December 31, 2015

2015: The Year of Trump

Donald Trump enters the Oscar De LA Renta Fash...
Donald Trump enters the Oscar De LA Renta Fashion Show, New York. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Was 2015 the "year of Trump?" Matt Taibbi (Rolling Stone) is not alone in suggesting such a possibility. He and others offering this description may have a point. If nothing else, the mainstream news media in the U.S. seemed to do everything in their power to make this the year of Trump. They provided his campaign with far more coverage than any of the others, perhaps because Trump seemed to bring them better ratings than any of the other candidates.

Taibbi notes that Trump's campaign "started out as a joke." He's right. Remember when almost nobody took it seriously? It was not the first time Trump had talked about running for president, and most observers thought this was more bluster. He wouldn't actually submit the paperwork prior to the filing deadline.

Even when Trump surprised many by entering the race, his quick demise was predicted by almost everyone. He was widely considered a troll and not a serious candidate. "He's only doing this to get attention. He doesn't really want to be president."

As Trump quickly began making politically incorrect statements about Mexicans and revealed his plan to build a wall along the border, the commentators agreed that there was no way this candidacy could last. "The American people will soon grow tired of this and move on to consider the more serious candidates."

But Trump has not only lasted throughout 2015, he has continued to poll well. Some of those struggling to understand his appeal may need to consider the possibility that he is popular not in spite of his more objectionable comments but because of them. Taibbi writes:
But shortly after Trump jumped into the race, he stumbled onto a secret: whenever he blurted out forbidden thoughts about race, ethnicity or gender, he was showered with the attention he always craved.
And it wasn't just negative attention that Trump received. Even though many consider his comments to be sexist, racist, xenophobic, and the like, it became clear that there is a large segment of the population that has a very different perception. For many of Trump's supporters, their candidate is saying the things many people think but few dare to express. In their minds, this has made Trump into something of a hero.

Taibbi has an interesting idea about the sort of thing Trump supporters find appealing about their man:
This goofball billionaire mirror-gazer has unleashed a half-century of crackpot grievances about the post-civil rights cultural landscape that a plurality of seething white people felt they never had permission to air, until he came along.
Not only is Trump saying these things, but the fact that he's doing so opens the door for others to do so. In essence, his rhetoric is normalizing the expression of grievances about multiculturalism and political correctness. As Taibbi correctly notes, Trump's appeal is not all about racism and anti-immigrant sentiment. I think it is a serious mistake to paint all Trump supporters as bigots and xenophobes. He is giving voice to decades of pent-up frustration over political correctness.

If 2015 was the year of Trump, I hope that 2016 will be the year we learn something about the meaning of his appeal. I'd like to see us focus less on Trump and more on what his campaign has helped to reveal about us and the nature of our society. I don't think we can accomplish this by demonizing Trump or his supporters. Instead, I think we need to make a genuine effort to understand why he appeals to them and the nature of their grievances. It may also be time to take a look at the role of anti-intellectualism in our political discourse.