When people tell me they admire Donald Trump, I tend to ask them which of his four bankruptcies they admire most.
The Donald has been a sick narcissistic joke to me for years. The fact that some people took him halfway seriously as a presidential candidate four years ago was disturbing. The fact that some people see him as a frontrunner today is appalling — because he’s potentially dangerous.
As a 2016 presidential candidate, I don’t find Trump especially interesting. I don’t believe he has the remotest chance of winning, partly because I have a naive belief that people will come to their senses before enough of them could support him and partly because I think he’s objectively a terrible candidate, completely apart from whatever insanity he believes.
But nations have a way of elevating insane people to positions of absolute power every now and then. Things like that tend to happen during periods of economic and political turmoil when most people don’t know what to do. In times such as those, scared people turn to blowhards who confidently claim they know what to do.
The uneasy state of the economy and the fear millions of people feel about the future of this country combine to create a situation in which an unstable and unpredictable man could come to power. I honestly don’t expect Trump to be elected — but I can see how it could happen.
That scares me.
I take some comfort from the fact that Trump is just the latest possible addition to a very long line of egotistical buffoons who come to power in their nations or tribes. The fact that people such as Trump can sometimes appeal to vast numbers of people is one of the darker sides of the human race, but it’s far more scary today — because the last thing we need is someone eager to prove how macho he is by launching nuclear missiles at some country.
I call Trump scary because he’s the ultimate version of the xenophobe who thinks there’s some magical difference between the people who live on different sides of imaginary lines that politicians have drawn on maps.
I’m not going to closely analyze Trump’s insane economic pronouncements because anyone who understands economics is already horrified by what he says. And anyone who finds what he says attractive is a populist who doesn’t understand economics in the first place.
Trump is eager to drum up fears about people who happen to have been born in places which the U.S. government doesn’t yet rule. He’s willing to make inflammatory statements about “rapists” in order to pander to the fears of ignorant people. He wants to slap a 25 percent import tax on everything made in China. Despite the fact that economists going all the way back to Adam Smith have patiently explained why free trade is good for everybody, he sticks to the irrational — but popular — idea that trade is bad because it “steals our jobs.”
Trump is egotistical enough and shameless enough that he’s not even bothered by having used the bankruptcy laws to rip off investors and those who’ve lent money to his companies. What he’s done is legal, but his tactics count on using the power of big government to magically erase his business debts when he makes promises that he can’t keep. The miracle is that anyone continue to invest in his schemes.
In a more honest world, we would call him a con man.
Trump bears a little resemblance to another blowhard who was seen as a buffoon when he first came onto his political scene. In post-World War I Germany, Adolph Hitler was an angry nobody. He even looked like a laughable buffoon when he first started in politics, as this comical picture from 1923 makes clear.
But this comical blowhard quickly started becoming popular with a certain group of ignorant German voters. They were the people who didn’t understand economics or history or politics, much less morality. They were people who were tired and angry about their country falling apart. They were eager to turn to a man who promised them that he knew how to fix things. And Hitler knew who to blame for their problems.
Hitler said he knew how to make Germany great again.
When we look back at how Hitler came to power, it’s easy to naively blame Germans and think Americans would never do such a foolish thing. But that’s wishful thinking. Americans are no different from anyone else. When human beings are scared about the future and don’t see answers, they listen to demagogues who promise to fix everything. They’re not too concerned with the fine print. They just want a leader who is certain — someone who they can trust to take care of problems they don’t bother to understand.
Anytime you make comparisons between anybody and Hitler, you risk having Godwin’s Law invoked, because comparing someone to Nazis has become such a cliche. But I think the historical and social parallels are worth noting. The same conditions that brought Hitler to power in Germany can create the same type of situation anywhere — including 21st century America.
I really don’t expect that to happen in 2016, even though there’s a substantial minority for whom Trump will have strong appeal. (As a side note, those people would call themselves conservatives, but I think it’s more accurate to call them populists.) The majority of the country will almost certainly end up holding their collective nose and electing some establishment toady who will continue right down the path of the last few presidents. Sadly, we’ve reached the place where a continuation of the disgusting status quo is a best-case scenario.
I’m not especially interested in the presidential race of 2016. My life is a lot more peaceful since I don’t especially care who’s elected (because I don’t think it matters). But I expect a social and economic collapse at some point in the future — and there’s a good chance that some jingoistic tribal buffoon such as Trump will be at the front of the parade when that happens.
People piously tell us that government should reflect “the will of the people.” As more and more people are drawn to ignorant populists such as Trump, remind yourself that this is the ultimate bug in the practical concept of democracy, not a feature to be celebrated.
If we’re lucky, Trump will be nothing but another entertaining political sideshow for the next year. If we’re not so lucky, it will mean things have taken a scary turn for the worse.