The Myth of The Outsider Candidate, Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Not Fear President Trump. Unless.
What do we make of the two Trumps we saw this week? First he gave a subdued, scripted, inoffensive speech on the international stage in Mexico City next to President Peña Nieto (thank you, Kelly Conway!), then about six hours later followed it up with a furious one, and probably the most disgusting I’ve heard from an American politician in my lifetime (thank you, Steve Bannon!). These two people were, incredibly, talking about the same thing: Immigration.
There are a couple ways to look at this. The most common criticism you’ll probably hear is that Peña Nieto simply stepped in it. That is, the invite to Mexico gave Trump the chance to have his cake and eat it, too: He got the opportunity to appear diplomatic and compassionate (and wear bobby pins) on the international stage in the afternoon, then retreat to his corner in the U.S. and spew hate and stoke fear in his base as per usual less than six hours later.
Left-leaning media outlets especially will point out the obvious: Don’t be fooled! The second speech is the “real Trump,” more in a growing pile of evidence that the man is incapable of truly changing or pivoting or whatever.
I think the first speech is the real Trump.
Not that I think Trump — Trump the human; Trump on the inside; the “real” Trump — is a reasonable person, or compassionate, or statesmanlike, or that his campaign persona is in truth a shrewd act calculated and brilliantly executed by a genius of media and marketing or whatever. I doubt all of that. In fact, that first speech was so unctuous and sleazy and transparently pandering that I wriggled listening to it. It was staged and scripted and meant to telegraph to his base that Trump can act like a president and say nice things so don’t you worry about how your wink-wink nudge-nudge beliefs will play to the public any longer. Or at least that he can at times stop himself from saying insane shit.
But, no matter how fake it was, I think the compassionate cooperator act Trump put on in Mexico yesterday revealed something else, a core political truth that even Trump, whether he’s aware of it or not, cannot escape or deny. This core truth is fairly good news for me, and it’s just about the worst news there is for Trump and his supporters. I don’t know why it’s not at the center of a major conversation.
The core truth is that, no matter how headstrong Trump may be, no matter how politically incorrect, no matter how willing to spit fire and alienate the establishment, the system will beat Donald Trump. And it sort of already has.
This means the most fundamental element of Trump’s campaign, the point that appeals most strongly to his voters in spite of his temperament — that he’s a true outsider — is an illusion.
There is no such thing as an outsider candidate today. It may never have been possible to be one in American government, I don’t know, but it sure isn’t possible now. The outsider candidate is a myth, part of the broader American mythological tradition of individualism, self-reliance, bootstrapping, etc. But once elected, the outsider candidate is on the inside. See the highly punchable Ted Cruz, for instance, the self-styled outsider and consequently most unpopular (and arguably least effective) congressman. Or see the story of Tim Huelskamp, the Tea Party outsider who just got tossed by his own party for compromising in D.C.
Outsiders will bump up against the bigger world and will find that world is bigger and stronger than their rhetoric would have supporters believe. At least in a democracy.
We want to and like to believe it’s true — that a strong individual can shape their own reality and a strong enough one (a cowboy; a maverick) can reshape reality generally. Trump supporters are drawn in part to the strength they perceive in him, his willingness to “tell it like it is,” his potential to go into D.C. and shake things up.
But: On his first appearance on the international stage, did he tell it like it is? Did he shake things up in Mexico?
He didn’t even try.
You can say it was staged, that he was holding his tongue. But maybe that is the real act. Trump didn’t take on Peña Nieto because he couldn’t. And in fact he looked visibly wounded, tamed on a shared stage for the first time this whole campaign, and afterwards he quickly scuttled back to his cave to lash out at the source of his pain, as any frightened and threatened animal would. Trump unwittingly revealed that the world can and will bend him. Just like it bends every other person and politician. He had to hold his tongue in Mexico. It wasn’t a choice; he simply would have destroyed any chance at the presidency if he’d behaved otherwise.
It’s not Trump’s fault. It’s simply that the world is far too big and complex for any one man to shake up, and now that he’s the nominee he is bumping up against that bigger reality. The more parochial Trump supporters probably don’t see that scope, and those who do would call you sheeple for not seeing the real truth behind the system, man.
But the system is not entirely a bad thing. It isn’t even mostly a bad thing. It’s mostly a good thing, and by a HUGE mostly. I mean, say what you will about the countless faults and evils of governments, of the history of the American government, and I’ll grant you all of it. Well, a lot of it. But there is just so much that governments are responsible for, and that our government does reasonably well (I can’t even go into the functions behind how you got a sandwich into your mouth for lunch today) that like it or not we are stuck with this reality.
Plus the world is a big, slow place. We’re inextricably connected to an enormous, incomprehensible global system. If any one country wants to pull out of this (whatever “this” is), the many combined forces pulling the other way are far too powerful. Slam your pitchfork handle into the mud all you want, that’s the reality. The only way these systems change quickly or end is through catastrophic events.
If there is a President Trump, he will face strong and at some level effective opposition, especially considering the resistance already demonstrated from within his own party. This means that if we see a Trump presidency, we’ll likely see him enact a Paul Ryan policy agenda. Though I have my strong objections there, that isn’t the end of the world, as so many seem to fear from a President Trump. Trump himself will be shaped by the world he would grow into — not shaped into a new man, but into a new political actor. His rashness and impatience would have no utility in that world. He’d hit road block after road block. And at home those personal qualities would be tempered by an American government designed from the beginning to do exactly that: move forward at a pace most likely to preserve the union. And Trump would soon find out, if he hasn’t already simply by stepping up onstage with the President of Mexico, that the world is a much bigger and more complex place than any of us realize.
So no, I no longer fear Trump’s policies, be they irrational or nonexistent. I trust that the world is too much. And it sounds naive, but our slow-ass republican representative American democracy is also too much. Thank god, for once.
What I do fear, however, is the unexpected.
We can expect what a given candidate will do while in office. By and large candidates tell us that stuff, and even if they don’t it takes so long for a proposal to make it into law that we see it coming from way off.
But it’s another thing to consider how a president will react to the unexpected. (See Bush/Gore/Nader; 9/11; invasion of Iraq.) That, and only that, is what I fear about a Trump presidency. Come November 8, we should all be thinking about that — the unexpected. Trump took the nation by surprise. We should learn that lesson.