In my 60 years, I have never been aware of a candidate who has thrived upon negative attention quite as much as Donald John Trump. I have never seen a following of such a person as unwavering as we see now. My purpose of the following essay is less to analyze the personality of the man, which has been scrutinized in increasingly microscopic detail, nor to rake muck from his life and works. Rather, I will attempt to look at possible reasons for his enduring appeal, and what this might mean to us as a people.
A couple of years ago, when I was sharing half of a duplex with roommates, I had the opportunity to meet men from quite a few different countries, including two from Kuwait, who had also studied in Cedar City. One was quite fluent in English and outspoken in his views. He told me that he was an unapologetic supporter of the Islamic State radicals. With all of the turmoil associated with the Arab Spring in recent years, I thought he was fed-up with living under a repressive monarchy. I do not know if he identified with the terror tactics of IS, but I think, as a young man, he was happy to see things shaken up, regardless of the consequences. It reminded me of the title of Abbie Hoffman's Revolution for the Hell of It. The phenomenon of Donald Trump's candidacy reflects similar sentiments, though not limited to youthful impulsiveness. I would daresay that, to paraphrase Voltaire, if Donald Trump didn't exist, it would be necessary to invent him. It is as if the nihilism of the sixties New Left has become the nihilism of aging Baby Boomers and their progeny, disillusioned, disaffected, disenfranchised at perhaps an even greater level than the Vietnam War protesters of the Johnson and Nixon years. It is not unprecedented for someone to shift political loyalties, of course, usually from youthful idealism to aged conservatism. What is interesting to me is that the incendiary tactics which were condemned back then have, in many respects, been adopted by those on the other side of the aisle, but also enhanced by more sophisticated means of communication.
A rather pessimistic posting by Mel Robbins, "The Trump Tape Doesn't Matter"
got me to thinking back to deeper reasons for people to support Trump. I know good, moral friends and family who seem to brush off anything outrageous he has said or done for years. It may seem perplexing for religious people, who would never countenance "locker room talk" or overt bigotry, to support such a personality. However, as George Crile pointed out in his fascinating biography of the late Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson, Charlie Wilson's War (2003), the womanizing, partying reputation of this seemingly tireless, twice-divorced man did not prevent him from being re-elected 11 times by his largely rural, church-going constituents. Crile suggested that they saw themselves as sinners, too, and held out hope for his eventual redemption. Wilson also served them well, while simultaneously funneling covert aid to the Afghan mujahideen. This may be owing to the Calvinist view (which Trump, as a Presbyterian, would have had instilled in himself), expanded upon from St. Augustine, that all are born into sin, and that depravity is the default condition of mankind.
So, many churchgoers must hold out hope for their present candidate. They don't hold past behavior against him, since they believe people can repent and see the light, as Trump has in his latter-day embrace of the pro-life cause. While some people see switching sides as a sign of disloyalty and opportunism, I, for one, also believe it's all right for people to change their viewpoints. This, again, takes into account that people have free will, and are redeemable. I don't know why this is lumped by some into the category of treason and infidelity. We accept the fact that sports coaches and professional athletes will frequently take jobs with rival teams, or that employees will switch employers, in spite of non-compete clauses. They are looking to improve their material well-being. Besides, many are at-will employees these days, with no hope of making a career out their situation. If the culture encourages "fickleness" and "disloyalty", why can't political candidates change their positions, too? Stories change, when more facts are forthcoming. We should encourage adaptation, not ironclad dogmatism.
Many people still tend to think that financial prosperity conceals a multitude of sins. I, personally, am not against wealth, but, then again, I did not grow up in poverty, or in a broken home. I do not believe that all people get rich because they are scoundrels, or the spoiled heirs of robber barons. I believe that there are sound principles for the accumulation of wealth, which can come through frugality, careful investment of savings, minimization of tax burdens, and sound business principles. It doesn't all come through hard work, but rather through the pooled efforts of stakeholders, and the generation of passive income. Not everyone living in every country has the same opportunities as Americans do, nor are all Americans born into the same opulence as Donald Trump was. The average citizen, however, is not cognizant of how others build wealth, though, I think, most Americans think they can be wealthy through hard work and owning property. However, over the past forty-odd years, the gulf between rich and middle income has grown to be greater than the gap between middle class, or working class, and those living in poverty. Consumer debt has grown, wages have stagnated, and few of the Baby Boom generation can afford to retire. Manufacturing jobs have gone overseas, and service industry jobs haven't paid as well. Unions have shrunk, and workers have been treated as disposable baggage, judging by the frequent news of massive layoffs. De-industrialization, especially of heavy manufacturing, has been a fact of life since the mid-70s, and the good-paying jobs of the previous generation, with generous pensions, have largely disappeared. In many cases, people of the Baby Boomer generation end up living with their elderly, pensioned parents, because they can't afford to live retired on their own.
