There was always a bit of the locker room in the old Mencken line about democracy being the theory that “the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard”. But from “grab em by the pussy” to “I’m not trying to suck my own cock,” Trump and his allies have finally brought that locker room insight square into the Oval Office.
So while it doesn’t make for family-friendly newspapers, if there’s one good thing that might come out of the gong show inside a dumpster fire on a train wreck that is the Trump presidency, it will be to kill until it is dead the idea that what we really need from our politicians is more authenticity.
It’s been the dominant meme of American politics since at least the 2000 election, when Al Gore was widely ridiculed as being a wooden, poll-driven phony, in contrast with Dubya’s Tex-folk posing. Joe Klein made it official in his 2006 book Politics Lost, an essay about the decline of authenticity in presidential politics.
Klein took inspiration from Harry Truman’s “Turnip Day” speech at the Democratic convention in 1948 that confirmed his nomination for president. Coming on stage after midnight, speaking plainly, simply, and without notes, Truman challenged the “do-nothing Congress” to get back to work. Klein argued we need more Turnip Day moments in our politics, saying politicians need to “figure out new ways to engage and inspire us – or maybe just some simple old ways, like saying what they think as plainly as possible.”
And that’s been the rigamarole for well over a decade now, with worries over authenticity stalking candidates from John Kerry (phony aristocrat) and Mitt Romney (phony plutocrat! to Barack Obama (phony African American) and, most devastatingly, Hillary Clinton (Ms. Phony McPhonyface). Naturally the jargon of authenticity managed to creep its way into Canada, most notoriously with the election of Rob Ford as mayor of Toronto. Before the rank criminality of Ford’s conduct became known, dozens of pundits argued that Ford’s crudity and his know-nothing leather-lunged vulgarity was far from a political liability — it was the very headwaters of his popularity.
Enter Donald Trump, who crowd-surfed to the presidency on an sewage outflow of frat-house vulgarities and barnyard dominance displays, his path cleared by a gobsmacked punditocracy that couldn’t do much more than shrug at how authentic it all seemed.
It’s not news to point out that the media has been struggling to find some critical handholds on Trumpism. A big part of the problem is that a large number of very intelligent people managed to convince themselves that what looks to all the world like a serious problem with his character is actually his greatest asset.
One reason is that Trump was generally (if wrongly) seen as having tapped into a “populist” vein in American politics. Journalists as a rule have a hard time dealing critically with populism, since one of the long-standing conceits of the profession is that its underlying ethos is populist.
But a bigger problem was that too many people have fallen for the authenticity hoax – the idea that “being yourself” is a always a virtue and is the route to political success. The model for this is the movie Dave, where Kevin Klein plays a car-dealing doppleganger of the president. When the commander-in-chief suffers a stroke during a tryst with his mistress, his Machiavellian handlers dragoon Dave into serving as their sock-puppet. But when Dave insists on not just playing at being president but actually serving as one, their machinations are confounded by his simple minded but authentic do-gooderism.
For its supporters, the authentic ideal describes someone who is self-contained but transparent to the world, innocent without being naive, and sincere without being cloying. We are all noble savages at heart, and once we shrug off the cloak of civilization and our obsession with pride and appearances and image and status, we can return to a purer and more sincere form of interaction. In which case, what we really need is for our leaders to fire the image consultants and the pollsters. More straight talk, fewer talking points.
But what reason do we have, aside from romanticism, for thinking that authenticity is synonymous with goodness? Why should we believe that someone is at their best when they are letting their basest and most animal urges run rampant? To put it in the lingo of our time, what if beneath the veneer of civility, you’re actually just a douchebag?
Because if there’s any philosopher Trump’s behaviour vindicates, it is not Rousseau’s romanticism, it’s Nietzsche’s nihilism. For Trump and his cohort, everything boils down to dominance and will to power: if liberal democracy is nothing more than a system for the weak to control the strong, then so much the worse for liberal democracy. And if civilization is a means for the norms of the crowd to enforce standards of behaviour on the individual, then so much for civilization and its standards.
What is clear about Donald Trump is that the man has zero impulse control. And – it is crazy that this needs pointing out – there is nothing politically or morally praiseworthy about this. From Plato to Freud and everyone in between and since, the capacity to master your passions through reason has been seen as the defining characteristic of the leader. For centuries, no one seriously made the case that rule by the passions, the id, the animal instincts, was a viable way to run a polity of any size. No one, that is, until the cult of political authenticity took hold around the turn of the millennium.
Trump is authentic? Fine. Then bring on the phonies.