This is awkward. I read an article yesterday afternoon that helped me understand a phenomenon that otherwise has me baffled; the rise of Donald Trump in pre-election polling, and the reasons why his supporters like him so much. But I don’t feel good about linking to that article. For one thing, it involves a term, a description, a word, that I find disgusting. For another, it posits a tendency among some conservatives that I would find tremendously offensive if it were applied to liberals. I have many conservative friends; I don’t want to insult them. But I also want to write about this article. So here goes.
Let me start back in 2007-8, as Barack Obama began his campaign for the Presidency. His slogan was ‘Hope and Change,’ a perfectly innocuous slogan that nonetheless suggested, to some conservatives, something perfidious. But really, going back to his campaign rhetoric, the kinds of changes he was actually talking about seemed quite straightforward. He talked quite a bit about corruption. He talked a lot about the revolving door between people in government and lobbyists. He talked about bills written by lobbyists, favoring corporate interests. He talked about hyper-partisanship blocking meaningful legislation. I found him inspiring. And then he got elected and none of that happened. Lobbying reform fell by the wayside.
I think Obama has been a good President in many respects. The economy was tanking in 2008; he’s righting that ship. The ACA was a huge positive, as was the Iran deal. But let’s be honest; not much in the US government has changed in any fundamental way. Hyperpartisanship remains a problem; not much can really change there. Liberals and conservatives have substantive differences. But corruption remains as entrenched as ever. And people are getting sick of it. Hence the appeal of Elizabeth Warren; hence the energy behind Bernie Sanders’ campaign. And also, the appeal of Donald Trump.
And I get it. We look around, and the economy is certainly doing better than it was, but we still all know people struggling to find work, and job security feels like a fantasy. A college education was supposed to set you up for a good job; now it basically sets you up for massive debt payments. And the destructive spectre of climate change remains a constant, nagging fear. So when Trump says ‘the American dream is dead,’ it strikes a chord. In fact, the USA remains an incredibly wealthy nation, and the middle class isn’t actually doing all that badly. But that’s not things feel.
I’m trying to see this all from the perspective of those of my friends and family members who self-identify has Tea Party conservatives. It helps that I’m also male, white, and old (I’m 59). Everything’s changing, and it’s scary. Our grandkids are struggling. Obamacare’s probably a disaster; Fox News says so. We’re used to getting excellent health care from great doctors; Obamacare looks like it’s messing with that, changing it. The Iran deal is scary; can we really trust Iran? Seriously, Iran? And it’s worse than that. Almost every night, on the news, we see cops getting in trouble for shooting someone. Maybe those shootings are justified, or some of them, but that constant barrage of stories about it is eroding the respect people have for the police. And the same black activists show up everytime something happens. Couldn’t our first black President provide some healing, some perspective? Like, telling black people to put their lives in order. In fact, all institutions seem to be under attack. Conservatives never have liked abortion, have always feared gun control, and have generally been skeptical about feminism. And, now, suddenly all these frightening changes. And now, even marriage is under attack; suddenly, gay people can marry each other? Seriously? And underneath all of that, driving it, is the spectre of the national debt.
I think that for liberals, underneath every other concern is one huge one, overriding all others; the fear of catastrophic climate change. We’re terrified about the possibility of environmental disaster rendering this poor planet essentially unfit for human habitation. And I think that for conservatives, the one big concern, the one that overrides all others, is the fear of economic collapse, caused by a massive, unpayable national debt. That’s why conservatives question the science behind man-caused climate catastrophe, and that’s why liberals insist, a la Keynes and Krugman, that the debt is manageable, and that the real issue is income inequality. Both sides are terrified, and both sides are convinced, deep down inside, that the other side is fundamentally malevolent. Driving it all is fear.
And, of course, politicians seem utterly useless. Mealy-mouthed, disingenuous, devious, too cowardly to tell anyone the truth about anything. Scaredy cats. Gutless, craven, yellow.
Which brings me to the article I read yesterday, the one I’m too much a ‘fraidy cat to link to. There’s a word out there, a disgusting one, describing a certain kind of gutless conservative. Over the last couple of election cycles, we’ve seen the following pattern. A Republican politician running for office will say something controversial. The national media calls him on it, and the next day, he walks it back, apologizes, backs down. That’s where this word (that I’m not going to use) comes from. What it means is; a coward. A wimp. A wussy guy who backs down to the forces of political correctness. Who, perhaps, even derives some kind of sexual pleasure from his own weak-kneed pusillanimity and lack of basic manliness.
So look at the pattern that Donald Trump has been following. He announced his candidacy by saying, among many other bizarre things, that Mexicans coming across the border are, for the most part, rapists. His ratings went up a little. The national media called him on it. He refused to withdraw the comment; in fact, he doubled down. And his ratings went up a lot. And that pattern has repeated itself many times.
Trump doesn’t sound like a politician and he doesn’t act like a politician. He says what he thinks, even if it strikes mainstream media types as racist or sexist or foolish. He doesn’t care; he never, ever backs down. He’s plugging into something. People are fed up. They’re fed up on the right and they’re fed up on the left. Trump seems like a truth-teller. He’s certainly not wussy. Everything’s about the need to be ‘tough.’ There’s a reason he’s so popular.
But is there something else? I hesitate to bring this up; I really do. But is it possible that Trump’s popularity may, in part, have a racist, or at least racialist origin? Is it possible that Trump’s appeal owes some small debt to conservative discomfort over gender politics? People know Trump’s history; they know he’s been married three times, that his daughter is a model, that he sponsors beauty pageants–and why not; every red-blooded guy likes looking at pretty girls. Lately, the story is that he was accused, by one ex-wife, of having raped her while they were married. (Trump’s lawyer defended his client by saying that there’s no such thing, legally, as marital rape. Legally, that’s not true; rape is a crime of violence, married or not. But in the minds of some conservatives, is it possible that the idea of ‘marital rape’ seems like, well, misplaced political correctness? As his poll numbers continue to rise?)
Trump started off his campaign by saying that the people the Mexican government were ‘sending over here’ were, many of them, ‘rapists.’ That’s nonsense on about ten levels; the Mexican government isn’t sending anyone anywhere, Mexican immigrants, legal and illegal, are exceptionally law-abiding, with less propensity for violent crime than any other group of people. Plus, border control is a nonsense issue; illegal immigration has slowed to a trickle. Still, Trump’s line has resonance on the right. Our country’s under attack. ‘Those people’ are coming over here, and doing any matter of damage, and Trump at least has the guts to say so.
Donald Trump is not going to become President of the United States. I think I can say that unequivocally; too many people hate him, too many people think he’s a buffoon. Look at the polls; his negatives are off the charts. But there’s a reason for his appeal. And it’s more than a little scary.