Quite enough has been written about Donald Trump this election cycle. In fact, I would argue that too much time has been dedicated to his shambolic, unhinged and anti-political train wreck of a campaign. We’re all sick to death of hearing about Donald Trump, of reading the daily reminders that he doesn’t have the first goddamn clue how to run for President (much less actually be one, God forbid), and adding to the ever-growing ziggurat of evidence indicating that not only is he a bad politician, but a mediocre-at-best businessman and a lousy human being.
I know all this, just as I know another article isn’t going to change anyone’s mind or reveal new insight into the man who is unquestionably the worst Presidential candidate this country has ever seen. But at the same time, the fact that approximately 40% of American voters have proven themselves to be aware of (and unmoved by) his innumerable shortcomings as a politician/human being is, in my mind at least, a phenomenon that requires further exploration. So if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to take a little time to wade through this quagmire of an election cycle and the events that precipitated Donald Trump’s rise to power in the Republican Party. It might end up being a pointless endeavor, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least try to understand how we got to this point as a country.
Chapter 1: A Star(?) Is Born
As tempting as it is to dismiss Donald Trump’s political ambitions as a mere publicity stunt designed to push him back into the public eye after leaving NBC’s “The Apprentice,” we must first seek to understand his long-running flirtation with the political arena. It started in September of 1987, when Trump took out a full-page ad in The Boston Globe titled “There’s nothing wrong with America’s Foreign Defense Policy that a little backbone can’t cure.” I won’t get into the specifics of his “policy” proposal here because, as expected, it’s full of useless advice (Make countries pay us for protection! Be strong! Diplomacy is overrated!) and demonstrates an incomplete-at-best understanding of how politics works.
However, the underlying sentiment does three things: First, it serves as one of the earliest records of what would eventually become the foundation of Donald Trump’s platform during his most recent foray into politics (“NATO is obsolete,””We need strength,” etc.). Second, it demonstrates precisely how fragile Donald Trump’s ego is that he considers “backbone” to be the most desirable characteristic in a human being. And third, it provides a glimpse into how Trump views himself and, by extension, America.
Following up on what many read as his official coming-out statement as a politician, Donald Trump gave a speech to a group of Rotary Club members in Portsmouth, NH in 1988. Trump began this speech by telling the crowd that he would not be running for President in 1988, but had this to offer: “If the right man doesn’t get into office, you’re going to see a catastrophe in this country in the next four years like you’re never going to believe. And then you’ll be begging for the right man.” Which begs the question: If he wasn’t planning on running for office, what does all that talk about “the right man” even mean? In his speech (during which Trump also decried “nice people” in Washington who were “being kicked around” and leading the country towards “disaster”), Trump didn’t offer an endorsement of anyone, so the only logical conclusion to draw from his actions is this:
Given that he didn’t disclose any further political ambitions for 16 years after that speech, it’s obvious that he wasn’t really interested in politics when he gave it, nor had he built up a sufficient level of self-delusion to believe he could run for President and win in 1988. Rather, the purpose of the speech was simple: Donald Trump just wanted the applause. He wanted to give a speech that was guaranteed to resonate with frustrated rural voters who were sick of what they perceived to be the same old song and dance in Washington. He wanted to be the rebel, the outsider, the maverick who tells it like it is and who everyone can’t help but to like. He fancied himself the tough-talking straight-shooter who, if he really wanted to, could shake up the whole system.
There is perhaps no friendlier audience than one who came to a rally see a politician make a stump speech. Nobody is asking for policy specifics, and nobody wants to hear a well-laid plan for their first 100 days in office; moreover, nobody would travel to a political rally because they’re unsure about the candidate and want to learn more about them, because that’s not what rallies are for, and anybody thoughtful enough to want to learn more about a candidate’s policies already knows that. The audience just wants to hear someone spout mostly-empty soundbites so they can make noise. In fact, the person delivering those soundbites is often a secondary concern to the audience; they’re simply a vessel through which the audience can communicate their displeasure with the existing system and indicate to politicians that they need to be pandered to in order to receive their votes.
