The Bulwark Presents
The Triad by JVL

Donald Trump Is Political Meth

July 19, 2019
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Donald Trump. (Photo by Michael Reynolds - Pool/Getty Images)

1. Chicken v. Egg

Yesterday I trotted out my theory that Donald Trump is a symptom of where America is as a country, not a cause.

Reader E.P. wrote in to take the other side of that:

I go back and forth as to how much Trump is a symptom vs. a cause. You’re certainly right that a healthy republic wouldn’t let him get anywhere near the presidency. On the other hand, I’m reminded of a quote whose origin I can’t seem to find: “A man may drink because he is wretched, but he becomes even more wretched because he drinks.” Trump has taken a sick culture and made it even worse.

I see Trump as a symptom so powerful that it becomes its own cause, kind of like a political hard drug. Let’s pretend that Trump is political meth. (Heroin is a more timely analogy, but meth is perhaps more closely associated with rural whites and—like Trump—it makes you want to fight people.)

Despite their electoral successes, Republicans in 2015-16 were feeling more and more isolated and culturally marginalized, so in a moment of weakness, they took a hit of meth. It made them feel invincible, so they took more. It even appeared to have helped them succeed when they won the 2016 election. Three years in, though, the Republican party looks like . . . someone who has been doing tons of meth for three years. It’s not pretty.

If you’re deep into meth addiction, you’ve probably lost your job, friends, family, and self-respect. All you have is the meth. This makes you cling even tighter to the very thing that has ruined your life, because despite its terrible long-term effects, every hit (tweet) gives you another burst of that sweet, sweet power that first drew you to the drug.

The meth doesn’t fix your old problems. Whatever problems you had before you got hooked on it, they get bigger. But the meth also creates new problems in entirely different categories, too. Again: The analogy with the Republican party here seems pretty on point.

Was the GOP’s metaphorical descent into meth addiction inevitable? I don’t think so. What if Chris Christie hadn’t suicide-bombed Rubio in that debate? What if the Access Hollywood tape had come out during the primaries? What if Hillary had made one more trip through the Midwest? A lot of things could have changed. Maybe the party would have ended up with a less destructive addiction, like political caffeine pills. Or maybe it would have gone straight to Fentanyl and been dead by now.

So maybe the truth is that Trump is both symptom and aggravating factor.