Three theories of the rise of Trump

A Theory 3 ought to emphasize still another non-economic and non-industrial factor, apart from marriage, family structure, theology, bad doctors, evil pharmaceutical companies, and racist ideology. This is a broad cultural collapse. It is a collapse, at minimum, of civic knowledge—a collapse in the ability to identify political reality, a collapse in the ability to recall the nature of democracy and the American ideal. An intellectual collapse, ultimately. And the sign of this collapse is an inability to recognize that Donald Trump has the look of a foreign object within the American presidential tradition.

Dimly I recognize that, in presenting my Theory No. 3 in this way, I may have done a less than good job at drawing Trump’s admirers into a healthy debate. The admirers are likely to feel that I have merely thrown insults at them (and perhaps they have found a way to return the favor, which is by voting for Trump). Or they might tell me that, in the 19th century, Andrew Jackson was likewise regarded as a barbarian and a dictator by a certain kind of snob, and so was Abraham Lincoln, and, if America has a quaint and odious political custom, snobbery is it. And, to those complaints and objections, I have no way to respond, except by affirming that Jackson and Lincoln were entirely within the American tradition, and the Mussolinian con man of our own moment comes from a different planet altogether, which ought to be obvious at a glance. But I have to acknowledge that what is obvious to me is invisible to others. Even some of the people who would have preferred someone else in the White House have come to look upon Trump the way that Mike Pence pretends to do, as a conservative American politician with a clever and unconventional style, and not as any sort of Mussolinian con man at all. And yet, to my eyes, this is the sign of the cultural collapse—this, the truly worrisome development, which will outlast Trump.