Whether or not Donald Trump is aware of this, nobody can say for sure. But it should come as no surprise that Donald Trump a) is his most energized when speaking to a friendly audience, and b) most reticent to put himself in situations where he might be received with less than total adulation. Simply put, Donald Trump feeds on attention (positive and negative, though given his druthers I’m sure he’d prefer positive), and the campaign trail is the easiest place to get it.
Chapter 2: The Many Reformations of Donald Trump
The next time we heard from Donald Trump in any official political capacity, it was in 1999 when he formed an exploratory committee to seek the presidential nomination of the Reform Party in the 2000 election. For whatever reason (Trump claims due to party infighting), Trump eventually dropped out of the race. But if you look at the timeline following his 1988 “I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying” Tour, Trump made a lot of noise over the years about running for some form of political office:
- 1988: Trump releases his one-page ad campaign designed to…fix American politics, I guess? He does not enter the 1988 election.
- 1999: Trump forms an exploratory committee. A July 1999 poll showed him receiving 7% support when matched with George W. Bush and Al Gore; nonetheless, Trump’s Reform Party bid fails to come to fruition. One might speculate that Trump, embarrassed by that poll result (and not knowing enough about the American political system to know that a third-party candidate polling at 7% is a good number), chose not to enter a race he had no shot of winning. In any event, he does not run for President.
- 2004: Trump mentions he’s “very seriously” considering running for President. He does not run.
- 2006: Trump announces that he’s considering running for Governor of New York. He does not run.
- 2012: Trump publicly speculates about seeking the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. He does not run.
- 2014: Trump (again) announces that he’s considering running for Governor of New York. He (again) does not run.
- 2016: Trump finally runs for goddamn President.
All of these pieces point to one clear conclusion: Donald Trump is addicted to attention, and these (very public) musings helped provide that in spades. And it’s clear that he learned something else along the way: running as a third-party candidate would never give him easy access to as many adoring crowds as he would see as a major-party candidate. To Trump, polling at 7% was not cause for celebration, nor was it a sign that he was doing something right and should seriously dedicate himself to a political career. It was an embarrassment.
So, to give himself a quick fix in election years (coincidentally, when public attention shifted away from him and towards more substantive issues), Trump simply injected himself into the political discourse. He used the 24/7 news cycle to his advantage: eventually, reporters and media outlets run out of things to say about the election itself, so they turn to the periphery for new stories. And there he lurked, making vague statements about potentially joining the fray. The attention he received for doing so helped him reach his media coverage quota in those lean times, sustaining him until the public grew weary of politics and turned its eyes back towards his usual antics.
But like any addict, Donald Trump built up a tolerance. After years of hints that never amounted to anything, the media and the public began to care less and less about whether or not he was going to run for elected office. The reception he received in 1988 was far more substantial than that which he received in the intervening years; in short, he experienced diminishing returns. Eventually, he had a choice: either stop hinting about a possible Presidential bid and graciously cede his place in the public eye during election years, or boost his public profile higher than ever (and risk irreparable damage to his psyche if things didn’t go well) by actually joining the fray. And 2016 provided the perfect opportunity for him to finally make good on all those unfulfilled musings.
Chapter 3: Small Fish, Small Pond
In any other election year, Donald Trump would never have entered the Republican primaries, because in any other election year, the participants in the Republican primaries were (nominally) serious politicians who had a very real chance of being elected President. To do so in 2008, for example, would have meant facing off against John McCain, Mitt Romney, Ron Paul and Rudy “9/11, 7/11, Who Gives a Shit” Giuliani. Trump wouldn’t have stood a chance even in his home state, and he knew it.
But 2016 was a different animal entirely. After 8 years of anti-Obama and anti-government rhetoric, the Republican field was suddenly lousy with non-politicians, somewhat-serious politicians and Lindsey Graham, providing Trump with enough cover to enter the race as more than a sideshow. As much as Trump loves attention, he has an inverse relationship with embarrassment; by simply becoming one of the many non-politician candidates, he banked on the fact that the more experienced debaters like Ted Cruz wouldn’t set their sights on him right away. And he was right. Due to the glut of candidates in the field, Trump was allowed to appeal to the frustrated, anti-government, pro-business crowd for longer than he would have been if he had run during another election cycle. This gave him time to shore up a vocal base of supporters; coupled with his potshots at the “serious” contenders during the debates (which largely went unanswered until it was too late) and his otherworldly knack for self-promotion, the early stages of the primaries gave rise to the illusion that not only could Trump hold his own in politics, but that he might actually be good at it.
