When Donald Trump won the presidency last November, I believed that he would grow into the presidency. I attributed his incendiary views on Mexicans or his past promotion of birtherism to campaign theatrics. He was looking for applause (votes). When he became president, he would be humbled by his responsibility to govern the entire nation (rather than energizing the faithful) and his role as world leader. He would still press some of his policies on trade, immigration, taxes, and infrastructure, but would do so soberly and with a view toward winning majority support.
There was precedent for my optimism. Presidents do move to the center even for the fall campaign (as Ronald Reagan did in 1980); others wait until they take the Oval Office and some wait until they encounter initial resistance, but most move sooner or later : George H.W. Bush moved to the center after running a scurrilous campaign in 1988 against Michael Dukakis; Bill Clinton moved from left to center from his “People, not profits” campaign in 1992.
I thought Trump would do the same, but boy, was I wrong. As shown by his response to the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, and to the death of a demonstrator, he continues to incite and polarize. The question is why. I have three different kinds of reasons to offer, each of which partially, but not entirely, explain Trump’s behavior.
1) The Political Strategist: Trump, following Steve Bannon’s lead, may believe that he can create a new “worker’s party” by protecting American industry, getting tough on illegal immigrants, dismantling the “administrative state,” and eschewing political correctness. Trump described this strategy in his speech last winter to the Conservative Political Action Conference. He would see the alt-right as the fringes, but still as an element of this new party.
But he would have to deluded to think he could pull this strategy off. His base of support is at most 25 percent of the electorate. He only won the election because his opponent ran an awful campaign and was victimized by FBI director James Comey’s last minute intervention. His approval rating in office has steadily fallen. And his party has barely won by-elections in very red districts and states. Still, he and Bannon may believe the “silent majority” is in fact a majority that just needs to be inspired to action.
2. The White Nationalist: Some liberal commentators (including my friends Josh Marshall and Isaac Chotiner) have insisted for a year that Trump is a white nationalist and that his take his “both sides” statement after Charlottesville is confirmation of that fact. If this means merely that he is a racist – that he has a generally prejudicial view of African-Americans that also carries over to Mexican-Americans, who are a nationality — I think there is good evidence to say so.
But I think some people are making a stronger claim – that he has a political worldview that is dictating his statements and actions and that as president he is determined to put this ideology forward regardless of whether doing so loses him votes. That would explain Charlottesville, but I doubt whether Trump has a full-blown ideology that could be identified with white nationalism.
Trump is not an obvious anti-Semite – think of his Jewish son-in-law and converted daughter. He has not advanced programs that would be designed to stigmatize or punish blacks. He is not ideological in that sense. So although I think he does not recoil at white nationalism the way many Americans, including Republicans, do, he does not embrace the ideology. He is more of a bar stool racist who happens to have been elected president. But the question is why he has been willing to air these kind of views as president.
3. The Second Childhood: Many white Americans of Trump’s generation – of which I include myself – grew up with a fear and resentment of blacks. Trump came of age in Queens during a time when New York’s outer boroughs were up in arms over government concessions to the civil rights movement. When William F. Buckley Jr. ran for mayor in New York in 1965 on the Conservative Party ticket on an anti-welfare platform, he received his highest vote percentages in Queens and Staten Island. There is some evidence that Trump’s father, too, had hardline views on blacks. The two of them were sued by the federal government in 1973 for housing discrimination.
So Trump probably grew up with negative views of African-Americans, and unlike others of his generation, does not seem to have abandoned or put them aside. In 1989, he ran a full page ad calling for the death penalty for the Central Park Five, who were subsequently exonerated. (Trump has continued to insist they were guilty.) And in 2011, as Joshua Green recounts in his book on Bannon, Devil’s Bargain, Trump, whose television show, The Celebrity Apprentice, had enjoyed a huge following among blacks, but who was thinking of running for president, began promoting the idea that Obama was a Kenyan. It showed, in effect, his contempt for African-Americans by asserting that the first black president wasn’t even an American. So Trump’s childhood racism endured.
But, again, other presidents harbored dark sentiments and managed still to keep them private. As Richard Nixon’s tapes showed, he was an anti-Semite, but except for a crusade against Jews in the Bureau of Labor Statistics, he showed no evidence in his public statements or policies of any animus toward Jews. Nixon was a politician. And politicians can sometimes turn their convictions on and off. George Wallace went from New Deal accomodationist to arch segregationist to champion of a multi-racial America in the course of his political career. But what about Trump? According to the New York Times, the kind of sentiments Trump expressed about Charlotte he had “long expressed in private.” So in Trump, the politician, what was private became public.
Yes, political strategy and strong belief mattered, but I think there are two related other factors have to be considered. And in doing so, one has to put Trump’s general behavior — the tweets, the war against the media, his infantile desire for approbation, his venemous displays even against loyal followers — alongside the eruption of his convictions about the alt-right and alt-left.
The first possible factor is that in his business career, Trump may have been able to act in a impetuous, even childish, way without severe penalty and that he has simply continued to behave that way as president. So Trump’s presidency is further proof that the behavior that can lead toward success in business won’t necessarily lead someone to succeed as president of the United States – any more, say, than Dennis Rodman’s success as a basketball player gave him a head start on being a diplomat.
The second factor is Trump’s age. He is 71. And sometimes – but certainly not always — older people become rigid in their convictions; and their convictions themselves go back to those they had when growing up; and they fail to exercise the same control over these convictions – even if they are harsh and potentially unpopular – that they did when they were younger. Is Trump displaying a “second childishness” as he enters the last stage of his life? A childishness where the convictions of his earlier life, and childhood, are strongly reinforced and emerge without censorship? My guess is that this is a factor along with everything else in giving us a president, who as the events of the last days have demonstrated, is completely unfit for office.