The Alcove

Donald Trump, Shapeshifter

A recent article in The New Inquiry argues that, in the age of Trump, we no longer have a public, but rather multiple publics, each reinforcing its own preconceived notions.

By Kevin Mattson

Tagged Donald TrumpElectionsHillary Clintonmediapublic opinion

It’s truly mind-bending to think that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are running neck and neck, not just in key states (forgive me, dear reader, but I write from Ohio), but also in polling that asks voters to rate each candidate’s truthfulness. How could anyone call Donald Trump truthful? You can imagine that, if asked personally, the Donald might say that, hey, he was somehow above truthfulness, like an Übermensch defying the term itself; but surely nobody else, one might think, could possibly feel the same way.

Which brings us to a fascinating article in The New Inquiry. A.J. Bauer, in “Trump 2.0,” takes a short trip down memory lane to remind us just how much of a shapeshifter Trump has been throughout the years. Although few probably remember this, Donald Trump first considered running for President—or at least claimed to be considering it—back in 1999. As a white nationalist Republican, you might ask? Actually, no: for the candidacy of the Reform Party, founded in 1995 by the “eccentric billionaire Ross Perot”—a party grounded in “technocratic populism.” Perot was that big-eared guy with a corn-pone accent talking about getting under the car hood and fixing things—his most memorable line about government reform.

In 2000, Trump battled it out against Pat Buchanan for the Reform Party endorsement, running, in Bauer’s words, as “the tolerant, anti-racist alternative to Buchanan, not only airing Buchanan’s long history of bigoted viewpoints—denouncing him as a Hitler apologist and holocaust revisionist—but taking him to task for his homophobic response to the AIDS crisis and for his support of South African apartheid.” And, as these things go, Donald Trump also wrote—or, as is more likely, had written for him—a book for his campaign entitled The America We Deserve. Why more journalists aren’t cracking that book open right this very minute, instead of wasting their time with The Art of the Deal, I have no idea. Perhaps this is because, in the end, Trump pulled out of the race, leaving Buchanan with an easy path to victory and making the book—though chock full of opinions he’s since disowned—less important than other campaign-driven materials. Trump left the Reform Party in 2000, and he was joined by his ally and another high-profile Reform Party member, Jesse Ventura, professional wrestler turned politician who had won the Governorship of Minnesota in 1998.

Bauer does see a tad bit of continuity, though, between the Donald who sought the Reform Party nomination and the Donald of today. He was, after all, seeking the nomination of a party whose founding pillars were “trade protectionism and xenophobia.” But the Donald was still (at least in some way) a different man back in 2000. Not only did he have a white nationalist to oppose in the guise of Buchanan, he also proclaimed his political vision as “conservative but liberal on health care.” Roger Stone, now a key leader of the Trump campaign who pushed running on “Law and Order,” explained that Trump, in 2000, “planned to propose a national health insurance system ‘modeled on Canada’s single payer system’ and ‘financed by a corporate tax.’”

So how did Donald Trump become the candidate of white nationalism, a man channeling the Buchanan candidacy he opposed 16 years ago? Bauer has some interesting points to make on this. The simple answer is that Donald Trump bends with the winds, that he’s a shapeshifter and opportunist. But there’s more at play here. So Bauer looks back at a long history of theories on “public opinion.” Unfortunately, his prose turns academic at this point. Ever since “the modern conception of ‘public opinion’ was first theorized” in the 1920s and 30s, stick with me here, “it has usually been understood as the political agential amalgamation of the discrete private opinions of individuals.” Yes, that’s a mouthful, I realize. But, fortunately, Bauer clarifies. What we’re witnessing in the Trump campaign is a change in the way we understand both public opinion and the media. Namely, there is really no “mainstream” public opinion or media out there anymore (whether there really ever was is a whole other question).

Instead, there’s a glut of “spaces” where citizens with shared opinions can go to get confirmation of their preconceived opinions. Here’s how Bauer explains Trump’s new strategy in 2016, one that makes him a different candidate than the one he was back in 2000: Trump has “cobbled together an electoral constituency out of a motley array of groups and individuals, all searching for a safe space to publicly express opinions that have, until recently, been deemed too impolite for a presidential candidate to utter.” He can blow the dog whistle now as loud as he wants; he can denounce “political correctness,” something that’s now become central to his campaign, without having to face the scrutiny of any centralized media or unified public. The words travel into a world of nodding heads.

The Donald of 2016 is not the Donald of 2000 just solely because of his shapeshifting, but because the media and public opinion have transformed themselves during the course of those 16 years. Bauer sees this as a gradual change, whereby “safe spaces” for the ultra-right have sprouted over the years: Consider Tea Party meetings, call-in right wing radio shows, and, most of all, Fox News. And consider, also, those rumors that Trump’s major hope, if he loses, is to create his own alternative news channel.

The conclusion Bauer reaches is, unfortunately, rather depressing. First, Trump isn’t “mainstreaming” the alt-right the way Clinton suggests. The very concept of mainstreaming is now deemed passé. But consider: Those now elderly theories of public opinion had something to say about the political theory of democracy, which is that a public engaged in a shared debate, making shared decisions, was the essence of democracy (the best classical work of political theory on this topic remains John Dewey’s The Public and its Problems). That, if it ever really existed, is now over, according to Bauer. “New media is irrevocably dismantling the normative parameters for an aggregate public opinion, and there is no point in trying to reassert one. The center cannot hold.” We no longer have a public, we have multiple publics. Case closed, Bauer declares.

There’s one particular word that Bauer uses in making his doomsday declaration that I’d like to point out: “normative.” It’s a fair question to ask: Can or should a democratic republic survive by giving up on the conception of a shared public deliberating about its common future? Giving up on this normative conception—meaning value-laden, not descriptive—strikes me as dubious. As progressives, we need to do more than just get our viewpoints out to more people; we also need to ensure that there’s something like a decent public debate going on rather than just spaces where people seek out like-minded individuals or wait for “dog whistles” during debates. I can’t say that I know how to get there (though it likely includes a huge push for “public journalism” funded by those without any obvious self-interest in reportage). But I can say with great certainty that I don’t want to declare game over. The fact that the Trump campaign seems more than willing to come to this conclusion is probably enough for me to say that I don’t think we should. Not yet, anyways.

Read more about Donald TrumpElectionsHillary Clintonmediapublic opinion

Kevin Mattson teaches American history at Ohio University. He is author, most recently, of Just Plain Dick: Richard Nixon's Checkers Speech and the "Rocking, Socking" Election of 1952.

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