In all my years as someone spouting opinions about public affairs, I have never been more wrong than when I predicted that something could not happen because it was just too stupid. My first distinct memory of this phenomenon came when Arnold Schwarzenegger was running for governor of California. “The Kindergarten Cop?” I thought to myself. “This is just too stupid to happen.” Wrong. In 2015, when I first encountered Donald Trump on the campaign trail, I viewed him purely as comedic relief. I was covering the right wing Christian cattle call event for Republican candidates in Iowa where Trump said of John McCain, “He was a war hero because he was captured? I like people who weren’t captured.” That was one of the first times that we in the political press collectively declared Donald Trump’s campaign dead.
“What accounts for Trump’s wide appeal are the facts that he thinks and speaks about political issues with the same level of contemplation and refinement as most of the voting public, and that the entire national press corps follows him around like devoted puppies, because he provides such good copy,” I wrote in a Gawker story about that event. “He therefore attains high visibility and grabs the interest of people who are mostly disinterested in all this shit, a cycle that feeds on itself. Alas, he may have burned himself out after Saturday.”
Wrong. Yet all the way up to election night 2016, I felt confident that Trump would lose. That was partly due to reading polls, yes, but the truth is that most of my confidence came from the unexamined belief that having Donald Trump—the ‘Home Alone 2’ guy?—as president of the United States was just too stupid to happen.
Wrong. Trump is a moron, yet his ascent to the White House is deeply significant as a marker of the truth of America, rather than the myth. After 2016 I stopped making firm political predictions, as a necessary act of humility (be very skeptical of everyone who makes political predictions), and I also began thinking more acutely about how this dumb, dumb thing came to happen.
There is a cottage industry of Explanations For Donald Trump and I am not going to delve into that garbage dump of amateur psychology and grievance-laundering here. What I want to touch on is a more general observation of how power arises and spreads. Once upon a time I believed that a savvy analysis of politics and culture was that it was all a big show that flowed from primarily economic sources— “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist,” as John Maynard Keynes said. In this analysis, class war and Wall Street and international commerce are the drivers of things that are wrongly interpreted as social or political or cultural trends, but which are in fact the inevitable outcome of capitalism’s very design. This omniscient theoretical perch allows you to scoff at day-to-day and year-to-year news as ultimately unimportant blips on the road of economic history.
There is a good amount of truth in this analysis. But to assume that it is the only, or even the most accurate way to interpret the present is a mistake. It is just one of many lenses of interpretation, the equivalent of saying “Everything is just the inevitable outcome of brain chemicals” or “Everything is just the inevitable outcome of fundamental particles reacting according to the laws of physics.” Its all-encompassing nature actually makes it a less than useful tool for understanding stuff with any nuance. Yes, economics is an important lens for analyzing power. In the day to day world that we live in, though, there are other, equally important explanations for what is happening. Cultural power, for example, is real—music and movies and art and TV shows can influence the world more than money sometimes, and their nature as powerful and independent tools is shown by the fact that their ability to harness human emotion is one thing that money cannot buy. Trump wields the power of celebrity, a sort of gnarled subset of cultural power, but his strongest weapon is something more specific: Stupid Power.
When you see a former United States president and current leading major party presidential candidate go on stage at Sneaker Con to hawk $399 golden sneakers, there is an urge among the commentariat to say: This is wrong. This does not fit withing the boundaries of the theory that I have constructed to explain how American politics and presidential campaigns work. It is just too dumb. Time and again, Trump has confounded people whose job it is to analyze America because he did not fit into their models of what made America tick. That is an indictment not of Trump, but of the theories and the models. In his own dumb way, Trump has humbled us all. We drastically underestimated the heft of Stupid Power. It is strong enough to seize control of our whole country. It appeals not to the myth of America, but to its reality.
Stupid Power is not just the hypnotic ability to entrance the public by doing stupid things, although Trump certainly possesses that gift. I would define it more specifically as “the ability to amass power by validating the stupidity of those you seek to lead.” All of history’s leaders referred to inexactly as “demagogues” or, now, “populists” possess this power to some degree, although respectable analysts would never give it such a gauche label. But I strive for honesty here at How Things Work. All of us are stupid in various ways, ignorant about various swaths of the world, confident about things that we are misguided about. This stupidity is like a secret code for anyone skilled enough (or similarly stupid enough) to exploit it. We can be led around by our own prejudices. We can sink slack-jawed into the warm satisfaction of our own idiocy. We love to flatter, and to be flattered. We—all of us—are, in part, dumb animals in search of meaning. That meaning can just as easily be stupid as it can be noble.
