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 Paul Ryan is a fundamentalist libertarian whose economic plan would have devastating consequences for America’s poor, or that George W. Bush’s misadventures in the Middle East destabilized the entire region while costing millions of lives. Similarly, it doesn’t matter that Barack Obama helped shepherd in marriage equality, along with health insurance for millions of formerly uninsured Americans.
All that matters, in both the media’s eyes and the general public, is that these people are Not Trump—and are therefore possessors of a certain kind of political respectability.
This erasure of political differences is certain to have profound, if unknowable, consequences. A lot of policy fights which seemed as though they mattered at the time—which did matter at the time—now seem relatively picayune in relation to the great culture war which Trump has precipitated. George W. Bush, who was not long ago the most divisive president in a lifetime, now seems as though he has more in common with, say, Bill Clinton than he does with the nominee of the Republican Party.
It has always been difficult for politicians to campaign on policies, as opposed to personalities and the power of inchoate narratives. But now it is harder than ever. This year, the effect is likely to be felt strongly in down-ticket races, where Democratic and Republican candidates are finding it incredibly hard to cut through the noise of the presidential race and to have substantive debates at least at the state level, or within Congressional districts.
And in future years, would-be presidential candidates are going to want to harness anger, rather than simply propose policies which will make the country a better place. Similarly, Trump voters are not easily going to revert to voting for some mild-mannered technocrat, whatever her place on the left-right spectrum. Trump has shaken up not only the Republican party but the entire American political system. And it’s hard to imagine that his brand of fiery invective will leave the stage when he does.