From the outset of his political career, Donald Trump has compelled observers to continually revisit and thereby complicate their initial reactions to his seemingly straightforward and self-destructive displays. That was most apparent in the effort to reimagine the dubious company Trump kept as assets rather than anchors. Overnight (literally), the manifestation of a few thousand votes perfectly distributed across three must-win states in 2016 transformed a fraught campaign, to which so many pariahs gravitated, into a masterful reconceptualization of the American electorate.
Three consecutive losing election cycles later, the bloom is fading from that rose. But it’s not off it entirely. Except for those who are keeping their powder dry, little else but anxiety over once again missing the secret ingredient in Trump’s special sauce explains a general reluctance to call the former president’s dinner with an anti-Semite and a famous manic-depressive what it was. Not just reckless, irresponsible, and perhaps even dangerous, but also blisteringly stupid.
The meeting of the minds that occurred over the long Thanksgiving weekend at Mar-a-Lago between Trump, the white-supremacist agitator Nicholas Fuentes, and the artist formerly known as Kanye West seems torn from the transcript of HBO’s expose into Bellevue Hospital. Fuentes, an unapologetic bigot and Holocaust-denier, reportedly impressed Trump with nothing more than obsequious displays of affection. Sparks flew when “Ye” and Trump argued over which of them would win in a head-to-head election. It’s a wonder that any of them could hear each other over the voices in their heads.
The press has responded to this outrageous occurrence predictably: Probing anyone who has ever associated with the Republican Party for their reaction, tallying condemnations of the former president, and assessing whether those condemnations were vigorous enough for their tastes. I’m sympathetic to the notion that Donald Trump’s appeal to the Republican electorate, such as it is, won’t disappear on its own and will rebound absent a strong enough push. But there is something to be said for the degree to which the former president is marginalizing himself. Of course, Trump has done that from the beginning.
As early as 2015, Trump’s willingness to flout conventional notions of propriety ingratiated him with a constituency that regards propriety itself with contempt. Trump was willing to “go there.” He was the candidate who would “win” arguments with Jeb Bush by accusing his brother of being complicit in the September 11 attacks. He would exculpate his own conduct by accusing the Hispanic judge adjudicating his alleged fraud of being blinded by Mexican supremacy. His elaborate conspiracy theorizing appealed to conspiracy theorists, some of whom were explicitly racist, whose support the future president would not disavow. Trump’s 2016 campaign turned over a rock and emboldened the underside’s denizens.
All this looked quite foolish at the time. But Trump won by the skin of his teeth, and an intellectual enterprise soon sprouted up around the demand for theories that explained why behavior that seemed so self-evidently stupid was, in fact, a strange new species of brilliance. Trump had spent years cultivating the support of America’s cultural fringes. His populist flourishes enlivened unlikely voters whose ideological inconsistency wasn’t well served by either major political party. The haughty elites who turn their noses up at self-described racists are just as disdainful of you, the average American voter. And so on.
The illogical, cultish rationalizations that were erected around the notion that Trump’s voters backed him not despite but because of his disdain for respectable politics were encouraged by Republicans when they regarded illogic as politically useful. Suddenly, it wasn’t Trump who had erred by surrounding himself with elements of American society that had, voluntarily or otherwise, retreated into its shadows. The blunder was on the part of people like Hillary Clinton, who cast roughly half of the president’s supporters as “deplorables.”
Clinton did err, in the political sense, both by attacking voters and by getting the proportionality terribly wrong. She made no mistake, however, in observing that her opponent’s contempt for conventions, such as denying anti-Semites the attention they crave, was a deliberate exercise on his part. Trump’s flaws were not enough to overcome Americans’ distaste for Hillary Clinton, the most disliked politician in the country. But nor was any of that a savvy strategy on Trump’s part. It’s not clear that it was a strategy at all but a reflexive response to anyone who fluttered their eyelashes in Trump’s direction, no matter how loathsome they may be. That simplicity also suffices to explain what the former president was thinking when he sat down with “Ye” and Fuentes.
Now, confronted once again by Trump’s recklessness, some familiar rationalizations are making the rounds. West’s journey into anti-Semitism notwithstanding, he’s a celebrity and an iconoclastic one at that. Think of all the disaffected potential voters he might bring to Trump’s coalition! Fuentes may be a toxic personality, but he’s another figure who “drives all the right people nuts.” There are rewards available to right-wing politicians who buck political media’s exhortations about Donald Trump. The temptation to overthink the former president’s maniacal sudden movements is still with us.
In my first book, Unjust: Social Justice and the Unmaking of America, I close with some observations about when and how America’s two competing political coalitions convince themselves to jettison their dead weight. The conservative movement’s expurgation of the “Birchers” and the labor movement’s dismissal of the Communists in its ranks serve as examples. It is never a moral conviction but a shrewd political calculation—the point at which the association reaches diminishing returns. Recent election results tell this same tale, but the signal Republicans are receiving is muddled by the apparent popularity and fundraising prowess of the party’s most disrespectable elements.
It’s unwise to underestimate Republicans’ willingness to rationalize themselves into a box canyon. But there are few indications that Americans are eager to reward genuine bigots and their abettors. And there’s plenty of evidence that the addition of these elements to the Republican coalition repels more voters than it attracts. There’s nothing hard to comprehend about Trump’s impulses and precious little worthy of analysis in the Algonquin roundtable over which he presided. Only through a collective, laborious commitment to being dense is it rendered anything other than what it was: a mistake.