Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Trump: Roots of improvisation

By Lawrence Rosenthal

Republican President Donald Trump.

From the very start of his campaign, Donald Trump’s case for his superior qualification for the presidency has rested on his vaunted deal-making ability. Here is an excerpt from a fund-raising email his campaign sent around on August 23:

“I’ve built my career…by making great deals. I’m known for it -- I even wrote a book years ago called ‘The Art of the Deal.’

For the last 8 years, America hasn’t even been getting bad deals from the Obama-Hillary Democrats -- they’ve been disastrous.

So here’s the great deal I have for you, Friend: you can count on me to make the very best deals for our country and our people -- on trade, on security, on jobs and more…”

How does Trump view his deal-making art? In a 1990 interview with Playboy magazine he was asked, “Is there a master plan to your deal making or is it all improvisational?” His answer: “It’s much more improvisational than people might think.”

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. (iStock photo.)

As a politician, Trump’s improvisation has translated into his unique speaking style. Trump free-associates. When he is unbound by the likes of teleprompters (and even then in irresistible asides), Trump moves from topic A to topic B improvisationally. He often seems to have a list in front of him--topics he wants to talk about. Or better, he wants to riff about. And, via what looks like free association, one riff can lead to another. And another. And another.

What are these riffs? Where do they come from? The most fundamental fact for understanding how Trump managed to blow away sixteen politicians in the Republican primaries is that he prepared for his presidential run by immersing himself in the far-right Tea Party-infused, Michael Savage/Rush Limbaugh/Sean Hannity talk-radio world.

True believers in this world make up around 20 percent of the American electorate, though they vote in disproportionately high numbers in Republican primaries. It is a world most Americans have been familiar with only superficially. But Trump understood, profoundly, what was burning this constituency up.

He became supple in expressing the themes that run through their conversation day after day, and the memes that constitute the groundwork of what is constantly hammered at on kindred websites. He saw them and raised – “Build that wall!” He made their issues his own. At his convention, calling them the “forgotten people,” Trump told this following what he had already made come true: “I am your voice.” Trump is alpha male, nostalgia hawker and celebrity all rolled into one.

From day one – Mexicans are “bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists” – the rest of America could hardly believe their ears. Liberals and Democrats were appalled at what they were hearing. Republicans and conservatives were unnerved by their sense that decades of their winking at such sentiments had finally delivered them their comeuppance.

Trump’s mind-boggling collection of outrageous remarks throughout the months of the primaries (and since) consists almost entirely of the themes and memes in the daily conversation among the far-right populists he steeped himself in. It is their daily grist.

Precisely because he said those things uncensored, Trump was electrifying for this constituency, who are, finally, the largest voting bloc in the Republican base. Resentments about the Clintons, Obama, the Republican establishment and much, much more were suddenly out there at the level of presidential politics, asserted in the name of smashing political correctness, no longer merely forming the agreed-upon, taken-for-granted reality that set the terms of everyday, in-house discourse on the populist far right.

When Trump free associates, he's diving into this bank of these memes and pulling them out one by one.

Take the extraordinary series of Trumpisms that seemed to crater his campaign in the weeks following the conventions as the national audience paying attention to the presidential campaign grew. To a one, Trump’s most inciting remarks are taken-for-granted chestnuts from this extreme populist right discourse.

Rigged elections? Everyone knows Obama didn't really win. Skewed polls? Unskewing is a science in that world. Hillary the devil? An everyday topic, these days edging out Obama as the Antichrist. “Lock her up”? It’s been a certain conviction for months that her inevitable indictment was going to tank Hillary’s presidential campaign. Flirting with supporting Paul Ryan's Tea Party opposition in the primary? The very stuff of the populist insurgency against the Republican establishment which has betrayed "real conservatism." Attacking the gold-star Khans? That's an easy one: they're purveyors of Sharia law that is creeping across America. Threatening Hillary with "second amendment people"? In the daily anguish over whether to support RINO (Republican in name only) establishment candidates or to go down to electoral defeat with Tea Party challengers, "second amendment remedies" is a residual category that inevitably makes its appearance.

To some extent, Trump’s replacing Paul Manafort with Steve Bannon from Breitbart.com as at the top of his campaign has pulled back the curtain on the reservoir of themes and memes Trump has been free-associating with for the past 14 months.

There is now an ideological designation for this thinking: populist nationalism. The white supremacism that has been cheering at the sidelines of the Trump campaign all along has now come out of the shadows. So too its undercurrent of anti-Semitism. Hillary Clinton’s speech this week in Reno, Nevada citing Trump’s alt right support, has made clear to a wide audience that the most radical anti-immigrant forces in America’s political landscape have migrated from the fringes to the commanding heights of the current Republican campaign for the presidency.

So too has Trump’s joint appearance in Jackson, Miss. with Nigel Farage, the leader of Britain’s anti-immigration United Kingdom Independence Party, who succeeded at the national level, with support from the right-wing of the Conservative Party, in his Brexit campaign to remove Britain from the European Union.

In Trump's populist right world opposition to the Republican establishment and candidates like McCain, Romney and Jeb Bush has long been in lockstep with the conviction that nominating a "real conservative" – that is, someone like them; a "real American" – is the sure route, the real route, the only route for the Republicans to win the White House. Bannon matches Trump in his contempt for the Republican establishment. He has supported the far right’s taking down former House Speaker John Boehner. Before that, he mobilized Breitbart to help defeat Boehner’s number two in the House, Eric Cantor. Earlier this year, he worked hard at trying to unseat current speaker Paul Ryan.

Steve Bannon has emerged as today's most accomplished practitioner of driving thinking from the far right into the despised mainstream press. The late founder of Breitbart.com, Andrew Breitbart, once called Bannon “the Leni Riefenstahl of the Tea Party movement, an oddly positive reference to Nazi Germany’s most famous filmmaker.” And, it appears, Bannon has been joined in the Trump campaign by yesterday's most accomplished practitioner of these arts, Roger Ailes, who, in the form of Fox News, twenty years ago gave America’s radical right its very own news network. Bannon in particular, has long been a Hillary Clinton specialist, moving inquisitions like Clinton Cash, the 2015 book and 2016 movie, into mainstream outlets.

True, in Bannon’s first days on the job, the candidate has shocked some of his followers by equivocating on the hard-line immigration views that have made up the heart of his campaign. There is no doubt that Trump’s free association is going to make life as difficult for Bannon as it makes Mike Pence’s life.

But there is also no doubt that Steve Bannon’s place at the head of Trump’s campaign – however long it lasts – has definitively revealed not only the ideological heart of Trumpism, but also the well of eruptions that we have been watching as Donald Trump attempts to free associate his way to the White House.