(Of course, it has become increasingly clear since he secured the nomination that Donald Trump is not good at politics so much as the other candidates were astonishingly bad at it, but at the time, many could be forgiven for their mistaken impression of him.)
In almost any other election year, Hillary Clinton would have long odds to become the next President; as a nation, we have historically proven that if there’s at least a semi-competent man who wants the job and whose ideas are not patently insane, we’ll vote for them before ever casting a ballot for a woman, no matter her accomplishments. This is not to say that Hillary Clinton is not the most polished candidate or that she wouldn’t do a good job as President (she is, and she would), but both she and Donald Trump are the beneficiaries of weak fields in their respective parties.
As time went on, Donald Trump repeatedly put on display one of his most obnoxious traits: his refusal to ever acknowledge that anything is other than what he says it is. But curiously enough, the effect on his base was minimal; in fact, they ate it up. Emboldened by the warm reception his unhinged comments were receiving, Trump doubled down. He saw in his base a wholesale rejection of the evolution of our country and our society, and he leaned into it as hard as he possibly could. “We should bomb terrorists” begat “We should keep terrorists out of our country,” which begat “We should close our borders to refugees,” which begat “We should actively remove Muslims from this country.” You sometimes got the feeling that even Trump didn’t believe most of what he was saying, but his naked disregard for anything other than applause and appearing “tough” drove him to greater depths. Trump found the visceral heartstring of millions of bigoted, backward-thinking Americans, and he plucked it masterfully. Of course, those voters could well have gone to Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio or Jeb(!) Bush, but Trump had another ace up his sleeve: that base’s strong distrust for career politicians.
Chapter 4: “All Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing”
Donald Trump’s campaign has been plagued by missteps from (literally) Day 1, but if you look at the context surrounding each of his gaffes, you’ll find that nearly all of them stem from his almost pathological obsession with the concept of “strength.” And because there are just so many of them, it’s probably easier to do this in list format:
- His “Mexican immigrants are rapists and murderers” comment was the result of his belief that we need to be “strong” and “tough” on border security.
- His belief that John McCain “[is] not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured” indicates that if McCain were tougher, he wouldn’t have been:
- Shot down over Hanoi
- Knocked unconscious as he ejected, breaking both arms and his right knee in the process
- Taken into captivity
- Stripped naked, had a rifle butt smashed into his shoulder, and stabbed with a bayonet in his groin and ankle
- Spent the next five and a half years as a prisoner
- Tortured regularly, leaving him with permanent damage to both arms
- Received a Silver Star and a Purple Heart for his heroism
- His belief that the “small loan” of $1 million he received from his father didn’t have an effect on his ability to build his empire, indicating that he believes he succeeded based on his toughness and grit.
- His plan to fight ISIS by “tak[ing] out [terrorists’] families” indicates his belief that winning the War on Terror™ is just a matter of being tougher than the terrorists (and apparently committing war crimes, but we’ll get to that later).
- His suggestion that supporters at his rallies should “knock the hell” out of protesters demonstrates his desire to have complete control over those who support him, even if it means his supporters commit assault in his name.
- His (later-retracted) assertion that “there has to be some form of punishment” for women who receive illegal abortions is indicative of his belief that by taking punitive action against those who do something of which he doesn’t approve, he will get people to do what he wants.
- His belief that the Scottish independence vote was a positive and that “[t]hey took their country back, just like we will take America back.”
- His praise of Saddam Hussein (“He killed terrorists. He did that so good.”), an expression of admiration for a maniacal dictator who ruled his country through the liberal use of murder and intimidation.