The set of commentators who have always been the least able to understand Trump are those who embrace the gauzy myth of America as the Land of the Free, an admirable though bumpy experiment in a nation built to value mankind’s better nature. (This set of people includes the majority of political commentators in the mainstream press.) These are people who believe—to pick a Washington Post op-ed this week, for example—that “If the Founding Fathers were alive today, they would tremble for the future of our republic” because “The Founders believed that virtuous self-mastery was necessary for both personal and political happiness.”
That would certainly be news to the Founding Fathers’ slaves. The myth of Noble America has always rested on the willingness of its believers to brush aside our nation’s many atrocities as exceptions rather than as the rule. According to the myth, we are country founded on the ideals of freedom and equality, and all conflicting evidence should be seen as regrettable but temporary wobbles on our path that will culminate in happy justice. It is not hard to see why anyone willing to shut their eyes to so much of reality in order to cling to this image of America is also unable to reckon with the dirty truth of the present.
America has always been a stupid and brutal land. People came here and murdered all the natives and stole their land and got rich by using slaves and then got rich by exploiting the hell out of wage earners, a practice that continues to this day. All of the virtuous progress in our nation’s history has been the result of a struggle against mainstream opinion. The defining image of the United States is not the Washington Monument or the Liberty Bell; it is a strip of congested road just outside of town lined with fast food outlets and big box stores. That is quintessential America. To want to be better than we are is admirable, but to believe that we are better than we are is fatal to the ability to get a handle on why so many bad things happen here.
The burning desire to buy guns and shoot at brown people and drive big trucks and watch stupid TV shows and scream at football games and eat greasy garbage and tranquilize ourselves into constant oblivion—this is America, as much or more than anything written in the Bill of Rights is. It has always been thus. Donald Trump’s superpower is not his money or fame but the fact that he is the human embodiment of Stupid America. He does not have to try to channel this; it is his nature. To imagine, as many traditional political analysts do, that he can be damaged by pointing out that he is a bad guy is to make the same mistake that Brer Fox made when he flung Brer Rabbit into that briar patch. That is his comfort zone. Trump’s success can be seen as a crude measurement of the dominance of Stupid Power in the pantheon of powerful things. He is the political equivalent of saying “fuck it” and drinking twelve beers and blacking out and driving your car into the front window of a KFC. That little urge exists in the American mind. It is our birthright. Just because people put on clean clothes and go to church on Sunday morning doesn’t mean that they don’t feel the tingling urge to say “fuck it” on Sunday night. We did not get to be the world’s most dominant country by pure virtue and reason. We murdered everyone and bathed in their glorious blood. We flattered ourselves with fantastical fairy tales of our own heroism. Stupid Power thrives in stupid places. We opened the door for it the very first time we told our kids that we were the good guys. Until we fix that error, there’s no telling how far down the greasy pit of idiocy America is going to go.
—My book about the labor movement, “The Hammer,” is available for purchase now, wherever books are sold. The reception I have received on my book tour so far has been incredibly inspiring. Thank you to everyone who came out in DC, Corvallis, Portland, Seattle, and Columbus. I’m still adding more dates, and I would love to see any and all of you at my upcoming book events:
Tuesday, Feb. 27: Brooklyn, NY—At Greenlight Bookstore, 7 pm. With Josh Gondelman.
Tuesday, March 5: Atlanta, GA—At the Carter Center Library, 7 pm. With Sara Nelson.
Monday, March 18: Philadelphia, PA—At the Free Library of Philly, 7:30 pm. With Kim Kelly.
Thursday, March 21: New Orleans, LA—At Baldwin and Co. Books. With Sarah Jaffe.
Wednesday, March 27: Boston, MA— At the Burnes Center for Social Change, 271 Huntington Ave. 6:30 pm.
Sunday, April 21: Chicago, IL— “The Hammer” book event and Labor Notes Conference after party at In These Times HQ. Event details TK.
—A former colleague of mine, Tim Burke, has been indicted for newsgathering, in a case that should scare you if you care about the First Amendment. His legal fund is here.
—You are reading How Things Work, a truly independent publication. Thank you for subscribing in this hellish economic environment for journalism. If you would like to support my ability to keep writing here and to survive as a journalist now that all the jobs are gone, please consider becoming a paid subscriber right now. Paying subscribers keep the lights on, and allow me to keep this site paywall-free. I appreciate all of you who help to make this place possible.