What if Donald Trump is an authentic douchebag?

There was always a bit of the locker room in the old Mencken line about democracy being the theory that  “the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard”.  But from “grab em by the pussy” to “I’m not trying to suck my own cock,” Trump and his allies have finally brought that locker room insight square into the Oval Office.  

So while it doesn’t make for family-friendly newspapers, if there’s one good thing that might come out of the gong show inside a dumpster fire on a train wreck that is the Trump presidency, it will be to kill until it is dead the idea that what we really need from our politicians is more authenticity.

It’s been the dominant meme of American politics since at least the 2000 election, when Al Gore was widely ridiculed as being a wooden, poll-driven phony, in contrast with Dubya’s Tex-folk posing. Joe Klein made it official in his 2006 book Politics Lost, an essay about the decline of authenticity in presidential politics.

Klein took  inspiration from  Harry Truman’s “Turnip Day” speech at the Democratic convention in 1948 that confirmed his nomination for president. Coming on stage after midnight, speaking plainly, simply, and without notes, Truman challenged the “do-nothing Congress” to get back to work. Klein argued we need more Turnip Day moments in our politics,  saying politicians need to “figure out new ways to engage and inspire us – or maybe just some simple old ways, like saying what they think as plainly as possible.”

And that’s been the rigamarole for well over a decade now, with worries over authenticity stalking candidates from John Kerry (phony aristocrat) and Mitt Romney (phony plutocrat!  to Barack Obama (phony African American) and, most devastatingly, Hillary Clinton (Ms. Phony McPhonyface). Naturally the jargon of authenticity managed to creep its way into Canada, most notoriously with the election of Rob Ford as mayor of Toronto. Before the rank criminality of Ford’s conduct became known, dozens of pundits argued that Ford’s crudity and his know-nothing leather-lunged vulgarity was far from a political  liability — it was the very headwaters of his popularity.

Enter Donald Trump, who crowd-surfed to the presidency on an sewage outflow of frat-house vulgarities and barnyard dominance displays, his path cleared by a gobsmacked punditocracy that couldn’t do much more than shrug at how authentic it all seemed.

It’s not news to point out that the media has been struggling to find some critical handholds on Trumpism. A big part of the problem is that a large number of very intelligent people managed to convince themselves that what looks to all the world like a serious problem with his character is actually his greatest asset.

One reason is that Trump was generally (if wrongly) seen as having tapped into a “populist” vein in American politics. Journalists as a rule have a hard time dealing critically with populism, since one of the long-standing conceits of the profession is that its underlying ethos is populist.



But a bigger problem was that too many people have fallen for the authenticity hoax – the idea that “being yourself” is a always a virtue and is the route to political success.  The model for this is the movie Dave, where Kevin Klein plays a car-dealing doppleganger of the president. When the commander-in-chief suffers a stroke during a tryst with his mistress, his Machiavellian handlers dragoon Dave into serving as their sock-puppet. But when Dave insists on not just playing at being president but actually serving as one, their machinations are confounded by his simple minded but authentic do-gooderism.

For its supporters, the authentic ideal describes someone who is self-contained but transparent to the world, innocent without being naive, and sincere without being cloying. We are all noble savages at heart, and once we shrug off the cloak of civilization and our obsession with pride and appearances and image and status, we can return to a purer and more sincere form of interaction. In which case, what we really need is for our leaders to fire the image consultants and the pollsters. More straight talk, fewer talking points.

But what reason do we have, aside from romanticism, for thinking that authenticity is synonymous with goodness? Why should we believe that someone is at their best when they are letting their basest and most animal urges run rampant? To put it in the lingo of our time, what if beneath the veneer of civility, you’re actually just a douchebag?

Because if there’s any philosopher Trump’s behaviour vindicates, it is not Rousseau’s romanticism, it’s Nietzsche’s nihilism. For Trump and his cohort, everything boils down to dominance and will to power: if liberal democracy is nothing more than a system for the weak to control the strong, then so much the worse for liberal democracy. And if civilization is a means for the norms of the crowd to enforce standards of behaviour on the individual, then so much for civilization and its standards.

What is clear about Donald Trump is that the man has zero impulse control. And – it is crazy that this needs pointing out – there is nothing politically or morally praiseworthy about this. From Plato to Freud and everyone in between and since, the capacity to master your passions through reason has been seen as the defining characteristic of the leader. For centuries, no one seriously made the case that rule by the passions, the id, the animal instincts, was a viable way to run a polity of any size. No one, that is, until the cult of political authenticity took hold around the turn of the millennium.

Trump is authentic? Fine. Then bring on the phonies.



What if Donald Trump is an authentic douchebag? — 2 Comments

  1. I don’t think Trump is authentic any more than Hilary is authentic. Instead, the difference between an authentic and phoney politican, in my mind, boils down to the ‘type’ of populism being practised. An authentic politician is focused on a core group of loyal and homogenous supporters, where as the ‘phoney’ ones are trying to attract a heterogeneous set of smaller groups, who share a common interest in supporting each other.
    The reason that authenticity get’s equated with goodness is that, for certain groups (that feel particularly powerless in the current political climate), the normal ‘heterogeneous’ politician is not nearly as credible as someone who exhibits exclusive loyalty with them. Trump comes across as loyal to his base and that is all that matters(for now). Trump has not been successful at being liked by the larger public, making him even more credible to his base.
    So if liberals think that they can chip away at Trump’s base by highlighting how awful he is, it’s not likely to work. The only way to counter, is to show how trump is hurting his base and how he is does not ‘really’ care about them.
    Alternatively, we just have to wait till he does something so preposterous that it makes the liberal heterogeneous base to come-together in large numbers. I remember Heath writing about the wedge strategy, a few months back. I think that’s the real problem here. The democrats don’t have a good wedge issue.

  2. Interesting. I’m reminded of Joshua Meyrowitz’s comments in “No Sense of Place” on the performative aspects of political leadership (based on Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical analysis of face-to-face interaction), and how television has made this far more difficult. The “backstage area” available for politicians to rehearse and prepare has become much smaller than in the print-media age. The Internet, with its rapid pace and its permanent record of all interactions, has shrunk the backstage area even further.

    In this situation, any kind of preparation is both visible and obviously artificial. (Consider all the stories talking about how much preparation Clinton was doing for the debates.) Someone like Trump, who relies almost entirely on spontaneity instead of rehearsal, may be a more appealing candidate in this kind of media environment. What we’re seeing now, of course, is that his lack of impulse control is poorly suited to actually governing.