- His (wildly incorrect) statement that Vladimir Putin “[is] not going into Ukraine, OK?…You can mark it down and you can put it down, you can take it anywhere you want.”
The list goes on. And in every case, these wild statements are either expressing admiration for the nebulous concept of “backbone” or clumsily attempting to embody it through tough talk and empty threats. But the truth is, Donald Trump is not tough, and he does not “tell it like it is.” In every instance where someone has stood up to him, he has responded with bluster before quietly backing down. In fact, Daniel Roberts at Deadspin put together an exhaustive list of the instances in which Donald Trump attempted to intimidate someone else (either through legal means or through the press), and every time his opponent has refused to capitulate, Donald Trump ends up backing down.
There are only a few things that seem to matter to Donald Trump: having money, being regarded as sexually desirable, and being seen as a “powerful” man. But while he has demonstrated that the first two are important to him, it is the third quality that he seems to covet most. You can see it in nearly all of his speeches: the tough talk; the idea that if he was on the streets with [Insert Target Here], he would handle it with his bare hands; the macho posturing. Donald Trump wants so desperately to be thought of as a tough guy, the kind of guy you don’t cross if you know what’s good for you. In a way, he reminds me of the kinds of guys you see on The Red Pill, masking his insecurities through a veneer of arrogance and desperately hoping that nobody finds out the truth. It’s why he can’t let any less-than-flattering comments about him go unanswered: he can’t stand the idea that someone sees right through his facade. It’s also why his default move is to go on the offensive when the person challenging him is a woman- in his world, women should know their place, as should anybody who is not a conservative, wealthy white male. What’s more, he’s terrified that if he doesn’t answer every challenge lobbed his way, the tide will turn on him and he’ll be exposed for what he really is: a narcissistic, ego-driven windbag, one who wouldn’t be nearly as empowered to spout his insane rhetoric if he didn’t have an army of loyal supporters behind him.
So the question is, how did he gain such a rabid base? What makes Donald Trump so special?
Chapter 5: How Did We Get Here?
The idea of a politician who “speaks his mind” is appealing to many voters, myself included; I find myself much more willing to trust a candidate when I feel they’re being genuine. Unfortunately, because of the combative nature of American politics, this idea is also a paradox. Any politician who is serious about their political career cannot truly speak their mind, because they know they will eventually be called on the carpet for something they said. It is easier to renounce a belief that was never that strongly-held in the first place, and the most experienced politicians (like, for example, Hillary Clinton) have the ability to couch their beliefs in so much pabulum and noncommittal language that it’s nearly impossible to tell when they’ve changed direction.
Herein lies Donald Trump’s unique appeal to his base. Because he is independently wealthy (at least until his tax returns confirm otherwise), he does not have to worry about his campaign donations drying up. And because he is not a politician, he is not beholden to special interests or lobbyists in the way a career politician who needs those campaign donations to keep their job is. Trump has made much hay of that fact, even suggesting that it is precisely because he is not a career politician that he is the best fit for the highest elected office in the United States. (Which is, on its face, an absurd notion- I couldn’t show up on The Voice and say “I’d be the best singer because I’m not a singer,” nor could I walk into an NBA tryout and expect a spot on the team because I’m not a basketball player, and that’s just what the Celtics need to get over that first-round playoff hump. In no other world would someone be considered for a job they don’t know how to do solely because they don’t know how to do it. And yet, here we are.)
Trump’s supporters are, in many ways, similar to Bernie Sanders’ supporters. The primary difference between the two groups is that they value different things, but the fervor with which they have embraced their candidate of choice is a result of a growing resentment of and distrust in the American political system. And in both cases, their support is based on the idea that electing a Donald Trump or a Bernie Sanders means our voices do matter, that the political system isn’t so impenetrable as to be inaccessible to anyone who didn’t go to work on Capitol Hill or on a political campaign at the age of 22. What was once a highly-valued trait in a politician (i.e., experience) is now considered a negative, a scarlet letter that brands that politician as part of the “establishment.” There has been a paradigm shift where politics are concerned, which explains why Trump is polling at 35-40% despite, again:
- Never having held elected office;
- Displaying an alarming capacity for lying;
- Demonstrating a near-complete lack of willingness to learn new things;
- Being temperamentally (and possibly just mentally) unfit for the job;
- Being a mediocre businessman, and;
- Being a genuinely crappy person.
