Still Trying To Understand Donald Trump

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Michael Davidow, Radio Free New Hampshire

By MICHAEL DAVIDOW, Radio Free New Hampshire

Late at night, these cold and dark times, I often find myself falling down the infamous YouTube rabbit hole. I look for some old performer that I like, and I listen to a song or two. Then the algorithms take over. Half of them lead me, inexorably, to “Hey Jude.” The other half take me on a roller coaster.

I’m always amazed, on the one hand, by the amount of terrific talent that I never appreciated before. I ran across P.P. Arnold the other day. She started as a back-up singer for Ike and Tina Turner, and she later became a minor British soul-singing sensation. Or Bobbie Gentry, who walked away at the height of her fame, like a sultry brunette mix of B. Traven and Loretta Lynn. Or even the young Dolly Parton, whose original version of I Will Always Love You puts Whitney Houston’s to shame.  

Then there are the clinkers, the ones whose ephemeral notoriety can only lead to shaking your head. The Captain and Tenille, who warbled some insipid song about muskrats making love, and who entertained the Queen of England at the White House itself. Juice Newton, who at least had the good fortune to cover a P.P. Arnold song or two. Tony Orlando and Dawn, to whom CBS gave a television show, because they needed to replace Sonny and Cher.

It’s easy, of course, to make fun of these guys. But it’s nevertheless striking how much quality has also always existed; art that has lasted, art that has survived. Some of that bad stuff, in other words, was probably bad then too. It just hit some particular nerve at just the right time, in just the right place, to resonate for a moment.

In other words: I am still trying to understand Donald Trump.

And I am coming to believe that “the former guy,” as Joe Biden has happily stumbled upon calling him — an overweight carnival barker in actual clown make-up — became president of our country for very specific historical and cultural reasons (right time, right place, wrong man). Among them:

(1) Starting largely with Bill Clinton and his policy of triangulation (which itself rose from fear and ambition, more than from conviction), continuing through the Obama years, and ending so disastrously with the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, the abdication of the Democratic Party from its historic role as the protector of the American working class, and the failure of any other party to take its place, by representing the working class with integrity and purpose. To the extent the Republican Party has become its recent champion, in other words, it has done so strictly in exploitative mode.

(2) Starting more particularly with Barack Obama and again reaching its sad crescendo during the Hillary Clinton fiasco, the Democratic Party’s embrace of identity politics in lieu of economic justice, siding time and again with both Wall Street and the cultural elite, against the poor, the middle class, and those who sin by being less than cosmopolitan. Sad fact: when the Democrats became Republicans, the Republicans basically cracked. And

(3) The rise of the internet, which not only gave to snide one-liners and nasty pictographs the role that had hitherto been played by speeches to audiences of labor unions, women voters, and environmental groups, but also allowed the ready organization of those who never made time for politics before: the unconnected, the rootless, and the angry, all happy to be whipped into a frenzy, because this was entertainment, and the louder and flashier it became, the more it got noticed. This technological perfection of our democracy nearly killed us.

That’s three different cultural and political trends coming together at once, none of which were inevitable, all of which were based on some degree of selfishness, and none of which guaranteed the rise of a clown like Trump, but all of which helped him seize and then nearly retain his power in spite of his own ineptness and his ultimately being voted out of office. He fell on top of a giant wave, he rode it to shore like a seal, and he took credit for the tide itself.

Biden has returned things to normal in this country in many ways. You no longer need a split screen to watch a presidential briefing. You no longer fear fisticuffs breaking out at global summits. You no longer wonder to yourself, the last time the president and his wife had breakfast together or buttered their own toast for that matter.  Those are all good things for which we can be grateful.

But those trends remain in place. The New York Times and the city of San Francisco continue to make fools of themselves. The Republican Party continues to enslave itself to a demagogue. The internet continues to cough up chunks of poison.

Somewhere out there, there is a P.P. Arnold, a Bobbie Gentry, a young Dolly Parton, who deserves to be heard and cherished. But Tony Orlando and Dawn are still drowning them out. And if that doesn’t stop, then the next Trump won’t be far behind. 

Michael Davidow is a lawyer in Nashua.  He is the author of Gate City, Split Thirty, and The Rocketdyne Commission, three novels about politics and advertising which, taken together, form The Henry Bell Project.  His most recent one is The Book of Order. They are available on Amazon. takes no position on politics. The opinions in columns and op-eds pieces belong to the author.

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