So, I think many people see Donald Trump as redeemable, and they don't begrudge him his wealth, because they see themselves as rich also, or think they would be as wealthy as he if they just worked smarter and harder. They don't realize that his business acumen is actually rather dubious, judging by his bankruptcies, or his impolitic persona. He fits their stereotype of lavishly living businessmen, even though many wealthy people don't seek the limelight like he does, or hang out with beauty contestants and Russian oligarchs. Wealth, to many Americans, is associated with the Kardashians or Robin Leach's Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, not with the more mundane trading of stocks, the hedging of funds, the entrustment of estates, or judicious purchase and sale of properties. And many think they will be blessed with riches, too, if they are favored of God, as Trump must be. They puzzle over statements in scripture like "the meek shall inherit the earth," seeing it as a possible sop to all the poor souls out there who don't know how to better their lot. Russell Conwell, abolitionist, Baptist minister, founder of Temple University and author of the influential Acres of Diamonds (1890), is quoted in Chris Lehmann's The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity and the Unmaking of the American Dream (2016) as saying
[T]he number of poor who are to be sympathized with is very small. To sympathize with a man whom God has punished for his sins, thus to help him when God would still continue a just punishment, is to do wrong, no doubt about it, and we do that more than we help those who are deserving. While we should sympathize with God's poor--that is, those who cannot help themselves--let us remember there is not a poor person in the United States who was not made poor by his own shortcomings, or by the shortcomings of some one else. It is all wrong to be poor, anyhow (p. 192).
It is remarkable to me that, while this belief (contrary to so many teachings in scripture) is so pervasive, contradicting the old practice of noblesse oblige, it has been transmuted into something like pauvresse oblige, i.e., the belief that it is the obligation of the poor to help out the wealthy, since they are perceived as the benefactors of the rest, whenever they happen to fall on hard times. Or, they should give them a tax break in the hope that this beneficence will somehow trickle down to them, since the rich will use their windfall to invest in job creation. Trump preaches this, echoing the supply side economics of the Reagan years. The persistence of this practice has created taxation rates that are higher for the middle class than they are for the wealthy, and massive deficits. And, apparently, the massive TARP bailout hasn't trickled down much in the past 8 years.
Again, if the average American chooses to identify with the wealthy, thinking himself or herself equally capable to join the elite, or at least capable of dressing up like them, talks of class warfare do not resonate like they do in other countries. Politicians here are faulted for sex scandals, not for bribery and corruption because, well, it is perceived as being part of doing business. Overseas, on the other hand, the public sniffs at sexual indiscretions, but gets livid over the misappropriation of funds, as we saw recently in Brazil. I don't know why, exactly, but it may have something to do with our Protestant heritage, where sins were at one time brought before the congregation, rather than confessed privately to the priest. At one time, people took sexual misconduct very seriously. Now, perhaps because of the pervasiveness of cohabitation, divorce, infidelity, and hook-up sites online, it is downplayed. Still, it is taken seriously enough in political campaigns, and plays well in churchgoing areas, even where it is easy to be born again. Somehow, Trump has gotten away with not playing the role of penitent sinner and do-gooder, that revivalist staple of centuries. Again, I think people hold out hope that the reprobate will change, that this end justifies the means.
One could assert that the acceptance of Trump's anti-immigrant rants are fueled by years of employers gaming the system, paying illegal immigrants less than citizens, or blowing the whistle after each payroll cycle. There is, of course, the fear of the other, and of terror. This is nothing new, as immigrants were interrogated specifically about their anarchist leanings, and pimps, beggars and epileptics were barred from admission in the early 1900s. There has always been concern about the social order being subverted by Roman Catholics, Eastern Europeans, Jews, Asians, and anyone else not considered part of the white Protestant mainstream. So, Muslims are considered the new threat. To me, it is more of an unspoken fear of decline, a decline marked economically since the 1970s, a decline which can also be linked to a lower birthrate among white middle class Protestant families.