The “career politician” rhetoric fed on the public’s growing disenchantment with the political system, which is why it served Trump so well in the primaries. And of all the Republican candidates, there is none whose record screams “career politician” as much as that of Hillary Clinton.
It is easy to dismiss all of Trump’s supporters as bigots and morons, just as it is easy to dismiss all of Sanders’ supporters as pie-in-the-sky millennials who have no real understanding of how political change is effected. But to do so would be ignoring the very real fact that to many of their supporters, Trump and Sanders simply represent a break from the status quo and the possibility that incrementally isn’t necessarily the only way to change things. In both cases, they represent the nearly-extinct notion that every four years, we get to have a say in the direction our country is headed next. Like Sanders’ supporters, Trump’s supporters are scared, though the reasons why have varying degrees of validity.
The most vehement Trump supporters, who trend towards older and white, are concerned about the economy and losing everything they’ve worked for. They’re concerned that as the country evolves, their heretofore-unquestioned place in the social hierarchy will be challenged. They’re concerned that “political correctness” (a concept against which Trump has railed time and again) is weakening our country. Above all, they don’t understand the way the world works today, and it frightens them to lose some measure of control, perceived or otherwise. Which brings us back to the main question: How did we get here?
Donald Trump’s base supports him because they believe he represents the American Dream. They believe he started a business on his own, built it into a huge multinational corporation, and has experienced nothing but continued success since the day he hung his shingle. And best of all, he has done it using little more than his iron will and his wheeling and dealing. Everything he touches turns to gold, so why not let him put that Midas touch on our country?
Of course, the more rational among us know that Donald Trump would have earned more money if he’d just put it in savings and let it collect interest, that his business ventures fail as frequently (if not more frequently) as they succeed, that he’s not above intimidation or lying to weasel out of agreements, and that he lies to mold the facts into a reality he finds most agreeable to him. We know that his story is the American Dream, warts and all- without a million-dollar loan from his father, he would never have had a chance; we know that the American Dream is only achievable with a significant amount of outside assistance, which is why for most of us, that dream is dead. And we also know that just because he’s not a career politician doesn’t mean he isn’t looking out for special interests; the only difference is, the only special interest to which he is beholden is his own personal gain. He is an opportunist, a misogynist, a grifter, a duplicitous bastard, and a liar. He is a prep-school bully, smiling through thin lips while he picks on those who cannot defend themselves to further inflate his already-bloated ego. He is blatantly insincere, fawning and deferential only when it is in his best interest to do so. He is smug, self-important and full of the kind of bombast that is only earned after a lifetime of screwing people over and getting away with it. He is an asshole.
Donald Trump is not the answer to any of the problems in our society or our country. Donald Trump should not be the answer to anything except “Hey, who’s that asshole who runs on a family-values platform while on his third wife?” or “Remember that guy who proposed banning an entire religious group from the United States?” or “Who was that dude with the weird hair and skin the color of Velveeta sauce left simmering on the stove for the entirety of Daylight Savings Time?”
This election isn’t about Donald Trump. This election simply represents an opportunity for people who want things to go back to the way they used to be to have their frustration personified in the form of an “outsider” candidate who “don’t give a damn about nothin’ except the truth.” If not Donald Trump, it would be someone else capturing his audience; deep down, I bet Trump knows that. Were he capable of thinking of anything besides how to personally profit from every situation in which he finds himself, Trump could theoretically tailor his message to present himself as a mature, well-reasoned voice of the common people. He could paint himself as the polar opposite of Hillary Clinton: someone who’s weathered good times and bad in his business, someone who is just far enough outside of the existing political structure that he can redefine its boundaries. And if he did that, given Hillary’s checkered political past and stubborn adherence to the political norms of a bygone era, he’d probably win. But Donald Trump is too concerned with the easy applause line, the catchy soundbite, the path of least resistance, so he won’t.
And thank God for that.