How Donald Trump has messed up political discourse
Felix Salmon has an interesting piece in Fusion:
It’s a narrative we’ve seen dozens of times. First, Donald Trump says something completely beyond the pale, whether it’s about a Gold Star family or assassinating the president; then mainstream Republicans feel the need to repudiate what he said, to distance themselves from the crazy.
By engaging with Trump’s ideas, however, they effectively ratify them. Concepts which used to be unthinkable—like, say, banning all Muslims from entering the country—are now debated on prime-time TV as issues on which politicians differ.
This process is known as widening the Overton Window, and Trump has done it better than any American politician in living memory. He has singlehandedly sidelined elite legislators and media barons as the arbiters of acceptable conversation. As a result, we now live in a world where a major-party presidential nominee is happy to sound indistinguishable from an insurrectionist gun nut at a Texas barbecue after a few beers.
In doing so, Trump and his kin have effectively rotated the axis upon which we place political candidates.
For generations, politicians have been viewed on a left-right spectrum, according to their policy positions. Now, however, they’re placed on a different spectrum entirely. At one end you find the sanguine technocrats of the old elite; at the other, the angry revolutionaries with no time for constitutional niceties.
Call this second group the “chaos monkeys,” the political outsiders who have no interest in mainstream policy debates. They tend to be deeply attractive to a huge and disillusioned “lol nothing matters” crowd, and often their egomania drives them to thirst for ever-greater power.
Vladimir Putin is a chaos monkey. So is Rodrigo Duterte, the newly elected president of the Philippines. And then there are the comedians – people like Beppe Grillo, in Italy, or Boris Johnson, in the UK, who catapult themselves into politics by force of little more than name recognition and an outsider attitude.
Chaos monkeys thrive in a world of social media, where messages aren’t intermediated by media elites and where a struggling middle class, which has seen little in the way of real economic gains in decades, has never found it easier to vent its frustrations.
Trump is the platonic ideal of the chaos monkey form: he has an enviable ability to capture the inchoate frustration of the 99% and turn it into something which can dominate the national political discourse, pretty much to the exclusion of everything else.
And that’s a huge problem. When a chaos monkey is in the race, he tends to render invisible severe and important policy distinctions. Trump is a very different beast from conventional politicians, but in order to see the difference, you need to look at him from a very different angle—an angle which renders everybody else more or less indistinguishable.
As a result, when people talk about Trump, it doesn’t matter whether they support him or oppose him. Either way, they end up clustering everybody else—Clinton and Romney and Obama and all of the many Bushes, and basically any politician you can remember from more than a year ago—into an “establishment” bundle at one end of the spectrum.
On this new axis, differences between left and right no longer matter. Or, at any rate, they don’t matter nearly as much as the differences between intellectually coherent, on the one hand, and dangerously unpredictable, on the other.
In Trumpworld, it doesn’t matter that . . .