A piece of commentary by David K. Shipler crossed my computer screen the other day, and it deserves some attention because it reflects the ongoing liberal obsession with Donald Trump these days, even as his White House tenure nears its well-deserved termination.
Shipler is a serious journalist and author with an impressive resume that includes award-winning books on foreign relations and extensive reporting around the world for The New York Times. Since 2010 he has produced an electronic journal called the Shipler Report, in which the piece in question, entitled “The Next Trump,” was published. Unfortunately, it is so dogmatic in its anti-Trump fervor that ultimately it lacks seriousness.
Shipler’s piece typifies the anti-Trump passions that have emanated over the past four years from such liberal outlets as the New Yorker, The Atlantic, NPR, The New York Times, and MSNBC. These organizations and others warned ominously, over and over, that Trump represented a clear and present threat that, if not stopped, would destroy the republic.
But there’s a problem now that Trump is about to depart the scene: the republic still stands. Yes, his behavior since the election has been nasty and repugnant, in keeping with his core personality. And, yes, the president’s behavior throughout his presidency has been sufficiently arbitrary and capricious to raise legitimate concerns. But it looks like the country is going to survive the Trump presidency just fine, and the liberal hysteria we have seen throughout his presidency is beginning to look more and more outlandish and silly.
Now comes David Shipler with an explanation as to why that hysteria was justified all along. Trump would have upended the country’s governmental system, as was his aim, says Shipler, if he had just embraced the task with more finesse and smarts. The country, after all, is ripe for such a dangerous demagogue, he asserts, because so many Americans are stupid and “remarkably gullible, as if batteries in their Nonsense Alarms have died.” They’re ready to “believe the most absurd conspiracy, fall for the most transparent con artist, and sign on to the unhealthiest cult of personality.”
But the next Trump will likely be a different sort–“a sophisticated would-be autocrat” or perhaps “a slick purveyor of empty dreams and encrypted hatreds….a suave authoritarian populist who [will whip] up fear about internal enemies.”
Thus does Shipler give credence to the manic warnings that he and like-minded liberals have been issuing since 2016–and to future warnings about other, more dangerous Trumps bent on exploiting political sentiments that these liberals consider illegitimate.
Taken in whole, the Shipler piece offers a case study in the kind of thinking that Trump has stirred from his political adversaries. A number of points suggest themselves.
First, Shipler embraces the Hillary Clinton view that Trump supporters are largely “deplorables,” with the added warning from Shipler that the ballot-box power of these people represents an ongoing danger to America. The quotes above reveal this attitude, but much more in the piece reinforces the point. The writer sees Trump as “a skillful embodiment of the wishes and fears of millions, mostly white working class, who feel marginalized and dishonored while yearning for the wealth and strength that Trump appears to possess.” He writes that Trump has given them “the dignity that many feel they have been denied by the liberal, urban, multiethnic society that their country is becoming.”
Fixated on this crude stereotype portrayal of Trump supporters, Shipler evinces not a whit of interest in the depth of their views, attitudes, hopes, fears, or experiences in today’s America. He seems to be saying that, as Trump harbors illegitimate views, so therefore do his supporters. Shipler would have us believe that Trump, the demagogic political Svengali, led millions of Americans into a morass of faulty and mean thinking, including an underlying hostility to the American system itself and hence a willingness to see it upended.
This gets it backwards in terms of how American democracy works. It begins with the swirl of political sentiments that rise up from the polity at large and make their way to Washington, where they meet, mesh, clash, sometimes combine, and rise or fall based on their political resonance and that of competing sentiments. Trump didn’t create the attitudes and concerns of his constituency through demagogy; he merely channeled them. And his signal political accomplishment was in perceiving the depth and power of those attitudes at a time when hardly anyone else in American politics could even dimly perceive their existence. Shipler’s portrayal of these people and their anxieties lacks the credibility that comes with efforts to get beneath the surface of prejudice.
Shipler’s dire warnings about the danger to the republic represented by some 47 percent of the electorate calls into question his own faith in the American system. If these people are so dangerous, perhaps we would be better off with a system in which their political influence were curtailed, which seems to be the aim here.
Also intriguing is Shipler’s warning that the new Trump, that sophisticated would-be autocrat, might align himself with “the centers of governmental power.” Trump, he notes, attacked and derided these power centers. But that next guy “would cultivate them, harnessing the intelligence and undercover operations of the CIA and the FBI, the formidable surveillance tools of the National Security Agency, the investigative apparatus of the IRS, the prosecutorial clout of the Justice Department, and perhaps the ultimate threat of the military.” He seems to be talking here about what has become known as the “deep state.”
By way of bolstering his thesis of how the next Trump could threaten American democracy in behalf of the Trump constituency and in alignment with the deep state, Shipler dredges up a lot of old history about deep state abuses uncovered by the U.S. Senate’s Church Committee in the 1970s and other investigations from that era. The abuses were real, and Shipler is correct in suggesting that they represent object lessons for our time.
But Shipler suggests that Trump was simply too frivolous of mind to understand the potency of a deep state alignment or the folly of alienating it.
But Trump didn’t just fail to grasp this opportunity. He actually set himself against the deep state, with its endless wars, its alignment with big defense contractors, its bellicosity in foreign relations on behalf of its hegemonic impulse, its entrenched power wielded in stealthy and deadly ways. So if the deep state truly represents a danger to the republic, as Shipler suggests, shouldn’t the writer be applauding Trump’s stated aim of curtailing its powers and potential for abuse?
And, if the deep state is as prone to abuse as he suggests, he might want to ponder the abusive actions it perpetrated against the first Trump campaign and later the early Trump presidency in that complex and disturbing saga known as Russia-gate. The saga includes a lot of deep state manipulation, evidence of political bias at high levels, misleading warrant applications, illegal leaks to sympathetic news organizations to perpetuate a phony narrative, and much more. For many, it seems, such abuses are troubling only insofar as they are directed at the wrong people.
Finally, one searches the Shipler piece in vain for any hint that he sees validity in the issues brought forth by Trump and that galvanized his constituency over four years. Is immigration a legitimate issue when the percentage of foreign born in America approaches 15 percent, the highest in U.S. history? Do China’s trade abuses constitute a valid national concern? What about the decline of America’s industrial capacity, with so many U.S. jobs obliterated? Is it legitimate for Americans to want their country to stop getting into foreign wars that lack any discernible end point and bear little pertinence to the country’s vital national interests? Is the transformation of America through an entirely novel liberal vision any valid cause of civic concern, or should those who aren’t sure about it supposed to just shut up?
These are some of the issues Trump brought forward when other politicians of both parties sought to ignore or finesse them. He’s on the way out now, having failed to build a political coalition robust enough to give him a second term. Thus did he deserve his political fate in America’s unsentimental political turmoil. But the lingering sentiment of his constituency .. Rather, it’s a natural residue of how our system is supposed to work.
Robert W. Merry, former Wall Street Journal Washington correspondent and CEO of Congressional Quarterly, is the author of five books on American history and foreign policy, including President McKinley: Architect of the American Century (Simon & Schuster).