Donald Trump’s Unsurprising Surprise

Exclusive: Donald Trump’s ascension to the Republican presidential nomination was predictable, paved by years of right-wing fear-mongering and dissemination of anti-knowledge, says former GOP congressional staffer Mike Lofgren.

By Mike Lofgren

A lot of pundits have egg on their faces. Nate Cohn recently issued a mea culpa in the New York Times confessing his underestimation of Donald Trump. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank has even had to make good on his bet that he would literally eat his words if the real estate mogul were nominated.

As late as September 2015, esteemed numbers whiz Nate Silver was telling us that Trump had a 5 percent chance of winning the Republican nomination. Déjà vu: as with the awful consequences of invading Iraq or selling no-documentation mortgages to indigent homebuyers, most of our designated experts didn’t see it coming.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in an MSNBC interview.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in an MSNBC interview.

My experience with GOP politics was a bit more up-close and personal than that of most pundits. For 28 years, I worked on Capitol Hill as a Republican staffer. The 2008 selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as vice presidential candidate was embarrassing enough to me, but once the congressional GOP appeared eager to drive the country into a debt default in 2011, I decided to leave and become a political independent.

By that point it seemed plausible to me that Trump – or someone similar – was likely if not inevitable. Although conservative ideologues denounce him for being doctrinally impure, he is the logical culmination of deeper psychological trends both in the party and the broader American culture that I have observed over the years.

Since the demise of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, the Conservative Media-Entertainment Complex – Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and all the rest – has poisoned the well of civic engagement with rancor, scapegoating and pessimism about the state of the nation. These self-styled super-patriots seem to get a thrill from talking down the country, and if you add up all the groups they condemn, their targets probably constitute a majority of the U.S. population.

This cultural pessimism was an ingredient in the makeup of fascist movements during the Twentieth Century: enemies are at our borders; the deadliest enemy is within; the nation will collapse if we don’t purge subversive elements.

As film maker Jen Senko has documented, a steady diet of Fox News alarmism can make viewers angry, paranoid and irrational. With that kind of conditioning, is it any wonder that many Republicans are susceptible to Trump’s description of the world’s foremost economic and military power – us – as “weak” and “pathetic?”

Deliberate Obstruction

A related cause of Trump’s rise is the GOP’s political strategy, which only deepens the pessimism that Republican media have fanned. Gridlock, filibusters, government shutdowns, playing chicken with the debt limit: they all reinforce the belief that the country is ungovernable.

A senior Republican Capitol Hill staffer once explained to me – approvingly – that it was a conscious strategy to create gridlock and lower the public approval of Congress. These alleged worshippers of the Constitution would cripple and discredit the branch of government that is the first and arguably premier institution listed in that document.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.

Republicans have attempted to repeal Obamacare 62 times, but for the last six years we have been waiting in vain for the Republican health care plan to replace it. When they do not have undisputed control of government (and we have seen the fiscal and human disasters unleashed when they have dominated Kansas, Louisiana, and Michigan), the GOP is determined to seize up the gears.

Abraham Lincoln’s accusation against the antebellum slavocracy applies: “Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is that you will destroy the Government . . . You will rule or ruin in all events.”

If this is the new politics-as-usual, who can blame people for supporting an imperious outsider who promises to break the deadlock by knocking heads together? Trumpism was brewed in the kitchen of Mitch McConnell, the senator who vowed to derail Obama’s presidency.

I have written before about the GOP’s contribution to anti-knowledge in our society. As Nineteenth-Century humorist Josh Billings put it, “The trouble with people is not that they don’t know, but that they know so much that ain’t so.”

Despite three decades of evidence that tax cuts do not pay for themselves, Republican politicians hew to that line with dogmatic persistence. A couple of millennia of history ought to have taught us that invasions of the Middle East are not likely to go well, but the GOP was gung-ho about Iraq and questioned the patriotism of skeptics.

Many in the Republican base believe with a faith that transcends evidence that Obamacare authorizes death panels just as Obama himself is Kenyan born. Under those circumstances, why should it surprise us when Trump promises $12 trillion in tax cuts while eliminating the $19-trillion national debt in eight years, or claims that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the Kennedy assassination?

