Can Donald Trump keep it up? When will he implode? What explains his rise in the polls? How do we stop him?
The pundits wring their hands. Josh Marshall thinks Trump is a doofus who uses sophisticated military strategy. Peggy Noonan, who penned the phrase “1000 points of light” for George H. W. Bush, declares Trump to be a sign of molecules in motion. Statistician-pundit Nate Silver assures us Trump will meet his doom. Charles Blow has had enough and will no longer mention Trump’s name. George Will was moved to pen a glorious sentence which begins, “Every sulphurous belch from the molten interior of the volcanic Trump phenomenon …”
Pity Ted Cruz, Todd Walker, Mike Huckabee and Bobby Jindal — if you can. As they fight to out-evangelical each other, a heathen bursts through the back doors of the church and steals their “market segment,” to use Cruz’s phrase. Yes, Trump, despite his pro-choice recent past, despite his obvious lack of a personal faith, leads among evangelical voters, the most coveted alleged “bloc” of voters in the Republican primaries.
FOX News pollster Frank Luntz, a dark genius who assembles focus groups to test out phrases designed to pull the wool over the eyes of voters (it was Luntz who proposed that the super-rich should be called “job creators,” and that the estate tax should be renamed the “death tax”), tested a group of 29 Trump supporters, assuming he would find their support to be shallow. He was wrong. “My legs are shaking,” Luntz said after the session, so impervious were Trump’s supporters to negative truths about their favorite.
Through it all, Trump blusters on, obscuring his last outrageous statement with the next, dominating the news each day. The country has several months to grow tired of him, but signs that the Trump phenomenon will be short-lived are scarce.
Too all the theories explaining his rise, I will add mine:
Donald Trump has seized the moment because he addresses one of the most powerful and prevalent human emotions: shame.
A story: In 1986, I spent a summer at Cambridge, England, studying history. Most of my fellow students were from the East Coast, a more diverse set than I had been exposed before.
At dinner one night, I said with pride that I had “jewed down” a clerk who sold me a sweater. The table fell silent. On the opposite side sat Louis Cohen, as Jewish as can be, a gentle soul who was too kind to point out my use of a phrase, which had long ago fell into disuse among educated folk due to its obvious anti-semitism.
My face burned red with shame. In the next few moments, I felt several emotions, emotions which I think are key to understanding the Trump phenomenon. After the initial shame, I felt rage. Rage at being shamed. Rage at those educated enough not to make my mistake, rage at the sophisticated, rage at the elite, rage at the restrictions “political correctness” placed upon my free expression, my use of homey phrases, my expression of myself.
Finally, and briefly, my mind tried to feel pride. Pride that I spoke the unvarnished truth. I mean, aren’t Jewish people known for being frugal? Pride that I wasn’t one of those constipated souls afraid of offending anybody.
Eventually, I just ate crow and apologized to Louis privately. But my shame lived on to the point where I still blush, 29 years later, at the thought of offending such a nice person, and for acting like such a boor.
Fast forward to Trump.
Trump shows no shame. He follows each new boorish statement, not with a tortured, contrived apology, but with another even more boorish statement. He is boldly himself, political correctness be damned. He gleefully offends this grievance group, that grievance group — all those educated puff heads who shame people for what amounts to, at the very worst, a mere lack of manners.
I mean, who doesn’t occasionally imitate Asian immigrants? Is it really that bad to indulge in stereotypes? Aren’t stereotypes the source of much of or humor, either at the bar or on late-night television? Don’t stereotypes contain a hint of truth? Am I really a bad person for hating rap music, for preferring hamburgers to beans and rice, for fearing the inner city due to all the black people there, or for using the term “gyp?”
To those who feel shame for being made to feel less because they aren’t up on all the things they aren’t supposed to say in polite company, Donald Trump’s vulgar public persona is pure meth. As he bulldozes forward, they vicariously bask in a sense of deliverance from their shame. Justification of one’s base, unfiltered impulses is a powerful drug. Those who enjoy its effects won’t give it up easily.
So, why does Trump lead among the white evangelical right? Because he shamelessly proclaims what they see as truth but which they have been made to feel ashamed to say out loud.
Successful evangelical ministers play the same game. “He preaches the truth,” admirers say of their popular new minister. But now more now than ever before, “preaching the truth” doesn’t mean that the minister bravely preaches a proper theology, or the need to convert, or the need to act decently. No, what they relish is when the ministers bash groups that the pew-sitters deeply despise and fear, people who make them feel shame. Liberals. Gay people. People with many degrees. People of exotic origin who won’t give up their traditional food to eat hamburgers. People who talk in different languages so we can’t know when they are making fun of us.
The above is as kind a twist as I care to put on the Trump phenomenon. He is many other things besides shameless. He appeals in other ways. People who feel powerless crave a strong man to cut through the political mess. The frustrated gravitate toward simple explanations and simple solutions to complex problems.
Evangelicals, in particular, often drift toward solutions as efficient as their own conversion. “It changed my life,” they say of the latest herbal supplement or multilevel marketing scheme, attributing to it the same powers they often attribute to the Lord.
In Trump, they see a quick fixer. I mean, the guy’s a billionaire!
But the real root of Trump’s surprising ascendance is his shamelessness.
It is not to his credit. In a civilized society, we should be polite. We should seek to understand others. We should see things from different perspective. We should learn Spanish. We should eat other foods and not view love for hamburgers as a sign of righteousness.
But it is work. And you always run the risk of offending somebody along the way— and feeling your face burn with shame.
Those moments of revelation when you realize that what you were yesterday isn’t what you want to be tomorrow have another name:
True education hurts. That is why we avoid it and seek refuge in proud ignorance.