ifteen years ago, following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the United States redressed an inconceivable wound by initiating the so-called War on Terror. That war, in all its forms, stirred up and rage, fear, xenophobia, righteousness, each one encouraged to simmer in an often hyperbolically ill-informed institutional stew.
As armadas pushed into Afghanistan and Iraq, the home-front U.S. was gradually drawn into an acrid culture of alerts and suspicions. Given license by terrorism, domestic politics began to mirror the rancidness the tone of hostilities abroad. A culture of public insult grew from a constant and self-sustaining combination of war and fear. All manner of private seething, long kept in check in the pre-web world, frothed from the genie’s bottle and found an appropriately noxious expression for its movement — going viral. The overall tone of political discourse drenched itself in the spirit of destructiveness. Sarcasm, character assassination and a constant need to assign blame began anchoring if not defining public disagreement. Any reluctance to assign scathing blame was labeled appeasement, transforming a phrase once reserved for a British prime minister’s failure to grasp a German dictator’s true intentions into a warped piece of near-daily speech. In 2008, an American presidential candidate was in some quarters accused of being a closet Muslim extremist, if not himself a terrorist, because he’d spent part of his childhood in a predominantly Muslim country.
This ferocious parochialism took root and spread under the Republican Party’s watch.
That party did not by itself cause the rage, the resentment or the intolerance, but it did encourage the slash-and-burn resentment that seeped into American culture, its tone soon coming to define how those in power spoke to critics, and to each other.
Now, that same party — or portions of it — finds itself alarmed that its presumptive presidential candidate is a loose cannon. It is appalled to find itself potentially represented by opportunistic billionaire who says whatever comes to mind, applies conservative theology whimsically, reduces the world to a dollar and cents province whose capital is the United States, and above all refuses to kowtow to party chiefs, something his fans see as heroic.
He thunders about making America great again when in fact it’s difficult to know when it was last great, and what about it was so specifically grand — aside from its committed and decades-long opposition to communism, a system that ironically collapsed not as a result of war but its own decay.
Though formed and nourished in the bombastic 1980s, Donald Trump in his campaign guise is cut at least in part from the bombast and recklessly indignant speech that characterized post-9/11 America. He is a direct outgrowth of the red state, blue state culture of polarization, which in turn grew from the War on Terror’s “anything goes” school of resentment, one that saw the American political being transformed into a creature based almost entirely on his or her dislikes. When the hating of terrorism lost traction, accelerated by an economic meltdown and chaos in Iraq, a backup hatred evolved, this one directed at government itself, and its deceitful political managers.
That’s the spillage into which tycoon Trump has tapped, overturning the contrived conventions of a party that despite its inner splits does not like unwashed outsiders. That he would openly vex the party to which he ostensibly belongs, some Republicans say, is irresponsible and risks causing both party and nation potentially grave harm.
Yet similar irresponsibility if not recklessness flowed from Republican institutional sources between 1998 and 2008, years in which the sing-along drama of dread propelled most debate, ultimately unhinging once-fundamental notions of public and political civility.
Cometh Trump, who is an heir to just this sort of hubbub. In many respects he is neither an ideological nor political figure but instead a sentimental salesman who appeals to crowds in the way of a 1910 carnival barker, confidently promising a new and fantastic flow of lions and tigers and bears.
His lions and tigers and bears, at least rhetorically, constitute Trump’s version of the America First circus, damn the Europeans, damn the Chinese, and, before all that, damn the Republican Party.
Yet this muddle of confrontational invective is anything but a Trump invention. Its scorched earth vulgarity was largely facilitated and fed by scriptwriters for the same fear-peddling party that now resents the unauthorized showman-politician who may soon speak for it.
It may have never wanted him in its show, but it still helped cast him, making ongoing attempts to ostracize him into something of a mockery, and a deeply melancholy one at that.