This is the best thing I have read about Donald Trump – not that I have read much about him, for this statesman who barges his way to the front of the Nato photo-call is such a tawdry oaf that even to read about him is to feel contaminated, though to hear his creepy, insinuating voice is worse.
But the question of how he got where he is today is clearly of considerable importance, and here Oborne and Roberts are very helpful.
At the start of their book, they quote a remark Trump made to Fox News in March 2017: “I think that maybe I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Twitter.”
Trump cut out the middle man: something of which Douglas Carswell strongly approves, as I noted when I reviewed his new book for ConHome. For the idea of being able to get directly at the truth, without a lot of priests, mainstream media and other parasites getting in the way, exercises a strong appeal to the Protestant mind, and can easily be assumed to be an unmitigated good.
In Trump’s hands, this new form of communication became, as Oborne and Roberts remark, a way, not of getting at the truth, but of getting round it:
“He exploited Twitter’s ability to express raw sentiment instantly, without nuance or subtext, and its ability to blur, even extinguish, the boundary between sentiment and fact.”
They point out that Trump’s first Tweets, when he joined the medium in 2009, were quite dull, for his aim then was to puff his books and television programme, and he was part of the celebrity culture where one goes out of one’s way to be nice about famous people, including the Clintons.
Only in 2011, when he was thinking about running for the presidency, did he “find his voice” on Twitter:
“Trump started to use the exclamation marks, the capital letters and the staccato insults that have defined his Twitter discourse ever since.
“He made enemies, pursued feuds and communicated a sense of apocalyptic doom…
“Trump told lies, smeared and fabricated in order to destroy opponents. If the facts proved what he was saying to be untrue, Trump didn’t care… He made assertions about his own honesty – and the lies of his enemies – in order to gain power and win arguments.
“According to the rules of conventional politics, this resort to deceit should have been the end of Trump. The media would duly have exposed him as a liar, and as a result he should have remained a fringe figure.
“Most informed people were certain he would be discredited. But his failure and disgrace never transpired, and he became President. What happened?”
Good question, and the authors go on to supply two good answers. The first is that Trump became the latest in a long line of American populists who have raised the banner of revolt against the hated Washington elite.
In a dozen pages, this book gives an excellent short account of these populist insurgents, including Andrew Jackson, who became President in 1828 after a campaign disfigured by monstrous “fake news” stories on both sides, the Know-Nothings of the 1850s, the Populists of 1892, William Randolph Hearst with his anti-immigrant “American First” rhetoric in the early years of the 20th century, Huey Long and Father James Coughlin in the 1920s and 1930s, Joe McCarthy in the early 1950s, and Richard Nixon, who in November 1969 hit on the telling expression “the silent majority” to “create a political coalition by negation”:
“Nixon’s short phrase gave a home to everyone who did not protest against the Vietnam War (or anything else), who did not criticise the police, who did not reject authority, religion and conventional mores and family life.”
Trump learned much from these forerunners, and in July 2015 informed voters that “the silent majority is back”, which he followed up with a Tweet:
“I truly LOVE all of the millions of people who are sticking with me despite so many media lies. There is a great SILENT MAJORITY looming!”
There has always been a market in America for this kind of thing. One should note in passing that there has always been a market for it in Britain too, but insurgent populists have generally found it harder to get to the top, because to do that you have to command a majority in the Commons, which means you need, as a first step, to become an MP: a task which has so far proved beyond even so gifted a figure as Nigel Farage.
Why was Hillary Clinton unable to stop Trump? Because, these authors contend, she and the progressive elite who supported her were themselves “hopelessly compromised”:
“The Clintons and their followers convinced themselves that their lies were virtuous. They saw truth telling, due process, and respect for the law as minor points, compared to the greater good they could achieve once in power.”
This was the message of the liberal elite’s favourite television show, The West Wing. They thought of themselves as essentially noble people.
In my opinion, it is not so much the lies told by the Clintons, or by Tony Blair, which stuck in people’s throats. It was their nauseatingly self-righteous hypocrisy which rendered them vulnerable to a populist insurgency.
The more Hillary Clinton tried to condemn Trump as a liar who behaved abominably towards women, the more she opened herself to the counter-charge of hypocrisy. The election descended into a mud fight, and Trump was in his element.
Twitter enabled him to abuse “Crooked Hillary”, as he now termed her, as often and as shamelessly as he liked. His raucous bad taste is part of American life, and in his hands it became a brilliant way of baiting The New York Times, with its prosy, priggish, fact-checking mentality.
In the celebrity world from which Trump springs, one of the core fantasies is that you too can be a billionaire, you too can be a megastar, you too can sleep with supermodels. How delightful to believe this nonsense.
And there is the huckster Trump, whispering into your mobile phone that it is all true. Look at me, he says, I’ve done it. Come and get a bit of the action. You too can be a pudgy, boorish, philistine braggart who never reads a book, but your natural cunning and unrecognised worth will take you past all those slim, well-mannered, civilised, educated, stuck-up types who have held you back, have let foreigners steal your jobs, and have hailed Barack Obama as the greatest man since Abraham Lincoln.
This book consists mainly of a generous selection of Trump’s Tweets from May 2009 to March 2017. They constitute a kind of masterclass in his salesmanship.
Here is a man who is authentically shoddy. When placed in a tight spot, he escapes by launching an outrageous counter-attack. He lies, but as he punches the keys on his phone he appears to believe in his lies more devoutly than his opponents believe in their truths.
His indecency is part of his attraction. The more unworthy he shows himself of high office, the greater the satisfaction of placing him there. Have the American elite ever received a more humiliating rebuke?
The authors supply notes in which they identify some of Trump’s worst falsehoods, without getting pompous or pedantic about these.
They expect Trump will “most likely sooner than later… collapse under the weight of his own contradictions”. I think so too.