We need to talk about Donald.
He’s only gone and done it again: grabbed the headlines with a statement so provocative that you might be wondering if he’s banged his head on one of the ornamental nudes hanging above his big round bed. What must he have been doing to bounce that high? Perhaps we’re better off not knowing. After all, his idea is so outlandish it’s political lunacy. Does he really mean to ban all Muslims from entering the United States? What is he thinking?
Except, of course, Iowa is what he is thinking. Iowa in February.
Take two steps back from your outrage and try to put this into the context of the Republican primaries. This move immediately sets Trump apart from his rivals who have been quick to condemn his plan. Social media, naturally, had a meltdown with liberals rushing to interpret the comments in the worst possible way. Trump won’t much care and I guess he’ll be delighted if he’s offended sensibilities on the left. To him, it doesn’t much matter what Democrats think at this time. There will always be time to soften his stance once he’s picked all the confetti from his nose at the Republican national convention next July.
This move helps Trump regain the momentum he’s lost in recent weeks. He is making his most brazen offer yet to those staunch Republicans to whom this kind of incendiary rhetoric matches their own. Liberals can repeat as many times as they like that it’s wrong, muddled, and morally indefensible. All that might be true but since when did politics have to be right, planned, or morally pure? This is a Trump operation and Trump cares little about political ideals. With Trump it’s about the practicalities of the execution. This is a cold calculated gamble. It is another projection of the man.
Has there been anything like this before in American politics? I can think of two examples and one is the example you least expect me to say. Remember Hope? Remember the first campaign to elect Obama? Trump is not about Hope, obviously. Yet neither is he really about Fear. Trump is about something else that is equally unquantifiable but located wholly in a forceful personality. He is about solving problems the simplest ways possible. He doesn’t appeal to people’s minds but neither does he appeal to their hearts. Trump appeals to something much more fundamental. He really reaches for people’s guts. It’s the politics of instinct: that sense that things can’t really be so complicated and all we need is a straight talking pragmatist to take charge from all the ‘stupid people’. Commentators mock him for lacking detail but that’s his trick. People don’t want detail. They want reassurance. They want to hand the world’s problems over to a guy who promises them a really good deal.
So far, it has worked with Republican voters. Conservatives traditionally prefer the simple to the complex. Would it be really that outlandish to suggest that Trump is beginning to resemble that other great pragmatist, Ronald Reagan, a man who was also scorned by the media for his lack of sophistication but who connected with an electorate? Reagan could always cut a deal, even if it meant moderating his views. He cut a deal with Iran to bring the hostages home and he cut a deal with the USSR. Trump is positioning himself in the very same way. ‘I’ll cut a deal’ is one of the phrases you often hear him say. It doesn’t mean much but is says a lot to an audience that finds something deeply appealing about the simplicity of Trump’s solutions.
So when Trump says ‘ban all Muslims’ what he is really saying is more complex than straightforward xenophobia would allow. It is about simplification and understatement. If the problem was the hole in the ozone layer, he’d say ‘we’ll fill the hole. How hard can it be?’ If it was famine he’d say ‘we’ll grow more food. It can’t be that difficult!’ And when the problem comes from fundamentalist Islam, his answer is equally simple, naive, outrageous and shrewd.
Liberals will naturally cry everything from racism to fascism and it’s impossible to say that they are wrong. Trump is working the psyche of American voters in a way we’ve not seen before. It is as compelling as it is frightening and how you view America will determine whether you think his latest gamble will succeed or fail.