The threat of Trump isn't Trump

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It will be an odd experience: the Trump years. On election night I thought the main task would be deciding what to do about them -- and in less than a day, young (mostly) people were in the streets across the U.S. protesting. Hallelujah. But it's also going to require a lot of thinking about what's going on. We'll need to think our way, as well as act, through the experience because otherwise it will be overwhelmingly upsetting and nobody will get any decent sleep.

In this task, I'm indebted to a Globe and Mail editorial about Trump's newly appointed "chief strategist" titled, "Steve Bannon isn't the problem, Donald Trump is." It helped because it made me realize that I think Donald Trump isn't the problem, Steve Bannon is.

There will be serious damage under Trump but that was so under Obama and would have been with Clinton. Take foreign policy: entanglements like Libya or Iraq would have likely worsened under Clinton. In fact Trump's aversion to regime change might, if acted on (a big if), lessen the agony for those in Muslim countries, and diminish their impetus for terrorist retaliation. There are also positives in his rejection of free trade deals.

The deeper danger is an undermining of U.S. institutions and its limited form of democracy with a drift to authoritarianism through exploiting racist currents. Trump has never voiced much attachment to democracy and such transformations do occur; images of Europe in the 1930s come easily to mind.

But this is where Trump is almost reassuring. He lacks the basic qualities for pulling off such a metamorphosis. Where charismatic authoritarian leaders took power in the '30s (I'm trying to sound cool and objective, which isn't easy when you're talking about Mussolini and Hitler) they had thought hard about their programs. They were ideologues. They were also organized and disciplined. They meticulously recruited violent, obedient followers.

Trump has no ideology, he has narcissism instead. He doesn't want to reshape the world to some crazed vision; he doesn't have one. His sole goal is getting everyone everywhere looking at him. He shifts views according to who's watching. At rallies, it was Lock Her Up. Then he goes to the New York Times and feels for Hillary. He has the attention span of Dory the goldfish. (Remember the Trump mask he spied at a rally? He had it sent up and ogled it, totally dumping the deep point he'd been making.)

Why take the trouble of assiduously building an effective movement when all you care about is being noticed? His behaviour is less rational than reptilian (neurologically) and reactive; mostly he wants ceaseless attention. This isn't what future führers will be made of.

I'm wary of psychoanalyzing public figures since we don't usually know enough and they're skilled at ambiguity. But with Trump, there's little else to do with him, there's overflowing evidence and he seems to have only one motive.

So this far, this week, I'm feeling slightly reassured. But then there's Bannon. He has all the qualities Trump lacks. He's ideological. I don't think you could ask a question he hasn't thought through. He specializes in propaganda, which his Breitbart site is. He knows how to manipulate people: he built Trump's trust through sucky on-air interviews. He's ready to discard comrades, like his Breitbart constituency, if necessary. He could pull off a Night of the Long Knives. And he's in the office next to Trump, or down the hall. The threat of Trump isn't Trump; it's capable, malign people insinuating themselves under his umbrella and pursuing their own ambitions.

It's true, Trump could incinerate the world on a whim but that aside, the danger is from the man with a plan, who is Bannon (and his ilk).

One more thought about thinking this epoch through on the fly. How about taking Trump's victory not as a catastrophic endpoint but as a moment in a process: the demise of the blight of neoliberalism? I hear people asking, with genuine curiosity: What's really the problem with free trade? The Clintons (and Tony Blair) were neoliberalism's cheerleaders and good riddance to them.

Still, as Churchill's wife said when he was voted out immediately after leading the victory over Europe's fascists: This may well be a blessing in disguise. To which he answered: At the moment, it seems quite effectively disguised.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Mark Taylor/flickr

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