The search continues for the key to chaos. Where's the catchy description that captures the zeitgeist, encapsulates the anger and illuminates the dreary political landscape? Puzzled voters look and listen to identify the proper leader, but the leading Democrat and Republican candidates post the lowest ratings for honesty, character and trustworthiness. This is surely the winter of our discombobulation.
The growing and unruly crowds are mesmerized by slogans wrapped around factoids repeated so often that they assume an aggressive "truthiness" of their own. Maybe we should all take the advice that Sen. Ted Cruz offered to Donald Trump when he worked himself into a fine lather: "Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. You can do it." It was ever thus. Insults, ad hominem attacks and sexual affronts have been tossed around since the snake won that first crucial debate in the Garden of Eden, persuading Eve that Adam wasn't man enough to rule over her, the beasts of the field and their almost-perfect world.
A little closer to our own time in America, the almost-perfect Thomas Jefferson employed the vicious pamphleteer James Callender to publish lies about the policies and personality of John Adams. He wrote that Adams suffered from a "hermaphroditical character," having neither the toughness of the male nor the sensitivity of the female. The description didn't stick in the Adams biography, but it did its part to deprive him of a second term.
Donald Trump's description of Jeb Bush as a "low-energy guy," a weakling in the employ of the worn-out establishment, hit home because it seemed to accurately portray Bush and his demeanor, reflecting his old and distinguished family at a particular moment in history. Their time had come, and so had Jeb's. He spoke softly in carefully articulated sentences, which was uncharacteristically prim and proper and indicative of a man clearly out of gas in a rowdy political season when everybody must raise his voice to be heard.
By contrast, Donald Trump is his own trumpet, playing rhetoric on a jazz horn and improvising as he goes along. He smacks of authenticity, albeit unpleasant, even when he's boring and repetitive — and maybe especially then. It's tempting to think what that raw and forceful power would do to the heavily scripted Hillary Clinton, so dependent on her teleprompter.
But none of this inspires watching and listening to the Trump insults, delivered up close and personal directly into our living rooms. Like it or not, we become participants. Even when we feel above the rhetoric and the ugly fray, we can hear ourselves joining in a condescending laugh.
Mitt Romney, to his courage and credit, spoke up against the Trump phenomenon last week, calling him "a phony, a fraud." But as the Donald and his friends and supporters quickly remind everyone, Romney's is the voice of a loser who would be running for his second term this year if he had not quailed before President Barack Obama. Though Romney's speech was eloquent, heartfelt and seemed to have a measurable impact on the public opinion polls, he barely dented the aura of Trump's biggest victories in Michigan, Mississippi and Hawaii. The most bruising punches were aimed at Trump's considerable business successes and his reputation as a deal-maker. This is no campaign for nice men, old or not.
The most stinging criticism, said by many, is that there's more than a whiff of fascism in Trump's rhetoric. Comparisons to Hitler and Mussolini are always over the top (der Fuehrer and his pathetic sidekick are all but unique in the annals of evil). But Jeffrey Herf, professor of European history at the University of Maryland, makes an illuminating observation about the way the Donald uses gestures from the old days to build on resentments of the elites.
"Like the fascists of old, he combines an authoritarian style with a populist bad-boy rebelliousness," the professor writes in The American Interest. "In breaking the taboos of civility and civilization, a Trump speech and rally resembles the rallies of fascist leaders who pantomimed the wishes of their followers and let them fill in the text."
Americans have never liked the authoritarian style. We love the rebellious bad boy. Think Huckleberry Finn. Trump is the rebellious bad boy without Huck's endearing ethical core. Satirizing the Donald would be tempting if he were not doing such a good job of it himself. While in Orlando, Fla. for the Florida primary (the home of Mickey Mouse, after all), he got the crowd to raise their right hands high and swear their voter allegiance. Immediate backlash occurred, which he called "ridiculous"; he claimed it was nothing but fun. Some of his overheated critics say that he should have asked the crowd to shout "Heil Trump." That's more frightening than fun.