Trump's Troubles Inspire Epic Schadenfreude
Last Tuesday night, writer Jared Yates Sexton attended a Donald Trump rally in Greensboro, North Carolina, and live-Tweeted the experience. He would later write about the night for The New Republic, but that story didn’t have nearly the effect his Tweets did: Sexton, in real time, chronicled every liberal’s most terrifying fears about, and worst stereotypes of, Donald Trump supporters.
His whole report is Storified here. When an anti-Trump person closes his or her eyes and imagines what a Trump rally is like, that’s what they see. It is vivid and terrifying. It is also unquestionably addictive to read; an anti-Trumper cannot get enough. New York senior editor Max Read, linking to Sexton’s Storify, coined it “Trump porn.”
For a year now, the average liberal — or Democrat, or centrist Republican, or, some might argue, sentient empathetic human being — has watched Trump’s rise (and the increasingly feeble attempts to stop him) with growing horror, as if he were a zeppelin filled with plutonium floating aimlessly toward a bus of cherubic children. The problem was not just that Trump was saying so many things that offended their sensibilities; the problem was that he was winning. It was one thing to see the people like those at Sexton’s rally cheering him on; it was another entirely to see Paul Ryan or John McCain or even signature Trump hater Lindsey Graham on board. The fear was that Trump was becoming mainstreamed: That he was nearing acceptance. You were afraid to look.
Over the last two weeks, though, as Trump has bungled his general election pivot with a series of tone-deaf speeches and lack of organizational infrastructure, the terror his rise inspired has given way to a very different, but equally powerful emotion: Liberals mortified by Trump’s rise have had a fortnight of mollification, a constant stream of stories about Trump gaffes, Trump organizational missteps, Trump intra-party warfare and, most of all, Trump collapsing in polls. It has led to new, and undeniable, form of Trump Porn: After months of hiding under their desks, liberals and Never Trumps can’t get enough. Trump’s June swoon has provided Trump Porn by the bushelful.
The sensation is palpable, the guilty excitement of watching a man implode in front of everyone’s very eyes. Trump’s inability to appropriately pivot — to recognize the fundamental difference between a primary and a general election, between riding the party line and careening gleefully into a ditch — has been a nightmare for fellow Republicans, but it has been a cathartic release for those who have spent the last year flabbergasted by his rise. Whenever negative Trump news pops, it’s consumed with a near-erotic fervor.
On Monday morning, the most definitive piece of Trump implosion news, arrived: the parting of ways with Corey Lewandowski, the controversial campaign manager, less than a month before the Republican convention.
The sensation of giddiness – unhinged, riotous giddiness – that Trump porn classics like this provide is addictive partly because it is proof that political gravity does, in fact, exist. The whole first year of Trump’s campaign seemed to fly in the face of this; Trump could say whatever he wanted – Bush was to blame for the 9/11 attacks! McCain wasn't a war hero because he was captured in Viet Nam! Women menstruate and it’s totally gross! – and not only avoid suffering any consequences, but in fact thrive because of those assertions. Trump got away with everything for one year. And then, suddenly, thanks to some ill-advised comments, a misunderstanding of the general electorate, some smart maneuvering by the Clinton camp and, ultimately, just Trump being Trump, it all went kapoof in June. Some campaign observers have been feeling like Cavaliers fans for two weeks.
The problem with that, of course, is that the NBA Finals are over: The Cavaliers have won the championship, and it cannot be taken away from them. But this election still has more than four months to go.
In truth, the feeling that Trump Porn inspires is a fairly precise mirror image of what his supporters have been enjoying over the past few months. It's fantastic entertainment—but it's not really politics. Much of Trump’s appeal lay in a certain nihilism, and many people voted for Trump because they want to watch the old world of politics burn. And cheering for Trump to suffer that fate might be cathartic—but it’s not necessarily healthy. Eventually the current media narrative of a failing Trump, with its glorious, colorful explosions, will fade—it is the gravity of the business. The question is how we will all feel in the morning.
—Will Leitch reports for Bloomberg Politics on the intersection of politics and media.