Home # Journal Entry Vol.107.2: THE POWER OF TRUMP


by James A. Clapp

I watched dumbfounded as Texas Senator Ted Cruz (always dumbfounding to watch) gave a passionate defense of President Donald Trump from the Senate floor las week. I could not help reflecting back to during the campaign when they were rivals for the nomination and Trump had nicknamed Cruz, with typical psychological projection, as “Lying Ted,” then went on to publish comparative photos of their wives, with ‘a rather unflattrering version of Mrs. Cruz set against one of Melania’s that was not one of her tabloid nudes.  This set to tone for Trumpian Republicanism that continues to set new lows.

So, there was Ted, defending a guy who had insulted him, and his wife. Ted Cruz, a man without a greasy coating of any honor or integrity—just the kind of guy that Donald Trump could easily understand.  The same for Senator Miss Lindsey Graham, who had also been insulted by Trump, and even had Miss Lindsey’s Princess cell phone number broadcast, and yet she remains a staunch defender of the President (I’m probably going to hear from some LGBTQ folks about this). Ditto for Senators Rubio and McConnell.

One after another, Republicans from Dog Catcher to Attorney General fall to their knees for the favor of their Fuhrer, and they dare not oppose him.  He can dump on them, throw them under the bus, insult them from the Oval Office or the Rose Garden, and I keep wondering how he gets away with behavior that in any neighborhood I grew up in would have got his smug puss punched to pulp.  The question really is: What is the essence of Trump’s power.

It’s not his money. Trump is probably one of the most ungenerous rich men ever (and just how rich remains a mystery). He is not only parsimonious, but any kind of financial contact with him is also likely to result in being conned by him, being sued, stiffed, or all of the above.

It is certainly not his bonhomie. Trump appears to really have no true friends at all friends and, as a result of all that has been said above, to which we can add the acquisition and dumping of wives, and his abuse and lying about women and employees, this is completely understandable. Trump is a people user, a manipulator who is not interested in any dimension of a relationship beyond its utility to his ambitions.

It is not his intelligence. It is easy to see from his speeches, tweets, his being made a fool of by international leaders, his business failures, and even his incessant claims of high intelligence (while keeping all of his academic records from public view) that Trump’s intelligence is pretty much right down there at the level of the people who voted for him.

Which leads us to the answer to the question of what is the essence then of Trump’s power over people like Ted Cruz, and Mitch McConnell, people who have worked for him and put their reputations on the line for him and have been cast aside and, amazingly, even the voters who have been upstanding and unwavering in their devotion to him. It was right there in plain sight and sound all the time, and right from the beginning. Right there in that first address in Trump Tower when he announced his candidacy. In fact, it had been signaled earlier in the several years he spent alleging that Barack Obama was not a citizen of the United States.

The answer, for Trump, had the kind of simplicity that perfectly suited his personality, morality, and mendacity.  Trump was willing to dig into that dark closet of America’s ugly history, extract its most heinous elements, revive them with his characteristic marketing audacity, and give them his own special political brand as what America needs to resurrect. He market-tested it throughout the primaries, even to the point of saying that he could “shoot someone in Fifth Avenue” (presumably a person of color, or a Muslim) and not lose a vote, and the feedback he got only further emboldened him and intimidated his competitors.

Trump rode America’s abiding racism and xenophobia all the way to the White House. Like his cheap and gaudy personal tastes, he took the worst of what America is, rebranded it as what it takes to “make us great again” (indeed, it was, in fact, part of our economic success in which we should take no claim to greatness), and pulled off the greatest political con job of our history.

So, the source of Trump’s power lay right there in the American experience from its beginning, the nasty reality that we’ve always covered over with denial and myth, what we have seen as gradually seeping to the surface in the past half-century of the American experience in the rotting carcass of the Republican Party. Trump manages to intimidate his fellow Republicans (indeed, he has become somewhat of a political party unto himself) because he jumped out ahead of the likes of Cruz, Bush, Rubio, and even Fox News, Limbaugh, and the rest of the scum, scooped up their audience and took them to the next level. His devoted voters—what we learned in our political science class as a “veto group,” a faithful and motivated negative constituency—will turn out to primary any politician who dares to oppose their leader.

Trump won by outflanking them all with his audacity.  It is why he must continually hold rallies, continually add elements that buttress his position in the national culture war, feeding the racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and White supremacy—taking it into broad daylight, giving it a political legitimacy in the fog of the dubious false equivalency that “there are good and bad people on both sides.”

Trump’s fellow Republicans have been no match for his level of audacity, his facility for turning reality into a reality show. He can command their allegiance and receive it because they are venal enough—they are Republicans after all—to retain their own political positions by any means that serves that end. That is the essence of his power. They know it, and he knows it.  He knows that all he has to do is drop his pants and bend over. They are Republicans and instinctively will know where they are to place their lips.

©2019, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 05.06.2019)

You may also like


bob 2019-05-06 - 1:13 pm

“Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.”
Michael Corleone

Do you think those nitwits are as smart as a Mario Puzo character?

bob again 2019-05-06 - 1:37 pm

I wonder if there is a Joseph Welch around today that could box back Trump’s ears?


