Matthew Rozsa explains how Donald Trump’s candidacy can be defeated, once and for all.
If Donald Trump is going to be defeated, it will be not as a result of ideology or appeals to basic human decency, but because his opponents wage the kind of war necessary to disempower him – namely, a psychological one.
Perhaps the most frightening aspect of Trump’s presidential campaign is his seeming immunity to embarrassment. In any other election season, a candidate whose rhetoric is so blatantly autocratic, bigoted, and crass would have been discredited long before the first vote was cast in an actual primary. Yet even though many Republicans have joined Democrats and independents in denouncing Trump for these things, his political brand has been unaffected by these criticisms – if, indeed, they haven’t been inadvertently making him stronger.
With Trump now poised to seize the Republican presidential nomination, one could be forgiven for believing that he is in fact invulnerable to disgrace. After all, how do you shame a candidate whose shamelessness seems to be among his chief political assets?
The answer, I believe, can be found in an unlikely source, a gross-out comedy that has already had surprising real-world political consequences: the 2014 Seth Rogen/James Franco film that sparked a crisis in American-North Korean relations, The Interview. Before going there, though, it’s first necessary to understand the cultural forces that have been fueling Trump’s candidacy. To do that, I turn to this quote from “The Rise of American Authoritarianism,” a recent piece in Vox by Amanda Taub which reviewed a range of scholarly research on the psychological drives that lead voters to support authoritarian candidates like Trump:
“Authoritarians are thought to express much deeper fears than the rest of the electorate, to seek the imposition of order where they perceive dangerous change, and to desire a strong leader who will defeat those fears with force.”
For anyone who wishes to understand the deeper historical and psychological roots of American authoritarian tendencies, I highly recommend checking out the entirety of Taub’s article. For the purposes of understanding how to defeat Trump, however, the most important detail here is that Trump’s support is fueled not merely by animus against specific marginalized groups (Hispanics, Muslims, women, etc.), but by changes that “threaten to take away the status quo as they know it – familiar, orderly, secure – and replace it with something that feels scary because it is different and destabilizing, but also sometimes because it upends their own place in society. According to the literature, authoritarians will seek, in response, a strong leader who promises to suppress the scary changes, if necessary by force, and to preserve the quo.”
Notice how, in both of these excerpts, the most important trait for an aspiring authoritarian leader is the perception that they strong. Someone like Trump can be as vile and boorish as he pleases because, as our culture continues to stigmatize those characteristics, his ability to flaunt them with impunity only makes him seem stronger. Combine that with a cult of personality that stresses his alleged skill at “getting things done,” and it’s easy to see how Trump is the ideal candidate for right-wing reactionaries pining for authoritarian salvation.
This is why the people going after Trump by criticizing his racist demagoguery are going about it all wrong. To destroy his campaign, you don’t attack him as malevolent. You attack him as weak. To name-drop the provocative title I’ve chosen for this piece: You symbolically emasculate him.
Enter The Interview.
In my review for the film, I noted that the movie had “a remarkably insightful thesis about human nature and politics—namely, that people respond more to theatricality, sensationalism, and emotional appeals than they do to facts and reason.” This theme is particularly prominent in the climax when (I’ll be vague to avoid spoilers) James Franco’s character defeats Kim Jong-un by manipulating him into losing his poise on national television. Because Kim Jong-un (both the real dictator and his fictitious analogue) depend on being perceived as strong men, it was/would be devastating to their public image if they suddenly were exposed as insecure, out-of-control, and weak.
While I wouldn’t say that Trump is nearly as malevolent as the North Korean despot, his political viability is very much dependent on the same hyper-masculine variables. When his opponents attempt to destroy him by claiming that he is a demagogue or a racist, they do nothing to dissipate the source of his appeal. On the other hand, if they were able to humiliate him on national television by causing him to break down – by exposing the needy child and schoolyard bully beneath the bluster – they would achieve far more in a single moment than all of the National Review could do with an entire issue denouncing his philosophy and character.
Of course, none of this would address the long-term problem, which is how America became so enthralled with an authoritarian personality type in the first place. It just so happens that Trump is chock full of quirks and ticks just begging to be mocked, and as such I suspect it wouldn’t take very much prodding to tear down the edifice he has built up around himself – just a recognition that the approach must be one of emasculation and not mere condemnation. Since this won’t always apply to future would-be Trumps, however, Americans will need to have a serious discussion about how to confront those authoritarian elements of our political psyche so that we don’t wind up in this mess again.
Until then, though, the focus must be on defeating Trump. Fortunately, now that we understand the essence of his appeal, we at least know where to begin.