The Trump Phenomenon

Some time late summer or early fall of 2015, I remember tweeting my lament that the media kept giving Donald Trump so much attention. It was essentially my belief that he wasn’t a serious candidate, that this was all a big game to him, and that the primary season would show that. How could everyone else not see that? After all, those who are labeled as early front runners often don’t win. Around that same time, I also wrote a blog post — motivated by a kind of realpolitik instinct — that predicted that Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton would cruise to their respective Republican and Democratic nominations. I thought those two individuals, more than any others in the race, had the names, history, money, and power to move convincingly toward the White House.

Well, I still don’t think we need to give all of Trump’s antics as much attention as we do, but suffice it to say that I was wrong about Jeb, I might have been wrong about Hillary, and I was definitely wrong about the longevity of Trump’s candidacy, even if some sort of Republican miracle prevents him from becoming the nominee. But most of all, I was wrong about the historical, cultural, and political moment that we’re in.

At the undergraduate level, I studied political science and moved from there onto a couple short stints in Washington, D.C. That is to say, I’ve always been drawn to the world of politics, and it often serves as background for my writing. If politics aren’t the main event, they at least provide necessary context. Politics do matter, of course, and being around the conversation energizes me, even as I’ve also learned that I’m more prone to the periphery than the the center of campaigns and elections and policy-making. I haven’t voted in a presidential election since 2004, but I do intend to vote this time around. The Indiana primary is so late it’s often irrelevant, but if it were to happen tomorrow I suppose I would probably vote on the Republican side for John Kasich. As I get older, I find it more and more difficult to place myself politically, but I suppose in some ways I’m kind of a fringe conservative. I view the political spectrum as a circle, so I also sympathize with a fringe liberal like Bernie Sanders, much more so, anyway, than I do for either Hillary or Trump.

While I don’t think outcomes necessarily indicate the condition (or potential) of Trump’s soul, I do think the number of divorces and bankruptcies Trump has gone through tell us something important about his character. And yet, I am equally uncomfortable with how his opponents are beginning to talk about (and demonize) him, like he is the source of all evil and the biggest problem in American history. They take the worst of Trump’s vilification for women or various minorities and then they use those same hateful tones toward Trump. It’s an old inconsistency, but it bothers me nonetheless.

I’ve heard a distant friend of mine who is well-connected among D.C. influencers say that “Culture runs upstream from politics.” It’s a poetic sentence, but truthfully the first time I heard him say it, I didn’t really know what he meant. I literally had to draw out on paper a river with the metaphorical culture running into politics (and not so much the other way around). If I had come up with the concept myself, I probably would have simply said that culture drives politics. This was true for gay marriage, it was true for the Iraq War, it was true for Obamacare. It’s a scary thought, but perhaps it was also true of and for the Holocaust. What I am suggesting is that we don’t arrive at these moments arbitrarily, and we don’t even necessarily get there simply because we elected the right (or wrong) candidate or something. No, rather, something more like: we get what we want/deserve/are ready for. That my friend’s idea has so stayed with me is probably because I’m more cultural critic than policy wonk, and as I watch the 2016 election unfold in front of us, it seems somewhat clear to me that Trump and Bernie Sanders are the real story of this election, whether either man becomes his party’s nominee or not. Follow Trump and Sanders, and you will find the pulse of the contemporary United States.

Admittedly, I haven’t so much as watched a debate, a decision which I haven’t yet regretted. One of the results of that choice is that my own convictions and conclusions often come from images and associations and emotional responses and extrapolations from a tweet here, a Facebook post there, or a glimpse of a campaign speech while I work out at the gym. One night I was talking about the whole thing with my housemate, and he told me about Bill Maher’s mock Trump State of the Union in which he uses vulgarity and innuendo freely (and “unpresidentially”). A few days later, I watched Donald Trump respond to Mitt Romney’s plea that Republicans not nominate Trump by saying that four years ago, Romney was so desperate for Trump’s endorsement that  he “could have said, ‘Mitt, drop to your knees; he would have dropped to his knees.'” So yeah, Trump is vulgar, and he does use innuendo, which is a huge contrast to eight years of President Obama, who has been composed and calculated and thoughtful and articulate. Obama’s kind of rhetoric works, of course, for a certain type of upper class, educated, Northeast liberal. And even for a lot of progressive Christians. But it doesn’t work for everyone, even on the left. Look no farther than my English grad student friends and former classmates, many who scrape by just to buy beer. Most of them will take Sanders’ socialism over Obama’s carefulness any day of the week. And apparently Florida retirees (and others!) prefer Trump.

