The Donald is just a weed

A lot of people are worried about Donald Trump. As a liberal Democrat, I have many reasons to worry about him, myself. That is not what I am going to write about today, but before I take up my topic, let me list three reasons why I think it is appropriate for people like me to worry.


First, I really miss the old days when a Democratic party, which had liberal and conservative wings contended in general elections with a Republican party which has liberal (well…centrist) and conservative wings. The Republicans did this once before. That was in 1964, when the Goldwater Revolution brought electoral catastrophe on the party.

The Republican party came back, thanks in large part to an unpopular war, but the center of gravity had shifted. Today, all the elements of the Republican party that brought it back to competition for the American center are weaker; some are simply absent. If I were to argue that these things happen from time to time, something like a “market correction,” and then the normal bipartisan model returns, I would have to assert that the forces necessary to accomplish this “correction” are still there and are still strong. I don’t think so.

For example, the Republican Establishment was able to insist on Sen. McCain in 2008 although Republican hearts were elsewhere. They were able to insist on Gov. Romney in 2012, although Republican hearts were elsewhere. The Establishment would dearly love to insist on ABT (Anybody But Trump) this year, but they may, finally, have lost control of the party.

trump 6Second, I will really miss living in a country that is respected in the community of nations. Apart from the damage a Trump administration would do, simply winning the Republican nomination and/or the general election would be a blow to our prestige. Bette is in Germany at the moment, communing with three of her grandchildren, and she reports that the question the Germans want most to ask her is, “What are you people DOING?” This is orders of magnitude worse that Reagan who was, after all, a governor and, before that, a long time political activist. [1]

Third, I worry about the voters—including some I care about— who will have violated their own consciences as well as their economic interests to vote for Trump. What will they do with their guilt feelings, based, as they are, in my judgment, on actual guilt. How do members of a lynch mob feel the next morning when the adrenaline has ebbed and they are no longer being egged on by their fellows? How do we deal with the villages that we destroy with Hellfire missiles when we learn, later, that it was the other village that was supposed to have terrorists in it?

The management of those guilt feelings will take some public form. I don’t know what it will be, but I’m pretty sure it will be ugly. It might well be total denial. And what will the rest of us do, knowing ourselves to have been complicit? We are the guys who were not part of the lynch mob, but who didn’t try to stop them either. How are we going to feel?

That was the end of the introduction. I want to begin to make a point about American politics by talking about my back yard. It’s an extended metaphor, but it’s only five paragraphs long. You can do this.

What to do about the weeds

My back yard grows weeds. A little grass, too. [2] I would like for it to grow only grass and no weeds at all and in my heart of hearts, I regard its facility in weed production as a kind of character flaw. I feel that it is “harboring” weeds the way Argentina “harbored” Nazis.

trump b2That’s the heart. What my head knows is that every soil produces the plants it is best equipped to produce. When you look at what grows, you are looking at the soil following its natural tendency. Let’s say, for instance, that the soil in my yard is to heavy—too “clay-ey”—for grass, but is ideal for moss. So I have a lot more moss than I want and not nearly as much grass.

What to do. Well, there are products that deal with that. Scotts makes a 5M Moss Killer, for instance. But as you know, I believe that a “problem” is a construct (not a condition) and that you can place this “problem” in one place or another. I choose, in this instance, to say that my soil is “wrong,” (that’s where the problem should be located) rather than that the weeds are wrong. I have “weed-producing soil” and it is doing what that kind of soil does.

The solution to that particular problem is to change the soil so that it is friendly to the kinds of plants I want in my yard. I need to change the composition of the soil—they call it “amendment;” that’s hard for a political science guy—so that it will naturally produce the plants I want. I need to change the way the soil drains or the nutrition available or the amount of sunlight falling on the plants or something.

If I change the soil properly, it will produce grass every year. If I don’t, I will be out there with Scotts 5M dumping poison in my yard every year. Those are the options as I see them.

Donald Trump is a weed. I feel toward him a revulsion I have never feel toward dock or crabgrass or dandelions or moss. He is so obnoxious and so persistent and so invasive [3] that I want to reach for my Scotts 5M without thinking about it. And then I think about my yard. The weeds aren’t actually culpable. Nor is the soil. It’s the guy who tends the soil, or who doesn’t, who is culpable.

What kind of soil produces people like Donald Trump? I haven’t read anything about it recently, but the best treatment of this phenomenon I have ever seen appeared in Harper’s Magazine in November, 1964. [4] That was “the Goldwater election;” probably not a coincidence. It was Richard Hofstadter’s essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Here is the first paragraph.

American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. In using the expression “paranoid style” I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes. I have neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics. In fact, the idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.

