One of the problems with a party which never stops is that all the things which only seem like a good idea at parties continue to seem like good ideas.
–Douglas Adams, Life, the Universe, and Everything
Donald Trump is ascendant. Leading in national polls and in the delegate count, he is projected to carry most states in today’s Super Tuesday slate of primaries, and has a clear path open to the Republican nomination for President. Dismissed for months by nearly everyone with a keyboard, markets suggest he’s got the race nearly sewn up, giving him an 80% chance at securing the nomination. Opposition to his candidacy is now finally beginning to coalesce in the party, but it may already be too little, too late. Trump’s campaign seems to have, as the saying goes, the momentum of a runaway freight train. Why?
Some good explanations have already emerged. Many focus on the importance of style over substance. The recent and rightly lauded Trump profile by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone likens Trump’s campaign appearances to a “variety show.” That focus on the performance over substance is an important element of the candidate’s appeal. I would argue the larger effect is almost, for lack of a better word, atmospheric.
Trump constitutes a particular kind of candidate, one with few recent antecedents. The closest in recent years might be former Toronto mayor Rob Ford. Let’s call them “Carnival candidates.” Though often caricatured as drunken revelry, Carnival is much more than that. In many cultures, the festival constitutes a collective escape from the strict roles and norms that govern everyday life. During Carnival, some rules can be bent; others can be broken. There is a transgressive quality to events during Carnival, as everyday life is replaced with a new order. Power roles are subverted, fools are in charge, and a sense of anticipation, a sort of “anything-is-possible” feeling permeates festivities.
This, I argue, is part of the appeal that Trump, and other candidates like him—such as Ford—holds for many. These are not just political movements; they are literal parties. In a relentless segment that aired over the weekend, John Oliver describes Trump’s antics as “objectively funny.” These campaigns are fun, and the fun has much to do with that anything-is-possible transgressive element, analogous to the one found in Carnival. The endless stream of thrills of the Trump campaign are so much fuel for the party, a steady stream of transgressive acts that serve to maintain the Carnival atmosphere. New issues emerge seemingly almost by accident, but that transgressive element that lies at the heart of the candidate’s appeal is always there.
Through a combination of personal background, style and messaging, candidates like Trump manage to define their campaigns as existing somehow outside the normal space of politics. Deliberately positioning themselves as outsiders they are a particular kind of anti-system candidates, who treat the campaign almost as an end unto itself. Indeed, the specific themes of such campaigns are often secondary, emerging organically out of process of experimentation, as the candidate determines what topics best provoke the desired response—the biggest thrills, for lack of a better term—for assembled crowds and people following on TV and online. Carnival candidates are basically Bayesians, adapting in response to feedback, while informed by loosely held prior beliefs. In Trump’s case, the issue that first brought him to prominence—birtherism, and all the nativism, bigotry, and delegitimization of opponents and institutions that that issue implied (not to mention complete disregard for correspondence with some concept of objective truth)—gives a good sense of what his priors were as a candidate. You can read much of his present campaign directly from that one issue.
Certainly, as Kagan and others have argued, the ground for that campaign was effectively prepared by previous Republican efforts. These ideas are not new; on the contrary, they are ideas that a subset of Republican voters have long been primed for. It is the packaging, the willingness to explicitly shout what had been only implied or whispered, that is novel. To paraphrase McLuhan, for Carnival candidates the medium—in this case, the campaign—is the real message.
Where do Carnival candidates come from? There are some external factors that drive Trump’s appeal. Commentators, including Trump himself, have noted his ability to fund his campaign without recourse to normal Republican funding mechanisms—even if the campaign is not self-funded as he claims—has afforded him crucial independence. He has also, again as others have mentioned, benefited enormously from the mainstream attention. This is a function of his ability to reliably shock and entertain. As Les Moonves, chief at CBS, told a group of investors, “it may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS. The money is rolling in…. For us, Donald’s place in this election is a good thing.”
Another element, less widely remarked upon but nonetheless important, is that Trump draws his support from a particular kind of down at the mouth insider, people who feel alienated by the present politico-economic system for various reasons but—and this is an important but—are not easily construed as an Other, threatening to the larger polity. What do I mean by that? A thought experiment might help. Just imagine a politician from a visible minority group in the US using a similar sort of rhetorical approach, complete with the same kind of implicit air of menace to those who oppose their movement (in Trump’s case, that includes protesters, supporters of other candidates, and most recently the media) or the larger identity they claimed to represent (for Trump, the enthusiastic embrace of torture in defence of America). In all probability, it would not be long at all before such a politician would find his or her events heavily policed, and an energetic blocking coalition emerge as opponents put aside differences in order to stamp out the threat. Trump and his supporters do not appear to many, even now, as that kind of threat to America. They continue to be widely perceived as a legitimate, if distasteful incarnation of American identity, and thus enjoy considerable leeway to engage in threatening political rhetoric.
There remains an expectation among some conservative commentators and, apparently, Republican officials to the effect that a Trump candidacy will self-modulate for a general election, or that they will be that they will be able to influence or even control such a candidate. I think such hope is misplaced. The moment a Carnival candidate moderates, it undermines the core of his or her appeal for supporters. A move to triangulate, to respect some unwritten rule, to obey the logic of the larger political system signals that the fun is over, that the candidate really is just another politician after all.
Likewise, attempts to rationally rebut the arguments made will not succeed in shaking supporters’ faith in the candidate; indeed, they only enhance it. Each time a representative of “the establishment” (it scarcely matters which) explains why their candidate is wrong and their support is misplaced, it only adds to the transgressive appeal. Rational appeals will not work, for the appeal of the candidate is itself not primarily rational, but experiential.
(As an aside, this likely goes some way towards explaining why so many dismissed the Trump phenomenon for so long. Most analysts and most analyses work from the assumption of the rational voter. The idea of voters supporting a candidate based on an experience, is extremely difficult to incorporate into the most common models of voter behaviour.)
The epigraph that starts this piece comes from a bizarre yet entertaining passage from one of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker books, in which the protagonists encounter a never-ending party. Raging on and on, the things that seemed like good ideas at parties continue to seem like good ideas, and are eventually put into practice. Chaos and ugliness are the predictable results.
So it is with the Carnival candidates. Ideas that seem like good ones in the midst of a party continue to seem like good ones. Unless and until others join together to bring an end to it, whether within the party nomination process or as seems increasingly likely the general election, we ought to prepare for more chaos, and more ugliness.