Donald Trump: Candidate as Cancer

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to the media after receiving former candidate Ben Carson's endorsement at a campaign event in Palm Beach, Florida, on March 11. Reuters

Look into the mirror, American. See there the hair that is like a wheat field whipped by the wind; the face that looks like the product of sexual congress between a tuna and a tangerine; the lips pursed in childish imitation of gravitas; the tie that is too bright and too long; the small, dull eyes of a manatee scanning adoring crowds. This is Donald Trump, American. This is you and I.

Trump is the cancerous growth that suddenly alarms so many in the nation, Republican and Democrat alike. Do we deserve this malady? Is it somehow our fault? There must have been symptoms that we missed. There must have been preventative measures we could have taken, cures that would have worked, only it is too late now. America will be made great again, and then she will moan one last time on her gold-plated deathbed, and then she will die.

If cancer is, to some degree, the disease of bad habits, then Trump is the cancer we all deserve, with our Kardashian fixation, our Twitter-fueled discourse, our PornHub addiction. He is the product not of our politics but of our culture or, rather, the banishment of genuine culture from American civic life. True culture—sorry, Downton Abbey doesn't count—is necessarily limiting. It dictates how we should comport ourselves, what we should value, what is moral and what is not. It frames our collective vision of the world. American mass culture exploded any distinction between high and low, worthwhile and worthless, but the liberation of the Baby Boomers has given way to a chaos where our freedom is nothing more than the freedom to buy. It's a long, hard fall from Otis Redding to Robin Thicke. From there, though, it's just a couple of steps to President Trump.

It's easy to malign his supporters as angry, simplistic rubes. There are some of those, but not nearly enough to have made him a serious contender for the White House. It's just as easy to forget that it wasn't Mississippi that made him famous, but Manhattan, the very one that routinely touts its cosmopolitan values. He has always been the troglodytic bully who today stands to win the Republican presidential nomination. While Hillary Clinton changes her political positions more frequently than I change underwear, Trump has shown through the decades a remarkable consistency of enthusiasms: hot women, tall buildings, gold baubles. His racism is longstanding, his misogyny mirthful. But as long as he was just peddling Trump balsamic vinegar, nobody seemed to mind.

Now that many people mind, we discover that there is very little we can do other than move to Canada, or at least Portland, Oregon. American society no longer provides a vantage point from which someone like Trump can be credibly and definitively denounced. Hence the utter futility of Mitt Romney's recent back-away-from-the-ledge plea. Frankly, I think Trump is right to spurn lectures on civility from the man who sought the endorsement of Kid Rock. Yes, he is a preposterous candidate, but it's hard to call bullshit from the gutter. If we are willing to celebrate Beyoncé as a feminist and Charlie Sheen as a spokesman for people with HIV, then why not the purveyor of Trump Steaks as the leader of the free world?

You need a high point from which to definitively deny the base appeal of someone like Trump, but in the last 60 years, the peaks of high culture have been flattened in the name of egalitarianism. We have become all too averse to shame, the power of telling someone how wrong he is. Trump preys on this relativism, a cancer of our soft intellectual tissue. Yes, it is true that the coded racism of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove are responsible for Trump's current standing in the polls. But not for his rise. For that, some of the blame belongs to the college professor who preached about how Metallica and Full House are as worthy of serious intellectual inquest as Bach and the Upanishads. If cultural judgment is cultural imperialism, then who is to say that serving as the host of The Apprentice is any less honorable than fighting at Belleau Wood? And "honor," well, that's just another hoary artifact of Western phallocentric patriarchy.

I always thought there was something touching about George H.W. Bush's utter mystification about how to use a supermarket bar code scanner during the 1992 presidential campaign. The episode made it easy to paint him as an out-of-touch patrician, but a noble impulse was at work. The guy had spent his entire life in public service, and it was refreshing that the mundanities of grocery shopping were beneath him. His rival Bill Clinton, meanwhile, was happily answering a question about boxers or briefs.

The Republican Party was once the domain of men like John Lindsay and Nelson Rockefeller: educated, urbane, courtly, aware that politics was about service, not power. The Kennedys, for all their faults, burned with a great sense of noblesse oblige. Unlike all of the above, Lyndon B. Johnson was neither a Northerner nor an Ivy Leaguer, yet to read one of his speeches on civil rights or poverty is to be reminded that there was a time when both the presidency and the nation had seriousness and purpose and, dare I say it, the very thing Trump promises to restore: greatness.

The astonishingly graceless Trump speaks at a fourth-grade level, a perfect fit for a nation that knows so little and cares even less. And since we watch five hours of television each day, his constant boasting about the ratings he brings to CNN and Fox News is as germane to most Americans as a discussion of our trade imbalances. The most frightening thing about Trump is that he meets us exactly at our level. We were the ones who emptied the public square, turning it into a wasteland; he's the one who envisioned a Trump Tower on the arid plain.

Some nations, such as Germany, have ministries of culture. We have nothing of the sort, but even if we did, such an organ would never be given the power to censor someone like Trump, to deport Justin Bieber, to shut down the Instagram account of anyone who has ever made a duck face. But it could promote, even require, more serious intellectual standards from publishers, studios and producers. Force—yes, force—people to know basic things about the nation so many of us claim to be the greatest in the history of the world. Trump is right—we have become weak. That is, weak enough in our public discourse to let an imbecile have his way with the democratic process.

I am acutely aware that this comes perilously close to advocating for autocratic control by a cultural elite, the sort of objectionable top-down state that Plato envisioned and Stalin realized. Which, I get it, would be totally un-American, but must we let every flower bloom? And must all our soil smell like shit?

These are uncomfortable questions, but they are urgent, unless we want unsubtle penis-size discussions to become a standard feature of presidential campaigns. Trump will not be the last vulgarian, sociopathic celebrity to imagine himself in the Lincoln bedroom. Far from it, in fact: Kanye West has already announced he is running in 2020. Thus, the cancer spreads.