I am not a Trump supporter.
I cannot support a candidate who exhibits a blatant inattention to facts, who obviously cares more about the promotion of the Trump brand than the welfare of America, and who shows a malicious contempt for anyone who does not fall into line and support him. I cannot support a candidate who demonstrates a callous disregard and contempt for civility in the democratic process, who threatens defamation suits and revokes press passes when he is unhappy with media coverage, and who shamelessly traffics in race-baiting and xenophobic rhetoric. I cannot support a candidate who has the qualities of a bona fide autocrat who does not read, listen to advice, or even care to think about what he says before he says it. I cannot support a candidate who shoots from the hip and does not give a damn who gets shot. My disdain for Trump even gets personal: I cannot forgive him (or Chris Christie) for preventing the rise of Marco Rubio to the White House.
For most of the election season, however, I have been more dismayed than worried. Dismayed because of his divisive rhetoric, because of the crude nationalism he has provoked, and because he offers a paltry contribution to substantive debate about the important issues of our day. He does little more than parrot a hodgepodge of populist memes, but because he has produced a successful reality television series and owns a vast real estate empire, he is taken seriously by millions who believe he is someone who can ‘get things done’ effectively as the head of the most powerful, and perhaps most gridlocked, country on earth.
But until now, I have not been worried.
I have not believed that America could elect a man of so little substance, of so much bombast, and of so much ugly theater. The polls supported my optimism. His unfavorability ratings were (and still are) off the charts. The media narrative was decidedly against him. He committed one gaffe after another. How could a guy like this win a presidential election?
I now have to confess I might have been mistaken. He might actually win. I say this not because the polls have tightened recently, and not because he has cleaned up his game. He still struggles to tie Clinton in polls, and the snap polls he trumpeted after the debate were largely a wash. Moreover, he is still an undisciplined candidate who doesn’t prepare for debates, lashes out with extreme and vicious rhetoric at the bait of a tweet, and shows little grasp of the issues. Trump is still, to put it mildly, a highly unconventional candidate.
Nevertheless, I believe he could win this election.
I’m not predicting he will. His odds are undoubtedly low. But they are more than negligible. This is not all his doing. He has the advantage that Hillary Clinton is one of the weakest candidates the Democratic Party has put forth in years. She is no Joe Biden in being able to trump Trump at his own game of crowd-pleasing bombast and crowd-rousing emotion. But the biggest reason Trump could win is that his campaign and personality deeply resonate with an electorate that has lost almost all its trust in the competence and integrity of the nation’s elites.
As we all know, he’s an outsider. He’s a businessman who has never held elective audience. Like Ross Perot from another generation, he has tapped into economic dysphoria about the fallout from globalization. And he sounds like he knows how to fix it, or will figure it out when he’s in the Oval Office. This is the portrait of a candidate who has successfully promoted himself as the paragon of a triumphant business magnate, who has supposedly lived outside the cloistered halls of political back room dealing (despite having a history with the Clintons and relations with many elites, including underworld elites), who claims to have self-funded much of his campaign, and proudly neglects all manner of convention in political campaigning, political decorum, and media performance.
He is not the only candidate who has tapped into a deep strain of anti-elitism.
Bernie Sanders accrued thirteen million votes on the back of his one percenter hyperbole. But Trump does not limit his fusillade of harangues to Wall Street tycoons. He gives voice to a secret wish among a highly cynical electorate, particularly among Rust Belt whites without a college education, to see someone come to Washington and blow it all up. Trump gives voice to a raging trend of anti-elitism that has been building in the country for a long time. Trump is a big F### You to elites who signed ‘unfair’ trade deals, who failed to prevent 9/11, who brought us the Iraq War, who contributed to the Great Recession. He is a big F### You to the lords of political correctness. He is a big F### You to the media that condescends to the everyman. In short, he is a big F### You to politicians, academics, pundits, lobbyists, and other elites who are believed to be completely out of touch with the Main Street everyman who has been ignored by trade agreements, or marginalized by the media, or caricatured by progressives, or, in general, alienated by an establishment which purports to know better but has little to show for its presumptuousness.