Anti-knowledge is virulent in the GOP, but it is a problem in the larger society as well. A study by the journal Science polled on public attitudes about evolution in the United States, 32 European countries, Turkey and Japan; the only country where acceptance of evolution was lower than in ours was Islamic Turkey. States like Louisiana mandate that public schools teach the bogus “controversy” about evolution.

This epistemic closure, whereby facts are a matter of political opinion, threatens not only the country’s future scientific preeminence, but our ability to have rational discussions about public policy. Trump’s rise is a fire bell in the night warning us of a dangerous cultural development.

Fear and Authoritarianism

For the past 15 years, the people who constitute our bipartisan elite consensus – politicians, generals, media personalities, think-tank experts – have been dinning into our heads the message that we must be very afraid of terrorism, despite the fact that we are more likely to die slipping in the bathtub than in a terrorist attack. It has worked.

Voters in the Republican primary in South Carolina, where Trump won in a walk, declared terrorism their foremost concern, eclipsing a low-wage economy, deteriorating living standards leading to an increase in the death rate of GOP voters’ core demographic, and the most expensive and least available health care in the developed world.

Talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh

Talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh

The fear that our elite consensus fostered has awakened the latent authoritarianism and paranoia that lurk in all too many ordinary people. This dynamic explains why Trump’s candidacy took off like a moon rocket in November and December of 2015, the period of the terrorist attack in Paris and the murders in San Bernardino.

Government officials and the media whipped up a mood in the country that approached hysteria; Trump deftly exploited it. By being the only politician brazen enough to openly advocate torture – not merely to gain information (a dubious claim), but to inflict pain for its own sake – he tapped into the revenge fantasies of millions of Americans who have been fed a steady diet of fear since 9/11.

We have deluded ourselves that the United States could be a “normal” country while waging a seemingly endless war on terror. We have likewise believed we could carry on with one of our political parties behaving like an apocalyptic cult, along with our public discourse being polluted by bogus “facts” amplified by ferociously partisan media.

Donald Trump is merely a symptom, not the cause, of these troubling cultural markers. His political ascent, then, is really no surprise, as I sensed when I said “goodbye to all that” on Capitol Hill five years ago.

Mike Lofgren is a former congressional staff member who served on both the House and Senate budget committees. His latest book, The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government, appeared in January 2016.

30 comments for “Donald Trump’s Unsurprising Surprise

  1. Norma J. Price
    May 14, 2016 at 12:10

    It reminds me of a cartoon picturing an old man and an old woman loaded down with all kinds of junk on top of their jalopy. The woman is a back seat driver who says to her husband, “Don’t make a move, Harry, we’ll lose everything we’ve got.”

  2. May 13, 2016 at 13:55

    Sociologists tell us that one of the biggest factors determining the success of a society is the overall level of trust in its institutions. Republicans have conducted a well-financed 40-year war on trust in government, the media, academia, science, and facts in general. We are sadly reaping the rewards.

  3. Chuck
    May 13, 2016 at 11:44

    At the risk of sounding like a fanboy, I must say this. I don’t know if it’s his writing style or thought processes behind the writing, but I believe Mike Lofgren is one of the most politically astute observers of our time. He is always insightful and, to me at least, always a joy to read. “The Party Is Over” was a gratifying read. “The Deep State” scares the bejesus out of me but I love that book nonetheless. Reading unfiltered truth is always a delight for me, spoken and unspoken tragedies included. These are our shared tragedies, America. Look at it. We have to face up to what we have become. Mike shoves the mirror in our collective face. When I see the name Mike Lofgren on a news article, I have to read it immediately. I want to know what he is thinking. I hope Mike keeps doing his critical work revealing the truth. I wish more people cared about truth. I wish more people were like Mike.

  4. EllaDara
    May 13, 2016 at 08:46

    If Trump wins the presidential election, it will be the first time in history that a billionaire moved into public housing, vacated by a black family.

