According to a recent CBS poll
, voters see Donald Trump as different from his opponents in the presidential race because he is candid. He says what he thinks, and he means what he says.
But in two obvious ways, Trump is anything but candid.
First, much of what he's saying now is the opposite of what he was saying not long ago.
Trump has taken a very hard-line position on immigration
. Yet only two years ago, he was telling advocates for immigrants, "You've convinced me." He has reversed himself similarly on Hillary Clinton's performance as Secretary of State. She has gone from doing a "good job" to being the "worst Secretary of State in the history of the United States." Likewise, he's switched his position on issues like guns and abortion.
This is opportunism, not candor. This is saying whatever serves his immediate purposes.
The second reason for doubting Trump's candor is that he often says things that he must know are false, or that anyone qualified to be president would know are false.
What does it mean?
Recently, George Will -- for whom I do not anymore have the respect that I once had - put his training in the classics to good use in making an apt observation: he equated "Trumpism" with "Caesarism." (Wikipedia defines Caesarism as "a form of political rule that emulates the rule of Roman dictator Julius Caesar over the Roman Republic, in that it is led by a charismatic strongman whose rule is based upon a cult of personality...")
That resonated with me, as it connected with an image that, for weeks, had been arising in my mind in relation to Trump. It's an image of Mussolini standing on the balcony with his hands crossed in front of his chest and his head thrown back in the most arrogant and full-of-himself way. Mussolini was explicitly trying to be the new Caesar in a regime that harkened back to the days of Roman dominance over the world.
(And of course this would-be Caesar willingly made himself part of history's greatest nightmare.)
"Make Rome great again" was a theme of that twentieth century Italian Caesar. And now in America our own embodiment of the ugly force of "Caesarism" is running to be president of the United States under the slogan "Make America great again."
It would be one thing if Trump had a genuine understanding of what American greatness is supposed to be about, and if he presented a picture of what we as a nation need to do to restore that greatness by repairing the damage lately done to our nation.
But Trump's notion of greatness is all about our getting more "victories." It's all about winning. It's all based on a Caesarian lust for power.
Following Donald Trump on the path that he is pointing us down would be not a restoration of what has been really great about America. It would represent, rather, an empowering of the very force that has degraded our once-great nation.
How can this be done?
For starters, you would work to prevent the people from working together. As long as they can unite for common purposes, they can prevent you from gaining power over them.
Sowing hatred among them will work well to stop them from coming together. You don't have to reach all the people--half will do. If one half hates and distrusts the other half deeply enough, that will suffice to ensure that the people will be unable to cooperate to achieve goals they have in common.
To sow this enmity, you will need a media system. Through that system, you continually tell the people who listen to you how terrible the others are. They are not your fellow citizens with a somewhat different point of view, you tell them. They are the enemy. They don't love the nation; they have betrayed it. They want to steal your liberties and set up a tyranny over you.
Making one large group of basically decent citizens hate another large group of basically decent citizens requires getting people to believe many false ideas and "facts." That's not difficult in a totalitarian society where the ruling powers can block competing sources of information. But it's a huge challenge in a democratic society where freedoms of speech and press give everyone access to information that can expose your lies.
This challenge can be met, however, by training the audience to listen to no one but you.
There's no denying that the proliferation of guns is an enduring problem in America or that, in this time of unreason, the politics around "gun rights" are as unreasonable as any.
But it would be a mistake to regard the argument over the Confederate (Battle) Flag as a distraction from America's real problems. Indeed, that argument provides one apt avenue into the heart of the national crisis that holds the United States in its grip. For the Confederate Flag represents a "spirit" (or force) that has endured in the American political culture, and has returned in our times to inflict still more damage.
The history of its uses shows that flag stands for the Confederacy formed by the secession of the slave states of the Deep South. It also stands for the emergence and defense of the Jim Crow power structure that got established in the South for the century after the Civil War. And finally, that flag has reappeared as a symbol in American politics, just as that same spirit has taken over today's Republican Party with its base in the South.
Yes, it is the same spirit. And there's more to it than the obvious-the revival of the notion that the states can "nullify" the authority of federal law, the recurrence of talk of secession, and the contempt with which America's first black president is treated.
In an earlier piece -- "The Spirit that Drove Us to Civil War is Back" - I laid out some striking parallels between the eras. Among these parallels:
For well over a decade, this should have been the main topic of our national conversation.
No, let me correct that: Had the Democrats made it the main topic of our national conversation earlier, the dark force that has taken over the Republican Party would not still need to be brought to the attention of the American people. Calling it out forcefully enough would have either driven out this dark force from the one-time "Grand Old Party," or have driven that Party into oblivion.
But the Democrats have been weak, and have never pressed the battle. And the combination of Republican destructiveness and Democratic weakness has been a disaster for America.
Today's rise of Donald Trump gives the Democrats, and Liberal America generally, an unusually good opportunity to launch the long-needed attack on the Republican Party for the morally degraded force that it has become.
That opportunity arises from two factors.
First, Trump has thrown the Republican Party into disarray. Most of the time - largely because of the weakness and passivity of the Democratic Party - the Republicans have been able to control their narrative. But, with Trump lobbing his attention-getting rhetorical bombs and dominating virtually every news cycle, the Republicans are caught up in a story beyond their control. This leaves them weakened, distracted, disjointed -- generally less able to fight back in a cohesive way.
So strike while the Donald is hot.
We, the people of the United States, are losing control of our destiny to an untrustworthy power.
It stands to reason that if money can buy political power, whoever has the most money will rule. The Supreme Court's Citizens United decision took us a long way down that path. A recent study confirms that what the people want has almost no effect on political outcomes while moneyed interests have considerable influence.
