Making Sense of the Conflagration

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I tried, as events unfolded tonight, to piece together in the two posts below just what happened tonight and how. At first I was certain that Ted Cruz had executed an excruciating double cross of Donald Trump, a thoroughly disreputable and dangerous man, who had also humiliated Cruz, defamed his father and denigrated his wife. We now have two contending theories. The first: by whatever means, the Trump camp allowed Cruz, under their very noses, to blow up their convention through a feat of staggering, almost incomprehensible incompetence. Somehow, with so much at stake, they didn’t even read the speech. The second: the Trump campaign knowingly allowed Cruz to light his bomb and then egged the conventioneers on to an outraged chorus of boos imagining that Cruz would be humiliated and that laying bare the GOP’s protracted civil war before millions would in fact ‘unify the party.’

The Trumpites are incorrigible and in some cases congenital liars. And yet it may be true. We can only fall back on Trump’s Razor: “Ascertain the stupidest possible scenario that can be reconciled with the available facts.”

The truth though is that both explanations, different as they are, amount to the same thing. The Republican party nominated a man because of his ability to dominate and denigrate opponents and summon up a plethora of demons already rumbling under the seas of Republican revanchism. The man was and is a charlatan and a grifter, the master of a Potemkin Village world rooted in narcissism and aggression which creaks and staggers under even the most measured scrutiny. Either scenario, both defying any conventional credibility, could plausibly emerge from that toxic soup.

Indeed, while this conflagration was erupting in Cleveland another bomb, which Trump himself had lit earlier in the day, was going off on the pages of The New York Times. One can debate whether it is wise or sensible for the United States to guarantee the independence of small states on the periphery of Russia which had for centuries been either within the Russian domain or inside its sphere of influence. But we have. In his comments to the Times, Trump treated the matter like a real estate goon shaking down a distressed landlord to make an easy buck.

Trump’s mix of cocky ambiguity and predation could scarcely be better primed to trigger the kind of great power confrontation that could push the world from smoldering to fire. It is no exaggeration to say that were it not for the relative confidence that Trump will be defeated in November that interview alone could trigger a genuine international crisis.

Indeed, it still may.

Trump brings together aggression and narcissism with a kind of militant ignorance which can be harmless or even amusing in the make believe world of reality TV or New York real estate but becomes positively dangerous on a national and global stage, thrashing about like a hose spewing fire. As Will Saletan memorably put it, the GOP is a failed state and Trump is its warlord. On his own Trump is simply a bracing case study in abnormal psychology. But he didn’t shoot to within reach of the most powerful office in the world by happenstance. He is the product of a political and cultural breakdown on the American right, a swaggering reductio ad absurdum of every breach and breakdown and violation of extra-statutory norms we’ve seen over the last two or three decades.

When Trump first announced his candidacy, I thought it was a joke. But I quickly realized it was no joke. And not long after that I thought he would likely be the Republican nominee. I had no idea and I’m not sure there was any knowing that Donald J. Trump would turn out to be ‘Trump’. But to be surprised that we’d have a ‘Trump’ you couldn’t have been watching the progression of American politics over the last decade. Perhaps you could miss it if you were only looking at the proper and presentable surface of our politics but not if you were watching what was plainly visible underneath. To imagine Trump was ever going to ‘pivot’ into a normal political actor was nothing more than a failure to grasp what he was, what gave him his power and what kind of forces were propelling him forward.

In any case, here we are. Trump’s convention is everything you could have predicted: a mix of bracing disorganization, provocation, aggression and lies. It is simply impossible to pick apart the incompetence from the transgressive behavior and pettiness. During the primaries, with a languid sarcasm, I said this about the emerging Trump versus Cruz confrontation:

Like two zen masters facing off in a martial arts classic or perhaps two wizards doing battle in The Lord of the Rings, we have an epic confrontation between two masters who have trained for decades in the arts of assholery and bullying. But their powers equally matched, it is a stand off.

Cruz is a thoroughly awful person. This is entirely apart from his politics. I know many people with awful politics who are wholly creditable people. But as I noted tonight, perhaps it was only Cruz with his icy indifference to the hatred of everyone, his ravenous aggression and unalloyed devotion to himself and his benighted ideals who could land this kind of blow. Years from today we will still wrestle with the meaning of Cruz for once leveraging the awesome power of his assholery in a righteous cause. Perhaps there is a salutary bravery or solidity there I hadn’t noticed, or at least a quality vouchsafed for this moment.

This is Trump. His convention would be his presidency – entertaining and hilarious if he weren’t also a live wire against the fumy gasoline can set against our national home. It is quite literally a terrifying prospect. He’s quite likely to lose his quest for the presidency. But he might not. He’s that close to the unimaginable. And he’s brought almost an entire political party along with him. We will be blessed if we can escape this with no more harm.

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