  5. Ted KIrcher
    May 12, 2016 at 21:02

    My current choice of Trump is not primarily due to good qualities, but to the lower qualities of the (current) leading Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton. I am a Democrat, and if Bernie Sanders (albeit no terrific candidate) beats Hillary, I would vote for him, PS: It is “troubling” that Hillary’s issues have not been completely resolved by now – and there is currently no date set for that to happen.

    • Kiza
      May 13, 2016 at 01:36

      You are the closest to a sensible Democratic Party voter than one can be. Personally, I find Sanders tolerable (although not sure about his Marxism) and Trump the necessary and lesser evil than Hillary. There is simply nothing worse than Hillary, unless you are looking forward to the Rapture, of course.

  6. Evangelista
    May 12, 2016 at 20:46

    To understand the “Trump Phenomenon” you have to go back to the “Jimmy Carter phenomenon”, study the issues and eras in each case, the instigations, the state of the political-nation, its ownership of government and corruption and the effects on the nonpolitical-nation, the common majority, the majority with sport-advocacy preferences and party-line loyalties set aside.

    When you do this you become able to recognize Donald Trump a Jummy Carter with a brash and loud and in-your-face ‘New York Style’ instead of the soft-spoken, quiet and thougtful ‘Southern Style Jimmy Carter employed. Both stand on principles, instead of party platforms, asserting their rights as Americans to hold their views, and advocating for freedoms to be individual and to hold, unabashedly, individual views.

    Both were/are declared by the drones to be inexperienced and unqualified for the ‘extreme complexities’ of the office Ronald Reagan was able to “administer” in his sleep, though both have the qualifications framers of the Constitution carried to the task of forming that definition of not only one office, but the whole of a government and governing structure (which, if it were in active state today would be providing us all a better government than the ‘tourniquet-of-law’ experts of today have twisted us into).

    Think, on the days you feel worried, how a Trump presidency can not be worse than a Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush-Obama one has been, and, even in its worse moments will carry a directness and honesty in expression that will refresh everything and everyone. Doing this we should be able to make every minute a fun one…

    • Peter Loeb
      May 14, 2016 at 09:52


      . I will not go before my Maker having committed the act of
      giving consent to be governed by either one of these dangerous
      people…” Brad Owens, comment above

      I am not sure about “my Maker”. But to use other phrases,
      I cannot control many things but I do not want to face myself
      (not my Maker) in having expressed any support of either
      Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. I will not vote for President
      this year. My own vote is mine and mine alone. I can decide
      whether to use it or how. That decision was made long ago.

      (Incidentally, I too was taught again and again about my
      “duty” to vote. “When I was a child, I thought as a child…
      now I put away childish things.”)

      —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  7. Bill Cash
    May 12, 2016 at 19:34

    The republican party is truly slime. They are now finding ways to line up behind Trump. They don’t care about his racism, his misogency or religious bias which they’ve been playing for years but not openly. Trump just brought into the open and they will fall into line. They don’t give a damn about the country or the people, just their own power which comes from the rich. Anyone who thinks Trump will do anything against the rich is a fool. He is one of them. and will never hurt himself in any way. For him it’s all about Donald Trump.

    • Bill Bodden
      May 12, 2016 at 22:07

      For him it’s all about Donald Trump

      True. And for Hillary it’s all about Hillary.

      • Brad Owen
        May 13, 2016 at 05:31

        There really is nothing to choose from, between these two candidates, just two slightly different ways of descending into the abyss. That may be our karmic “just desserts”, but I’ll not contribute to it. I’m going Green if Sanders falls. I never did care for the “government is the problem” Party (“vote for us and we’ll PROVE it”). They’ve been put into government and thus MADE it a problem, an unworkable mess.

        • Tracy Martin
          May 13, 2016 at 09:32

          I’m sorry, I simply loathe Hillary but I will pull the lever for her before I will for him ever.

          • Chuck
            May 13, 2016 at 11:17

            Someday the history books will contain a line like, “By the time the 21st century rolled around, the two-party political system in the United States bonded to the psyche of each and every citizen. None believed there was any alternative to this political duopoly. There was no way out.” Hence the negative partisanship continues unabated.

