Both his militant supporters and those who are horrified by his every act and utterance must see that we have never had a president like him. Supporters hang on every word and excuse any failings as the products of blind opposition by Democrats and the Deep State. Opponents are driven up the wall by every tweet and see every action as confirmation that he is a danger to the Republic. They cannot understand how 40 percent, more or less, of the electorate could still support him. That 40 percent cannot understand why everyone doesn’t support him.
Two contradictory perspectives can help us understand. First, Trump’s support is composed of a coalition of quite distinct interests, each of which finds him useful for distinct reasons. A large chunk of corporate America supports him because he has presided over enactment of policies they want: massive deregulation and tax cuts for high-income individuals and corporations. Most evangelical Christians support this big-time sinner because of his uncompromising anti-abortion stand. Many working class whites support him because of his anti-immigrant rhetoric and his dog-whistle racism. Many white men support him because of his manifest sexism.
Trump is not so important in himself as he is as a unifying symbol for the diverse elements of the American right. It’s the focus on him that lets them all pull together.
So he is many things to many people, and thus a kind of figurehead, a signifier who has made himself useful to the distinct elements of his base. From this point of view, Trump is not so important in himself as he is as a unifying symbol for the diverse elements of the American right. It’s the focus on him that lets them all pull together.
But these last couple of weeks have reemphasized another aspect of the Trump phenomenon: the underworld boss. As the Mueller investigation proceeded, a large number of small and medium fry have been caught: indictments, prosecutions, fines and imprisonment have been plentiful. But Trump himself is unindicted (he crows about “total exoneration”), even though the Mueller report details multiple instances of attempts to obstruct the investigation or to fire Mueller himself. Over 450 former federal prosecutors have just published a letter affirming that if Trump were not president, the actions detailed by Mueller would have led to his indictment for obstruction of justice.
This is very like what we would expect to see with the Mafia: the top Don is the unmoved mover who gets others to do the dirty work while he never gets his hands dirty or leaves fingerprints. And the underlings who do get caught will be taken care of—if they keep their mouths shut like Paul Manafort. If they sing, like Michael Cohen, there will be no mercy.
I suggest that Trump the figurehead is just that, a calculated package of images designed to appeal to distinct segments of society that can be useful to him. Donald the Don is the calculator, and the calculation is all about him getting and keeping power and wealth. He will use—and use up—anyone who is useful to him. He will try to destroy anyone who gets in his way.
Donald the Don, our most unprecedented president.