Trump is the gilded embodiment of the crude everyman, and we all have one, or more than one, in our families. The crude everyman is the uncle or the grandfather or the crazy aunt who pounds a fist on the dinner table during the holiday meal about how the country is going to hell because of the politicians cocooned in their Congressional chambers, the lobbyists cooped up in their K street offices, and the intelligentsia smoking pipes in Ivory Towers, all of whom surely have no idea about life on Main Street.
Trump brilliantly gives voice to widespread bitterness aimed at the media for believing it has the prerogative to tell people what to think.
He brilliantly gives voice to the sentiment that the lords of political correctness can’t take a joke. He brilliantly gives voice not just to the everyman of the extreme right, but anyone who is not part of the Washington intelligentsia, not part of the political establishment, not part of the media establishment, and who are concerned, rightly or wrongly, about what they see as the fallout from globalization or immigration, the financial crisis, the Iraq War, 9/11, and every other failure of elites who are supposed to know what they’re doing and serve us well. Mini-Trumps all have their own hair-brained opinions to which they give voice at holiday dinners or when they’re half-cocked in barroom bullshit fests, and they are sick of not being taken seriously by family, tired of being dismissed by President Obama as people clinging to guns and religion, resentful that the media pigeon-holes them as angry white males, and put off by a younger generation that castigates them as out-of-touch xenophobes and racists. They are no longer willing to sit silent and not be taken seriously.
There are, of course, many reasons that millions of other people don’t take them seriously given how they rant and rave about building a wall or ending wars, as if such policies could easily be accomplished if only there weren’t amorphous monetary interests buying off all the politicians, or if politicians could do their job. But as hare-brained as their opinions may be, as hurtful as some of their slogans and protestations may be, they are still human beings who have lives like the rest of us: they own businesses, raise families, are active in their communities, and interact amicably with people from other cultures whom they otherwise denigrate when they participate in Trump political rallies. In other words, aside from some wacky political views, they are not unlike those of us who despise Trump. They do not believe they deserve the condescension and venom directed at them when Clinton calls them a ‘basket of deplorables’ or when Obama opines that they cling to guns and religion. They see elites castigating them with a haughtiness that is unwarranted. They are reminded of the loss of manufacturing jobs, the Iraq War, the Great Recession, the bank bailouts, and have no reason to believe that elites should have any better say than they do about what needs to be done to address the country’s challenges. For them, common sense is the only sense, and they do not believe elites have it.
If I were to take an implicit jab at Trump supporters and quote H.L. Mencken that ‘no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public,’ I would fall into the same trap as anyone who dismisses the Trump phenomenon as simply an ugly display of nationalism, xenophobia, and racism. I would fall into the trap of painting Trump supporters as base cretins. I would fall into the trap of engaging Trump supporters in all those holiday dinner conversations and barroom brawling debates when passions are heated and people get agitated and everyone casts aspersions they would not otherwise cast when a cooler head prevails. I would fail to appreciate how in one Republican debate, Trump responded to an audience that was booing him by claiming that the audience was full of lobbyists, and how this was exactly what many in a cynical electorate believe, regardless of whether it was true on that night. I would fail to appreciate that his response to Clinton’s criticism that he made money off the housing crisis—‘that’s called business, by the way’—was exactly what a cynical electorate forgives: a savvy entrepreneur who did not cause the crisis but found a way to make money off it. If he could do it for himself, he can do it for America.
The Trump supporter wants to blow it all up.
He wants to see Washington, D.C. turned upside down. It is the expression of a deep strain of anti-elitism that is not new in American history, but which has found a climactic 21st century voice for a chunk of the electorate that believes unbridled bluntness, forthrightness, and entrepreneurial savviness are the qualities we need to blow up the cesspool of incompetent elitism in the nation’s capital. It is not because America is a country of racists and xenophobes, though Trump does galvanize pockets of the population where racism, sexism, and xenophobia reside. His appeal is more fundamental. The elites have failed us. It doesn’t matter that the table-pounding everyman is himself highly susceptible to being conned by a demagogue with no ideas and no substance. As far as the Trump supporter is concerned, he is tired of being relegated to a cretin caricature who doesn’t know what he’s talking about, or what’s good for him. He relishes the prospect of someone of Trump’s caliber coming to the capital and blowing it all up. He is not alone, and as a result, Trump just might have enough votes. Don’t let this happen.
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