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Beyond the Oval Office: What Trump may really want

Stephen Metcalf is the host of Slate's culture podcast.

People seem to like the idea, but has anyone thought through how unpleasant it would be if everything happened for a reason?

Once there was such a place. It was called "New England." The first European settlers were Calvinists, and they lived in a universe in which "everything happens for a reason," and it was pretty grim. Conscience draped over the particulars of every landscape. A New Englander could find spiritual weakness in a shrub, God's displeasure in a mosquito.

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Is it any wonder U.S. history is a series of failed establishments, unleashing ever more terrifying anti-establishment Frankensteins?

Donald Trump is only the latest id avatar of unreason, though there is time yet for him to prove the most costly. That he is going to lose the U.S. presidential election shouldn't reassure anybody, and to say he is going to lose gracelessly is to put it altogether too gracefully.

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However, word arrives that Mr. Trump may be crazy like a fox; that he has given up on winning the presidency and is planning to start a "media empire" instead. To understand the significance of his becoming a kook-fringe TV mogul, it helps to understand the origins of Mr. Trump as a public figure.

In the 1980s, the classic U.S. pattern played itself out all over again. Liberalism (so said Ronald Reagan) was an exhausted ideology and the market was to be greeted as a liberation. As a free-market revolution must, by definition, enact itself within the private economy, it was important for propaganda purposes to have conspicuously rich people on public display. It was also important that they not be products of the previous era, but represent something new and sparkly. Mr. Trump fit the bill perfectly.

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He was already rich, having inherited money, but he was pathologically inclined to prove that he was self-made. He loved flaunting his wealth, but was considered an embarrassment by the WASPs and the venerable real estate families of New York. So he built out his own universe in which he was a capitalist demigod, and in which the showier aspects of being rich compensated for his rejection at the hands of polite society. Everything in Trumplandia is one or the other, or both: a fakey status symbol or an example of his supposed business genius. I am not the first to point out that Mr. Trump uses the word compulsively because he fears how obvious it is that he is the "loser."

It is comical, on an election season's forensic accounting, how little of either entrepreneurial cunning or social value Mr. Trump's existence has encompassed. Now we have to contemplate the possibility of two separate hermetic voids coming together and forming one unprecedentedly destructive force: the one he built, Trumplandia, in which he is a capitalist superhero; and the right-wing media, in which no theory (Barack Obama is a sulphurous demon; I'm not kidding) is considered too outrageous if it will scare up votes.

Maybe this is the old cycle playing itself out again, and the anti-establishment energies will spend themselves without taking everyone else down with them. Or maybe, void upon void, they will unleash an awful finale.

The right-wing media, especially their leering cadre of radio hosts, feed the faithful a steady diet of paranoia. They promote a narrative of betrayal, in which sinister elites who hate ordinary Americans sell out their interests, while secretly laughing at them.

This plays into a vicious cycle in which the very market forces that create feelings of social isolation and irrelevance in the first place only intensify, as evermore alienated voters elect evermore market-friendly politicians. Everyone knows the drill: By appealing to the most provincial, fearful and incoherent prejudices, the right-wing media act in service of the rapacious few. In finding Mr. Trump, and Mr. Trump finding them, are they building to something new?

First, the right turned the country's darkest energies on the welfare state, then upon the Democratic Party. Along the way, they convinced the faithful that their real enemy was the coastal elites. Anyone with an education was obviously a hopeless snob – best not to express cogency of any kind, in fact.

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In Mr. Trump, you feel it: the absolute equation of an ounce of self-respect with inauthenticity. And it doesn't stop there. The insurgents have come for the Republican Party itself, and with the promise to treat a losing outcome as rigged, and therefore invalid, preparations are being made for a ghastly finale, in which populism is turned loose on democracy itself.

In the name of civilization, the most spiritually unmoored among us claim that they are defending civilization. It is something out of the most terrifying jeremiad. It is enough to make a Puritan smile.

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