Reflections on the known universe… Why I don't worry about Donald Trump
by Kurt True

This time make mine Nixon.

The view from my recliner.

This time make mine Nixon.
The view from my recliner.

It was January, 1969. It must have been a Monday. We always came back to school on a Monday. I was standing on the blacktop outside the classroom at Walter G. Brown Elementary school in Santa Clara waiting for Miss Moore to come along and unlock the door.

Santa Clara has a mild climate. Nobody makes a fuss if the children have to stand outside in January.

So there I was standing on the blacktop with my third grade classmates. I had a vague understanding that an election had taken place some weeks before. My mom was a Humphrey supporter, and I think I knew that Hubert Humphrey had lost the election, but I don't think I knew who had won. Looking back, I think the grown ups around me might have made a conscious effort to avoid speaking his name, the same way that many families in Tennessee and Georgia make a point of never saying "Sherman."

Anyway, I remember being part of a little huddle of kids out there on the blacktop. We'd just gotten back to school after the winter break, which I think went roughly from Christmas Eve to New Year's Day, and I remember this huddle of kids having a conversation along these lines:

"It's true then?"


"What's true, LuAnn?"

"We're going to have to start going to school on Saturday."

"Says who?"

"Says the new President, that's who."

"Who's the new President?"


"Yeah, that's the guy. Richard Milhouse Nixon. He's going to make us go to school on Saturday."

"But that's the day I sleep in."

"That's the day I wear my pajamas until 11 o'clock watch the Banana Splits."

"Saturday is pancake day at my house."

"Mine too."

"From here on out it's going to be cream of wheat, seven days a week."

"Man, this Nixon guy sounds like trouble. How long until we're old enough to vote?"

"Not until we graduate from college."

"By then it'll be too late."

Counting that transition and the current one, that makes ten times I've watched our great nation swap out the top tier of her executive branch, and, of all those transitions, I can only think of one that the American people didn't herald in with expressions of dread and deepest foreboding for the coming assaults upon our most cherished traditions and way of life.

The one exception was Gerald Ford. Nobody seemed too worried about him. I think that's because he reminded us of Bob Newhart. No matter how crazy things got, you always knew Bob Newhart was going to keep his composure and restore order. Gerald Ford was the same way, bumbling and confused perhaps, but calm, reassuring and competent.

But all the other presidents scared the crap out of one or another significant segment of the population. Ronald Reagan especially. All the Carter Democrats-- and most the Ford Republicans-- expected Reagan to bumble his way into a war with the Russians or maybe Iran. And, though Reagan seemed to have no religious convictions of his own, he courted the support of science-denying evangelical lunatics bent on tearing down the wall between church and state. And get this, Reagan thought the best way to create prosperity for the working class was to cut taxes for multimillionaires. And, for a guy who wanted to be President, he sure didn't have a lot of relevant experience. He used to be on a TV show.

At least we're not facing anything that scary this time around.

Hey, wait a minute.

In all seriousness, though, I'm not too worried about Donald Trump. Not as worried as I was about Reagan, anyway. You know why? Ronald Reagan's history indicated that he really wanted to do everything he said he was going to do. Donald Trump's history indicates that everything he says is just marketing. You listen to his rhetoric, and what do you hear? Do you hear policy? Do you hear a plan? Do you hear an agenda? Or do you hear an overbearing salesman hyping his brand with as much bluster and hyperbole as he thinks he can get away with?

I have a theory about politicians, and this applies to lifelong politicians as well as those, like Reagan or Trump or Woodrow Wilson, who enter politics as a second career. My theory is this: if you want to know what a politician is going to do once he gets into office, you need to look at the cause that got that politician into office.

Take Nixon, for example. What was his cause? Stopping communism at home and abroad. In his first political campaign (for California's 12th Congressional District in 1946), he accused the Democratic incumbent, Jerry Voorhis, of having ties to communist organizations.

Then, in 1950, after a star turn on the House Un-American Activities Committee (Duckduckgo "pumpkin papers" if you want to know more about that.), Nixon went on a no-holds-barred campaign for the U.S. Senate, during which campaign he alleged that his Democratic opponent wore pink underwear.

You can look it up. Pink underwear. My understanding is that he meant to imply that the opponent in question, Helen Gahagan Douglas, was a communist sympathizer. Why a communist sympathizer would wear pink underwear I don't know. Maybe she got her hammer and sickle flag mixed up with her whites? I'm not sure.

Anyway, the point is, the cause that launched Nixon's political career was containing the Communist Menace. If, at any point in Nixon's political life, you wanted to know what his next move was going to be, the question you needed to ask yourself was "What's the move that's going to contain communism?" Specifically, Soviet communism. That expansionist, true-believer, shoe-on-the-podium version of communism.

The Chinese spin off wasn't as much of a concern. Those communists were unlikely to invade anything important.

So any question you ever had about Nixon-- "Will he send arms and cash to this or that authoritarian dictatorship?" "Will he continue to take a hard line against Cuba?" "Bomb Cambodia?" "Expand the Pentagon's budget?" "Say something nice about the AFL-CIO?" "Normalize relations with mainland China?" Just about every question you ever had about Nixon, you could answer by asking yourself "What move will result in the containment of Soviet-style communism?"

