Everything awful about Donald Trump’s campaign for president has just been summed up in one tweet from his son, Eric Trump. The younger Trump responded to presidential contender Ted Cruz’s trip to the Bronx, and the less-than-friendly reception he got, with a meme taken from “The Sopranos.” He has deleted the tweet, but the Internet is forever, so there’s a screen cap.
There they are, the Soprano crime family, offering to teach Sen. Cruz about “New York values” with their knuckles.
Here we see in one place all the main pathologies of the Trump campaign. Where to start?
1. It plays fast and loose with the facts.
Donald Trump’s campaign has always had a very tangential relationship with issues like detailed knowledge and factual accuracy. Those failed Trump businesses? Let’s pretend they’re still going strong. The nuclear triad? Whatever. Abraham Lincoln? He was just this guy who did some stuff. Who cares. So it’s no surprise that one of Trump’s boys would try to defend “New York values” with an image of Hollywood actors playing characters from New Jersey. That hits the mark just about as well as any Trump campaign claim.
To be sure, there may not be a big cultural difference between the Jersey Shore and some of the blue-collar New Yorkers Trump is trying to pander to—from the comfort of Park Avenue. But then notice what he considers, in his Park Avenue condescension, to be culturally typical of New Yorkers: being a thug.
2. It plays around with thuggishness.
The whole premise of this Sopranos meme is to play around with the idea of Trump supporters as a bunch of tough guys who are going to beat up Cruz. It could be brushed off as a joke except for the history of Trump supporters brawling with protesters and his campaign staff roughing up reporters.
When they’re not literally pushing people around, they dabble in blackmail and threats of retaliation: Trumps’ staff and surrogates smear the reputations of female reporters and campaign staff, he threatens to dig up damaging information on donors to rival campaigns, and Trump threatens to crack down on an insufficiently fawning press.
The Trump campaign’s whole idea of looking “tough” is to look like a bunch of soulless brutes. So why not try to draft Tony Soprano and his boys? This isn’t just pandering to the mob, it’s pandering to the Mob.
Isn’t it interesting that this is their concept of the regular guy on the street?
3. It asks voters to live down to their stereotypes.
Hey, let’s appeal to blue-collar guys in the New York City area by promoting caricatures of them as Italian-American mobsters!
There was a time when people would have found this kind of stereotyping offensive. But the genius of the Trump campaign has been to convince people they’re defying the elites when they live down to the elites’ worst expectations of them. The elites think Italian-Americans from Long Island are a bunch of low-class thugs and mobsters? Fine, then, be mobsters. The elites think you’re xenophobic rednecks? Be xenophobic rednecks. They think you’re a bunch of racists? Fine, then, be racists! That’ll show ’em. (This is basically the “alt-right.”) The elites think you’re uninformed and don’t care about the issues? Yeah, well, who cares about knowing stuff, that’s for book nerds who like to ponder.
By itself Eric Trump’s tweet would just be a joke. But it doesn’t come by itself, it comes as part of a larger pattern, the unique populist style of Donald Trump.
Traditional conservative populism is: the elites think you’re rotten, but the joke’s on them because you’re actually better than them. You’re honest, hard-working, salt-of-earth people with heartland values, unlike those corrupt, effete, cynical jerks. This was often exaggerated and could amount to reverse snobbery, but there sure was something to it.
Trump’s version of populism is different. His message is: the elites think you’re rotten, so you might as well give up trying to be good. You’re never going to be Politically Correct enough, so throw out all standards of decency. They’re going to hate you anyway, so you might as well be what they hate you for. It’s an appeal to popular vice instead of popular virtue.
That’s the root of what’s awful about Donald Trump’s campaign: instead of offering voters a better version of themselves, he wants them to be the worst version of themselves. He wants to rise to the highest office by dragging everybody else down.
Everybody ought to find that offensive, New Yorkers most of all.