Donald Trump will probably not defeat Hillary Clinton in the upcoming election in November. He will probably not become the next President of the United States. Truly, however, the odds that he might actually win this election are higher, by an order of magnitude, than any rational person can grasp without pulverizing most of his/her brain.
How is this possible? Here is one way to think about the political ascendance of Donald Trump. He is the personal embodiment of the shit storm we have come to call a Black Swan event. The unimaginably destructive tsunami. The unimaginably catastrophic global financial meltdown. The breakaway, grass-fire supervirus. The event for which we are not prepared because we have never before experienced it, which allows us to vastly underestimate the probabilities of its occurrence in our homeland and in our lifetime. Let’s call the particular shit storm that presently threatens us the Trumpet of the Black Swan.
If there were a Devil, and he walked in the flesh upon this earth, he might look and sound and act a lot like Donald Trump. How would we know he was the Devil? Because he would break every rule, spurn every convention, lie and deceive without consequence, and present himself as centurion and herald of a new age of darkness and misrule, governed only by infantile and narcissistic eruptions of impulse and desire, petulance and rage.
The Devil would do these things, and many Americans would condemn him as a fool and a blasphemer, while only with difficulty taking him seriously. However, many other Americans would lose their minds and embrace this Devil precisely because he liberated their emotions and sanctioned descent into the cruel and immediate pleasures of the Id. The Devil entices with promises of the most intimate and immediate gratifications. Not the singular Faustian pact. Not the Grand Bargain. Instead a cascading proliferation and multiplication of infinitely parcelized pacts with each of us, as individuals.
Vote for me and I will set you free.
A narcissist is only one step removed from a sociopath. A narcissist is someone who only perceives the world instrumentally. The people, places, and things of this world are only extensions of the narcissist’s will. In his mind, the precious singularities of this world literally do not exist or possess any value independently of his immediate and ever-shifting needs and desires. Truth and trust are meaningless abstractions for the narcissist, who is incapable of conversation, incapable of listening, incapable of love.
Donald Trump presents himself as a builder. But his buildings are extrusions of his narcissism, hollow, neo-imperial monstrosities, monuments solely to his own ego, and from the perspective of this particular political season, uncomfortable echoes of the vast building projects we associate with Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. Trump skyscrapers are empty of even the most primitive design sensibility, and lack the proportion, scale, innovation, playfulness, thematic tensions, and social awareness required of any great architecture with a claim upon the human spirit. Ultimately, Trump builds for no one but himself – to provide the physical reassurance that he exists and that he matters.
Among the many ironies that accompany the electoral rise of Donald Trump are revelations of his appeal, not simply to white supremacists and overt racists, but also of his hold, historically, over African-American hip hop musicians. While Trump’s ugly and ignorant attacks on the Black Lives Matter movement (and the black experience, generally) have recently soured his reputation within hip hop circles, in the developmental arc of hip hop music, which has its own unabashedly narcissistic and acquisitive strivings, Trump has served as a handy trope for material trappings of success (bitches, bling, cribs, etc.) and as a measure of wealth and worthiness in the hood, the trap, and the street.
Let’s also consider Peter Thiel, who spoke at the Republican convention and who represents another vector of support for Trump that strains credulity, and so must absolutely be taken seriously on its own terms. Thiel’s capitalist libertarianism, which is at odds with what we may anticipate to be a pugilistic Trump presidency, seems to be largely a tactical intellectual veneer for an aggressively uncompromising elitism. A thuggish and dystopian contempt for ordinary people is probably the basis for any personal affinity between Thiel and Trump, who are both members of the Billionaires Boys Club, and so almost by definition outside the scope of the rules and norms that bind the rest of us, including death and taxes.
Donald Trump’s odd and incoherent crossover appeal – to older white racists, young urban blacks (historically), and antinomian (disruptive) entrepreneurs – hints at the Black Swan implications of his presidential election bid. These are the mixing of bedfellows that one would never anticipate or predict. Certainly not by those among us who occupy comfort zones provided by bell curves.
The hint we should take is that Trump, like the Devil, does break “the curve”. He lives outside of its natural law assumptions and offers proof that there is air and life, of a sort, outside its boundaries. As one befuddled foreign policy expert noted yesterday, after Trump asked the Russians to please hack and/or release emails from Hillary Clinton’s private server, “Trump is legitimating behaviors that nobody ever thought could be legitimated.”
