump appeals to them, it's because they think a lot of people -- a lot of American people, to be clear -- need to be "fired," or at least told off as if they were going to be fired, in order to scare them straight. If President Obama's message has been that we're all doing our best but that the system (or the Republican party) is failing us, Trump's fans say no, we're not good enough -- or, more accurately, you're not good enough. As typical populists, they're most likely quite satisfied with their own performance, but can't trust other people to hold up their end. That makes the big question a simple one: do they trust Trump enough to bother voting for him? It would seem that they do now, or at least they like what they hear from him, but the Republican establishment still has not yet begun to fight. We're about to see the politics of personal destruction on an epic scale, I suspect, and for once a Democrat won't be the target. If Trump weathers that storm, then maybe more people should worry. Until then, relax.