No one has ever tried harder to throw an election than Trump did. Barely a day went by when he didn’t say or do or fail to do something which should have disqualified him in the eyes of every American. There’s no need to catalog these gross lapses of basic decency, the stuff we teach to the smallest children who act out even in private. And yet he won. And it’s not because Hillary was such a bad candidate that people felt they had to vote for Trump. Some felt that way, of course. But I still have to maintain that those who said, “I loathe Trump like any decent person but I have to vote for him because Hillary is so evil” can’t be many. The statement itself is so irrational, so contrary to all the evidence, that I however large the number of people who believed this, it cannot account for Trump’s obscene victory.
But something has to. A lot of people right now, two days after the election, are pulling their hair out to understand. Some, like Michael Moore, gave us a scenario long before the election that accounts pretty convincingly for what happened—at least one of his five points does (the one about the Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin strategy). But Moore himself was not convinced when he wrote it that Trump was going to win (the week after he penned a way to stop Trump; he also voted for Hillary, which would have been a waste of time if he knew Trump would win). His essay was more of an “if Trump wins, this is how it will happen,” though for marketing purposes (presumably) it’s circulated as “Five Reasons Why Trump Will Win in November.” Moreover, the whole five reasons taken together don’t explain how Americans, some of them by no means stupid in other ways, could cast a vote for this unpredictable, valueless, inexperienced, unqualified, hateful and mendacious clown.
I thought better of Americans generally. I still believe not enough of them are stupid enough for their sheer stupidity to have been what propelled them to do something so stupid. Even very intelligent people do stupid things sometimes. Einstein probably failed to grab his umbrella when it threatened rain. (At least it would not surprise me to hear that he did.)
So you still have to figure out how so many not-stupid people could be so stupid. I don’t like any of the reasons I’m hearing, all the exit poll data, the lack of enthusiasm for Hillary, the complacency of people who didn’t vote because all the polls said she’d win—so what was the point? None of that puts it over the top as far as I can see. The phenomenon was so big and the act of voting so counterintuitive and counterproductive that something else had to be at play.
Something neither logical analysis nor research can uncover. The unaccounted element in Trump’s (stupid—have I said “stupid” enough yet?) victory was the same force that propelled the sales and hysteria of Harry Potter books and Beany Babies. Donald Trump rode the wave of a mindless, hysterical, mimetic fad, the kind that sweeps through every society with pretty predictable regularity, the kind that leaves people with Rubbermaid bins of worthless stuffed animals they bought in a frenzy convinced they were setting themselves up for future riches on the resale market.
I should make it clear I have nothing against Harry Potter books or Beanie Babies. The animals are cute, well made, fun to play with. The books are competently written, fantasy-mysteries fun to read, full of safe themes of love and loyalty and friendship that only the most paranoid fundamentalist could have a problem with. But the toys are not a hundred times better than the other cute stuffed animals that were offered for sale during the frenzy, and the books are not a hundred times better than a lot of other books published for the same audience in the same period. Indeed their greatness did not get noticed by all those publishers to whom they were first offered because it was never their greatness that sold them. Unpredictably, and with a large element of randomness thrown in, they caught the wave when the culture was ready for another bit of collective madness.
The species is wired for this, and the global communications and marketing networks amplify the phenomenon in ways unforeseeable for those things emerged. And as in all such cases, whether confined to a single household or town or spread out throughout the world, the individuals so caught up are convinced that their frenzy is not a frenzy, that they are acting on their own volition and that they “just really like Harry Potter,” or Beanie Babies or any number of other fads you can think up on your own.
The phenomenon if you are interested is well analyzed in the work of Rene Girard in such texts as The Scapegoat and Things Hidden since the Creation of the World and many other books.
So this is my conclusion: Trump is a fad.
I almost typed “fraud” but he’s not so much a fraud. He makes almost no attempt to hide his con. The one insightful thing he said in his 18 month campaign was that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and not lose any supporters. (It wasn’t of course his own insight; he was quoting or plagiarizing, but it was still insightful.) In fact he marveled as he said it. He couldn’t believe it. It didn’t make sense (even to him, who has a very low threshold for sense). But he was right. And that’s the best evidence I can submit for the claim. Fads are not reasonable. Fads catch reasonable people up in irrational acts.
Fads are things that leave you months later, when they have finally passed, a lot lighter in the wallet, trying to figure out what to do with dozens or Rubbermaid buckets full of regret.