The Trumpernaut, Truth & Anger
When Donald Trump threw his hair into the presidential ring, the pundits predicted that he would burn brightly and then rapidly fade away. They were wrong. As Trump kept Trumping along, the pundits kept predicting that the establishment candidates would surge past him. As this is being written, Trump is riding high on victories in North Carolina and Nevada—thus proving the pundits wrong once again. Jeb, of course, has gone home to make some guacamole.
Trump’s continued success is certainly interesting from the standpoint of politics but also from that of psychology and even philosophy. After all, figuring out why he is doing so well and how this is likely to impact the future of politics are matters well worth considering.
Trumps detractors, which seems to include the entire Republican establishment, point to his alleged negative qualities. Trump is regarded as being a liar—or at least a relentless speaker of untruths. This won him Politifact’s Lie of the Year. He is also seen as a racist and a bully. Those who focus on substance are rather disappointed by the Donald: he seems to lack any substantive plans and policies. Instead, he makes outlandish claims about beating everyone, about getting Mexico to pay for a giant wall, and about banning Muslims from the United States. Given that he has never held political office and has an impressive string of business disasters to his name, this is not particularly surprising.
The usual narrative is that Trump is winning despite these alleged negative qualities and many commentators still cling to the hope that Trump will flare out and slam into the ground. While this has some appeal, I have argued before that Trump is doing well because of these qualities rather than despite them. One reason for this, as I argued in a previous essay, is that the Republican Party and its allies lovingly crafted a political environment that is well suited to Trump. Another reason is that there has been a change in the political mood of the country which makes the niche forged by the Republicans even more ideal for Trump. In this environment, his qualities are superb adaptations for success. As such, it is no wonder that he is doing so well. I will now turn to a brief discussion of how these traits fit the political ecosystem and are enabling Trump to thrive.
Trump majestically handles his untruths by doubling or even tripling down on them. His brashness and confidence is likely to be very refreshing to voters accustomed to weak and insincere apologies on the part of other politicians. As such, even his untruths make him appear strong and decisive in the eyes of some voters. His bullying also makes him appear strong; especially since it is easy to mistake the bluster of a bully for real strength. Trump’s alleged racism and sexism also make him appear defiant and strong—he is regarded as being brave enough to stand up to the bogeyperson that is the PC movement. This ties nicely into his ability to appeal to the fears of some of the population: they want a strong man to protect them from what scares them. Even when the fears are ill-founded and fundamentally irrational.
The appeal of Trump’s lack of experience in politics is very easy to explain. In addition to the concerted effort to discredit the very idea of government on the part of many conservatives, Congress endeavors to do all it can to disappoint and annoy the American people. Thus, while the idea of getting medical care from someone with no medical experience would seem crazy, the idea of having a president with no experience in any political office strikes many as appealing. Presumably the reasoning is that being an experienced politician simply makes a person worse. To use an analogy, a person would not want an experienced criminal handling their money. They would prefer someone who has never been involved in crime.
Trump’s lack of substantive policy positions and the absence of anything that could sensibly be called a plan would seem to be problematic to explain as appealing to people. However, it is easy enough to do this. First, the Republicans have bashed Obama for thinking too much, for being too professorial, and not being bold and decisive (that is, not rushing in to do something). As such, Trump’s lack of thought, failure to plan and promises to “do something” are all very appealing. This ties nicely into the appeal of doing something, even if it is wrong. Somewhat ironically, this is what helped spell the end of Jeb Bush. While Bush is a moderate conservative, he seems very Obama-like in regards to being a calm, soft-spoken man with a plan. This is exactly what Republicans have been told to hate.
Second, planning and thinking are seen as contrary to what a strong man of action would do—as such, Trump’s vague “plans” and his bold assertions about winning make him seem even stronger. After all, only weak people need to think about what they will do and have a plan. The strong can just bash away at things until they break.
Third, Trump is promising people what they want to hear. Somewhat ironically, laying out the plan of how he would, for example, get the Mexicans to pay for the wall would make his claims far less plausible. Laying out a plan would cause people to think about the process, which runs the risk of making them realize there is no way he can do what he claims. By making bold promises and avoiding any planning, he allows people to share the fantasy with him.
In closing, the fact that Trump lacks quality and substance yet is winning should be no surprise. One has only to consider McDonalds, the Transformer movies and the Kardashians to realize that success and substance can be complete strangers.