[Wrote this in late January, never posted it. –wa.]
The story circulates that the boys at Marvel Comics couldn’t figure out how to end hack writer Mark Millar’s Civil War series, in which Captain America leads an army of superheroes who refuse to register with the US government against a new gov’t agency led by Tony Stark. The writers had Cap and Iron Man fistfighting in the wreckage of some city and couldn’t figure out whether one of them would or could win. Joss Whedon strolled by, listened for ten minutes, then casually handed them their ending and left: Captain America wins the fight but loses the argument.
Yesterday my dad asked me whether Trump has a chance of winning the election. I said: No, Dad, he’s unlikely to win the GOP nomination, and he can’t beat Hillary Clinton, who’s still all but guaranteed to win the Democratic nomination. A loud minority really likes Trump; everyone else rejects him outright.
So why’s he doing so well? my dad asked. What I should’ve said was this: Trump doesn’t have an argument and doesn’t care; he promises a fight. TV ‘news’ loves fights — and so do voters who feel they’re not allowed (empowered) to speak. Because of the positive feedback cycle of poll numbers and TV coverage, he’s locked in as the main attraction on CNN.
Lemme think out loud here. Not an argument, just a series of thoughts.
Of course Trump’s revanchist bloc is eager to support someone whose sole ‘content’ is lashing out. Over the last thirty years, they have resoundingly ‘lost the argument.’ Economically, socially, diplomatically (and most consequentially on the matter of anthropogenic climate change), the right wing is confronting a long legacy of failure, with Obama’s consequential presidency its chief symbol. Trump feels to many like their last resort.
But that’s not what they’d tell themselves if he won.
‘Might makes right.’ Think about that for a second: the moral ‘argument’ depends on the outcome of the fight. (In Game of Thrones terms: trial by combat.)
A lot of young progressives/liberals and Democrats think that the way to get stuff done is for your ideas to beat the other guy’s. These people are naïve, but so are all young people. That’s one thing that ‘young’ means, and lucky them.
What’s worrisome is when they win fights — y’know, by beating up the other guy — and insist they’ve won the argument too. This is what was going on with the recent consumer revolt at universities around the country before the cold weather made it all too much of a bother. One side insisted, and apparently believed, it was only making an argument about race; as the year progressed, it came to seem instead like a fight about race and a lot of other things besides.
If you lose the fight, your insistence that you won the argument will sound…hollow.
Captain America beats up Iron Man, then realizes what his war is costing everyone, so he surrenders, conceding the point to Tony Stark.
Social movements never behave this way. They will not ever take three steps forward and then voluntarily take a step back in the name of inclusivity and reconciliation.
They’re not gonna hit you in the face just once.
It seems to me that Trump’s supporters are a protest movement of folks angry at having lost their argument with ‘Obama Nation’ (with history, really) and raring for a fight that’ll cancel out that loss. They’re mad at their congressmen (who’re supposed to do the arguing), they’re mad at their countrymen for not sharing their views — but as their loud cheering for Trump’s constant use of the word ‘LOSER’ makes embarrassingly clear, they’re also mad at themselves, at their station. ‘WE’RE LOSERS,’ Trump bellows. And the crowd roars its agreement. YES WE ARE!
(‘Yes we are’ is the identitarian response to ‘Yes we can.’)
We shouldn’t pretend Trump is an unprecedented or irregular phenomenon. He is the illogical endpoint of right-wing (identity) politics going back half a century. Yesterday I read the National Review anti-Trump forum. I felt embarrassed for the writers (even the ludicrous Mark Helprin, who appears to be beyond embarrassment). They act as if they’re in an argument about the ‘future of conservatism.’ But Trump’s supporters aren’t National Review subscribers. (Is anyone, anymore?) Turn up your nose and someone’s gonna hit it, not unjustifiably. The NR editorial panelists say they don’t recognize Trump and his cohort as conservative. It is impossible for them to conceive of their own fault here.
If I have a point here it’s this: Polls have shown that Trump’s supporters back him regardless of his stance on the issues. The reason you can’t argue with such revanchists is that their position isn’t itself an argument. It’s fists in the air, nothing less or more.