Eric Gans, in his most recent Chronicle, made an argument for considering Donald Trump a “metaconservative,” concerned, albeit perhaps not explicitly, with restoring the structure of compromise and deal-making between left and right by converting the left’s struggle for justice back into a defense of group interests. Until such a structure is restored, formulating the most brilliant conservative policies in the most prestigious think tanks will be irrelevant because, as conservatives themselves may have forgotten, such policy proposals are themselves merely opening bids in the negotiation, a negotiation that by definition requires a good faith partner.
If this is indeed what Trump is doing, and through “embodiment” more than “articulation,” how, exactly, is he doing it? The flip side of deal-making is tit-for-tat responses to attacks by others—in both cases, a kind of reciprocity is established. And if we follow the logic of Trump’s behavior, he seems to treat tit-for-tat responses to insults and offenses as a principle of virtually religious sanctity. Much of what seems bizarre in Trump’s actions can be explained in this way—as in the recent dust-up, completely ridiculous in any rational terms, over Trump’s and Cruz’s respective wives, makes perfect sense if Trump’s logic is, “ if you attack my wife I’ll attack yours.” Of course, what counts as an “attack” on Trump’s wife by Cruz is rather subjective—in this case, a photo from Melania Trump’s modeling days was tweeted by an anti-Trump (not, as I understand it, pro-Cruz) PAC, with the suggestion that voting for Cruz would be the best way of avoiding the presumed scandal of such a first lady. Perhaps this hurt Trump in Utah, but probably not much anywhere else—on balance, an attractive wife might be a plus for a Presidential candidate and Mrs. Trump comports herself with dignity. But all these are details—all that matters is that someone, according to some reasoning, wanted this to hurt Trump and help Cruz, so a response was necessary. What kind of response? Here as well, it seems the details get worked out on the fly—first, a threat to “spill the beans” about Mrs. Cruz and then a retweet of matching photos of the two wives, Melania at her sultry best and Heidi at her harried worst. (No beans have yet been spilt, to my knowledge.) How does this help Trump, who may already be fairly unpopular with normal women unlikely to appreciate being reminded of the disparity between them, after a day of work and chasing the kids around, and your average supermodel. But that doesn’t seem to enter Trump’s calculations either—he struck back, however scattershottedly, and that’s an end to it until the next attack. If there is no direct counter-attack, all seems to be forgotten, which may explain Trump’s penchant for denying he said things that he said very famously and is, of course, caught on video saying. What he said were not declaratives to be judged according to their truth value but performatives to be judged according to their “felicity” at each occasion.
The broader, meta-conservative effect of this honor system is to suggest powerfully to supporters that Trump will defend the interests of those supporters the same way he defends his own interests, and will defend the United States in that way as well—if someone screws us, we screw them right back. And the notions of payback and deterrence have taken thoroughly delegitimated under the Obama regime (even though that regime practices retaliation against its domestic enemies far more systematically than any other since Nixon’s), at least as an openly acknowledged principle of governmental and, indeed, human, behavior. What Obama’s supporters celebrate as “cerebral” and “non-reactive” is precisely an unwillingness to demand satisfaction from those who insult America, and therefore to give satisfaction to those who identify with American as an honor seeking entity in the world. Indeed, victimary thinking is predicated upon the suspense of honor as a reciprocal principle, demanding honor for the designated victim but guilt and shame for the oppressor.
Tit-for-tat in private and business life is inherently limited, but in public life it’s hard to see where the limits are. Hundreds of claims are made about a political candidate, let alone an office holder, every day that might easily be taken as “insults.” But more specific, formidable, and dangerous opponents emerge, opponents whom it is necessary that one be seen engaging and defeating. That seems to be Trump’s method—make a “provocative” statement, i.e., one that many people will find offensive, and let a hierarchy of enemies emerge in the course of a general taking of the bait. Nor are the provocations random—they generally involve some national point of honor, some instance or relationship in which America has been insulted or exploited by another nation. The enemies he attracts, then, are those interested in de-escalating conflicts with other countries (but, also, with others within this country who gravitate toward a transnational economic, political, and/or cultural sphere of activity) but, paradoxically, are willing to be drawn into an escalating antagonism with Trump himself. If my analysis is right, we can expect a kind of stabilization of the Trump phenomenon (assuming his continued success) as those heavily dependent upon transnational progressivism or transnational corporatism and/or finance line up against him with ever more intense paroxysms of denunciation while those more flexible in their affiliations and commitments find ways of coming to terms—either Trump will be swept away by the opposition or we will, as Gans suggests, find ourselves in a new, more unpredictable era as responsible agencies (e.g., corporations and other states) come to the table, and conflicts become more explicit but maybe also more manageable and transparent.
But I doubt very much that this will be the case with the left. The American left has apparently decided that they are going to try and shut Trump down, as if he were a conservative speaker invited to a college campus—staging riots at his events with the explicit purpose of making it impossible to hold them. A smaller scale version of this practice—sending protestors to Trump rallies and having them disrupt the event—has led to the manifestation of Trumpism that has perhaps made some of his potential supporters most uneasy: the encouragement of physical violence, by both the security and police, and by attendees at the rallies themselves, encouragement which has already yielded some more or less serious scuffling. This is bound to continue, as it’s hard to imagine Trump allowing such a provocation to go unanswered. And the left must, as Vox Day in his analysis of SJWs contends, continue to “double down,” and drag the official Democratic party along with it—already, to use Gans’s terms, Democrats treat Trump’s campaign as a blatant instance of injustice, rather than the representation of a legitimate, competing interest. It’s hard to see how they can do otherwise: can they really allow themselves to get into an argument with Trump about the proclivity of Mexican immigrants to rape and murder, or about how severely to restrict Muslim immigration? We will see a real crystallization of forces around the question of American sovereignty (tit-for-tat/deal-making on the national level), in all its dimensions. This is a showdown that Trump is initiating and propelling forward through a subjective dynamic all his own, but that Trumpism will continue, without him if necessary.