Some of what the 2016 election seems to be telling us runs in the same direction as some of the recent backlash regarding political correctness rhetoric. Laura Kipnis and Conor Friedersdorf are just two essayists I can think of who have begun to show us some of the problems of talking and writing in this emotionally-detached, carefully-censored, attempt-to-offend-no-one kind of way. Trump and Sanders are different from each other in many ways, but perhaps their appeal has more in common than what you might think. I think, for example, that each of these candidates is a bit more raw than your average U.S. presidential candidate. They are apt to say what’s on their mind, even if it comes out a bit rough.

I was surprised, though, when I had a recent dinner conversation with two other men that I deeply trust, both of whom seemed much more concerned about the possibility of a Trump presidency than I am. I may still be in a bit of denial or naivety, but I think my hesitance to say the sky is falling goes deeper than that. I’m way too fascinated by what this moment means about us to take up my signs and join the picketing.  I won’t be moving to Canada if Trump gets elected. I really do think this election is way more about us — the electorate, the citizenry — than it is about Trump. And no, I don’t really blame Trump for the fact that a few skirmishes broke out at one of his (cancelled) rallies in Chicago. Trump is just a representative part of something  that’s so much bigger than him. Sure, Trump appeals to anger and fear, and he says seemingly whatever the hell he wants to, but let’s not kid ourselves: when we watch Hillary or Bernie Sanders talk, it seems quite obvious that anger is a central motivator for their politics, too. Which begs the question: what are we so sad and angry about? If we really want to look, there are a million answers to that question: parental abandonment, economic turmoil, loneliness, steep student loan debt, chaotic schooling, peers and spouses who are sent off to war and come back indefinitely damaged, cultural expectations that we act like we’re okay despite all the heartache. Elsewhere, I have written about this very same thing in relationship to another issue that is close to my heart, namely this problem we have of people (mostly men) showing up in a public place only to start spraying indiscriminately from semi-automatic weapons. Sure, guns provide the easy out, but the harder question is related, I think, to the Trump phenomenon: why do so many of us reach such a desperate emotional state that killing (or insulting or blaming immigrants or…) seems like the only (or best?) option? Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist, offered one explanation:

“The change of character brought about by the uprush of collective forces is amazing. A gentle and reasonable being can be transformed into a maniac or a savage beast. One is always inclined to lay the blame on external circumstances, but nothing could explode in us if it had not been there. As a matter of fact, we are constantly living on the edge of a volcano…”

So it’s not that I’m not worried. My worry is just placed more in our collective and festering emotional states rather than whether or not Trump becomes the next president. I don’t think defeating him will change the fact that so many of us live in perpetual anxiety, depression, and with various modes of numbing our uncomfortable feelings out. If Trump is simply feasting on that “volcano” within us, I daresay that what the left is doing is rarely better. What bugs me about the Obamas and the Hillarys is that they seem rather uncomfortable with the fact that there is this beast within us at all, and probably in them, too. So we go right on pretending it doesn’t exist.

Thus, a hunger for a Trump, for a Sanders. Granted, it’s probably a bit of a flaw of mine that I would take conflict over passivity in most situations. When you fight me, you are at least showing me that you give a shit. I’ve gotten to that point as a reaction to some of my own story, and of course it doesn’t always serve me well. It can worsen the problem by leading me further into isolation. On the other hand, righteous indignation can, of course, be productive, and I suppose what the Trump opposition fears the most is that his anger isn’t and won’t be that. They’re probably right. I’m not convinced that a Trump presidency would really lead to persuading Mexico to build a wall or to exporting all who identify as Muslim outside of the United Sates, but it wouldn’t surprise me if four (or eight?) years of Trump would move us toward more tension and chaos than peace and prosperity. Would a Hillary or Sanders (or Kasich) presidency be more tranquil? Maybe. But perhaps our unrest has been quieted for so long than it is time to bring it to the surface. I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

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