For all the intensity and escalation of the last 72 hours, the biggest tell isn’t the canceled event in Chicago, the protestor rushing the stage in Dayton or the stunning announcement from Trump this morning that he wants to cover the legal bills of the supporter who sucker punched a protestor late last week in Fayetteville. The biggest tell is hiding there in plain sight and yet oddly out of view. Donald Trump realized that he needed to tamp down the heat of his campaign going into last week, not to forestall violence or do the right thing but for a very specific tactical reason. He is on the brink of securing the Republican nomination. But to have a nomination that is worth anything he needs at least the acquiescence of GOP party stakeholders. He told us as much. Thus the repeated calls to unity, the more sedate debate performance and even the rather bizarre invocations of the ‘two Donald Trumps.’ But that’s not how it’s ended up. And it’s important to consider why.
As I noted after last Thursday’s Republican debate, Trump was notably more subdued and (to use that comically nonsensical adjective) presidential, particularly toward his rivals and with regard to mainstream Republican issue touch points. But he was the same Trump on two issues – protestor beatings and Muslims. Last Saturday he was pressed for the first time in a high profile setting on the rally violence by CNN’s Jim Acosta. On Thursday the Fayetteville ‘sucker punch’ video emerged, capturing in an escalated and more visually arresting form what has been simmering at his rallies for weeks. This generated a more defensive and aggressive stance from Trump which emerged simultaneous to the debate and after it. It also escalated what had been smatterings of Black Lives Matter protestors at event after event to the much larger and more organized protest we saw in Chicago when Trump took the fateful step of organizing a rally in a major city in a blue state at a racial diverse urban college campus.
In the 36 hours since the Chicago blow up we’ve seen the chilling incident in Dayton where an anti-Trump protestor tried to rush the stage while Trump was speaking, Trump attacking “communist” Bernie Sanders, equating his protestor opponents with ISIS terrorists and threatening to send his supporters to Sanders’ rallies if Sanders doesn’t stand down. (Needless to say there is no evidence whatsoever that Sanders is involved in organizing or encouraging any protests at all.) The most recent up-ratcheting is Trump telling Meet the Press this morning that he wants to pay the legal fees of the man who sucker punched the protestor in Fayetteville (and later said that killing might be necessary next time.)
It may seem like I’m saying that Trump lit the fire but is now unable to put it out. But I’m not. It’s not that simple. What we can see now is that Trump can try to ‘pivot to the general’. But the primaries will follow him there whether he wants them to or not. Trump saw the tactical need to shift gears, as many of his fair weather supporters and opponents expected he would. But the momentum of events proved stronger. At a deeper level still, the cycle of reaction, revanche and provocation seems to be operating within Trump himself.
Yesterday I noted this article in the Times which looked at the backstory to Trump’s presidential campaign. This wasn’t just Trump’s once a decade flirt with running for President, finally taking the plunge. It was a product of a half decade in the making quest to gain power and respect in the world of politics. According to the Times, Trump’s humiliation at the hands President Obama and Seth Myers at the White House Correspondents Association dinner in 2011 played a key role in galvanizing this drive for power and respect. There was the additional irony that this potent confrontation occurred only hours after Obama gave the final okay for the bin Laden compound raid and while he waited to hear the fate of that mission. Journalists look for defining moments and often over-interpret them. This isn’t a criticism; I’m sure I do the same myself. We can’t know just what role that dinner roasting played. But the reference, along with the events of the last 72 hours, bring a more general pattern into focus.
We’ve discussed before that Trump has crystallized and made himself the leader of the revanchist core of the contemporary GOP, a group of people who are overwhelmingly white, largely older and believe that their country and a range of social realities they cherished have been taken away from them. They want both back. Jamelle Bouie writes that “white voters hope Trump will restore the racial hierarchy upended by Barack Obama.” I am not sure I would phrase it quite so starkly. But I’m also not sure why I wouldn’t. Race is at the core of what we are seeing unfold. Indeed, I’ve made similar arguments myself. What has only fully come into focus for me over the last week is that Trump is not only leading this but embodies it as well.
Trump was born very rich and ascended on his own to the level of the fantastically rich. He has achieved much but only known levels of privilege and entitlement few of us can imagine. And yet the early embrace of birtherism, the sting of the humiliation at Barack Obama’s hands, the palpable psychic energy he derives from ramping up a climate of racial confrontation all suggest he is animated, even driven, by the same rage at upended privilege and cultural and yes racial loss as his followers. All of which is to say that it is not that Trump can’t control the beast he’s unleashed. He cannot control himself because the same psychodrama and politics of resentment that is playing out among his followers is playing out within himself. Trump can pivot to the general all he wants. But the primaries will follow him there. Indeed, he will bring them.