Trump’s Appeal Redux
Apologies, sort of. This is an updated portion of an earlier post “Trump, Carson, and Cruz! Really??? Here is Why.” I wrote this earlier post on September 2, 2015 about the three insurgent candidates in the Republican primaries. But, with the recent “Trumptastic ” performances in New Hampshire and South Carolina, it seems worthwhile to update it a bit and focus on the “man of the hour.”*
Here was my take on this in September. Hasn’t really changed.
Trump picks up many of those voters whom PEW polling classifies as “disaffected.” But, to better understand Trump’s success, one must reach somewhat deeper than a polling category. Michael Kimmel, a sociologist, who in his book Angry White Men looked at some men’s reactions to the women’s movement and coined the phrase “aggrieved entitlement.”
Those men he interviewed and classified as aggrieved were filled with negative emotion:
“…[they] feel they have been screwed, betrayed by the country they love, discarded like trash on the side of the information superhighway. Theirs are the hands that built this country; theirs is the blood shed to defend it. And now, they feel, no one listens to them; they’ve been all but forgotten. In the great new multicultural American mosaic, they’re the bland white background that no one pays any attention to…[and] they’re mad as hell.”
While Kimmel was discussing a specific social group and social movement, these kinds of statements are exactly the concerns we hear voiced when Trump supporters are interviewed by the media. What we see in Trump is exactly that sense of “aggrieved entitlement” or what I prefer to call “a grievous sense of loss.” Those who support Trump see themselves as devalued in our society, and they see the devaluation of the symbols they hold dear. (For simplicity, for the remainder of this essay, all these people will be identified as—The Aggrieved)
The Aggrieved are fed the idea that illegal immigrants live here and receive all sorts of imagined benefits that detract from the welfare of “real” citizens like themselves. They see themselves being continually forced to navigate treacherous economic waters; they also understand that they are the first generation whose children will probably not do as well economically as they did. Also, with Muslims, the threat of terrorism (while more likely to come from domestic terrorists or long wolves) becomes a nice peg on which they can hang their nativist hats.
All these realizations are painful. That pain leads to anger. The Aggrieved are not getting what they want; their kids won’t get what they want. Why should these illegals get what they want, largely at the expense of “real” Americans? Immigration thus becomes an issue that symbolizes their broader and deeper distress about their lives and the lives of their children.
Adding insult to injury, they as individuals may have fallen on harder times, but they have always believed that at least they could claim membership in an exclusive club with a blindingly sterling reputation. They might personally be struggling, but they were citizens of the United States, that unstoppable #1 World Power. That was something they could claim as their own and something to make them proud.
We have all seen wax figures melt when exposed to heat and flame. For the American public, the compelling myth of American invincibility began to melt on September 11. The stunning muddles we made of Afghanistan and Iraq led to the growth of a potent new devil, ISIS. Even more shameful, America has to “negotiate with” rather than “dictate to” the leaders of Iran, whose favorite phrase seems to be “Death to America.”
These people feel like a middle-aged White woman in the audience at what I think was a Tea Party town meeting in 2008. When she was given the microphone, she was battling back tears because (I’m quoting from memory here) “I don’t recognize this country any more. This is not my America.” In a very real sense, this statement encapsulates the worldview of The Aggrieved.
That woman was correct. In 2008 a Black man was on a road straight to the White House. Young people, Hispanics, and Blacks were stepping into the voting booth and the public’s eye in ways that were unheard of since the days of the Civil Rights Movement, which was an earlier generation’s wake up call to a changing America. All those Stars and Bars coming down now across the southern states went up largely in response to the Civil Rights movement last century. Those symbols were that earlier generation’s equivalent of members of this generation calling the President a Muslim.
This bitter sense of loss, combined with a good dose of implicit racism, is why over a third of Republicans, and many who identify as Independents, still cling to the belief that our President is not a citizen. While we now largely eschew the explicit racism of a Jim Crow world, the “race problem” remains a major issue in America. Implicit racism remains a problem. It gives us different responses to identical resumes based on whether the person’s name sounds African-American.
Implicit racism makes up uncomfortable with the use of the “N” word, but we still see Black men as more threatening than Whites. Implicit (and sometimes explicit) racism feeds The Aggrieved’s sense that the world is somehow “out of joint.” When a Black man holds the loftiest honor this nation can bestow, it has to be some kind of trick or dirty deal. For them, no other explanation suffices.
To top it off, even among the general population, Congress has a popularity rating that vies with that of a colonoscopy. The old joke, “Question: How can you tell a politician is lying? Answer: His lips are moving.” is no longer a joke. For many people, it has become a compelling political stance.
All of this is why we have “the Teflon Don.” He can say anything; he can say nothing. It doesn’t matter. Trump supporters love their man, but not really. What they truly love is finally having someone holding center stage and channeling their grievous sense of loss and waving their flag of angry resistance.
The Aggrieved want their nation back; they want someone who buys into, and loudly sells, the myth that America really was at one time invincible domestically and abroad and can be again; they want no more of those slick politicians with their stump speeches, complex answers to complex questions, or carefully-worded position papers.
And, Trump is all the more attractive because he continually reminds everyone within earshot that he has the “fuck-you” money that all of them (us) dream of having. McTrump’s braggadocio is the swagger that The Aggrieved American wants to have as he strolls down the streets of his city. The Aggrieved American heartily shares McTrump’s open disdain for professional politicians and the press. It is exactly what he or she would gladly display if anyone would just notice them and ask them.
The Aggrieved see a world around them that feeds into, and reinforces, that “bitter sense of loss” that motivates them. They often can’t really put their finger on the source of their distress, but they know something is deeply wrong. They feel it in their guts, in their souls.
They know they have lost something important, so they might be moved to pat their pockets to jog their memory of what might be missing. They now know they have no need to go so far. Trump tells them often and loudly, in no uncertain terms, what is gone. He then points his well-manicured finger at the dastardly sneak thieves who let it be stolen away, and the crowd roars its full-throated approval.
Luckily, for those of us not among The Aggrieved, Trump’s campaigns largely resemble the path taken by infectious diseases. The most troublesome infectious diseases are those that allow the patient to linger and infect others before killing their host. However, most infectious diseases are self-limiting. They seek out the vulnerable; do their worst; kill off their hosts; then disappear.
[NOTE: I thought that limiting would occur in the R primaries; now it seems that it will be in a brokered R convention or the general election. My bad.]
*[Looking at this “man of the hour ” phenomenon, it seems interesting to track TIME magazine covers and man of the year awards for the 1930s, another era of political instability. Hitler was Man of the Year in 1938 and was on the cover three times from 1931-1936; Joseph Goebbels was on a TIME cover in 1933; Mussolini was on two cover in 1935-36; Franco was on one cover in 1937; Stalin was Man of the Year in 1939 and 1942 and appeared on two covers in 1936-1937.]