The glib way to answer the question in the title is to say that a certain percentage of the American public love bigoted demagogues, and that’s that. But there are a lot of bigoted demagogues in this country, and only one of them is our president. Tribalism, misogyny, and racism all go some way to explaining why Trump sits in the oval office, and why he still stands at least an outside shot of re-election, but they don’t go all the way.
For a real explanation—one that might be elusive, no matter how far we dig—we need to ask uncomfortable questions. Chief among these is what elements of his personality, divorced from his policies (insofar as that’s possible), resonate with such a broad swath of our country. Those of us who find him to be a repellent narcissist with dangerous ideas need to reckon with why a repellent narcissist with dangerous ideas can be so attractive. A failure to explore that reality means a failure to learn anything from it, and puts us at risk of history repeating with some Trump-adjacent future nightmare.
This video, featuring the late David Graeber, is a good place to start:
Graeber hits so much in such a short time. Not only on the weakness of centrism—”a pure set of performative symbols”—which has given working class voters plenty of reason to drift away from the Democratic party, but how the right puts forth the “yokel” style of politician to get mocked by a so-called cultural elite, only to earn the sympathy and support of those who are temperamentally opposed to liberal culture in the first place. One great way to “own the libs” is to vote for the guy they hate. Trump is trotting out the same act with a few variations. He’s openly antagonistic, and smug about infuriating and belittling his opponents. Where someone like George W. Bush might have let his supporters feel a vague affinity, Trump lets them feel power. Bush enraged liberals, and so does Trump, but on a gut level Trump also scares them. And that power of inspiring fear is transmitted to his supporters, because the ability to scare another person, to control them in that way, has been appealing to human beings forever.
Of course, it’s more than fear. It’s the appeal of speaking the unspeakable, too. By eschewing the dog whistle tactics of his Republican forebears, Trump delights and amuses his followers who bridle at being told that their ways of life, their modes of thinking, are backward and unacceptable. On this point, I think, Trump’s critics miss the point by labeling him a racist. There is clearly racism underpinning some of his support, particularly in the far-right fringe, but for most of his supporters, I suspect the impulse is more about defying the concept of political correctness. Social liberalism, particularly when it veers into the absurdity of woke language and thought policing, is bound to clash with the ideology of people who see it as restricting, and who resent being told, even implicitly, that they are hateful or backwards. Ben Shapiro holds such a prominent place in conservative “intellectual” discourse because he’s an expert at picking out the hypocrisies in liberal thought, and his broadsides give comfort to those who don’t want to change. Trump does the same thing, but he mocks the enemies while he’s doing it…which is even better, if that’s how you get your picks.
Polarization plays its part too, and for that we can thank decades of Republican culture war messaging, with Fox News and conservative talk radio as the top purveyors. It turns out that you can brainwash people into seeing their fellow countrymen as enemies, and that they even kinda like it. Trump has gone further than anyone in exploiting this natural instinct, and his quasi-violent rhetoric, even if he doesn’t mean it and even if most of his supporters don’t exactly mean it, heightens that tension and allows everyone involved to feel as though they’re engaged in a crucial battle. When you begin to view political life through the framework of competition or even conflict, it becomes easier to forgive any sins on your side and to view every action on the other side in a sinister light. That’s in-group thinking, it’s very seductive, and Trump is a master at driving that unique kind of tribal loyalty. When you see conservatives ignoring their own stated principles when one of their own is in violation, this is why. The team is paramount. It’s the same reason Trump’s own contradictions don’t matter in the least.
The sweet satisfaction of pure grievance is another element we ignore at our own peril. It’s difficult to ascertain how or why, but Trump has mastered the contradictory skills of presenting a masculine front—this is, after all, a hyper-masculine western country—while endlessly complaining about every perceived slight from every critic. It’s a secular version of the paradox we’ve seen with some strains of evangelical Christianity in America, where they adopt a stance of perpetual persecution while holding all kinds of economic and political power. Trump understands the shadow logic here, and even if the things he kvetches about at his rallies are not remotely relatable to his followers, what is relatable is the kvetch itself. Trumpism only works if there’s a sense of being constantly under attack, and being the underdog in that attack, even when reality is quite different. Defensiveness is the implicit justification for everything else.
Finally, there are the physical and verbal qualities of Trump. He’s a big man, he’s a comfortable speaker who looks more at ease on stage than most politicians, he projects power, and he never seems ruffled. You cannot pin him down verbally, especially using old tactics of fact-hunting, and you cannot shame him. He can speak extemporaneously to audiences of thousands for hours at a time, and he’s extremely good at delivering simple messages with memorable language. He can joke around on one hand, and emasculate an opponent on the other. America has been in love with outlaws since it’s early days, and leaders like Trump who seem to achieve power while flouting the rules of decorum exert a kind of magnetic pull. In some ways, on a superficial level, this is what made Hillary Clinton an ideal opponent for him. She was the try-hard, the uncomfortable speaker, the cultural elite who didn’t understand everyday Americans. The fact that Trump was born as the son of a millionaire real estate magnate in New York City didn’t matter, because that’s not how he looked or sounded.
Penn Jillette, who worked alongside Trump on The Apprentice for a time, told Joe Rogan about the experience of witnessing the man in person, and—your feelings on Joe Rogan aside—the whole clip is fascinating:
The important thing I took from that is the concept of escaping the “filters.” What Jillette means is that Trump is beyond the societal concerns and self-consciousness that govern our speech and behavior, and he’s reached that rarefied state of anti-zen by means of narcissism, greed, and a total lack of empathy. Jillette quotes Thelonious Monk, who said that “a genius is the person most like himself.” I don’t think we need to apply the word “genius” to Trump, but there is something undeniably exceptional there, and I buy into Jillette’s idea that it’s the dark side of what you might see in a figure like Lenny Bruce. People without filters are interesting, and Trump’s particular qualities, along with the society surrounding him, became a “perfect time, perfect place” scenario in 2016.
The question that dogs us all is whether Trump is repeatable. Could someone else pick up that mantle? The name Tom Cotton is thrown around a lot, along with a few others, but none of them strike me as very plausible. They lack Trump’s charisma, and if there’s a sigh of relief to be had, it might be in the belief that the qualities which elevated Trump are so rare in human beings that we’re not likely to see anyone remotely similar anytime soon. Hopefully.
Still, it’s important to learn why “Trump” as a presidential prospect worked. Is there any way to combat his particular method besides sincerity and authenticity, or simply praying that a majority of people don’t fall under his sway and there are enough to vote him out? Are there elements of his performance that could inform a progressive or liberal candidate? And most critically of all, will we see the next Trump coming sooner, and take the threat seriously to avoid another disastrous surprise like Nov. 8, 2016? If we’re lucky, Trump may be gone by January, but the specter of what he accomplished is going to last a long time. If we don’t let it teach us, it could overwhelm us again.