Politics & Policy

The Trump Virus and Its Symptoms

(Photo Illustration: NRO; Trump: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty)

A plague is sweeping the land, gathering victims of all shapes and sizes and turning them into fools. Its name — for now — is Trumpism.

The Trump virus’s primary effect is twofold: First, it implants in its hosts the unshakable conviction that one of the most execrable clowns in the history of these United States is a hero who deserves to be elevated to the White House; then, having inculcated the conceit, it removes the faculties that are necessary for its removal. The results are ruinous. As might the partisans of a deliberately unfalsifiable conspiracy theory, those who have been stricken soon come to believe in earnest that there is no such thing as a fair-minded or legitimate criticism of their swashbuckling charge, and that all embarrassments, mistakes, and inadequacies are in fact signs of imminent victory. To converse at length with a committed Trumpite is, in consequence, akin in nature to conversing at length with a moon-landing denier: Every protestation is taken as a clear indication of complicity in the cover-up; distinctions between matters of minor and major import are disintegrated at will; run-of-the-mill inquiries are received as telltale signs of “fear” or of “hatred”; and bluster and the turning of rhetorical tables (“so who do you like: Jeb?”) substitute for patience and for forthrightness. There is a certain irony in this. By their own insistence, Trump’s devotees consider themselves to be the rebels at the gates; by their dull, unreflective, often ovine behavior, they resemble binary and nuancless drones, as might be found in a novel by Aldous Huxley or Yevgeny Zamyatin.

In parallel, the Trump virus yields a second — and equally potent — symptom: It provokes otherwise intelligent people into an ugly form of civil confusion. Because the Trumpite has invariably arrived at his conclusion before he has considered his premises, he is prone to disastrous conflation when pressed to explain himself. Thus does he mistake boorishness and vapidity for courage and the common touch. Thus does he muddle together self-interest and public spiritedness. Thus, ultimately, does he come to believe that fatal weaknesses should be conceived as dazzling strengths. In a sane world it would be abundantly clear to anybody whose research skills extend to the casual use of Wikipedia that Donald Trump not only lacks crucial government experience but that, insofar as he has hitherto connected with that world, his behavior has been appalling. And yet, because Washington is a mess and a plague o’ both your houses! tendency currently obtains, the Trumpite is prone to assert without evidence or reason that these clear deficiencies are in fact a remedy for its ills. In the main, such gymnastics are roundly comical — comparable, perhaps, to a person’s choosing a disabled man to run in a marathon because he is especially bombastic. “But he can’t even walk,” the naysayers might observe. “That’s the point!” would come the inexplicable reply. “He’s not like the others!”

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Alas, difference is soon taken as a virtue in and of itself. To any moderately informed observer of the present political scene, it is evident that Donald Trump is not in fact a conservative, and that his political instincts tend more often than not in precisely the opposite direction. For those who describe themselves as “conservatives,” this should present something of a problem. But, because he does not operate within the same world as the much-loathed Mitch McConnell — and because he cannot therefore be judged on the basis of anything concrete — the man’s ideological indiscretions are being steadfastly ignored. For decades now, our friends on the progressive left have wondered in vain what it might take to convince a sizable portion of America’s rightward-leaning dissenters to embrace single-payer health care, advocate stricter gun control, propose higher taxes on the wealthy, endorse the broad use of eminent domain, defend protectionism in trade, affirm the pro-choice cause, and cozy up warmly to the likes of Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi. Today, they have their answer: It takes a general dissatisfaction with the status quo, and the cheapest of P. T. Barnum knockoffs to exploit it.

#related#For both the friends and the foes of conservatism, it will be tempting to conclude that the root cause of the Trump phenomenon is the rank stupidity of the voting public. This, though, would be a mistake. In truth, the Trump surge is being caused by an unwillingness on the part of his champions to distinguish between the illness that they seek to remedy and that remedy itself. Livid at the stagnation and discord of the Obama years, appalled by the dysfunction and hollowness of Washington, D.C., and dismayed by the immediate-term prospects for recovery, a number of conservatives have arrived at a reasonable prescription: that something, somewhere, needs to change in their movement, and that it may take radical action in order to provoke an alteration. Alas, in an attempt to expedite reform, many have hitched their wagons to the first sign of disruption that has come along. Given the scale of the disappointment that so many feel, one can grasp the temptation. But a virus is a virus is a virus — even when the patient is actually ill.


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