Nothing New in New Hampshire

Donald Trump is back. Of course, he never actually went away. He is dependent on attention. To understand Trump’s political ambitions we have to leave behind normal presumptions about politicians, both cynical and idealistic. Fundamentally, he is uninterested in using power to advance his interests, or in the service of a cause. Power is simply a way to fulfil his overwhelming need to be the centre of attention–as cash is only a means to the next score for a junkie. And like anyone in the throes of addiction, he will lie, cheat, steal, threaten, and assault to feed his cravings.

Once we see this dynamic, there are few interesting questions to ask about the man himself. But it does return us to the persistent mystery of why so many people find him compelling as a candidate, or even as spectacle. Trump is boring, predictable, shallow, and fundamentally pathetic. So, what keeps his audience rapt?

The only unexpected thing I saw in CNN’s Town Hall on Wednesday night was the spellbound faces of the audience members as they asked questions. I was not surprised to see an audience fawning over someone famous, which is normal, if undignified, behaviour. What puzzled me was their earnest affection for Trump.

It is easy to think Americans are drawn to him because he caters to racist, misogynist, and jingoistic prejudices still widespread in the country. Or that his appeal arises from his ability to reflect voters’ feelings of social alienation, their distrust of institutions, and a general disillusionment with normal politics. But this doesn’t explain the unfeigned affection this objectively despicable man elicits.

So, I’m left with a question that won’t resolve. How can they love him? Pondering this question feels like intellectual indigestion. Until I focus on the need for attention, the irrational and unquenchable junkie need to be seen.

Like Trump, a significant number of Americans simply want recognition, in its most unrefined form. They want to have their foolishness, crudeness, and selfishness affirmed. And Trump is a daddy figure, obviously a bad daddy, but that badness is the secret of his appeal. He requires nothing of his supporters except that they return his unqualified affection. It is love without substance or meaning. It is junkie love.

To understand the love affair between Trump and a significant portion of America, imagine two exhausted addicts, huddled together in a derelict house, on a stained mattress, pressing rail thin bodies together to keep warm, struggling to make it to morning, when they can trudge back into the streets in search of the next score—the next moment of blissful release, when their small and unhappy existence fades away and the warmth of intoxication takes hold. In their codependence they find joy in feeling big, for just a moment.

Trump and his supporters—his lovers—are caught in an addictive cycle. Like all addicts, a deep feeling of weakness drives this cycle. There’s the fleeting rapture in a communion that wipes away the judgmental and disappointing world. Then the comedown, with its resentment and anger, leading to the desperate nadir, brought about by having to cope with the world, without the blissful transcendence of adoration. All that is left is the endless search for the next score. The junkie cycle is timeless and eternal, there is no progress or development, only endless need, bottomless hunger. Desperation stretches out beyond the horizon.

Trump, as political phenomenon, is the symptom of a distinctively American form of nihilism. It is born of lives of quiet desperation that refuse quietness, but have no idea of how to escape the desperation. Those malformed lives emerge from an individualistic culture populated by fragile human beings unable to recognise, much less develop, meaningful individuality, which requires community. Trump is the swollen but empty husk of the rugged American archetype; he is mirror held up to us, confronting us with an ugly truth.

There is something perverse in hosting Trump in New Hampshire, the home of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau—imperfect but compelling profits of a radical kind of individuality, of non-conformity, and self creation. They exemplify a tradition that Republicans still occasionally assert a spiritual connection to, but what would they have make of Trump? Nothing much, I wager.

His is a life defined by paralysing dependency, by pathetic and narcissistic need. Trump’s individualism is grounded only in his selfishness. And he has dedicated his life, and sought to bend the country as a whole, to the service of his meaningless desire to feel big and important to himself—and one presumes his terrible father, another bad daddy giving rise to bad daddy issues.

Trump remains dull as fuck. And our national addiction to his spectacle is as undignified and feeble as it has always been. There was nothing new in New Hampshire this week. But that stasis should confront us with our wounded national character, our self-destructive culture, our addiction to junkie love.

You eat that poison?

“It makes me feel big, okay!”

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