People who use the word “buffoon” to describe Donald Trump do so too casually. They overlook the virtuosity of the performance. The yellow hair, the painted face, the histrionic strutting, the naïve egotism — Trump plays the part of Il Capitano, the swaggering soldier of the commedia dell’arte, with a skill the professional actor might well envy. Americans have never seen such a performance, not, at any rate, on the political stage; the country is transfixed, fascinated, much as the crowd is spellbound by the conjuror Cipolla in Thomas Mann’s political allegory Mario and the Magician.
“Who, whom?” was Lenin’s formula for the transactions of power. Trump would perhaps phrase it differently. Who kicks, who is kicked? In his acceptance speech in Cleveland (surely the most rhetorically novel utterance in American politics since FDR’s fireside chats), Trump eschewed the happy speak and literary flourishes heretofore compulsory on such occasions. Who kicks, who is kicked? America’s “forgotten men and women” are getting kicked, in Trump’s telling, by a motley crew of globalists, Islamic jihadists, sadistic immigrants, unresponsive leaders, “big business, elite media, and major donors,” cynical conspirators who have “rigged our political and economic system for their exclusive benefit.”
The thesis itself is not new. Its origins are traceable to the Country-party rhetoric that 18th-century English and American patriots used to denounce Court Whigs, the banker-politician class of the day. It has been periodically updated ever since — by Jacksonian and Bryanite populists, by FDR in his philippics against economic royalists, and more recently by Richard Nixon, who took Roosevelt’s Forgotten Man and made him the standard-bearer of the Silent Majority.
Highbrow observers tend to describe Trump’s forgotten Americans in scornful, quasi-anthropological terms. A dwindling demographic clinging to guns and religion, rabidly but irrationally discontent, howling at the moon when they should be content when the job packing boxes for an Internet retailer is replaced by a robot or shifted abroad. Trump, to his credit, is the only spotlight figure since Nixon to sympathize so overtly with those who feel “neglected, ignored, and abandoned” — kicked to the curb — by leaders invested in brighter, more fashionable causes. Charlatan he may be, but he has in this respect performed a useful service, even if it is only to say (in so many words), “I am your voice. I kick for you.”
That Trump is, in his personal and professional avocations, much closer to the Court Whigs he wants to kick than to the kicked masses he now champions is in his narrative an asset. “Nobody knows the system better than me,” he said in Cleveland, the knavish clown-smile further lighting up the already luminous face. The Duc d’Orléans has rechristened himself Philippe Égalité and has this advantage over the other revolutionists: He can show you where the bodies are buried in the Bastille.
Trump knows how to kick, likes to kick. He delivers his thrusts in a slang derived (at whatever remove) from old films noirs, Raymond Chandler novels, J. D. Salinger stories. Trump’s is a world of winners and losers. Winners know how to kick. Losers try to kick but do so ineffectually. They must nevertheless be kicked back. When Justice Ginsburg criticized him, he mocked her, in his best Holden Caulfield style, for “making very dumb political statements about me. Her mind is shot — resign!” Arianna Huffington, another detractor, is “unattractive both inside and out. I fully understand why her former husband left her for a man — he made a good decision.” “Pocahontas,” “Lyin’ Ted,” “Crooked Hillary” — losers all; must all be kicked.
That old warhorse of presidential scholarship Theodore H. White once asked Richard Nixon “how he could bear campaigning, shaking hands all day, smiling . . .” Nixon interrupted him before he could finish: “And all the while you’re smiling you want to kick them in the shins.”
Nixon’s dark sad-clown face, that of a long-nosed Pulcinella or Mr. Punch, is in contrast to Trump’s brazen Miles Gloriosus features. But Nixon is nevertheless one of Trump’s masters. Nixon’s 1968 campaign, waged on behalf of the “forgotten Americans,” has served Trump as a model for his own race. Like Trump, Nixon divided the world into the kickers and the kicked. Virtue lay in learning how to kick effectively. To solve a problem, he said, you had to find the right “place to kick somebody in the ass.” Drugs? “Just kick the hell out of it,” he told H. R. Haldeman, “we enforce the law.” Student unrest? “Kick the weirdoes and the beardoes on the college campuses.” Inflation? “Kick the chain stores.” Rabble-rousers like Salvador Allende? “Kick the hell out of the Chileans.” The North Vietnamese? “Kick the sh** out of them.” John Dean? “Kick him straight.”
Nineteen sixty-eight was a good year for a candidate to run on a platform of kicking the status quo to hell, but 2016 is the darker moment. Nineteen sixty-eight opened with the country getting pummeled in Vietnam in the Tet Offensive, saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, and witnessed urban rioting that killed twelve in Washington, 16 in Detroit, 26 in Newark, and twelve more in Baltimore and Chicago. But in the ghoulish stakes of murder, ISIS-inspired terrorism against the West in the last year has spilt more blood than all the urban unrest of 1968. And while the Tet Offensive was, as Teddy White observed, “a complete military failure” for Hanoi, today’s jihadists have been all too successful in bringing their madness into the heart of Western communities.
