Why Trump Might Win

Authoritarians get into power by understanding the mass psychology of perceived authority/legitimacy. They know it’s a cultural coordination game and that all the other stuff—positions on issues, etc. —only matters insofar as it’s instrumental to getting people to reject rivals and rally to your banner. So the key to campaigning is to (1) relentlessly puff up your public image in a way that signals authority to the most numerous part of the demos. It helps enormously if that demographic happens to feel exceptionally anxious and put-upon. (2) Relentlessly delegitimize the opposition’s claim to authority in any way possible to minimize the probability that enough of the public will coordinate around them.
 
The thing that has really thrown everyone this election season, I think, is Trumps no-holds-barred delegitimatizing tactics. If possible, he’ll go directly for the throat. If this were a monarchy and Trump were taking part in a succession battle, he’d accuse his rivals of being secret bastards out of the line of succession. In America, “birtherism” serves that function. Obama isn’t a legitimate president. Canadian Ted Cruz isn’t qualified to be president. Or Hillary Clinton deserves to be in jail, might even end up being in jail, so how can she be president? Etc. If you can’t directly undercut legitimacy like that, relentlessly “brand” your opponent in a way that shows them to lack natural authority (“little” flop-sweat Marco, “low-energy” Jeb, the listless nancy) or sows questions about legitimacy (“lyin” Ted, “crooked” Hillary). But the really ballsy tactic is going just straight-up cuckoo, like insinuating Rafael Cruz had something to do with JFK’s assassination. Ordinarily, this sort of thing would be disqualifying, but Trump uses his mendacious brazenness, and his ability to slough off criticism for it, as a qualifying signal of authority. It’s like a peacock’s tail. The fact that he manages to thrive despite such a showy liability simply underscores his fitness. Scary!
 
Hillary Clinton is Trump’s dream opponent because she comes pre-weakened by a decades-long Republican de-legitimation campaign, which Bernie Sanders was able to take advantage of, and is still taking advantage of, leading large segments of the rival party to actively undermine Hillary Clinton’s claim to legitimate authority. Trump’s taking it relatively easy on Hillary and will as long as Bernie’s still doing damage for him. But as soon as Bernie stops poisoning Hillary’s electoral well, Trump’s going to give us a spectacular masterclass in shameless demagogic de-legitimating tactics. She can’t be authoritative because she’s a woman. She’s too authoritative, so she’s barely a woman at all. What’s the point of a woman trying to act like a man when you can just get yourself a man? She’s ugly. If she can’t stand up to her rapist husband, she’s too weak to stand up for you. She’s a shameless opportunist who put up with humiliation for power, but people who will put up with humiliation don’t deserve power. She’s in the pocket of the Saudis. She’s in the pocket of the banks.
 
He’s going to have a field day. And I’ve stopped feeling sure that he can’t win in large part because many of the people who understand fully how awful Trump is have also spent so long actively cheering on anti-Clinton de-legitimation campaigns that the idea of coordinating around her produces knockout levels of cognitive dissonance. Hillary needs anti-Trump people to actively promote her claim to legitimacy, but so many of them are so invested in her lack of it that they prefer to work for Trump instead by reinforcing the fact that Hillary, like Trump, is unacceptable and unworthy of support. Trump understands how this works and knows this antipathy to HRC work to his advantage, even if it comes from people who say they like him even less. This is the dynamic that has me worried.
  • Graham Peterson

    Haven’t mud slinging character attacks always been a part of politics? Maybe a part that elite rhetors lament. I remember growing up hearing the adults whine about how television campaign ads were insubstantial smears. I don’t see this time when, “ordinarily this sort of thing would have been disqualifying.”

    I get that people are concerned that character attacks have gotten more prevalent now that national politics is a full blown cable TV and internet spectacle. But it’s not clear that the rise of character attacks is crowding out considered debate. And it’s not clear that Trump would continue to play to his WWF audience when his audience becomes mostly other professional politicians.

  • mogden

    Hillary is a familiar variety of terrible candidate and would likely be a lousy president. Trump is a new kind of thing; who can say what would really happen if he was president? Certainly lousy outcomes are possible, but not certain.

    • toncuz

      The Germans should have read Mein Kampf.

      And especially before it was too late to realize, that the Nazi’s brain-washed a major portion of the public to believe it’s conspiracy theories.

      • viktor

        It’s not like the book was hidden from the public… every married German couple got a copy. The extent to which the German population was “brainwashed” is grossly exaggerated. People weren’t tricked as much as they were willing to put up with some of the more unsavory aspects of the NSDAP as a price for the restoration of German pride and prosperity. The stakes in the 30’s were extremely high, and these people lived in a political context that few today can appreciate. The westward expansion of communism was a very real threat…. the Bolsheviks were butchering people by the millions in the Great Purge and the world was plunged in economic depression.

