Liberals can’t hope to beat Trump until they truly understand him

This week brought a fascinating spectacle indeed: Donald Trump telling the unvarnished truth. The occasion was a joint press conference with the stoic-looking president of Finland, three days after Hurricane Harvey made landfall and Trump simultaneously announced his pardon of Joe Arpaio – the notorious former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, who was facing a possible jail sentence for defying a court order to stop racially profiling Latino people. Up popped the White House correspondent for Fox News with a couple of simple questions: why had Trump done it, and what was his response to those people who insisted he was wrong?

There was no reference here to the announcement’s odorous timing, but that was the point Trump chose to address. “In the middle of a hurricane, even though it was a Friday evening, I assumed the ratings would be far higher than they would be normally,” he said. In other words, with Houston succumbing to historic suffering and damage and people glued to their TVs, he saw the perfect opportunity to drop yet another symbolic stunt: a shameful act by any normal political standards – but one that he, being Trump, saw fit to boast about.

We all know the daily drill by now: wake up, check phone, boggle at whatever new outrage Trump has perpetrated. We know too that whereas his presidency once threatened to follow a halfway substantial agenda – America First economics, a withdrawal from commitments abroad, the fabled wall – in any practical terms it has now swerved into a swamp of confusion and incoherence.

From banning trans people from the US armed forces to America’s withdrawal from the Paris climate change accords, his policy announcements have plenty of real-world consequences. But they seem chiefly chosen for the extent to which they play up the US’s howling cultural divisions – while the hourly blasts on Twitter compound the sense of an administration running on rhetoric and symbolism rather than any prospect of concrete achievement.

Viewed from one perspective, all this might suggest desperation and failure. But look at it in a slightly different way, and Trump’s approach might just as well point towards political success. Forty years of what some people call neoliberalism have long since scaled down most people’s expectations of what government can achieve; for most people, politics has tended to resemble a distant game, replete with both irrelevance and tedium, which leaves 99% of lives untouched. In that context, even if he achieves next to nothing, the spectacle of a president endlessly provoking the liberal establishment, speaking to the prejudices of his electoral base, and putting on the mother of all political shows, has an undeniable appeal – to the point that a second Trump term might be a more realistic prospect than many would like to think.

In a recent issue of the New Yorker, a fascinating article on Trump supporters in Grand Junction, Colorado – “a rural place with problems that have traditionally been associated with urban areas”, where Trump took nearly 65% of the vote – made all this explicit. Before the election, voters there had tended to see Trump’s stunts and provocations as proof of the combative qualities he would bring to an imagined reinvention of America and its economy. Now, his daily antics were seemingly close to being the whole point.

“The calculus seemed to have shifted: Trump’s negative qualities, which once had been described as a means to an end, now had value of their own,” writes Peter Hessler, a rare example of a writer who pushes beyond liberal loathing of the president into the reasons why so many people support him. “The point wasn’t necessarily to get things done; it was to retaliate against the media and other enemies. The assumption has always been that, while emotional appeal might have mattered during the campaign, the practical impact of a Trump presidency would prove more important. Liberals claimed that Trump would fail because his policies would hurt the people who had voted for him. But the lack of legislative accomplishment seems only to make supporters take more satisfaction in Trump’s behaviour.”

As evidenced by Blair or Berlusconi, or any number of pre-Trump US presidents, much of politics has long been about performance and provocation, and the frequent imperative to distract the public from awkward realities. Now the Trump experience suggests a new, surreal era with two key elements. First, as evidenced by credible academic studies, many voters’ recognition of his lies does not seem to weaken their support for him. Second, Trump suggests that what might have once been maligned as smoke and mirrors can define the entirety of politics – and, crucially, government – while the increasingly untenable Anglo-American model of capitalism grinds on. Our public discourse is increasingly founded on confrontation, personality cults and dopamine hits. And if everything is a circus, who cares about the bread?

Trump is not the only example. On this side of the Atlantic, Brexit was sold to many who voted for it not as a specified set of outcomes but an infectious feeling, laced with the sense of sticking it to a rotten establishment. And for all the exposure of the leave campaign’s serial lies, the lack of a public backlash is remarkable. As they entered this year’s general election, Theresa May and her allies had almost nothing to say about the economy or society, but campaigned instead on a mess of stuff relating to her supposed character, the idea that she was about to stick it to the French and Germans, and the kind of loathing of left-liberal politics embodied by all those front pages of the Daily Mail. The fact that the Tories were so wrong-footed by a Labour offered some hope, but a substance-free Conservative campaign still attracted the party’s highest share of the vote since 1983.

On both left and right, meanwhile, the bigger cultural-political picture is not exactly encouraging. The dread term “post-truth” barely begins to describe what’s going on. Overheated commentary increasingly takes precedence over old-fashioned journalism. The symbolic seems more important than the practical, so that it is more fashionable to argue over, say, statues we should or should not take down than to think hard about the condition of society, and how a whole array of massive issues – deepening inequalities, ageing, automation, you name it – might be dealt with.

Social media are dissolving the connection between everyday experience and political argument to the point that the latter often seems to take place in its own self-sealed universe, purely as an ever more hysterical kind of entertainment. And from that, no end of awful political consequences could follow.

Certainly, Trump will not be the last leader to so brazenly leave reality behind. We have a whole lexicon – rhetoric, presentation, “spin” – for the supposedly ephemeral aspects of politics, as if beneath them lurks the noble stuff to which we can somehow return. But what if it has gone, and there is no way of getting it back?