What We Still Don’t Know About TrumpAugust 28, 2020
Two former Democratic presidents last week tried to build up Joe Biden in part by taking down President Donald Trump. When they did, there were some important distinctions in how they spoke about the man in their party’s crosshairs.
Here was Bill Clinton: “If you want a president who defies the job, is spending hours a day watching TV and zapping people on social media, he’s your man.”
The subtext: America, we all know this guy is a buffoon.
Here was Barack Obama: “I never expected that my successor would embrace my vision or continue my policies. I did hope, for the sake of our country, that Donald Trump might show some interest in taking the job seriously; that he might come to feel the weight of the office and discover some reverence for the democracy that had been placed in his care.”
The subtext: America, this is serious. Trump isn’t just a bad president, he’s an actual threat to our way of self-governance.
Buffoon and tyrant aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. But they point in very different directions. And the tension between the two highlights a curious reality.
Five years after Donald Trump leapt on the stage of presidential politics and instantly came to dominate it—and after two national conventions almost totally consumed by discussion of his character and motives—there still isn’t a stable consensus on just who Trump is, and what gives him power.
There are three distinct pictures of Trump jostling for primacy in American politics: the would-be tyrant of Obama’s speech, the clownish dilettante of Clinton’s and a third view that holds him up as a legitimate, if flawed, tribune of a wide swath of America.
In the end, it will be up to historians to decide who Trump really was, and that argument is likely to last far longer than his presidency. But the inability to agree on Trump matters in the moment as well—and perhaps very urgently.
The Republican National Convention that ended Thursday night was less a party event than a kind of recoronation, an effort by the party to embrace the president and soften his edges—which were then continually resharpened by the Trump family itself. The Democratic National Convention was a demonstration that there are still competing interpretations of what threat he really represents, and thus how to beat him. For Democrats, and to some extent the news media, the now-familiar challenge is that denunciations of Trump are more likely to strengthen his hold on supporters than to dilute it.
From the start of his first campaign in the summer of 2015, there have been three dominant interpretations of Trump and the Trump phenomenon. These three models go up and down in terms of which one has the most currency among the news media, the political class and the public broadly. But it is notable that the entrees at the analytical buffet have not changed:
Interpretation One: Trump is the political equivalent of a pro wrestling celebrity. He cares about (and is skilled in reaping) media attention and self-affirmation and not really much else—including ideas, or history, or party-building, or how specific policies fit into a larger whole, or how one day in the presidential spotlight connects in some linear way to the next. This is Bill Clinton’s buffoon thesis. It’s not that someone like this can’t cause a lot of damage, but, as a political type, it is different in character than …
Interpretation Two: Trump is the American equivalent of Vladimir Putin. In this light, Trump is more than just a self-absorbed improvisationalist. To the contrary, he operates with clear purpose: To weaken the mechanisms of democratic accountability and attack all constraints on his power. Obama offered a mildly more understated version of this thesis at his virtual convention address, standing before a giant blowup of the U.S. Constitution. It is this thesis that justified his dire warning to voters: “Do not let them take away your power. Do not let them take away your democracy.”
Interpretation Three: Trump is a tribune of Americans whose voices are mostly unheard by conventional politicians. Trump may be a bit coarse or hammy, by these lights, but he does possess an intuitive sense of politics and history—of how the system had tilted too far in the direction of self-dealing global elites, diluting frank assertion of national interests and undermining the interests of average Americans.
So, by one interpretation, Trump is making a mockery of democracy. By another he represents an assault on democracy. And by the third he is an authentic expression of democracy.
Does one really have to choose? No, it is not essential. Both parties are now headed into the general election with coalitions that include devotees of all three interpretations. Democrats, obviously, draw most support from believers in the buffoon and tyrant categories, along with some people who once believed he was a tribune of their cause but are now disillusioned.
Republicans, obviously, have just spent a week—capped by Trump’s speech Thursday night—trying to revive support for the idea that Trump has a singular understanding of how to represent ordinary Americans from liberal excesses and elite indifference. But the GOP coalition also includes some who think a dash of American authoritarianism is just what the doctor ordered for current maladies, or who appreciate the buffoonish elements of Trump’s persona precisely because they know it drives his critics crazy.
What’s more, views can change over time. Obama was once firmly an adherent of the buffoon thesis. By some accounts, his mockery of Trump at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, while Trump was in the audience, helped embolden the Republican to run for president. Even after the 2016 election, the New York Times reported the other day, Obama was calling Trump “a cartoon,” and only later did he come to believe that the man posed a more fundamental threat to constitutional values and rule of law.
Addressing the interpretive challenge posed by Trump, “There’s no reason to choose among the three,” says Yale historian Timothy Snyder, who wrote the 2017 bestseller On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. “They may be in tension, but there is a way to put them together.” Snyder is one of the leading intellectual apostles of the idea that Trump is a genuine danger, with parallels in the bloody history of Europe. Buffoonery can serve the authoritarian’s purpose, he noted, by distracting attention from important matters, and most authoritarians in history have tapped into some vein of popular support, even if that is marked by prejudice and exclusion.
