It's easy to write Trump off as a joke, the logical, comical conclusion to 50 years of a party sublimating its once-principled conservatism of ideas in the name of power-first purity tests. But to do that means we don't have to try to deal with the issues that underlie his rise. And this feels like a moment that calls for a deeper understanding. Why do nearly a quarter of Republican voters support someone that appears to non-believers as a cartoonish buffoon? Trump, unquestionably a lout, is a reaction to something. His ascent, even if it may be temporary, does have meaning, and there are lessons to be learned in the effort to comprehend it.
Drew Magary, who's gone from dick-and-poop-joke Deadspin artiste to a mainstream commentator (with an eye for dick and poop jokes) in what feels like the blink of an eye, wrote a piece for GQ this week on the Trump phenomenon. He went to Oskaloosa, Iowa to see a Trump rally in person. His reporting strikes a powerful chord:
"Well, Trump is here to fix all that losing. And here is where my brief jag of mildly effusive praise for Donald Trump must come to an end, because the grim undercurrent of his rise is SHAME. After all, if you believe we must make America great again, then you must also believe that America, at the present moment, sucks. And pretty much everyone at the Trump picnic believed that America sucks. When I asked a group of Trump supporters outside if they were proud of America, they all laughed with derision. Of course they weren’t proud of America. Of course this nation is a shithole. One voter named Corey told me he hoped Trump would help America “get back to the way it was,” a refrain I heard from a lot of people, as if the country was a rock band that had changed its sound. Backing Trump means acknowledging that you live in a world of failure, and that your last best hope is the Music Man moseying into town."As hard as this is to admit, because it implicates me directly, East Coast suburban knowledge professionals with college educations (a description that covers the vast majority of this blog's staff and readership) haven't ever walked a mile in the shoes of the denizens of depressed post-manufacturing towns like Oskaloosa, Iowa.
At its core, this is about change. Human beings don't do change very well. Change management is a thriving industry and subject of academic inquiry. We fear change so much, our institutions are willing to pay to learn how to manage it. Any material change brings with it apprehension. I just bought a new car, and I've been driving like a grandmother for the last few days as I adjust to the bigger dimensions and longer stopping distance. But change that forces humans to reexamine their most foundational beliefs is terrifying. For dozens of reasons - technical, economic, cultural, demographic, etc - our country and our world are changing at a dizzying pace. There are millions of Americans for whom that change represents dislocation, loss of opportunity, and the rise of the other.
From a purely economic perspective, the unemployment rate for college graduates is half that of those who only completed high school. Trump's strong (insane?) anti-immigrant rhetoric resonates with a constituency that feels increasingly exposed in a global economy that values traditional labor very differently than it once did.
Culturally, think for a minute about what the last ten years have wrought. Gay marriage is legal, across the land. We have a black President, with a white mom, and Kenyan relatives. Nearly ten states have decriminalized marijuana. 63% of Americans are non-Hispanic whites, down from 75% in 2000 (and on the way to less than 50% by 2050). As many Americans watched a women's soccer game as did college football's playoffs, for fuck's sake. (2005 guy just said, 'Wait, there's a college football playoff? The future is awesome!)
The world is different, but the same. Things are more moderner than before. Bigger and yet smaller. It's computers. San Dimas High School Football Rules!
And there but for the grace of God, go all of us.
My point, at the end of this rambling, is an echo of a Chris Rock bit about domestic violence (embroiled as our media is in the deconstruction of Trump's flippant misogyny, I recognize that this particular allegory might be construed as a bit, well, ill-timed). In the aftermath of the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson, Rock said, "So you gotta look at OJ's situation. He's paying $25,000 a month in alimony, got another man driving around in his car and fucking his wife in a house he's still paying the mortgage on. Now I'm not saying he should have killed her... but I understand."
Which takes us back to the theory posited at the beginning of this post. The world is an infinitely complex place. None of us understands it fully. People who find themselves in the midst of disruptive change don't want to hear about complexity, or nuance. They want to be told in confident tones that there are simple answers. Hell, we all want that. There's a deep vein of uncertainty in this country, and Trump has tapped into it. He's not going to win the nomination, but whoever does (in both parties) would do well to think about how to serve those that feel the changes taking place in our society are leaving them behind.
I'm not saying Donald Trump is right, or anything less than an embarrassment.
But I understand.