          • Brad Owen
            May 13, 2016 at 11:22

            You must play as you see it. I just think either one of them will lead our Nation to destruction (along the lines of what happened to the Soviet Union and its’ Warsaw Pact); Hillary, after careful consultation with her insane neocon/neolib advisors, and Trump, in a fit of apoplectic rage. I really don’t see us avoiding a tragedy with either one of these people. They will both bring us to a bad end, in slightly different ways, and I find that I cannot play a “lesser evil” card in THIS hand that we are being dealt. I will not go before my Maker having committed the act of giving consent to be governed by either one of these dangerous people. I’ll say “sorry Sir. I stuck my oar in the water and tried to steer a different course for our Ship-of-State, but most of the others kept pulling on in the same direction, to our collective doom”.

          • Zachary Smith
            May 13, 2016 at 14:28

            There are no circumstances I can imagine where I’ll vote for Hillary. Trump in on the ‘bubble’ and in a lot of danger of sliding off. If the man continues to assume he can get into the White House solely on the general hatred of Hillary, he’s going to lose.

            If he continues to embrace the same Republican Bull **** which has screwed generations of the party’s base, he has kissed off any chance of picking up Democrats and Independents.

            The man isn’t stupid, but in his personal bubble of arrogance and ignorance the issue begins to get blurry.

          • Jill
            May 15, 2016 at 17:46

            Hillary is no Bernie. But Trump is mentally unstable, and incredibly ignorant of every subject except salesmanship– but incredibly confident that he knows what he’s doing when he has no clue.

  8. Zachary Smith
    May 12, 2016 at 19:12

    Under those circumstances, why should it surprise us when Trump promises $12 trillion in tax cuts while eliminating the $19-trillion national debt in eight years…

    Trump promising impossible things like this drags me back to some early 2015 discussions I had with a family member. At the time, the best theory we could cook up was that he had cut a deal with the Clintons to try to put Hillary in the White House. Yes, it looked as crazy to us then as it does to me now, but if Trump really does want the Presidency, why is he doing all the things to make himself repulsive to so many people he’ll need in the fall election?

    Consider these three back-to-back headlines at the NakedCapitalism site today:

    Donald Trump Is Considering Newt Gingrich for Vice Presidential Role {Bloomberg. This reads like a bad joke but it isn’t. Trump’s mopping-up operation in the Republican party seems to be working against what would make him viable with the general electorate.}

    Donald Trump asks Stephen Moore and Larry Kudlow to rewrite his tax plan. Slate

    Trump Says He Would Appoint Anti-Choice Justice to Supreme Court

    The odious Newt Gingrich makes Sarah Palin look sane and sober by comparison. I’d invite people to go to Kudlow’s wiki to learn the many kinds of idiot he is.

    Finally, Republican women have daughters too. Not all of them will be able to afford to fly them to Europe for an abortion. Taking a gamble on Hillary looks even more attractive.

    Back in 1992 Bush senior played to lose. In 2004 Kerry played to lose. I just can’t get rid of the nagging suspicion that Trump in doing the same in 2016.

  9. Bill Bodden
    May 12, 2016 at 18:34

    Mike Lofgren’s addressing the role of the American people in this fiasco is an important contribution to the debate.

    Another who saw the writing on the wall; Noam Chomsky Has ‘Never Seen Anything Like This’ by Chris Hedges –

    With regard to the comments above about war with Russia that unimaginable catastrophe appears more likely with the Clintons in the White House and her neocon friends and NATO playing chicken with Putin and Russia. That is one reason to consider Trump over Clinton, but not so fast. There are the many character flaws of his that have been repeatedly exposed. Couple them with Lord Action’s dictum about absolute power corrupting absolutely, and a Trump presidency is, to put in mildly, an ominous thought.

  10. Bob Locke
    May 12, 2016 at 18:09

    What one sees clearly is that there is no possible way to underestimate the rank, non-thinking stupidity of huge masses of people, mostly gone Republican because that is the party that appeals to that kind of non-thinking stupidity. We others must find a way to live with it and endure and go on in a positive way toward a positive future, but how hard it is when those non-thinking people simply adore not thinking. A personality like Trump has his sails fairly filled with their abhorrent breath.

