Trump: The Politician Versus the Phenomenon

Trump: The Politician Versus the Phenomenon
Former President Donald Trump arrives to give remarks during a "Save America" rally at the Adams County Fairgrounds in Mendon, Ill., on June 25, 2022. (Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)
Roger Kimball

Sometimes Donald Trump seems like that definition of God that is sometimes attributed to Meister Eckhart: “a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”

A recent, and gratifying, column about the current woes of CNN—falling profits, falling viewership, falling legitimacy—reminded me of this oddity.

We read there that Chris Licht, new chairman and CEO of the failing company, cast his eye over the wreckage and “discovered, to his horror, that the network was massively dependent on Donald Trump for ratings.”

Oh, dear.

CNN pooh-bahs and pundits loathe and revile Trump. It’s almost part of their job description, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to discover that there was no “almost” about it.

Nevertheless, the adults in that stable understand, in a way that I suspect escapes the network’s mouthpieces—former ones such as Brian Stelter, as well as possibly soon-to-be-former ones such as Don Lemon—that Trump is the Energizer battery that keeps the clown car going.

They hate him, but they depend on him absolutely.

Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a poem whose title I have always admired: “The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe.”

Trump is like that ambient necessity of life for much of the media and, indeed, for the lumbering political machine that is the vast underside of that bobbing, minatory iceberg.

The horror attributed to Licht as he digested the role of Trump in what survives of the metabolism of CNN reminded me once again of something that is supremely odd in the public reality of Trump.

It’s not just that, like some monster from the pages of science fiction, he has established some infernal symbiosis with those who loathe him.

He also seems to exist on two planes at once.

There is Trump the politician, the man who, on the one hand, has worked to promote certain policies and obstruct others, and, on the other, who has long been the focus of adulation and obloquy from fans and detractors.

Here we are on solid ground.

You might like or dislike the particular things that Trump did: his hundreds of judicial nominees, for example, and the three Supreme Court justices he saw on to the bench.

Into this same category are such things as his largely successful efforts to curtail illegal immigration, and his energy policies, which encouraged fracking and the exploitation of America’s abundant energy resources.

Some people liked those policies; others did not.

It was the same with his economic policies: his tax cuts, and efforts to battle minority unemployment and improve wages at the lower end of the scale.

Ditto with respect to foreign policy. Some people liked his decision to move our Israeli Embassy to Jerusalem and to demand that EU countries pony up to support NATO; others did not.

Some people liked his belligerent attitude toward Iran and his skeptical attitude toward China; others did not.

The list here is long but, whether or not you approve of the particulars, it doesn’t get to the core of the reality of Trump—what I refer to as Trump the phenomenon, as distinct from Trump the politician.

It was not, for example, because of any or all of these particular policies that Dick Cheney, on the stump for embryo talk show hostess Liz Cheney, said that Trump represented the “greatest threat” to the American republic in the nearly 250 years of our history.

What can that incontinent hyperbole have meant?

Sure, it was just a campaign spot, a genre given to exaggeration and economizing on the truth.

But watching the close-up of Dick Cheney, somber in his cowboy hat, fatuously invoke as an existential threat to the republic a man who left the country notably freer, more prosperous, and more secure when he left office than when he entered, is just bizarre.

If Trump is an existential threat, it isn’t to the republic, but to the regime consensus for which both Cheneys are spokespeople.

The candidates whom Trump has endorsed for the midterms may win or lose.

He himself, should he decide to run for president in 2024, may win or lose.

But it’s clear that he has set the terms of the debate and deployed all the most potent memes.

What, after all, do the Dems possess with which they can counter the spirit of “MAGA”?

So far, the best they have come up with is a limp, focus-group charge that Trump’s supporters are “ultra-MAGA,” a negative epithet that was instantly and gleefully adopted by its intended targets as a badge of honor.

Trump the politician might, like any other politician, be defeated at the polls.

But Trump the phenomenon is a preternatural force of nature.

That cannot be defeated, only destroyed.

Which is why the regime is gripped by a panicked hysteria.

Trump the phenomenon exhibits something akin to that surreal ubiquity Eckhart spoke of: It is somehow everywhere and yet nowhere at the same time.

Someday, historians will eagerly unpack this strange upsurge of democratic populism in a country that had, for some decades past, surrendered to the blandishments of bureaucratic enervation.

What isn’t clear is whether they will be writing about a success story or providing an epitaph.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Roger Kimball is the editor and publisher of The New Criterion and publisher of Encounter Books. His most recent book is “Where Next? Western Civilization at the Crossroads.”
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