‘Whatever complicates the world more — I do,’ Donald Trump once said. If you can’t decipher what that means, don’t worry, that’s the point. ‘It’s always good to do things nice and complicated,’ he added, by way of explanation, ‘so that nobody can figure it out.’ That was 1996 and Trump was talking about business. But 20 years later, his approach to politics seems informed by the same perplexing mentality. Trump is the confusion candidate for President of the United States, and his platform is chaos. He promises to Make America Great Again. In reality, he’s Making America Madder Than Ever.
Look at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland this week, where Trump was finally confirmed as the party’s official nominee. It ought to have been the triumphant moment when The Donald was anointed as the Chosen One, ready to lead the conservative charge to the White House. Instead it felt like madness — democracy as a cosmic joke.
Lots of Americans fear that civilised society is breaking down, and it’s easy to see why. Fifteen police officers have been killed in the line of duty this month, including three in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, just before the convention started. Around 5,000 officers were drafted into Cleveland from across the country, and were left to roam the streets with little to do. This overbearing security operation might have made delegates feel safer. But it also added to the atmosphere of dysfunction and instability which helps Donald Trump put himself across as the saviour for troubled times. Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort said this week that he based his acceptance speech on Richard Nixon’s 1968 effort, in which Tricky Dicky reassured Americans that he could bring stability to the country after the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jnr and months of civil unrest.
But this is not the civil rights era — so does Trump even know who he is speaking to? Yes, some Black Panthers and white nationalists were roaming around Cleveland, excited about the possibility of a Trump-inspired race war. But most of the people at the convention weren’t race-obsessed or nasty — just barking mad. The streets of the city were teeming with bizarro right-wing Americana. Alongside self-proclaimed ‘-Faggots for Trump’, there were southern Christians calling Donald Trump the reincarnation of King Cyrus and blowing their shofars, which are trumpets made from rams’ horns. ‘It’s a spiritual warfare instrument,’ one man explained. ‘When it sounds, the demons they flee.’
The carnival of radical eccentricity has an international dimension, too. Nigel Farage is expected in Cleveland this week, and nerdy young right-wingers were excited about how much he might drink. ‘He’s awesome!’ said one. ‘You guys had that Brexit thing? That’s awesome!’ On Monday, Geert Wilders, founder and leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom, emerged from a Mexican restaurant on 3rd Street in the heart of the city. A woman with very long hair approached him. ‘Thank you Mr Wilders, sir,’ she said. ‘You are a lonely voice in the wilderness of Europe against the evil of Islamism.’
At Republican conventions there are always crazies milling about the fringes. This time they were running the show. It’s not just kooks saying that the soon-to-be-confirmed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is a war criminal; the headline acts on the podium in the convention centre were chanting: ‘Lock her up! Lock her up!’ The American right has been turned inside out by Trump — the outsiders are in and the insiders are out. It’s not the prettiest picture. Consider the characters lining up to endorse him. Monday was branded ‘Make America Safe Again’ day and, as a special treat, convention delegates were rewarded with the following speakers: Willie Robertson, the celebrity outdoorsman and star of the television show Duck Dynasty, and a former underwear model called Antonio Sabato Jnr. To top it all, Donald Trump himself materialised to introduce his third wife, Melania. She reassured us that the Free World would be safe under President Trump because he’s ‘tough… kind, fair, and caring’. She knew this because she had ‘worked hard in the incredible arena of fashion’.
It’s too easy to be snobbish about Trump’s cheesy nomination festival. Hillary Clinton is bound to have much smarter and cooler slebs at her convention in Philadelphia next week. (And no doubt they will be even more revolting — because more smug.) Still, it’s hard to take the Trumps seriously. When he emerged from backstage to present his wife to the convention, The Donald strutted like a prizefighter entering the ring — to the tune of ‘We are the Champions’. If that weren’t enough to raise a sneer, it soon emerged that Melania had plagiarised a chunk of Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech about Barack.
Many of the Grand Old Party top brass stayed away from the convention, disgusted and appalled at the Trumpist takeover. Grandees such as George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, John McCain and the Ohio governor John Kasich, to name but four, did not attend. But the elite Republicans who did show up and go through the motions of the Trump insanity provided the convention’s most pathetic spectacle. On Monday, for instance, the former Texan governor and defeated presidential runner Rick Perry pitched up wearing thick-rimmed spectacles to stress the urgent need to stop Hillary Clinton. Unfortunately, everybody knew that Trump had humiliated Perry earlier in the campaign by calling him a ‘thicko’ who only ‘put on glasses so people think he’s smart’. It was difficult not to laugh, especially since Perry took to the stage having forgotten to take down a page on his website which claimed that he was ‘defending conservatism against the cancer of Trumpism’. It rather proved Trump’s point.
Also in attendance was Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor and another former presidential candidate, who enhanced the crazy vibe by channelling his inner TV cult evangelist for Trump. ‘This is a man who loves people from the top to the bottom, from the middle to the side,’ he shouted. ‘There is no more time for us left to revive our great country… Washington needs a complete turnaround, and Donald Trump is the agent of change, and he will be the leader of the change we need.’ He concluded his oration with a mysterious one-word scream of ‘Greatness!’ The crowd liked that.
It was all very funny. But it was also disturbing and depressing. America remains a great country, but it is also a tense, unhappy and increasingly unstable place. Most Americans feel worse off than they did 15 years ago. They despair because America has fought and lost pointless wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. They feel their politicians are ripping them off. ‘People in politics are just a bunch of corrupt baboons,’ said Pamela, a 58-year-old Trump fan from downtown Cleveland. ‘I’ve seen this country go to hell in a handbasket. You can’t even ride a tricycle now without a helmet!’
Donald Trump, a businessman first and foremost, has spotted and exploited a huge gap in the national disillusionment market. But now that his nomination is official, and Republicans are sold on Trump the presidential candidate, the party — and the nation — could be in for a bout of buyer’s remorse. Trump seems to have little to offer voters besides bad showbiz and megalomania. For all the talk of law and order and restoring American greatness, nobody at the convention mentioned anything that even vaguely resembled what those corrupt baboons in Washington would call ‘policy’.
And since, despite his best efforts to drive them wild, Americans are not crazy — not yet anyway — all this probably means that Hillary Clinton will win the presidential race. Still, Trump-like paranoia about the elite now courses through America’s political bloodstream, and another Clinton will do nothing to cure that. Expect to hear more of the conspiracy theory, already prevalent in some right-wing circles, that Trump’s candidacy is an amazingly elaborate operation to put Hillary Clinton in the White House. Remember: whatever complicates the world more, The Donald does.
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