    • Kiza
      May 13, 2016 at 01:32

      Amazing, I was just thinking exactly the same about the “non-thinking stupidity of huge masses of people” that you obviously belong to – the Democrat voting base, the free-sh*t army and the like, easily recognized by that smelly breath that you mention.

  11. Lance Jobson
    May 12, 2016 at 17:30

    Making the country appear ungovernable: lawmaking gridlock, illegal borders, endless wars, racism by legalized police murders and the world’s greatest prison incarceration rates equals the fear and hate needed to seque into an authoritarian and fascist police state.

  12. May 12, 2016 at 17:23

    Thanking heartily Robert Perry and all Your team. For regular e-mails and this article.
    + Adding my share:
    May,10 Donald Trump Survey
    ** Sergey Kamenskiy: As an active PTP supporter, you’ve been specially selected to participate in our new brief survey. Click here ? **
    – The Progressive Turnout Project
    Dear Jeff, repeat my old expert conclusion – or, in this case, a typical diagnosis: He is just a loudmouth with hyperEGO. Very talanted at making money – and that is all. Personally and intellectually UNFIT to head ANY country – including USA.
    But don`t worry, he won`t be President. My readers read this notice since mid-2015 – with appropriate arguments (alas, in Russian). And they got used to trusting me – because these are not regular two-bit prophesies,but philosophical prognostication, that up to now has proven to be correct.
    ++ The last one: An update of G
    Genus Homo Sapiens to a new version, Homo Sapiens, Humanus et Moralis.

    • Rikhard Ravindra Tanskanen
      May 12, 2016 at 18:06

      I sign petitions by the Progressive Turnout Project too!

  13. MarkU
    May 12, 2016 at 17:21

    At least Donald Trump is likely to refrain from starting a nuclear war with the Russians. Even if it’s his only good policy, I consider it a rather important one.

    The biggest problem that the USA has is the massive economic commitment to warfare. An outbreak of world peace would be a financial disaster for the US military-industrial complex, so they are not going to allow one.

    • Bill Cash
      May 12, 2016 at 17:55

      You don’t know that. All it would take is for Putin to say something he considers an insult and we could be a war. Trump is unstable.

      • Kiza
        May 12, 2016 at 21:03

        And Putin is famous for throwing insults, right? Maybe Putin would call Trump a Hitler (like your war harpy called Putin), right?

        There is that saying: deaf behind the ears, blind in front the eyes, dumb despite a brain.

      • Fred
        May 13, 2016 at 17:55

        Wrong. Putin is not likely to say anything Trump would interpret as an insult. Trump is more intelligent than he pretends to be.

    • Tracy Martin
      May 13, 2016 at 09:30

      I can’t find any thing good about a Trump presidency except that Republicans are eating themselves.

      • Peter Loeb
        May 14, 2016 at 09:38

        TRACY MARTIN….

        I can’t find anything “good” about an H. Clinton Presidency.

        In the case of a “Trump presidency”…you don’t have to find anything “good”
        about it. It may very well be, whether you find it “good”or not and regardless of
        who you yourself vote for.

        Your duty Tracy Martin is to come to terms with what to do WHEN Trump
        is president if that is the case.

        I have suggested how to begin in My references to two works by
        Gabriel Kolko in my comment to Robert Parry’s article of today.
        My comment is entitled “POLITICS SUPREME”

        (I cannot conceivably vote for H. Clinton, for someone who claims
        that the Zionists/Israeli’s “made the deserts bloom”. The Zionist
        project born of the pan-German concept of “state” made the
        deserts bleed of Muslim, Christian, Jewish settlers who all opposed
        a Zionist “homeland”, a suphemism for exclusivist and terrorist

        —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

    • May 13, 2016 at 13:51

      My biggest fear is that when Trump inevitably becomes bored by the day-to-day of being President and frustrated that he can’t make things happen simply by decree, he’ll look for some way to ramp up the excitement level and rally the public behind him. What better than a nice little war?

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