The flame war President

Lunch as political strategy

“Think of the press as a great keyboard on which the government can play.” ~ Joseph Goebbels

At face value, it’s hilariously tone-deaf. A “taco bowl”? “I love Hispanics”? How embarrassing that this man is a prominent American politician. We’re turning into a country of idiots. Etc.

But as Mother Jones pointed out:

This is the kind of thing that Trump’s base — the white working class — views as a perfectly sincere appreciation of Mexican culture. It says, “Yes, I want a wall, and yes, I want to deport all the illegal immigrants in the country. But that doesn’t mean I hate Mexicans.” It’s basically an affirmation to Trump’s voters that they aren’t racists.

Plus it gets a ton of attention, and it also induces loads of mockery from overeducated PC liberals who don’t understand a compliment when they see one. It’s really a genius tweet.

It was aimed, in other words, at people who don’t see the problem. This is a base who feels alienated by a truly multicultural American society. The same people who feel threatened by Black Lives Matter, marriage equality and gender politics they don’t understand.

Outspoken anger at institutional racism, homophobic businesses and oppressive ideas of gender and sexuality is justified. Much of it has been far too long coming. But it’s creating a new America that some people simply don’t recognize.

The genius of Trump is that he hasn’t espoused a real worldview. His campaign has been an impressionistic whirl of messaging, so nebulous that anyone can project their own hopes and fears onto it. He’s denying none of them, choosing to welcome all ideological comers. People like me see a dangerous, racist fascist. White supremacists — whose toxic worldview has been rightly ignored by mainstream politicians for decades, and who were predictably appalled by the election of a non-white President — feel like someone is finally listening to them. People living in poverty see someone with enormous wealth who claims to want to help them. Even some liberals see someone who is less likely to start a war in the middle east.

I recently met a shop owner in San Jose (of south east Asian descent) who told me he was voting Trump because he was fed up of being kicked around by local politicians. He was hurting, and he wanted someone to burn it all down.

And by mocking Trump in droves for not properly understanding Mexican cuisine, we come across to all of these people as pathetic elitists.

It’s been done to death, but let’s briefly disassemble his tweet:

  • The “taco bowl” itself, accompanied by an apparently-earnest message. Hey, he really wants to be nice! Even if he wants to build a giant wall, pay for it by blackmailing immigrant families, and roll out the biggest mass deportation since the second world war, he’s not a racist.
  • We all decry his idiocy, creating a wave of perceived elitism that sweeps the media for days.
  • Holy crap, the Trump Tower Grill doesn’t serve taco bowls! He can’t even be truthful about lunch! Et voila, a second day of discussion, at the very least.
  • The planted clue that he knows exactly what he’s doing: underneath his meal is a 1985 magazine spread about Marla Maples, his ex-wife. Boom — more coverage. Did he have a thirty year old bikini spread of his ex-wife just lying around on his desk?

Incredibly, this was a carefully assembled, mass-market media ploy designed to get as much attention as possible with a relatively tiny budget. It worked, just as most of his messaging has worked: carefully calculated for spread, outrage and alienation.

The problem with Trump isn’t that he misunderstands Mexican food or lies about where he gets it. Nor are jokes about tiny hands or how his ancestors were called Drumpf effective or clever. They‘re petty, and avoid the real issue. Donald Trump is a manipulator; he won’t help people in poverty, he has no interest in aligning himself with a particular ideology, and he’ll start a war if he wants to. He’s an opportunist who sees the Presidency as another way to glorify himself, with no regard to the humanity or dignity of others. A Presidential candidate for the age of the personal brand.

Yet: “Donald Trump tells it like it is.” According to the Washington Post:

An exit poll taken during the South Carolina Republican primary, for example, reported that 78 percent of voters who said “tells it like it is” was the top quality they’re looking for in a candidate said that they supported Trump.

He’s adopted a style of communication that owes more to reality television than statesmanship. To a base that takes Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson seriously, that makes sense. Trump doesn’t talk down to them; he just talks. He takes care to separate himself from traditional political discourse. When someone meets you where you are, it can sound a lot like the truth. Even when it’s transparently full of shit. Even if where you are is fearful of people from different cultures, wanting to lash out at a world that you don’t necessarily understand anymore.

From the same editorial:

Trump’s calls for expelling Muslims, building walls, expanding the use of torture, and murdering the families of ISIS fighters are still not equivalent to Thucydides’ indictment of Cleon as the “most violent man in Athens,” but there’s been enough violence associated with Trump’s rhetoric and campaign that someone has already made a video compilation.

Can we all take a moment and agree not to use Thucydides in our indictments of Donald Trump again? Save him for your Star Trek retrospectives.

We don’t need to make ourselves feel smarter than Trump supporters. We almost certainly already do. We need to talk to them directly, empathize with them, and say:

  • We hear you.
  • We understand that you feel disenfranchised.
  • Donald Trump is lying to you.

If a historical comparison is to be made, it’s an obvious one: the German people who felt they had been betrayed by the Treaty of Versailles. In that document, Germany took responsibility for the events of the first world war, agreed to pay extensive reparations, and stripped it of 25,000 square miles of territory, housing 7 million people. It put heavy restrictions on the military and dissolved German colonies. And much of the German population blamed their poor post-war economy on it and the subsequent Weimar government, paving the way for a manipulative, racist politician to rise to power a decade later.

If I’ve lost you: it’s Hitler.

I don’t take the comparison lightly. Anyone with Jewish ancestry will tell you it’s not a laughing matter, and indeed, earlier in the campaign I brushed off this sort of discussion as being offensive. It can’t be brushed off anymore.

Dismissing Hitler as a madman, as often happens, dangerously underestimates what led to the genocide he oversaw. Hitler wasn’t mad; he was a strategist. The Nazis invented modern propaganda, expertly taking advantage of an existing political mood and manipulating it to feed their popularity. Their evil is far more insidious than the cartoonish kind it’s so often portrayed to be. The tragedy of what they did is that it’s something that could happen anywhere. Cambodia; Rwanda; Bosnia; Darfur. It could just as easily happen here, or at our hand somewhere else. We say “never again” precisely because it could happen again, and we have to remain vigilant.

The danger of Trump isn’t that we’re falling into idiocracy. It’s that we’re complacent that America is a place where this couldn’t happen, where we’ve taken to yelling at people we disagree with instead of talking to them. Our patriotism is making us blind. It’s the land of the free, we tell ourselves; the greatest country in the world. Even when a front-runner to be its leader talks openly in support of religious discrimination, refuses to condemn racist hate groups, and sounds more like Mussolini by the day.

Right now, we still have the opportunity to prevent a tragedy. Certainly for our country; potentially for the world. We have to engage with these people who feel so disenfranchised, and offer them something better.

Like I said, I can’t stop thinking about that taco bowl.

Writer: of code, fiction, and strategy. Trying to work for social good.

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