One might speculate that Trump’s dependence on Twitter – and success building an audience and a base of support using Twitter – itself offers proof of the existence of this air and this life outside the norms most of us take for granted. In this sense, Twitter serves, almost literally, as the Trumpet of the Black Swan. An instrument sufficiently loud and insistent to smog the landscape with the intoxicating vapors of the Manifold Conspiracy and the Big Lie.
As the rampant uses and abuses of Twitter suggest (most notoriously the trolling and the shaming/doxxing and the lack of accountability and standards for discourse, leading up and including the recent deTwittering of right-wing agitator Milo Yiannopoulos), Trump’s candidacy has thrived and metastasized as a kind of political antimatter within this social media toxic stew, an environment in which nihilistic and cathartic urges to spew and ejaculate have largely hijacked whatever redeeming social purpose formerly animated it.
And so one wonders if the Democrats are even fighting the right war. Donald Trump is a phenomenon, who operates according to his own rules, and who possesses the enormous asymmetrical advantage of doing and saying pretty much whatever he wants without consequence. Indeed, Trump’s uncensored idiopathic idiocy effectively functions as a force multiplier, a runaway virus for which we possess no cure.
This is what we do know, however. For the moment, let’s separate out race as a factor in the current election. Let’s instead focus exclusively on the problem of inequality in the United States as a catalyzing issue in the current election. With this focus, we can imagine the political landscape as a battle, philosophically speaking, between virtue and necessity.
In his Second Inaugural, with the Civil War winding down, Lincoln emphasized that God had excluded no part of the nation from his wrath because sin and guilt associated with the institution and practice of slavery had actively interpenetrated all parts of the nation. The North possessed no special virtue, and binding the nation’s wounds required all to recognize a common frailty and weakness.
There but for the grace of God go I.
As many have observed, the major weakness of the Democratic Party establishment (along with its college-educated base) is smugness, the presumption of a superior knowledge and virtue that, prima facie, should entitle the Party to victory in November. The unstated assumption is the Party should win because its positions on policy matters such as race relations and the environment evince an underlying moral superiority.
One problem with this sense of entitlement is the pretty unavoidable glissade into contempt for the opposition, which blankets a huge swath of the unwashed population that lives between the coasts of the nation. Another problem is the failure to admit, upfront, the privileges of wealth, that feasting on the nation’s surplus, far more than any inherent moral superiority, is what actively enables the virtuous and enlightened policy positions of the Party. Let’s call these privileges of wealth the surplus feast of the foodies, those for whom organic produce, artisanal cheeses, and grass-fed beef represent the pinnacle of enlightenment.
These blind spots are a serious matter for the Hillary Rodham Clinton wing of the party, which remains beholden to Wall Street and to wealthy donors (as well as to an affluent and somewhat self-satisfied voter base), and which continues to present a sublimely clueless indifference to the structural, crazy-making challenges of inequality and necessity in a technologically driven, post-industrial economy.
The Bernie Sanders insurgency provides an opportunity for the Democratic Party to scoop up many disaffected Trump supporters who would not ordinarily vote Republican, but this strategy would require a more pungent and pugnacious shift toward principles and policies focused on class and wealth inequality rather than racial difference.
The two approaches overlap to a great degree, of course, and their contradictions can be elided. However, the Clintons and Democratic Party stalwarts appear ill-equipped to take this plunge at the existential level required to claim the hearts and minds of the alienated, benighted, and growing underclass that stalks Twitter and that responds with such primal urgency to the underworld appeals of Donald Trump. Into that breach, the Black Swan of political collapse and social implosion.
- After Lying Low, Deep-Pocketed Clinton Donors Return to the Fore, The New York Times, July 28, 2016.
- Donald Trump’s Appeal to Russia Shocks Foreign Policy Experts, The New York Times, July 28, 2016.
- B. White, The Trumpet of the Swan (New York: HarperCollins, 2001).
- Hip-Hop Is Turning On Donald Trump, FiveThirtyEight, July 14, 2016.
- How Donald Trump transformed New York without any regard for design quality, The Architect’s Newspaper, June 15, 2016.
- Just How Offensive Did Milo Yiannopoulos Have To Be To Get Banned From Twitter? The Washington Post, July 21, 2016.
- Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (New York: Random House, 2010).
- The Democrats’ Damaging Damage Control, The New York Times, July 25, 2016.
- What Does Peter Thiel Want? Gawker, July 21, 2016.