Donald Trump: The Michael Dukakis of the Republican Party

Two takes on last night’s debate, one from last night, one from this morning.


The single biggest impression I took away from tonight’s debate—beyond the fact that Clinton clearly dominated (with the exception of the opening discussion on jobs and trade)—is how thoroughly conventional a Republican Donald Trump is.

On economics, Trump’s main platform is tax cuts and deregulation. On race and social policy, his main platform is law and order. On foreign policy, his main policy is, well, actually I don’t know. Something about good deals and fee for services.

For all the talk of Trump as somehow a break, both in terms of substance and style, with Republican candidates past, virtually everything he said last night—again, with the exception of his talk on trade and, maybe, NATO—hearkened back to Republican candidates and nominees of the 1970s and 1980s.

With this difference: Trump is a spectacularly ineffective communicator. That Derridean drip of sentences without subjects, references without referents: it’s like a street that goes nowhere. Not even to a dead end.

As for Clinton, as I said, she clearly dominated, at times even seeming like a happy warrior, which is the sweet spot for any candidate.

Her center of gravity, the place where she seems most herself and at home, is foreign policy. Particularly on the question of how to deal with Iran. There we saw what she really thinks and who she really is.

On the economics front, I thought she was weak, but when she finally got to question of his tax returns, she found a way to best Trump, albeit without much of a focused, ideologically coherent alternative. (Then again, he might have bested her there: I sometimes wonder if a certain kind of voter hears him saying it’s smart not to pay taxes and thinks, fuck yeah, I want to be him. I don’t think that’s the majority, but it’s a constituency.)

What seems pretty clear, coming away from that debate, is that both parties are ideologically exhausted. Trump is replaying a script from the 1970s, and Clinton’s only answer is herself, that she clearly looks and acts more presidential. This could have been an election, and a debate, that covered new ground. It looks like, for better or for worse, we’ll be re-treading the same old, same old.


Traditionally, academic and media types favor the candidate who’s mastered the policy details, a form of mastery that those commentators equate with smarts. Then these commentators confront, in their heads, the stereotypical voter who responds at the level of gut and emotion, which commentators equate with love of flag and whichever candidate is bro-ish enough to have a beer with. Personally, I loathe that dichotomy: it reduces intelligence to Vox and Brookings; it makes no room for ideology, which is a unity of affect and idea, narrative, history, futurity, analysis and material fact; and it sets up conservatism as the natural party of the people.

But, if we’re going to go there, I think there’s no question that Clinton won precisely on the ground that is supposed to traditionally favor Republicans and men. She definitely didn’t win on policy mastery or detail; whenever she went into those weeds, she just came out with a word salad. No, she won by communicating, entirely at the level of affect, strength without seeming threatening or scary (both in terms of how men and women traditionally—and differentially—get judged). She seemed very much in command and in control, radiating confidence without smugness. She was tough and firm, and increasingly happy as time went on. She almost seemed authentic, and in her element.

It was Trump in fact who got lost in his inimitable version of wonkery. There was the endless recitation of who in the media he spoke to when about Iraq. There were the multiple names (Sidney Blumenthal) and policies (“carried interest”) and institutions (ICE) that no one, outside of a few wonks and rich people, knows or understands. There were the pseudo-intellectual rhetorical ploys (“semi-exact,” which sounded like something straight out of Hofstadter’s “Paranoid Style” essay). And those weird divagations about how money goes out of the country, it needs to get back into the country, but it keeps staying out of the country, and when it finally does get back into the country, it only turns around and goes back out again.

As I was watching him, I thought of another failed candidate of the past who got lost in his own words and details. Trump, last night, was the Michael Dukakis of the Republican Party.


  1. gigiistheone September 27, 2016 at 10:38 am | #

    Cheers! Spot on!

  2. singleguynyc September 27, 2016 at 11:05 am | #

    Great analysis! Could you elaborate on the “Derridean drip” reference? I assume this has to do with the philosopher but I’m not familiar. Thanks!

  3. stevenjohnson September 27, 2016 at 11:17 am | #

    Dukakis was the candidate tagged as weak, the Willie Horton appeaser, the dude who couldn’t even muster the balls to say he’d kill his wife’s rapist/murderer, the poser in a talk looking like Alfred E. Neuman. No doubt any single item can be over touted as “the” cause of Dukakis’ ignominious defeat. But…”lost in words and details…?”