I think every politician has a lift-off cause. Every politician has a cause that gets him or her off the ground and launches him or her into political orbit.

So then. What is Donald Trump's cause? What was the issue that got Donald Trump off the ground? Do you remember? It wasn't building the wall. It wasn't repealing the Affordable Care Act. It wasn't rebuilding the manufacturing sector. It wasn't "Drain the swamp." It wasn't "Lock her up."

It was the birth certificate.

Remember that? Spring, 2011. Trump was all over TV and Twitter, trying to convince America that President Obama had no U.S. birth certificate, that witnesses could confirm that Obama had been born in Kenya. And if Obama was born in Kenya, that means he can't be president, because Article II, Section 1, of the U.S. Constitution says you have to be born in the U.S. if you want to be president.

Well, except it doesn't. Article II, Section 1, of the U.S. Constitution says "No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President."

In other words, a person can be president as long as that person was a citizen at birth and meets the other requirements for the office. And we know that Barack Obama's mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, was a U.S. citizen, so that makes Barack Obama a natural born citizen, even if he was born in Kenya, or France, or Honduras, or Timbuktu.

Besides, when have we ever asked for a copy of the President's birth certificate? Nobody ever asked to see Jimmy Carter's birth certificate, and he had a funny accent and a brother with business interests in Libya.

So Trump launched his political career with an uninformed, mean spirited exercise in nincompoopery directed against our country's first African-American president. What do you suppose was the point of all that?

Do you think Trump is a racist? Or a xenophobe? Do you think he's a dummy who's never read the Constitution?

Well, maybe, maybe, and maybe, but I don't think so.

I think Trump is a salesman who knows how to create a comforting fantasy, and I think Trump knew back in 2011 that there was a significant demographic in this country that found comfort in a fantasy about a foreign born president and a vast global conspiracy that had put him in power.

Think about it. Imagine you're some old guy like me. You're working as a Walmart greeter because whatever you were doing for a living twenty-five years ago was disrupted by a bunch of 27-year-old startup gazillionaires in 1999. You have no savings, and you've pulled so much equity out of your house, you'll probably go underwater with the next market correction. Your cartilage ain't what it used to be, and you'd like to try the prescription painkiller you see advertised on TV, but you know you probably can't afford the copay. Oh yeah, and your unemployed kid with the graduate degree in ethnobotany is living in your basement. He owes $85,000 in student loans.

When you sit around at night in your creaky recliner, drinking box wine out of a tumbler you bought at a garage sale and wondering where it all went wrong, what's the easier explanation to accept? This one?

I'm broke. My job skills are outdated. I don't have a retirement plan. I'll spend the rest of my life digging myself out of debt.

Or this one?

I'm broke because a cabal operating in the shadows wants to put a foreigner in the White House and destroy our American way of life. Good thing Trump knows how to fix that.

No contest, right? The fantasy is easier.

So when I asked you "What is Donald Trump's cause?" that was a trick question. Donald Trump doesn't have a cause. He has something that looks like a cause, but it's not a cause. It's a fantasy, and that fantasy is part of a scheme to capitalize on desperation and discontent.

I mean "capitalize" in the sense of "make money off of."

How do you make money off of desperation and discontent? Oh, there are lots of ways, but that's a story for another post. The point I'm trying to make is, yes, we're in for a rough four years. I'm not trying to dismiss anybody's concerns about that. But let's keep in mind that Trump didn't get into politics because he wanted to deport undocumented aliens or build a wall or burn lots of coal or start a trade war with China or invade Iran. He got into politics because he wanted to sell a fantasy to sad, desperate people.

He doesn't have to deport anybody to keep selling that fantasy. He doesn't have to invade a foreign country. He doesn't have to dismantle the EPA or repeal Obamacare. He doesn't have to tear up any treaties.

He just has to keep talking.

Trump's no dummy. He knows that no legislative agenda he pursues, no trade policy or foreign policy he implements is likely to provide much relief for that guy in the creaky recliner with the box wine and the bum knee and the over leveraged house.

But if Trump keeps talking-- and tweeting, and holding rallies-- he can maybe turn all those cranky old guys in all those recliners-- and all our cranky basement-dwelling children-- into an army of true believers. And I think he knows that he can turn those true believers into capital, the same way that Fox News turns viewers into capital and talk radio turns listeners into capital and Breitbart turns readers into capital.

So what do I think we're going to see in the next four years, or however long the Trump administration lasts? Well, speaking as an old guy with a recliner, three mortgages and chronic joint pain, I'd say we're probably going to see a president who's focused on talking and holding rallies and grandstanding. We're going to see a president who's going to try to score some compelling symbolic victories, such as we saw last week at the Carrier plant in Huntington.

I think we're probably not going to see a president who's focused on pursuing an agenda or actually accomplishing anything. Anything aside from turning miserable people into a revenue stream, I mean.

And I think at this point, a president who doesn't accomplish anything is about the best outcome we can hope for.

Kurt True
5 dec 2016