James A. Clapp 2019-05-06 - 2:41 pm

Decency is not a sense Trump would wish to possess.

James A. Clapp 2019-05-06 - 3:06 pm

Lucca Brazzi was smarter, and he “sleeps with the fishes”.

Dave Abrams, SDSU MCP '77 2019-05-06 - 2:43 pm

Well said Jim! Just had my weekly Trump lament with my older brother who lives in Marin County. He was alert enough to catch and pass on the James Comey Op-Ed recently published in the NY Times that bears repeating for those who missed it:

New York Times – May 1, 2019
James Comey: How Trump Co-opts Leaders Like Bill Barr
Accomplished people lacking inner strength can’t resist the compromises necessary to survive this president.
By James Comey
Mr. Comey is the former F.B.I. director.
• May 1, 2019
People have been asking me hard questions. What happened to the leaders in the Trump administration, especially the attorney general, Bill Barr, who I have said was due the benefit of the doubt?
How could Mr. Barr, a bright and accomplished lawyer, start channeling the president in using words like “no collusion” and F.B.I. “spying”? And downplaying acts of obstruction of justice as products of the president’s being “frustrated and angry,” something he would never say to justify the thousands of crimes prosecuted every day that are the product of frustration and anger?
How could he write and say things about the report by Robert Mueller, the special counsel, that were apparently so misleading that they prompted written protest from the special counsel himself?
How could Mr. Barr go before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday and downplay President Trump’s attempt to fire Mr. Mueller before he completed his work?
And how could Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, after the release of Mr. Mueller’s report that detailed Mr. Trump’s determined efforts to obstruct justice, give a speech quoting the president on the importance of the rule of law? Or on resigning, thank a president who relentlessly attacked both him and the Department of Justice he led for “the courtesy and humor you often display in our personal conversations”?
What happened to these people?
I don’t know for sure. People are complicated, so the answer is most likely complicated. But I have some idea from four months of working close to Mr. Trump and many more months of watching him shape others.
Amoral leaders have a way of revealing the character of those around them. Sometimes what they reveal is inspiring. For example, James Mattis, the former secretary of defense, resigned over principle, a concept so alien to Mr. Trump that it took days for the president to realize what had happened, before he could start lying about the man.
But more often, proximity to an amoral leader reveals something depressing. I think that’s at least part of what we’ve seen with Bill Barr and Rod Rosenstein. Accomplished people lacking inner strength can’t resist the compromises necessary to survive Mr. Trump and that adds up to something they will never recover from. It takes character like Mr. Mattis’s to avoid the damage, because Mr. Trump eats your soul in small bites.
It starts with your sitting silent while he lies, both in public and private, making you complicit by your silence. In meetings with him, his assertions about what “everyone thinks” and what is “obviously true” wash over you, unchallenged, as they did at our private dinner on Jan. 27, 2017, because he’s the president and he rarely stops talking. As a result, Mr. Trump pulls all of those present into a silent circle of assent.
Speaking rapid-fire with no spot for others to jump into the conversation, Mr. Trump makes everyone a co-conspirator to his preferred set of facts, or delusions. I have felt it — this president building with his words a web of alternative reality and busily wrapping it around all of us in the room.
I must have agreed that he had the largest inauguration crowd in history because I didn’t challenge that. Everyone must agree that he has been treated very unfairly. The web building never stops.
From the private circle of assent, it moves to public displays of personal fealty at places like cabinet meetings. While the entire world is watching, you do what everyone else around the table does — you talk about how amazing the leader is and what an honor it is to be associated with him.
Sure, you notice that Mr. Mattis never actually praises the president, always speaking instead of the honor of representing the men and women of our military. But he’s a special case, right? Former Marine general and all. No way the rest of us could get away with that. So you praise, while the world watches, and the web gets tighter.
Next comes Mr. Trump attacking institutions and values you hold dear — things you have always said must be protected and which you criticized past leaders for not supporting strongly enough. Yet you are silent. Because, after all, what are you supposed to say? He’s the president of the United States.
You feel this happening. It bothers you, at least to some extent. But his outrageous conduct convinces you that you simply must stay, to preserve and protect the people and institutions and values you hold dear. Along with Republican members of Congress, you tell yourself you are too important for this nation to lose, especially now.
You can’t say this out loud — maybe not even to your family — but in a time of emergency, with the nation led by a deeply unethical person, this will be your contribution, your personal sacrifice for America. You are smarter than Donald Trump, and you are playing a long game for your country, so you can pull it off where lesser leaders have failed and gotten fired by tweet.
Of course, to stay, you must be seen as on his team, so you make further compromises. You use his language, praise his leadership, tout his commitment to values.
And then you are lost. He has eaten your soul.
James Comey is the former F.B.I. director and author of “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership.”

James A. Clapp 2019-05-06 - 3:05 pm

Dave, thanks for attaching Comey. His comments are a bit loftier (not in respect of his height) than mine. But I am emeritus, and he might still want another job.

Comments are closed.