So, why couldn't all of Trumps competitors generate enough excitement to defeat him in the primaries? It seems paradoxical, with so many Republican governors, legislators, congressmen, senators, with the stranglehold of the Republican party in many southern and western states, that the party brand didn't play as well with the voters. Is it because those who spoke from a position of power sounded less convincing than one who came across as more anti-establishment, as a flamboyant, well-known, media personality? Who "told it like it is"? Who had an easier time of distilling complex issues down to something that played well on camera, even if the sound bites distorted and oversimplified? He seemed to speak to all of those dispossessed and disgruntled working and middle class voters, who weren't seeing the factories come back, who were left out of Obamacare, who perceived the "shiftless" minorities and "pampered" immigrants getting favored over them, who felt government was against them, and were afraid their guns would be confiscated. I believe they've seen Trump's intemperance as refreshing candor, his threats as actionable policy, his blunt speech as the marks of a doer, not another proponent of the status quo. He's an entrepreneur, not an academic, or a corporate shill, or a career politician. Sure, he's very wealthy, but at least he's independent.
So, his lack of experience in civic life is seen as a virtue, not as a handicap. His insulting manner seems to mirror the confrontational style of the 60s. People are used to being rude to opposing viewpoints, to shouting people down. It was done by the New Left, it is done routinely by the hand-picked audiences of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, et al. Ronald Reagan's FCC did away with the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, so broadcasters don't have to feel obligated to allow those people to share their point of view. As Internet users know, we'd rather just unfriend all those trolls out there, though they still manage to commandeer just about every site soliciting public feedback. It is so much easier though, to live in one's own carefully filtered bubble, than ever before. Journalistic products are just one of the categories in an infinite smorgasbord of entertainment and information options.
The leadership of the Republican National Committee, to their credit, were slow to warm to Trump. They didn't repudiate him after numerous offensive statements were made, but the Billy Bush sex tape was apparently too much to sweep under the rug. Perhaps they saw, at that point, that they could be no longer safely connected with their candidate's boorishness. I think they started to realize that he was also unelectable. It's a good strategy for investors, rather than to go down with the ship. It could be seen as disingenuous, though leaders had a habit of disavowing some of their candidate's more egregious pronouncements. It was surely a difficult position for old political hands, like being forced to harbor the most disagreeable of kin as per the provisions of some onerous last will and testament.
I've also suggested this a co-dependent relationship. The electorate sees their man as redeemable, because he has shifted his allegiances to a more conservative-friendly stance. He offends people, but they were probably too thin-skinned, anyway. He apologizes once in a while. He doesn't seem to change, but people like to be reassured he'll follow through, but it's not that important, as they know deep down he's their incorrigible bad boy, the enfant terrible of the world, now free from his handlers. For many, I'm not sure winning this election wasn't as important as making a statement. The Goldwater backers in 1964 must have sensed that their guy wouldn't win, either, but they sent their message. Reagan fulfilled a lot of the expectations of 1964, but didn't go far enough. Plenty of people despise Hillary Clinton, but it would probably be a blow to Trump's supporters if he won. They would lose control of their man, as he would have to start acting presidential, and would be consumed by all the ceremony and minutiae of being the most powerful leader in the world. Just like Obama, he would find that he didn't have as much power as he coveted. He would no longer be able to live the life of the international playboy. He wouldn't be able to fire those he disliked.
