Every day brings a new essay attempting to explain the popularity of Donald Trump. There is no single reason why citizens not only approve of this faux real-estate tycoon turned politician but support him with a passion both perplexing and alarming. Alas, pundits have yet to identify an intervention likely to rescue the misbegotten from the clutches of the Trump cult. Certainly, I don’t know how to eliminate or even diminish the influence of Donald Trump, but I want to offer my own thoughts about his popularity.
The United States, almost more than any other country, has a strong tradition of freedom of speech, albeit a tradition being challenged by certain Republican governors of late. We have embraced the theory that bad or evil speech can be countered by good or righteous speech. The theory seemed validated at a time when this country hosted myriad newspapers, magazines, and newsletters of every imaginable stripe. That time, however, has largely passed. All too many Americans rely on social media and Fox News for their view of the larger world. If someone is always watching Fox News and other far-right “news” outlets, they are unlikely to be watching MSNBC, CNN, or even NBC, ABC, or CBS. Nor are they reading The New York Times or The Washington Post. These people are constantly exposed to Trump and far-right propaganda. Opposing speech has no way to reach them. Consumers of more mainstream media, on the other hand, get a fair taste of right-wing ideas even though they are being reported secondhand. Even if the Trump media world does not grow larger, its acolytes of the Trump “base” daily grow more zealous.
Although this is surely not true of all Trump supporters, many followers like Trump because they are like and identify with him. This is probably even more distressing than the disjoint media universes in which citizens find themselves. Trump is a detestable human being, possessing a combination of traits traditionally viewed negatively, particularly by major religions. He is mean, boastful, self-centered, dishonest, mendacious, vulgar, hateful, litigious, racist, misogynistic, hypocritical, and ignorant. And he appeals to people who share many of these traits, particularly those who are misogynistic racists. Such supporters will not abandon Trump as long as they are not themselves reformed. Democrats can write off this group.
Some support Trump because they mistake braggadocio for strength and competence. These people believe the country needs a strongman to take hold of the reins of government. They were not paying attention during civics class or had no civics education at all. They love their country for all the wrong reasons. And they may believe, mistakenly, that the country is best run by a “businessman.” The government is not a business, however, and cannot afford to be run like one. Moreover, Trump is an excellent con man but a poor businessman, who has been plagued by bankruptcies and lawsuits. He is not a good businessman, even though he has played one on TV.
No doubt, some voters, unhappy with their lives or their view of the government, are taken in by Trump’s assertion that “I am your retribution.” Trump does not give a damn about such people. The only retribution of interest to him is his own. And he has an elaborate plan for extracting that retribution from his opponents should he again be elected president.
It is often overlooked that a Trump speech is surprisingly short on policy ideas. (Significantly, the GOP didn’t even bother to offer a platform in the 2000 election.) Trump may talk about his wall, of course, but most of his speeches are devoted to ad hominem attacks on the government or on Joe Biden. His speeches are all about how wonderful he is and how terrible everyone else is. In a sense, this is a clever strategy. It is difficult to criticize his policy positions, as they are almost nonexistent. Instead, his followers can read into a Trump speech whatever they like. Thus, Trump can appeal to an audience holding a variety of grievances. The lack of true substance is obscured by Trump’s folksy, repetitious style.
One hopes that, should Trump become the GOP nominee, he will be unable to appeal successfully to a general electorate by avoiding taking a stand on anything other than the qualification of Joe Biden. Democrats will have a hard time pinning down Trump on anything and will, in any case, find it difficult to persuade the Trump faithful to abandon their cult leader. Instead, this election is likely to depend principally on turnout. We probably cannot throw Trump into prison fast enough to be able to argue that governing from federal prison is a bad idea.