  • Dan

    Um, we have 30 years of documented history of Clinton sleaze. And I’m not talking about GOP nonsense. I’m talking real sleaze — the Marc Rich pardon, the quid-pro-quo with foreign governments while she was at State, the HUGE sums of money received from Wall Street, and the list goes on. Not sure if the author is old enough to remember the Clinton presidency, but it was 1 scandal after another, and NO they weren’t all GOP smears.

    I just don’t get the whole “Trump is SOOOOO scary” logic from people marching to the polls to vote for a Clinton. They are cut from the same cloth, and I would argue the Clintons are worse.

    • nitrat

      But, Trump’s business and personal relationships with Mafioso is certainly A-OK.

      You know absolutely nothing about his business or personal life, do you?

      • William Marks

        What about the Clinton’s close family friends the Mubaraks? Were they just good people?

  • William Burns

    Trump’s fault, Bernie’s fault, everybody’s fault but Hillary’s.

  • Shootist

    Authoritarians?

    Can we agree that Trump is the anti-Establishment candidate much like Bernie is the anti-Establishment candidate?

    Then it stands to reason that Trump’s supporters are anti-establishment as well?

    Can we also agree that Trump isn’t a neo-con like Kristol and Frum or Bush, Bush and Bush?

    What’s left of the GOP? Small government conservatives, libertarians and constitutionalists that want to do nothing but keep the federal government out of their (and your) business. I think you can put bank on the notion that these voters will hold their candidate’s feet to the fire on these issues.

    Considering how the left constantly rams laws, rules, regulations and taxes down the throats of the little guy; how in algore’s name does that make for an authoritarian?

  • MrSmith

    “Why can’t the media legitimize Hillary and de-legitimize Trump?” As Bull Halsey might put it: The whole media world wonders.”
    It’s because the media has no legitimacy itself.
    In an economy so dependent on government-subsidized consumer spending their advertisers are the same as the political donors and the media is just another greedy lobbyist.

  • DiogenesDespairs

    It is hard to legitimize a candidate who is an arrogant, corrupt serial liar and probable white-collar criminal, who has blood on her hands from Benghazi,who knowingly put national security at risk for her personal convenience with her home-brew computer, and who presided as Secretary of State over many foreign policy intiatives that have turned out disastrously: the Russian reset, Libya, Syria, Iraq, ISIS (you know, the jv team?) and much else.

    The problem is not that Hillary is all these things and more. The problem is her supporters, like this author, DON’T CARE.

  • Canigou

    Good analysis, except how is Bernie Sanders poisoning the well by continuing the decades-long de-legitimization of Hillary? He has not made or encouraged or associated himself with any of the outrageous personal attacks and conspiracy claims of Trump.

    Bernie is just running for president, which requires him to argue that he would be a better president than her. His arguments based on her acceptance of corporate and Wall Street money, and her past support of “free trade” agreements, etc., are fair ones to make.

  • This is really excellent punditry, and I mean that in the best sense. Jamelle Bouie over at Slate is consistently arguing that winning the GOP primary and the general election are two very different things, that polls should be trusted. The polls said before that Trump would win the GOP nomination. They show now that he faces a huge uphill climb.

    I like to think Bouie is right, but then I wonder where Trump came from. We’re a society that swivels so quickly from anxiety and self-pity to bullying and rage (the behavior of those both for and against Gamergate, just one example), we’re addicted to the “authenticity” of reality TV, we tell people to “toughen up” in situations that are more criminal than educative, yet we coddle and excuse terrible behaviors nonetheless. Cognitive dissonance is our perpetual state of mind.

    You’re honing in beautifully on how Trump’s bullying works. That he takes legitimacy and flushes it down the toilet with unrelenting, insane attacks. Given how angry and confused we are as a society, this is working more than any given poll can show. The key is that Trump’s behavior is clearly being picked up by the American public. He’s being imitated far more than being shunned. In the largest sense, he’s already “won.” I’m just a “hater” and “loser,” after all.

    Incidentally – we met at an IHS conference out at Pitzer college years ago. Eager to hear about what you’re working on nowadays. I’m looking at Seamus Heaney through a Straussian lens, of all things, and it seems to be profitable (when my prose makes a lick of sense, that is).

  • onesetofeyes

    Trump has been using the enabler line in dusting off the 1990s.
    The real enablers aside from FOX because they are delivering as expected is the mainstream media. They seem to be working overtime to normalize Trump to create the illusion of a horse race while at the same time knocking Clinton down at every opportunity.
    Mainstream media = Trump Enabling.