June 19, 2015

Explaining Trump

Donald Trump
Donald Trump speaking at CPAC in Washington D.C. on February 10, 2011. (Photo by Gage Skidmore via Wikipedia)
There are many things about the U.S. that I've never been able to explain to observers living in other countries who have inquired. Evolution denial, the election of George W. Bush, our refusal to do anything meaningful to reduce the incidence of gun violence, our love of reality television and fast food, our inability to carry on civil conversations about racism, our willingness to allow corporate interests to turn things like water and health care into commodities rather than basic rights, and so on. And then there is the top political story of the week: the announcement that Donald Trump is running for president on the Republican ticket. The difficult thing to explain is not that he announced that he is running but the fact that he has some supporters. This is what has some outside the U.S. shaking their heads in disbelief or disgust.

How do we explain Trump's appeal? Honestly, I don't think it is quite as difficult as it seems at first glance, especially not in an election that may well come down to another Bush vs. another Clinton. Many Americans are absolutely fed up with politics and have come to view most presidential candidates as interchangeable. They do not trust any of these people, and they have increasingly come to view the entire system as having failed. In a climate of disinterest and apathy, who better to wake people up than Trump? In some ways, he is the perfect candidate to reach those who have largely tuned out. Despite his faults - or perhaps because of them - he offers something different.

Take a look at the roster of Republican candidates we have so far. It seems awfully familiar doesn't it? Yes, there are a couple serious candidates who have not run before (e.g., Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio) and there will likely be others announcing soon (e.g., Scott Walker), but there also those who ran last time and were not particularly compelling then. It is tough to believe that Christian extremists like Huckabee, Santorum, and Jindal hold the appeal they once did. Even though one of them has completely transformed himself with new glasses, the early polls suggest that people aren't buying it. Of course Trump is going to stand out from this crowd!

I watched Trump's announcement...twice. It was fantastic! In fact, I can confidently say that it was the second greatest political speech I have seen in the 10 years I've been writing Atheist Revolution (you can see the greatest political speech here). I even tuned into a couple of cable news channels I have not had on in more than two years just to see how they would cover it. One knows what one is getting with Trump; there is very little mystery to it. Is he serious, or is this performance art of some sort? We'll see if he actually files the paperwork required to run.

Trump's appeal lies in his personality, his unbridled ego, his presentation, and how these things differ from the politicians we are used to. The policy positions he's advocating are largely the same ones advocated by the serious Republican candidates. It isn't that he has intriguing new ideas that nobody else in the party have been suggesting. Substantively, he's offered nothing new. In some ways, he's a generic Republican. But the manner in which he presents himself - how he says what he says - is certainly new for presidential politics.

But isn't he horribly abrasive, pompous, arrogant, and even offensive? Absolutely! And that's his appeal. He reminds us of us and of what we aspire to be. P.J. O'Rourke wrote:
Donald Trump is representative of all that we hold dear: money. Or, rather, he is representative of greed for money. We common people may not be able to match Trump’s piggy bank, but we can match his piggishness.
He knows he's better than the rest of us and isn't afraid to say so. And since we have been trained from birth to use wealth as the primary indicator of one's worth, perhaps he is better than all of us.

Against a backdrop of pandering candidates determined to tell us whatever they think we want to hear, Trump's obnoxious behavior paradoxically makes him seem more genuine. Some, and I can count myself among them, will inevitably find his shtick to be a refreshing departure from politics-as-usual. I'm unlikely to vote for Trump, but I'm hoping he sticks around for awhile. I hope he continues to hold up his mirror to show us everything that is wrong with our culture and our pay-to-play political system. I hope he does so in a way that will force the most jaded among us to pay attention. In that way, maybe he really does offer us something of value.

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