The Essence — and Lessons — of Donald Trump

So, the results are in. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump both swept 7 of 11 states in yesterday’s Super Tuesday electoral contests. While this is not yet definitive in terms of the eventual major party nominees, it is a pretty telling signal of what we can expect in the coming weeks and months: a Clinton and Trump showdown.

I guess now is the opportune time to declare my predictions (probably) wrong. I had previously stated that Trump would in no way clinch the GOP nomination. I distrusted the polling data. I expected, when it came time for actual votes, for the Republican base to quickly extinguish the exciting specter of Trump’s political theater. I guess I gave them too much credit. I’ll still hold out hope for a gigantic shift in momentum, but my full-fledged denial is officially in check. Trump could actually do this.

I pondered what to write about this particular political situation. So many pundits are clamoring to forecast the downfall of the Republican Party – the growing divides among voters, the inability of the party elites to control the base, the combative relationship between Trump and the GOP establishment (not to mention Fox News). The magnitude of what this means for the Grand Old Party will emerge soon enough. But what I want to discuss here is, on a more personal scale, what Trump’s electoral success means for our American community – how it shapes our collective identity, and exposes the vestiges of evil that still remain in our national consciousness.

Trump’s usual modus operandi is to tout his “tell it like it is” style. He speaks plainly, doesn’t get bogged down with overcomplicated concepts, and conveys an air of confidence when he does so. He states his opinions in a way that makes them seem like irrefutable facts. It makes him appear honest, no-nonsense, and blunt – all characteristics that are atypical for a politician.

But what Trump exudes in self-assurance he lacks in nuance and tact. He is almost the embodiment of a living, walking meme. I’ve written before on the dangers of societal “meme-ification”; in short, I view it as an increasingly dangerous trend that stunts and perverts real civil discourse. And frankly, if any one person can establish this as an authentic danger, it is Donald Trump.

His followers are quick to brush off critiques of his brashness – and often to adopt the same strident tone themselves. “He says what we all are thinking” – secretly or not – is a familiar defense of Trump’s assertions. And maybe, just maybe, he does.

Trump says all the nasty, unsavory things that, for many of us, may appeal to some tiny (or as the case may be, not so tiny) voice in the back of our heads. You know the one. It’s that dark part of ourselves that kind of enjoys the haughty self-elevating rhetoric; the dislike or even hatred of the Other; the Machiavellian love of power; the rejection of sensitivity and perceived weakness. It’s the part of us that, hopefully, most people will strive to fight and overcome. The eternal struggle between good and evil is not just a popular literary or theological theme; it is a basic – perhaps the MOST basic – truth of human life. There is good that exists. There is evil that exists. And our perpetual human existence is geared toward the triumph of the former over the latter.

As an avowed Christian, Trump should know this. And yet in his rallies, he can cite a Bible verse in one breath while describing his desire to punch a protester in the face in the next. He can call himself a great unifier while simultaneously sending out a Tweetstorm of insulting messages to anyone who rubs him the wrong way. As an example, I thought I might include a few of his most outrageous tweets here; but upon review, I don’t even want to repeat them. (Twitter and Google are rife with such content for any interested parties.)

In the schoolyard, a bully often remains unchallenged not because people truly love him, but because they fear him. He gains loyal followers because they will cling to a word of praise from him. They don’t want him to turn his cruelty in their direction. When and if he does, they often recognize their foolishness. Will this be the case with Trump and the American people? Will they finally turn on him if he starts lashing out at them – when he spews a furious flurry of insults to their particular group, or someone to whom they are close? What will it take for the majority of his followers to see his messages for what they actually are: vile, immoral, and utterly devoid of substance?

People want desperately to think that the legacy of racism and discrimination is behind us in this country. But a legacy by its very nature can be pretty hard to shake – and that of racism, sadly, is no different. And when Donald Trump can effectively mobilize a legion of followers behind racist and xenophobic ideals (see, e.g., his “birther” campaigns against Barack Obama; his condemnation of Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals; his call for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States; his support for violence against black protesters; and of course, his reluctance to disavow a former grand wizard of the KKK), it is abundantly clear that the vestiges of racism and bigotry in this country aren’t really vestiges at all. They may be couched in other terms – a revolt against “political correctness,” for example, or hypersensitivity – but they are here, alive and well. We have a lot of work to do yet.

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When it comes down to it, Donald Trump might actually be a more effective political negotiator than his arguably closest challenger, Ted Cruz. He has previously indicated his willingness to bring a sense of business acumen and negotiating skill to the White House, and has criticized Cruz’s brand of principled obstructionism as self-serving and ineffective. But despite the (modestly) positive implication of Trump’s bipartisan political style, is it enough to overcome the wealth of negative repercussions that would accompany a Trump presidency? (Pun, by the way, very intended there.) I honestly don’t know. But I’m starting to feel very strongly that it will not – or even cannot. Because Trump’s political successes mean that an unsettlingly large segment of the American populace is buying into his messages of prejudice, intolerance and intimidation. They like what they’re hearing. Perhaps they won’t once his vitriol is directed their way.

If they elect him president, inevitably, they won’t have to wait very long for that to happen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Image credit: Matt A.J.