  4. jonnybutter September 27, 2016 at 11:25 am | #

    What is different about Trump is that he’s not a politician (and i don’t mean that in the current, braggadolicious, rhetorical sense of the phrase, but that he’s really not a politician), and that he’s also not otherwise even minimally qualified to be president. David Cay Johnson tweeted last night that HRC should ask him what the formal constitutional duties of the president are – a great question, bc I’m sure Trump has no idea. It’s a silly question, but a fun way to make Trump look like the fool he is.

    I like the idea that Trump is the Dukakis of the GOP. What’s scary, though, is that HRC might lose to just about any other Republican (and she could conceivably lose to DJT). The Dems think the GOP is dying ideologically, but think *they’re* fine. They are SO fucking blind.

    foreign policy. Particularly on the question of how to deal with Iran….we saw what she really thinks and who she really is.

    Yes, alas.

  5. gracchibros September 27, 2016 at 11:57 am | #

    Well, I hope you are right, Corey, I agree with most of this assessment. Yet so much depends on the interior state of perception of millions of others very different than us. Out here in Western Maryland, Trump signs were very scarce through the primaries, and only have begun blossoming over the past two weeks, almost exactly matching the timing of Trump’s “surge” in the polls. In all my walking, I’ve seen only one “Clinton-Kaine” sign, and in its isolation, those two names seemed as lonely and unknown as obscure candidates for a “Board of Education” seat. Banning “fracking” is the issue soaking up the political passion here, and in Maryland in general.

    Late modernity, late Neoliberalism, delineated in its troubles by Martin Wolfe’s late August warning in the Financial Times, has deeply fragmented modes of perception, except perhaps among elites at the top of the economic pile, a moment similar to late “Fin-De Siecle” Europe, Vienna, if you like, or Weimar Germany. And this election is occuring under an “economic pause,” meaning no obvious crisis, the next recession, which we are chronologically overdue for, nor a new financial panic. But the deeper passions of the whole year in America have been shaped by the 30-40 year curve of stagnating wages, a declining minimum wage in terms of actual value, de-industrialization, a dramatic reshaping of the cultural and sexual landscape, then 2008-2009, the statistics on the rising white blue collar suicide, drug addiction and alcohol abuse rates, the shocking fact of 47,000 drug deaths per year, to go with gun violence and the whole spectre painted by Michelle Alexander and Matt Taibbi in their books, “The New Jim Crow” and “The Divide,” the cruel irony now of the term “Equal Justice Under Law,” and from the Federal Reserve’s own recent data showing that 45-60% of the population does not have the savings to meet a mini-financial crisis of $400-$1,000…

    Did anything I listed here surface last night? The only thing good I can say about Trump, and I hesitate to do this, is that he paints a more accurate “mood” picture than Clinton of what so many are feeling, not the top 20% certainly…but after that his policies dissolve into old conservative mantras and self-contradictions, as you have pointed out. Is either canditate ready for their Andrew Bacevich “moment” on the Middle East: that we have failed spectacularly for 30 years, at the cost of thousands of American lives, hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern lives, at the $ cost of trillions, and are now engaged in “special operations” in scores and scores of countries…I think Bacevitch put the figure at over 100. And the fundatmentalist ghosts keep rising up to replace the ones that we “took out.”

    How this dyamic will hold up domestically under future great economic strain is not pleasant to contemplate.

  6. Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant September 27, 2016 at 1:38 pm | #

    “Particularly on the question of how to deal with Iran. There we saw what she really thinks and who she really is.”

    I am less sure about that. I suspect that the “we-forced-Iran-to-the-negotiating-table” line was a buzz-reference intended to assuage hawks in and out of her party on the matter of her “toughness” (with those Middle Eastern types) but it does not really suggest what she actually believes. Yes, I am suggesting that she was less than candid there.

    Rather, given her recent history I suspect that she and Obama and Secretary Kerry know quite different from that public pronouncement. Heck, some of us remember the news of Karl Rove stopping President George W. Bush’s Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice from getting a diplomatic correspondence from the Iranians regarding an openness to negotiations on nuclear matters (especially since the Iranians helped the U.S. by providing some intelligence on members of the Taliban in Afghanistan) AND the CIA’s own assessment that Iran had ended their nuke weapons interest at least as far back as 2003. I think Ms. Clinton is very aware of all of this, and was in full knowledge of it when during the debate she discussed Iran and the basis for that nation’s leadership’s willingness to talk things out. Simply put, Iran was not intimidated into negotiations. But I guess it makes a declining but still consequential imperialist superpower free good about itself to tell itself that other nations crumple under the weight of its righteous might.