But the real difference is economic. The 1960s were a golden age. According to the American Enterprise Institute’s Mark Perry, the decade saw a 106-month economic expansion in which real-GDP “growth averaged 5%, with growth as high as 8.5% in two quarters,” payrolls increased by 32 percent, and the nation saw the “highest growth in jobs by far of any decade during the postwar period.” Twenty sixteen is an economically bleaker time, with anemic growth, a dearth of good jobs, grown-up kids living with their parents, and little faith in the future — a confidence deficit borne out by the astonishingly high numbers of Americans who tell pollsters that the country is on the wrong track.
That 2016 is for many Americans such an anxious time explains why Trump, student of Nixon though he is, has gone beyond the master as a shatterer of molds and is unorthodox in ways that Nixon never could have been. There was always, in Nixon, something of the kicked puppy. He was kicked by Dad, kicked by Eisenhower, kicked by the liberal elites, kicked by the press. They wouldn’t “have Nixon to kick around anymore,” he notoriously told reporters after losing the California governor’s race in 1962. But the kicked puppy doesn’t hate its tormentor. It craves its approval. Bored with the domestic sphere during his presidency, Nixon devoted his energy to contriving a foreign policy of such mandarin virtuosity that even the Council on Foreign Relations would have to admire it. Dick the respectable.
Nor did Nixon embrace a politics of rage in the way Trump has. Throughout 1968 he tempered calls for a crackdown on “rampant lawlessness” with assurances of moderation; sensing that the nation wanted calm, he purposefully ran a bland campaign with little overt choler. Where Trump’s anger is exuberant and bouffe, Nixon’s was closeted. He disliked face-to-face confrontation. “You’re fired”? Not for Nixon. He would have sent Haldeman to get rid of the guy. In private he talked about kicking people, but the talk was mostly cathartic. “People blow off steam in different ways,” he explained to journalist David Frost. “Some of them kick the cat. I don’t like cats, but my daughters do. I should not have said that. But nevertheless, if there were one around I would probably kick the cat.”
Nixon’s most egregious cat-kicking was hypothetical. He once startled Henry Kissinger by talking about going nuclear in Vietnam, but it was just that, talk. When he came to act he was generally sober and self-controlled. He liked to invoke Teddy Roosevelt’s man-in-the-arena bloodlust, but he was always stealing away from the amphitheater, retiring to his hideaway in the Old Executive Office Building; he did much of his governing by memo. Gentle Dick.
Nixon could astonish the world with bold démarches, but he always prepared the ground carefully, and he was at heart what Trump is not, a conventional party politician, with all the cautions and disciplines of the type. The man who accepted his party’s nomination in Miami Beach in 1968 had been at the forefront of American politics since the Alger Hiss case 20 years earlier. He had been congressman, senator, vice president, and the 1960 Republican nominee; in 1966 he had masterminded the party’s comeback in the midterm elections. Rhetorically, too, he was conventionally filtered; in his public pronouncements he rarely spoke from the gut.
“The nation craved new leadership, new answers.” What Teddy White said of 1968 is at least as true of 2016. If Donald Trump, in exploiting the hunger for change, has cribbed some of Nixon’s lines, his style, in its un-self-conscious, devil-take-the-hindmost insouciance, is more than a little reminiscent of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. Like FDR, Trump is a happy warrior who doesn’t sweat the policy details; he is content to contradict himself and make it up as he goes along. It is not a persona that can appeal to a temperate conservatism, and it would seem, indeed, to foretoken an FDR-like freelancing approach to the presidency: “But above all, try something,” without much bother about “horse-and-buggy” constitutional niceties.
Probably the most misunderstood aspect of Trump’s politics is its yearning, messianic character. His messianism has nothing to do with the blood-and-soil mysticism of Old World charismatic strongmen, nor is it a form of narcissism, as has been so often and so glibly claimed. Narcissus falls in love with himself and finds what he is looking for; Trump, on the contrary, is dissatisfied with himself, is always chasing something else. He hasn’t found it yet, can’t even say what it is, but that’s no matter — tomorrow he’ll run faster, stretch out his arms farther . . . And one fine morning –
Behind Trump’s life-course and his current popularity lurks the ghost of Jay Gatsby. Fitzgerald’s flawed hero is there, certainly, in the candidate’s vulgar wealth, the sort of display that rarely fails to impress us Americans. But he is there, too, in the man’s restlessness, his craving for something more. More perhaps than there is. Americans sympathize with the craving; they share it. It’s the American way. Whatever else he may be, Citizen Trump is one of us.
– Mr. Beran, a contributing editor of City Journal, is the author of Forge of Empires, 1861–1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made, among other books.