John F. Harris
What’s more, views can change over time. Obama was once firmly an adherent of the buffoon thesis. By some accounts, his mockery of Trump at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, while Trump was in the audience, helped embolden the Republican to run for president. Even after the 2016 election, the New York Times reported the other day, Obama was calling Trump “a cartoon,” and only later did he come to believe that the man posed a more fundamental threat to constitutional values and rule of law.
Addressing the interpretive challenge posed by Trump, “There’s no reason to choose among the three,” says Yale historian Timothy Snyder, who wrote the 2017 bestseller On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. “They may be in tension, but there is a way to put them together.” Snyder is one of the leading intellectual apostles of the idea that Trump is a genuine danger, with parallels in the bloody history of Europe. Buffoonery can serve the authoritarian’s purpose, he noted, by distracting attention from important matters, and most authoritarians in history have tapped into some vein of popular support, even if that is marked by prejudice and exclusion.
Confronting Trump, however, has always been a good bit more complicated for his foes than simply indexing all the reasons they don’t like him and trying to convince voters why those reasons are sound. That is because Trump’s appeal depends on being criticized—in the same way a plant can’t thrive without both water and light.
It’s useful to consider the distinction between politicians who have absolute appeal versus those who have relative appeal. One good example is Ronald Reagan. To many conservatives, he has absolute appeal—his political and personal traits represent the beau ideal of how presidents should act, in any time or in any circumstances. Many progressives feel the same way about Barack Obama.
But even many—possibly most—Trump supporters don’t think his raffish, roguish, divisive and disruptive style represents the ideal of how presidents should act. They just think his brand of politics is right for this moment. His appeal is relative—compared with the hypocrisy or venality or ineffectuality of conventional politics. Data from the Harris polling firm for Harvard’s Center for American Political Studies indicates roughly 40 percent of people who support Trump as a president either dislike him as a person or are indifferent.
So critics can roll their eyes and make fun of Trump as a buffoon if they wish. The risk from a liberal perspective is that this looks complacent—do you think an authoritarian in our midst is a laughing matter?—and from a pro-Trump perspective it looks like you are patronizing his supporters. The joke may be on you, just as it was on Obama at the end of his term.
Or critics can raise their voices in alarm that he is an incipient American fascist. The risk is that this looks overwrought—and thrills Trump supporters, who love their candidate precisely because he offends liberal pieties.