The problem with America’s broken political system is structural: Money buys power, so moneyed interests warp the system to be more responsive to them than to the public will, so our government is structurally dissuaded from doing popular things that would be contrary to the interests of the rich and powerful. For this to work, though, millions of regular voters must be persuaded to lend their support.
Enter Trumpism, the proposition that every problem is the result of some pernicious influence that isn’t you: the first black president, the would-have-been-first woman president, the media, “globalist” elites, the “invasion” of immigrants coming across our unwalled Southern border. The demonization of the other isn’t new, but Trump’s appeal is, perhaps, the most cartoonish manifestation of it in American history — a leering, trolling New York maybe-billionaire making common cause with middle Americans by laying out a Vegas-strip-worthy buffet of lowest common denominators.
Clearly, the anti-democratic mechanism that secures political power for a select few cannot operate without being able to lure a large national constituency. Some observers may view this as the latest iteration of a familiar political con job. But in the era of President Trump, it’s better understood as a fundamentalist religion gone awry.
There have always been lying, malevolent politicians. What distinguishes Trump and Trumpism is the degree to which an entire alternate reality has sprung up to explain the world. (Fox News should get most of the credit for it, and Trump is an opportunistic beneficiary.) In this satisfying framework, everything is reducible to a few basic ideas: Trump’s predecessors were either too stupid or too self-serving to fix things; the Dumb-o-crat, Dim-o-Rat Democrats are trying to prevent Trump from fixing things now; but despite their intransigence, the process of making America great again is coming along beautifully. And anyone telling you otherwise is lying.
If you agree, you can live a life of patriotically correct bliss. If you disagree, you hate America. This intellectual bargain should sound familiar, because it’s the basic offer of every religion: answers to all the questions that torment us, in exchange for an agreement to proclaim its righteousness in public, and to doggedly cling to it even in the face of overwhelmingly countervailing evidence.
Anyone who writes about politics for a living and receives angry emails about it is familiar with the odd experience of trying to engage Trump fans in a discussion of the issues. It is much more bizarre than a typical political disagreement. (I am fine with being called a godless, socialist moron, if my correspondent can articulate a few reasons for it — which is usually too much to ask.)
Trumpists, like religious zealots and the most doctrinaire Marxists, refuse to engage with the world in any way outside their chosen framework. This can be amusing when it’s people blaming former president Barack Obama, inaugurated in 2009, for being absent from the Oval Office on Sept. 11, 2001. It’s less amusing when it becomes a mass psychosis in which tens of millions of Americans cover their ears, don blindfolds and chant mantras about former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s emails and “fake news” as sea levels rise and innocents are steadily massacred in grisly gun crimes.
America’s problems are real, and they are measurable: inequality is rising; the racial wealth gap persists; the Earth’s climate is warming; we’ve witnessed a string of mass shootings inspired by white supremacist dogma and facilitated by easy access to guns. The world changes, problems evolve, and we must deal with them. You can argue over how best to deal with them or, if you’re a heartless nihilist of the most coldblooded variety, you can argue that we don’t need to address them at all. But it would be absurd to act as though these challenges can be ignored and they will magically go away.
This, however, is the fool’s gold of Trumpism, the faith that our problems are being fixed by the very existence of our president, even if the reality is that he is exacerbating them. It’s a belief system that relies on a posture of constant vigilance toward outside enemies and a total lack of self-reflection — perfectly embodied by Trump’s own manic, finger-pointing personality.
The El Paso massacre, then, isn’t just another gun crime that the Republican Party will avoid dealing with by disingenuously extending thoughts and prayers. It is the most revealing crisis of the Trump era thus far, exposing Trump’s MAGA ethos as constitutionally incapable of reckoning honestly with itself because the accused killer’s worldview is a product of Trumpism.
His talk, in a manifesto reportedly posted just before the shooting, of a “Hispanic invasion” and the need to protect “our way of life” could be drawn directly from Trump’s speeches. And in the carnage of a Texas Walmart littered with innocent bodies was the poisonous side effect. Trumpism’s aggressive scapegoating of nonwhites and ceaseless promotion of a siege mentality will inevitably cause a certain number of its most fervent adherents to go to war. Trump and his enablers built this, and they own it.
Yet Trumpism’s true believers, and Trump himself, cannot and will never do the basic work of trying to improve their belief system through introspection. That would shatter its foundation, which consists of the unwavering belief that all of the world’s villainy originates with the other. That they’re under assault from an array of evil actors — immigrants from “shithole” countries, freedom-hating socialists, ungrateful, kneeling football players — and that only Trump can save them.
This idea, rocket fuel for racism and self-righteous violence, is the one idea that must never be questioned, lest the internal logic of Trumpism flames out. To wonder aloud whether Trump’s words and actions might have led to something awful is to start down the road toward the conclusion that America might be to blame for some of our own problems, and that rather than being the universal solvent, Trump is a corrosive force.
For Trumpists, that simply wouldn’t do: One day you’re taking off your MAGA hat, the next you’re forced to grapple with a 400-year history of racism. That is not the sort of feel-good experience that voters want.
So, in Trump World, the lessons learned from El Paso will be aggressively ignored. The opportunity to institute gun control, curb anti-immigrant screeching and stop using racism as a political tool will be dismissed. Not merely because Republicans have shown no interest in doing any of those things, but because the very act of contemplating them would ruin Trumpism’s necessary, stupid bravado, and force an acknowledgment of what it has wrought.
If your promise is to make America great again, you can never admit you were one of the reasons it was bad in the first place.