The Appeal of Trump

I know Commonweal readers can happily live without my take on Donald Trump. But The Donald can’t restrain himself, and neither can I. Trump is pure fodder for cultural and political commentary, a phenomenon crying out for explanation. Why Trump, why now?

One can explain his candidacy as the apotheosis of politics-as-entertainment (as Matthew Sitman did on this site two weeks ago) or as the ultimate coarsening of civic discourse. There’s also Americans’ complicated, paradoxical attraction to über-wealthy politicians, our belief that to be unbuyable is to be incorruptible. By extension, since Trump already has celebrity, voters can assume that he isn’t just trying to pull a Huckabee, parlaying visibility into a job and money.  And, as many have noted, there’s the candidate’s deft channeling – and stoking – of white working-class disaffection.

But there’s more to the Trump phenomenon than all that. Commentators seem specially irked by the man, especially those who try to apply conventional rules of politics -- or civility.  Charles Blow’s recent dyspeptic column, titled “Enough is Enough,” expresses disbelief and no small measure of outrage at the durability of Trump’s candidacy. Reminding readers that “this man is not worthy of the attention he’s garnering,” Blow blames confreres in the press for “drooling over the daily shenanigans of a demagogue,” pronounces himself “disgusted at Trump’s contempt and the press’s complicity in the shallow farce that is his candidacy,” and vows henceforth to stop paying attention.

The column cites a Politico article listing Trump’s most inflammatory remarks over the years. Trump’s “vilest hits,” as Blow calls them, include the following:  “The only guys I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes all day.” “Oftentimes when I was sleeping with one of the top women in the world I would say to myself, thinking about me as a boy from Queens, ‘Can you believe what I am getting?’” “A well-educated black has a tremendous advantage over a well-educated white in terms of the job market.” “The concept of global warming was created by the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” “Jeb Bush has to like the Mexican illegals because of his wife.”

Everyone involved in politics is dumbfounded by the failure of such explosive pronouncements to sink Trump’s candidacy. After the Megyn Kelly blowup, many predicted that Trump he was through. After the gratuitous insults to John McCain’s war record (“I like people who were not captured”), people really thought he was through (New York Post headline:  “Don Voyage!”).  And yet he lives to calumniate another day. How? How does a candidate taken to task by a female journalist for calling women pigs and dogs respond by charging her with being unbalanced by menstruation – or slander the patriotic sacrifice of a documented war hero – and survive?

One explanation is that his followers are raving haters (a chilling article in the New Yorker by Evan Osnos delves into his popularity among white supremacist groups.) But the better explanation is that Trump’s candidacy has thrived by being premised squarely, indeed exclusively, on political incorrectness -- on his willingness to say what you’re not “supposed” to say -- and that we have drastically underestimated the power of this appeal. 

I think that appeal is huge. People are so weary of smooth-talking, upbeat politicians who will never tell you anything not designed to ingratiate. The perpetual campaign is a machine built to collect our votes, and the perpetual candidate is a cog in that machine. When was the last time a politician laid out a policy proposal and told us straightforwardly who will win and who will lose? Or espoused any position that might alienate any potential voter? We’re tired of listening to stage-managed politicians who we suspect would sound completely different if we ever heard them in an unguarded moment. People are longing for some recognizable note of the authentic.

And thus The Donald. On NPR’s On Point a few weeks back, a caller attempting to explain Trump’s appeal kept telling host Tom Ashbrook, “He’s the only one who isn’t a robot.” With Trump, every moment is an unguarded moment. Significantly, his raw candor is effective not only when he’s making provocative policy-related statements, but also when he makes off-color jokes. Those jokes convey the impression that he’s not hiding anything; that he is giving us the truth, even if it’s crude and “unacceptable.” Getting called out by other candidates or the press simply bolsters this impression. And so the usual campaign dynamic has been stood on its head: outrageous statements that would sink a conventional candidate actually help him. Given this dynamic, Trump is practically gaffe-proof. Every gaffe solidifies his appeal and burnishes his brand.

In this regard, as various observers have noted, there’s a certain parallel to the Bernie Sanders campaign. Both Trump and Sanders appeal to supporters desperate to hear someone finally saying, flat out, the things that politicians are generally afraid to say.  With Bernie it’s “This country has been co-opted by fat cats who are sticking it to the rest of us!” (Hillary won’t say that, even if she believes it). With Trump it’s “We’re being overrun by swarms of Mexicans who are going to turn us into a Third World country if we don’t get them the hell out!”(Jeb Bush won’t say that, even if he believes it.)

To be sure, this kind of appeal reflects a false syllogism. People feel lied to by glib and polished politicians, so they conclude that the opposite of polished talk must be political honesty, when – in this case – it is mere hucksterism and narcissism. Faulty logic, but it can be hard to shrug off.

So what will finally sink The Donald? Maybe he’ll manage to say something so inflammatory that he’ll do himself in. Or he’ll stumble in a Rick Perry kind of way that reveals just how ill-equipped he is to govern (though I can hear him shouting, “Don’t ask me which government agency I’d eliminate! I hire people to know that!”). It may be that if he continues to lead the field, and people stop treating him as an intriguing sideshow and really imagine him in the White House, they’ll perceive just how much cognitive dissonance that thought triggers, and then we can sit back and – as physicians say – let nature take its course. 

Maybe Trump at some point will just lose interest. Or maybe we will lose interest in him. But – alas – I’m not counting on that.

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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