So, what does the progress of Trump's candidacy say about us? That many of us are wimps, and crave a tough-talking, crude, father figure who behaves more like an overindulged child? That the whole mystique of self-esteem clouds our judgment about the need to also exercise moral authority? That people like Trump, no matter how powerful, should receive some tough love? Is the candidate actually a psychopath? Here is one test he could be scored on:
Is the presidency really a form of id fulfillment for him, not something he really wants? Perhaps he just wants power. He seems to need help, so the presidency will be his therapy, and the world will have to be his support group. Or will he perform indifferent service, and use the presidency as a cash cow? Will the taxpayers be bailing out his failing enterprises? Will he decide that US assets need to be sold off, in order to pay down the deficit? Will his billionaire friends be the beneficiaries of the sell-off, especially of prime real estate and mineral rich public lands? Highly unlikely, given our constitutional checks and balances, the traditional separation of powers. On the other hand, will there be enough outcry to prevent such a thing? It seems like the public has developed a very high threshold of disgust and outrage, in this age of blatant pornography, the Jackass movies, Fear Factor, and the like. There are enough powerful anti-government friends of extractive industries, including among our own Utah delegation, to make such a move feasible, if unlikely.
I don't perceive the GOP being severely checked by this election, given the public antipathy towards liberalism. While the GOP is deemed the party of business, many decry the coziness of Democrats with power elites in the financial sector. They also cringe at anything which smacks of tax increases, even if they don't affect the middle class directly. The gerrymandering following successive censuses will ensure a congressional, gubernatorial and legislative majority for a long time to come, even if Trump loses.
I am a registered Democrat, and frankly wish we had strong third and more parties to check the power of our duo. I considered myself a conservative growing up in the liberal Bay Area in the 1970s, and subscribed to National Review, at one time. I admired the erudition of William F. Buckley, Jr. and his circle of conservative pundits. I am still troubled by the faith I placed in people opposed to the Civil Rights act, who allied themselves with Southern segregationists. On the other hand, I don't desire the implosion of the Republican Party. I just wish they'd get away from messaging and back to governance. I wish Democrats would adopt legislation which would encourage business ownership, and the survival of new businesses, the best vehicles for job creation. This will stimulate the economy far more than giving billions to reckless financiers, or by trying to coax extra taxes from well-entrenched magnates.
I think the GOP should take a serious look at the recommendations of E. J. Dionne Jr. in his Why the Right Went Wrong: Conservatism--From Goldwater to Trump and Beyond (2016) and Justin Hacker and Paul Pierson in American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper. Dionne suggests that the GOP follow Eisenhower's example and seek middle ground, especially with regard to investing in infrastructure. Here are some recommendations from the latter, with which I will close my essay, especially inviting all Americans to recommit themselves to community efforts to maximize the potential of all individuals, to recognize the elements of the social gospel which pervade the scriptures, and to arrest this present trend towards feudalism. America is great. Let's make it greater by looking at what Hacker and Pierson call the Ten Habits of Highly Effective Economies:
- Private property rights and legally secure contracts backed up by an independent legal system
- A well-functioning financial system, including a central bank to provide a common currency, manage the macroeconomy, and serve as lender of last resort
- Internal markets linked by high-quality communications and transportation infrastructure
- Policies supporting and regulating external trade and financial flows
- Substantial public investment in R&D and education
- Regulation of markets to protect against externalities, such as pollution, and help consumers make informed decisions
- Public provision of goods that won't be provided at all or sufficiently if left to markets, such as public health
- Inclusion of all sectors of society in the economy, so that human capital isn't wasted
- Reasonably independent and representative political institutions, so the elite capture and rent seeking aren't rife and
- Reasonably capable and autonomous public administration--including an effective tax system that citizens view as legitimate--so that items 1 through 9 can be carried out in relatively efficient and unbiased ways (p. 102-103).
Stephen Prothero, in a recent lecture at Salt Lake City Public Library, was concerned that, while Trump didn't have much support in the Republican primary, he now seemed to enjoy overwhelming support in the presidential election. He was concerned that people here were being Republicans first, and Mormons, second. I fear, as was prophesied in Matthew 24:24, that the "very elect" are being seduced by misguided cravings after power and legitimacy, by supporting causes that are more like dubious message bills, and hitching themselves to the wrong chariot. Let us be drawn to common interest, not to divisiveness and focus groups. Our decline is not a fait accompli. I have hope that American genius and American ideals will, once again, shine forth in the world, that this will be a great land of opportunity to all. I believe we will be admired again for our basic decency, our social progress, our embrace of the stranger displaced by global turmoil, our cultivation of individual talent, our nurturing of the needy in our midst, irrespective of creed, race, gender, sexual orientation, mental health, economic status, or past trouble with the law; our championing, in short, of individual life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.