Hofstadter is talking about a kind of cultural phenomenon. There is a paranoid culture that can be described, as he does—“heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy”—which is like the soil in my yard. A paranoid electorate will elect dictators. They will elect people who will “fight for them.” [5] They would produce weeds like Trump because that is what that kind of soil produces.  Here is Glen Beck, for instance; as consistent a supporter of paranoia as we have.

How did we get soil like that? From the hundreds of plausible answers, I am going to choose two. We, the owners of the yard, the ones referred to in the first clause of the preamble to the Constitution, have allowed these two things to happen. I don’ttrump 5 want to argue that we are culpable. When you take a look at what would have had to happen to prevent it, it is really hard even to imagine it. We are, however, the cause. Culpable or not, we are the stewards under whose “care” this soil developed. If “sovereignty of the people” means anything at all, surely it means that.

Here are the two routes by which we got here. The first is economic failure. I am cribbing this directly from Robert Reich’s excellent book, Aftershock: The Next Economy & America’s Future. [6] Chapter 8 is called, “How we got ourselves into the same mess [the Great Depression] again.” We tried to regain our economic balance by adding women to the work force (p. 63), which may have been a wonderful thing for the women, but it did not restore our purchasing power. We worked longer hours. We drew down our savings and maxed out our credit cards (p. 62). That didn’t do it either.

And there is no going back, either, to what Reich calls “the Great Posperity,” 1947—1975. “What’s broken,” says Reich (p. 75) is the basic bargain of linking pay to production. The solution is to remake the bargain.” There are lots of economic “weeds,” of course. The financial institutions were reckless, the consumers overborrowed; the uppermost part of the economy is overpaying itself shamelessly. Those are just weeds. Amending the soil, in Reich’s view, would require “remaking the bargain,” and in that way, avoiding “The Politics of Anger” (Part II, Chapter 7). We have not avoided it. We are there now.

That’s the economic branch of how we got here. I think there is another branch. Something harder to identify. I’m going to call it “cultural,” although a case could be made for “spiritual.” As we have hunkered down, we have begun to allow the paranoid style to affect us all. There is a vicious individualism—mostly illusory, but still vindictive. It is captured by the demand that “the government keep its hands off my Medicare.” I hang around with liberals, mostly, and we all laugh knowingly when that example is used, but there is real pain under there and it is going to get expressed.

trump 4There is a thoroughgoing tribalism that makes policymakers who cooperate with each other to support policies that would be good for all, into “traitors.” It is only a small step to an Inquisition that begins with “Are you now compromising, or have you ever compromised with [a member of the other party.]” If you hear the House Un-American Activities Committee language there then I wrote it properly. “They” are evil and consorting with “them” is evil and you deserve punishment.

I have written a good deal about the lack of trust in government. We are beyond that now. We are into charges of active betrayal. The government promised us this but it was only a come-on. All the time, they knew they were going to take us for all we were worth. There is what Reich calls “Outrage at a rigged game,” Part II, Chapter 6). The dream of the 2008 Barack Obama that we are not Red states and Blue states—we are the United States of America (remember that?) now seems naive but it used to be the way we did business as citizens.

Whatever you want to call this second branch—as I write this, I feel a strong desire to call it “spiritual,” although I am pretty sure that tomorrow, I will wish I had not—it joins with the economic deprivation branch and it produces this ugly and vicious mood that Hofstadter calls “the paranoid style.”

If all we had to do was weed out the Trumps—Trump is a weed, that is my thesis—it wouldn’t be so bad. But it is bad because the soil we now have is a Trump-producing kind of soil and “Trumps” by whatever name will keep coming back as long as we fail to change the soil.

Weeding “the Donald” won’t work. We really need a soil that will not produce Donalds.

[1] And before that, a liberal Democrat.
[2] That’s legal in Oregon now. I’ll just make the “grass” joke once and then I can skip it all the other times. If I could skip thinking it each time I write “grass,” that would be even better, but I know that isn’t going to happen.
[3] That’s what they call weeds that like to move easily from one yard to another, or, in Trump’s case, from one state to another.
[4] Google [hofstadter, paranoid style]. It will take you to Harpers Archives, where you can download a pdf of the whole thing. Be careful not to buy the book if this essay is all you are interested in.
[5] I know that’s standard campaigning language now. Hillary uses it too. But when it is all there is, it engages the paranoia of an electorate that has not been “amended” by hope or by modest successes or by social trust.
[6] This is the book from which I took the “acceptance speech” of “Margaret Jones” upon winning the endorsement of her party—the Independence Party—in the year 2020. Ms. Jones sounds very Trump-like to me.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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2 Responses to The Donald is just a weed

  1. John Hess says:

    That’s a marvelous put-together. Maybe the best I’ve read. (opinion of a teacher, but political layperson). Thank you.

    JH >

  2. hessd says:

    Every now and then, one comes together and writes itself. Thanks, John.

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