My problems with his new Rolling Stone piece about Trump are a perfect example of what I love and hate about Matt Taibbi’s work. (Click here to see all of TLP’s 2016 election posts.)
I’m taking a break today from feeling bad about being behind on my political blogging in order to throw some shade on a superior, more successful political commentator. (Shout out to the Interwebs for normalizing this kind of pettiness.)
Specifically today I am in the throes, and not for the first time, of an intense combination of appreciation and disdain for the work of Matt Taibbi. Taibbi has had an interesting career and is, I suspect, a complex and interesting person. So let’s just be clear here that I’m not writing about Matt Taibbi the person (I don’t know him) so much as I am writing about the most recent “Matt Taibbi” textual event in American cultural and political discourse: “How America Made Donald Trump Unstoppable”
Taibbi’s work is controversial. Some of his work is controversial precisely because it is brilliant, the best instance being his obituary for Andrew Breitbart. Some of his work is controversial because it is tasteless without being funny or clever, the best instance being his pre-emptive obituary for Pope John Paul II (I cannot find an active link to the piece, but you can find excerpts to confirm the lack of cleverness or funniness).
Most of Taibbi’s work that I have read is somewhere in the middle, involving keen observations presented with scathing humor that are nonetheless sprinkled with a couple bafflingly stupid clauses. It reminds me of the experience of eating a really well made cheeseburger that someone fucking put pickles on top of – sure, I can remove the pickles, but the whole experience now will be tainted by the faint taste of pickle. It is a small, ostensibly forgivable error that manages to ruin a larger experience. And this brings me to Taibbi’s newest piece for Rolling Stone, “How America Made Donald Trump Unstoppable,” which is really great except when it is terrible.
Taibbi gets off to a rough start, not just because the article’s title is clickbait, but because the author’s first sentences are ruefully ignorant:
The first thing you notice at Donald Trump’s rallies is the confidence. Amateur psychologists have wishfully diagnosed him from afar as insecure, but in person the notion seems absurd.
Donald Trump, insecure? We should all have such problems.
Confessing a complete lack of understanding of the psychological meaning of “insecure” is a bad start for a think piece. Plenty of psychologists, both armchair and professional, have accurately observed that Donald Trump is a narcissist. Narcissism is a condition rooted in insecurity and fragility, even if it most often appears as grandiosity. Just ask the Mayo Clinic:
Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of ultraconfidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.
Is there any example of Trump being vulnerable to the slightest criticism? Why yes, there is – 25 years of it, in fact. Here is Graydon Carter recounting the now quarter-century of infantile fragility that he managed to evoke with one simple crack at Trump:
Just to drive him a little bit crazy, I took to referring to him as a “short-fingered vulgarian” in the pages of Spy magazine. That was more than a quarter of a century ago. To this day, I receive the occasional envelope from Trump. There is always a photo of him—generally a tear sheet from a magazine. On all of them he has circled his hand in gold Sharpie in a valiant effort to highlight the length of his fingers.
Now we can debate which is more insecure, if Trump does this himself or if someone on his payroll does it for him, but the point is that Trump is a broadly, deeply insecure man. Another example would be his bizarre boasts about his personal fortune, considering that his net worth – if he even reports it accurately – is really just his inheritance plus time.
Taibbi then provides several wonderful paragraphs telling tales of Trump rallies, hilariously, before calling back to this anti-psychological point:
What’s he got to be insecure about? The American electoral system is opening before him like a flower.
The thing is that the American right-wing electorate is opening before him like a flower because he shamelessly indulges his – and their – insecurities while appearing to be what they all want to be: a winner. Collective white fragility – racial resentment and insecurity en masse – is exactly the stuff of Trump’s success. And unlike most GOP candidates Trump does not merely exploit this insecurity, he embodies it.
That was pickle number one on Taibbi’s otherwise gourmet burger of political economy prose (I am keeping this metaphor). Pickle number two comes soon after:
President Donald Trump.
A thousand ridiculous accidents needed to happen in the unlikeliest of sequences for it to be possible, but absent a dramatic turn of events – an early primary catastrophe, Mike Bloomberg ego-crashing the race, etc. – this boorish, monosyllabic TV tyrant with the attention span of an Xbox-playing 11-year-old really is set to lay waste to the most impenetrable oligarchy the Western world ever devised.