    But for a brief précis on the matter, here is this from Think Progress:

    And this for a little more depth on the gap between reality and Ms. Clinton’s Iran assertions (and importantly, this tendency by American officials to make the U.S. look both strong and moral, and morally effective):

    But let me close with a cut-and-paste from the last paragraphs from the Think Progress piece, as it says it all:

    “And as independent political analyst Nima Shirazi has noted, the real diplomatic breakthrough came when the United States stopped trying to prevent Iran from enriching any uranium — something that isn’t currently banned under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), of which Iran is a signatory.

    “But even if sanctions were what brought Iran to the negotiating table, and made the Iranian nuclear agreement possible, Clinton also called for more sanctions the same day that the deal went into effect.”

    I remember that moment, and how the press reported that it appeared that Ms. Clinton had openly opposed her former boss President Obama (could that be seen as an early campaign gesture?) and Secretary Kerry. Does anyone else?

    • jonnybutter September 27, 2016 at 6:56 pm | #

      Hey Donald,

      I can’t speak for CR, but the reason I cited this is that I think she does know what’s actually happening w/ Iran and still said what she may not believe. What it says about her is that she’s cynical and finds some way to flatter herself about it – like other DC bigshots do.

      Maybe she feels the need to be just a little more ‘tough’. It’s the liberal way – outsmart the conservatives by….doing what *they* would do if they were in office. ‘Cept it’s YOU in office.

  7. ignorantlibrarian September 27, 2016 at 2:33 pm | #

    Corey, I hope you are right. I want to believe that enough people heard in last night’s debate what you did: a performance of strength and authenticity on the one hand, and on the other, in that unfathomable gullet, the death-rattle of an ideologically exhausted conservatism, the winds of history shaking a scarecrow.

    But I fear that people might have heard only more of this: from Clinton, a basically intractable appeal to reason, or rather to a particular ideology of reason, i.e, the technocratic rationality promulgated by neoliberalism for the past half a century. True, under pressure from the left she has tempered this appeal with elements of an old-school, Keynesian liberalism, combined with a stirring personal narrative. But that brand of reason having crept into every nook of public and private life, more and more people have, over the past decade, come to feel how brittle it is, how little it can support the grand edifice of its promises. Clinton appeals to her own integrity and commitment, but she appeals also to policy, and policy, in the hands of our neoliberal elite, has proven a hollow thing. Obama’s presidency has been policy’s last great hope — if anyone could give it guts and sinews and heart, it was this community organizer from Chicago, born to a White mother and a Black father, like the Redeemer of America’s historical sins — and also the last gasp of policy. For the Redeemer has come, and he has brought only more Chicago-school thinking; beneath his pulpitarian voice there is the hum of drones. Clinton tells a compelling story — the story of commitment to a faith. But her faith rests with this form of reason that seems less and less capable of commanding the world, and less and less worthy of our respect.

    And in response, Trump spins pure mythology. His stammering belabors a parsimonious grammar, in which there are only agents (“China”), actions (“they’re taking our jobs”) and qualities (“bad,” “tremendous”), and precious little abstraction. Money is an agent in Trump’s world, but that’s virtually the only exception. Policy, being an abstraction, can’t be an agent: hence Trump talks about “politicians.” Nor can structural racism be a reality, because structures don’t have agency. People have agency, but not the people – not the collective whose specific form of rationality those on the left have long sought to understand. Rather, Trump appears to inhabit a world of heroes (and villains), a world where power is above all a personal attribute. Trump’s mythology is a form of anti-reason, and on account of that, he argues from a position of strength: however incoherent, his boasts and insults can look like merely the mirror held up to an ugliness that he is here to do battle with.

    Of course, as you point out, this mythology wheezes out of the most brittle parts of the superstructure, which Clinton coaxes into the notes of pragmatic statecraft. And of course, a Trump victory would hasten its collapse. And no one who understands this much would want to let Trump win — no one, that is, who can’t afford not to care about a premature burial. But that leaves a lot of people – those who are too old to care, or too young, to too in thrall to their own ressentiment, to their own sense of lost privilege and slow death in the face of a power and a knowledge that doesn’t appear to recognize them.