If America is to be ruled by whoever commands the most money, it will be the corporate system, far more than individual billionaires, that calls the shots. This corporate system does not operate the same as a human being, and it is more than the sum of individual corporations, or even of whole industries.
Each powerful corporation and industry seeks to get government to serve its special interests - as in the subsidies given to oil and coal companies. But the corporate world has substantial common interests. Those who operate the system recognize those common interests and act to serve them.
It is in their interest to have a citizenry that distrusts the one power that might rival the power of the corporate world - the government. And the corporate system has worked to foment such distrust.
The history of how the United States came to have five justices on the Supreme Court hand down a decision like Citizens United - opening the floodgates for the rule of money - shows how the system can work over time to make our government its tool. It takes some doing to get five men onto the Supreme Court willing to say , with a straight face, "We now conclude that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption."
Likewise, it shows the power of the corporate system that today's Democratic president and Republican-controlled Congress are moving toward passing a trade bill that Nobel-laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz calls "a secret corporate takeover." That bill would take powers from our elected government and our legal system and hand them to a corporate-controlled panel. Regulation of economic activity could become so costly to governments at every level that the corporate system would be freed of some basic restraints.
Not just stealing the people's power over our democracy but also stealing power away from the democratic system itself.
About this phenomenon, I've got questions more than answers. But maybe raising the questions will lead this community to find its way toward answers.
The first question looks back behind the phenomenon to find what in the contemporary condition of America makes this unprecedented phenomenon possible:
What does it mean that a man can speak and act like Donald Trump has been doing and come out leading the pack in polls of Republican voters?
I've got thoughts of a general kind -- Trump's rise fits in a general way with the picture I paint in my new book WHAT WE'RE UP AGAINST -- but would be glad to see the picture in greater resolution.
I agree with John McCain about Trump "firing up the crazies." And I agree with pundits who say that "the Republican Party is reaping what it has sown," because the force that's taken over the Republican Party (since, say, the rise of Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh) has specialized in fomenting craziness in a large swath of the American public that has tuned its attenna to the fear-mongering, hate-mongering, reality-detached signal on the right.
But that only begins to scratch the surface, and the question remains to be addressed.
Then the second question leads out from this remarkable phenomenon in search of how the political scenario for the nation will be affected by Trump's rise to his present domination of political discourse and of the Republican field.
In what ways will the scenario of American politics play out differently up through the election of 2016 than it would have had Trump not jumped into the arena?
Where the future is concerned, a whole new set of uncertainties besets us. (Although the saying that "hindsight is 20/20" is clearly not true -- think of how the South has characterized its reasons for fighting the Civil War -- at least what happened already happened.) And with the Trump phenomenon, it surely matters whether he fades quickly like a Herman Cain or, as I expect, remains a factor for months to come. And foresight is surely not 20/20.
But Trump's taking up all the attention-space may already be having important consequences.
In America today, the proportion of GDP that goes to workers' wages is lower than it has been in living memory.
In this situation, this is what Scott Walker has done in Wisconsin: he has cut taxes for the rich corporations, and waged war against his state's workers.
What more should anyone need to know?
In a healthy democracy, differing points of view contend to shape the destiny of the society.
What does it mean, however, when a major subculture of that society is perennially of but one mind?
From the 1830s until the Civil War, there was no robust debate in the politics of white Southerners about the rightness of slavery. It was the major issue in the nation as a whole, but within the South one point of view was virtually unchallenged.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, there was no robust debate in the politics of white Southerners about the rightness of re-imposing a regime of racial domination and intimidation (Jim Crow). That regime was a blatant violation of the newly amended U.S. Constitution. The epidemic of lynchings that was intended to intimidate the black population became a blot on the reputation of the United States. But in the South, this system of terror and domination faced no major challenges.
Likewise in the 1950s and 1960s, there was no robust debate in the politics of white Southerners about the rightness of resisting the judicial mandate to end the regime of segregation. No major faction emerged to say that the fraud of "separate but equal" was an injustice that should be abandoned.
Most Americans - including most white Southerners, I suspect - would agree now that slavery was wrong, Jim Crow was wrong, and desegregation was right. But not at the time, not when it mattered.
Such uniformity of political position is unnatural. It can happen only if people have been taught by the culture not to think for themselves, or taught not to express what they think if it differs from the dogma imposed by their political community.
Either way, it is contrary to how a democracy is supposed to work.
We see that same kind of dogma in the Republican Party of today.
Here's the thing. These two peoples/cultures inhabited basically the same world - empires, metals, lots of war, slavery, annihilation-but despite that sameness they can to very different conclusions about a question of a matter most fundamental to worldview: the question of having God or the gods at the center of the cosmic order
Which is it, and what might be the fundamental difference between the cultures that would account for such different ways of seeing the fundamental order of the world.
The Greeks saw the world of the divine beings as a plurality, a whole diversity of gods having dealings (not always admirable) among each other. A many-ness, and a strong flavor of amorality.
The Hebrews saw the world of the divine as inhabited by ONE GOD -- and indeed from Abraham onward that was THE defining feature of the Hebrew religion, and is still at the center of the basic Jewish prayer, the Shema Yisrael: "Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one"
So it looks like the Hebrews at least would have said that the difference between believing in One God or in many gods was of the utmost importance.
Which is what leads to the question:
Is it a really fundamental matter about how to perceive reality, and if so, what can account for how these two cultures living choosing so differently on this matter despite inhabiting the same basic world?
Did their cultures give them basically different ways of thinking? If so, what was that difference? Or did they come to have different needs, or different senses of the nature of life, growing perhaps out of different historical experiences?