Confronting Trump, however, has always been a good bit more complicated for his foes than simply indexing all the reasons they don’t like him and trying to convince voters why those reasons are sound. That is because Trump’s appeal depends on being criticized—in the same way a plant can’t thrive without both water and light.
It’s useful to consider the distinction between politicians who have absolute appeal versus those who have relative appeal. One good example is Ronald Reagan. To many conservatives, he has absolute appeal—his political and personal traits represent the beau ideal of how presidents should act, in any time or in any circumstances. Many progressives feel the same way about Barack Obama.
But even many—possibly most—Trump supporters don’t think his raffish, roguish, divisive and disruptive style represents the ideal of how presidents should act. They just think his brand of politics is right for this moment. His appeal is relative—compared with the hypocrisy or venality or ineffectuality of conventional politics. Data from the Harris polling firm for Harvard’s Center for American Political Studies indicates roughly 40 percent of people who support Trump as a president either dislike him as a person or are indifferent.
So critics can roll their eyes and make fun of Trump as a buffoon if they wish. The risk from a liberal perspective is that this looks complacent—do you think an authoritarian in our midst is a laughing matter?—and from a pro-Trump perspective it looks like you are patronizing his supporters. The joke may be on you, just as it was on Obama at the end of his term.
Or critics can raise their voices in alarm that he is an incipient American fascist. The risk is that this looks overwrought—and thrills Trump supporters, who love their candidate precisely because he offends liberal pieties.
After the 2016 election many Democrats for a season invested a lot of psychic energy in the notion that Trump might indeed be a tribune of the people and that efforts must be made to better connect with his supporters. The problem with this is that no one’s heart is really in it. Most Democrats actually believe, as Hillary Clinton got caught saying out loud in 2016, that Trump draws significant support from racially charged and nativist politics that appeal to ignorant voters and “deplorables.” The phoniness of pretending otherwise would be self-evident.
So back to the existential question about Trump: Buffoon, tyrant or tribune?
Since all three can be somewhat true, I played a parlor game with a dozen or so political sources and journalists who follow Trump closely. I gave each person 10 chips and said they could distribute them on the three squares however they wished. Put all 10 chips on one interpretation, if that seems right, or split the difference with four on one square and three on the two others.
Even among people who think about Trump all the time, there was wide variance in the answers. (If you want to play the parlor game? Send an email explaining your reasoning to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
No one opted to put all their chips on one square. Trump is too much of a kaleidoscopic character for that. But there were some interesting general trends.
One is that political practitioners were much more likely to give Trump credit for being a genuine tribune. He may frequently tell lies, the theory goes, but he is not a phony. He puts his essential nature on plain view, and this has given him extraordinary latitude to shatter norms in ways that would be politically fatal to conventional candidates. Many of these people believe he may not have a well-developed philosophy, but he has some consistent ideas about trade and national sovereignty that have harnessed a genuine gust of history.
One strategist who is regularly analyzing polling data in the race but not formally aligned with either candidate said Democrats will make a mistake by spending much time trying to argue about Trump’s character or redefine his persona. The only thing that moves numbers, this person said, is arguments that he is ineffective in responding to the pandemic or other pressing policy challenges.
Journalists typically see it differently. Very few give Trump much credit for being a tribune—they think he is too self-absorbed and improvisational to think more than passingly about ideas or people beyond his immediate circle, or what he sees on TV. What’s more, while many commentators and editorial pages fully embrace the Trump as tyrant thesis, many working news reporters tend to put just as many or more of their chips on Trump as buffoon. Even a dictator like Putin has a certain discipline to his ruthlessness and has thought deeply about his historic project of regaining Russian power on the world stage. One prominent reporter who follows Trump said he has authoritarian sympathies but is not a full-fledged fascist. People underappreciate how much of a “people pleaser” Trump is, eager for applause and affirmation, and that Trump has “no theory of the case” to be a plausible American incarnation of Putin.
Let’s give the last word, then, to someone who does have a deep understanding of the Russian incarnation of Putin. Michael McFaul, a Stanford foreign policy expert and Obama’s ambassador to Russia, agrees with Timothy Snyder that all three baskets of Trump interpretation are somewhat true. It’s also true that Trump may share some broad ideas about politics and power but, “he’s certainly not as ideologically sophisticated as Putin.” (The closest analogue, he suggested, was the puffed-up but ultimately ineffectual figure of Benito Mussolini.)
Most likely, McFaul said, Trump is not an “active autocrat” but he is an “indifferent democrat”—someone who doesn’t care about political or constitutional niceties whether he’s playing the tribune, tyrant or buffoon. Now Democrats have just over nine weeks to decide which face of Trump is most credible—and most alarming—to the most people.