    But as I said, I hope you are right and I am merely being fanciful here…

  8. Roquentin September 27, 2016 at 3:14 pm | #

    I shut it off after 30 minutes. I just couldn’t anymore. I’m surprised I made it that far. Of all the bullshit said, the thing that finally tore it for me was when Hillary and Trump were arguing over NAFTA, which Trump’s account of was sadly closer to the truth, and Hillary responded with something to the effect that “My husband’s policies worked very well.” I don’t know what naive, foolish part of me still wanted to believe that with several decades of hindsight HRC might finally see the error in the policies of neoliberal deregulation and trade deals of the 90s, but no…of course not. Nothing changes. I knew in that moment the whole thing was a hideous farce, not worth paying attention to. I at pizza and played video games instead. It was a good trade.

    But afterwards I had a much more depressing thought, perhaps the bleakest conclusion of this entire election cycle. What if Sanders, rather than the wave of the future, was the last desperate gasp from a dying American democracy? What if he was hanging on like some sad Coda, a reprise of New Deal era liberalism which showed just how out of place that kind of politics was in 2016. What if he represented the last decent chance for the elites running the country to redeem themselves, which they decisively passed on?

    I thought about Charles the II, The Bewitched King of Spain, who was hopelessly deformed as a result of lots of inbreeding by the Hapsburgs to maintain their stranglehold on power. They managed to make him king in spite of the fact he could barely speak or chew solid food. His disabilities made him impotent, ultimately setting off the war of the Spanish Succession which would rage on for some 14 years. But what I really thought about was that it took the elite forcing grotesque spectacles like that on the population for a political system like Monarchy to finally come unglued.

    All of this was so bleak, that maybe American democracy was broken beyond repair, that I couldn’t even post about it on Facebook. I drank some bourbon and went to bed. This awful shitshow can’t be over soon enough.

    • Glenn September 27, 2016 at 5:02 pm | #

      I preemptively put on a Lars von Trier movie, one that would have matched my mood if I had subjected myself to the debates. (The movie, mercifully, ends but the nauseating decline in this pretense of democracy seems never to end.)

      So I followed my dose of von Trier with some psychic care for my dasein by watching “Being There.” Nothing as uplifting for me as the scenes of Peter Sellers walking out into his brave new world to the tune of Richard Strauss’s “Thus Spake Zarathustra.”

  9. James Schmidt September 27, 2016 at 3:37 pm | #

    I knew Mike Dukakis (well, slightly, we were once on the same dissertation defense — he brought an apple so he could have something to eat … a nice touch!) and Donald Trump is no Mike Dukakis.

    • Glenn September 27, 2016 at 5:07 pm | #

      No, Donald Trump is a Mike Ditka, and vice versa.

      Sure to get, among others less vile, the cave man vote.

  10. Ken Rosenberg September 27, 2016 at 11:36 pm | #

    The Donald did a little anti-Semitic dog-whistling when he kept repeating “Sidney Blumenthal.” There was another person with a very Jewish name whose name he mentioned in a strange place and way.

    • nechaev September 28, 2016 at 8:57 am | #

      The Donald did a little anti-Semitic dog-whistling when he kept repeating “Sidney Blumenthal.”

      seems a bit of s stretch to put it mildly, given that “The Donald” just last week met with Netanyahu and pledged to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. But no doubt the Hillary campaign will be floating this meme in the coming days

      • jonnybutter September 28, 2016 at 5:11 pm | #

        Not a stretch at all. Trump tries to be different things to different people. What’s remarkable is not that he does that, nor even the ridiculous degree to which he does it, but that both Nazis and RW Zionists seem to both be ok with each other. I mean, I don’t hear Netanyahu complaining about it, nor David Duke or other Nazis. So…??

  11. mark September 28, 2016 at 9:15 am | #

    Trump speaks in a chatroomese of the 1990s, a decade in which having no foreign policy at the end of history was momentarily fashionable.

    Transcribing the vocal into words is always difficult, but I would want to use ALL CAPITALS in some parts of his speech, !!!!!! is others, and / after / rather than full stops (‘periods’ in US, I think).

    He gave that sort of detail the internet obsessionist and contrarian loves to give to shut down any response as they use a forum designed for open-endedness.

  12. D-loot (@Dee_loot) September 30, 2016 at 9:18 am | #

    I sometimes wonder if a certain kind of voter hears him saying it’s smart not to pay taxes and thinks, fuck yeah, I want to be him. I don’t think that’s the majority, but it’s a constituency.

    My dad hates Trump but he’s definitely in that constituency. He’s educated, technical, middle class. He told me that statement really resonated with him.

Leave a Reply