Let’s start with what we can agree on: A thousand-ish ridiculous accidents did have to happen in a (debatably) unlikely sequence for Trump to get where he is; “ego-crashing” is the best possible verb for Mike Bloomberg running for President; the description of Trump as a “boorish, monosyllabic TV tyrant with the attention span of an Xbox-playing 11-year-old” is on point. Everything else is problematic. I actually reread this bit several times just to make sure I was understanding it correctly.
For one thing, our oligarchy is pretty penetrable. If an Xbox-playing 11-year-old had a successful enough Vine channel about Halo, he could eventually start talking politics on there and then get himself a House seat somewhere. I am not saying social mobility in the US is broadly high, I am just saying that our oligarchy is pretty damn penetrable. A former SNL cast member is a US Senator. A former community organizer is President of the United States. As disgusting as it may be to watch them fight for the anti-immigration vote, two of the remaining GOP presidential candidates are the children of Cuban immigrants. It is difficult to remove the oligarchs or hold them accountable, but it is not especially difficult to become one. And anyway, Donald Trump was born an oligarch. For most of history (including now), one sure fire way to become an oligarch has been to own land, and Donald Trump is surely among the most landed of the gentry. And to hear Jeb Bush tell it, Trump has been working the levers of political power for a while, too. Mitt Romney sought out and accepted Trump’s endorsement in 2012, for fuck’s sake. So it is both the case that our oligarchy is penetrable and that Donald Trump was already an established member of it before he ran for President.
But none of any of that is what really got me wanting to writing something about Taibbi’s article. It is the Bloomberg thing that really pissed me off. The idea that Bloomberg ego-crashing the race would work against a Trump candidacy is just… …I mean… …it just couldn’t be more wrong. Bloomberg running for President is a couple kinds of ridiculous – I don’t think there is a big constituency for a(nother) billionaire candidate who wants to cut taxes, privatize stuff to sell to his friends, while massively increasing regulations on guns and soda – but I am sure there are a lot of people that Mike pays to tell him stuff and I bet they tell him he can win. In addition to being ridiculous, a Bloomberg candidacy would also be dangerous. Here is some important data:
If you look at that chart, you’ll see that 38% of Americans describe themselves as some kind of conservative, 34% describe themselves as moderate, and 24% describe themselves as liberal. Sure, some conservatives and liberals on the fringes are too precious and fussy to ever deign to vote for an actual major party candidate, but let’s say they cancel each other out and that these numbers are accurate. With the two major parties now polarized, a Republican candidate basically has a “baked in” two fifths of the general electorate while a Democratic candidate has one fourth of it, putting the Democrat at a natural disadvantage. The Democrat has to win a lot more moderates than the Republican in order to make it to the White House.
With Trump as the GOP nominee, that will be easy, because the other thing that this chart tells us is that 38% of the vote is the most Donald Trump could count on in a general election, since he may be a populist but he is definitely no moderate (e.g. his tax plan). Trump is winning the GOP primaries, but doing so with less than 50% of the primary electorate, which means something less than 10% of the general electorate. Trump is also deeply unpopular with the general electorate, not to mention what will happen when left-leaning journalists turn from indulging their media overlord’s wishes at the expense of the Republican party during the primaries, to asserting their integrity at the expense of Trump’s previously-free ride and to the benefit of the Republic during the general election.
Unless Mike Bloomberg ego-crashes the campaign. If Bloomberg runs, he will run as the moderate candidate. This means Bloomberg and the Democrat would fight it out for the vast majority of moderates and handful of conservatives that can be wooed away from Trump. Meanwhile the Donald will win an electoral landslide with only 40ish percent of the popular vote. In other words, if Bloomberg runs, the most likely scenario is that he recreates the dynamic happening right now in the GOP primary: Trump is winning because his opponents are fighting each other.
Taibbi reasserts his risible thesis to conclude the piece:
King Trump. Brace yourselves, America. It’s really happening.
Other than that finish, and the other issues addressed above, it is a really good piece. I thought about including some of the best bits as excerpts here, but instead I will just reiterate that you should really click here and read the whole thing. My problems with Taibbi’s thesis (and some of his assertions aside), his description of the GOP contest is vulgar, mirthful, and ruthless. A flawless combination. It is a perfectly cooked burger with a thick, melted slice of pepper jack on a masterfully toasted bun – with a generous topping of schadenfreude; you can really sink your teeth into it and enjoy every delicious morsel of it… …except the pickles! Be sure not to bite into the pickles.
Click here to see all of TLP’s 2016 election posts.