Re-thinking the Trump Thing

If you think Donald Trump is an ignorant, incompetent, narcissistic racist, what do you think of his supporters? Most of us lefties and other NeverTrumpers dismiss them out of hand, or just chalk it up to irreconcilable differences. I’ve come to think, though, that it needs another look.

Do you ever have one of those Hercule Poirot moments when everything is suddenly clear? These flashes tend to happen to me about 3:12 a.m., and that’s it for the next couple of hours. Often, I’m so pleased with my brilliant revelation that I can’t wait to share it with the universe, the problem being that I don’t remember it when I wake up. I had one of these moments a few weeks ago watching the Donald Trump rally in Minden, Nevada, near Reno, where I grew up.

I mean, political rallies always lean toward the goofy, right? The cheesy clothes that match the foil balloons, the hats, the partisan posters, the vintage rock booming over the loudspeakers. Everyone’s seen dozens. People get to hang out with like-minded congregants in a boisterous celebration pointedly excluding non-believers and naysayers, reinforcing their beliefs and ramping up their certainty. Okay, fine.

But Trump rallies seem a bit…cultish. Sputtering anger replaces partisan messaging, whether on placards or answering reporters’ questions. Even the reporters get dissed. MAGA itself is synecdoche for something larger than the slogan it represents, more brand than mere motto. I watched as people arrived early, waited in the parking lot until the gates opened, then shoved and shouldered their way inside, few masks, social distancing be damned.

God, these people are stupid, I thought. How can so many people still support this clown, not to insult clowns? The facile answer is that Trump supporters are uneducated, rural, low-class, stupid, racist, and maybe all of those. With his plastic-fantastic and lipsticked pig performance, he’s their idea of what a millionaire is suppose to look and act like. They’re ignoramuses hosed by and hooked on the Kool-aid of FOX news rage, and boy, can Trump ever own the Libs like nobody’s business.

Then, my epiphany: Um, no. No, they’re not stupid. Whatever they are, they’re not stupid, and shame on me for going there. By default.

These are people I grew up with. My kids, fourth generation Nevadans, were all born near there. I know those people in Minden, I’m quite comfortable with them, and guess what? They aren’t either stupid. They’re not ignoramuses. They aren’t uneducated. Moreover, Nevada being a magnet for four-flushers and silver-tongued hucksters, Minden people can spot a phony from a hundred miles off.

To be sure, Trump is among the more loathsome individuals I’ve ever witnessed. Arrogant, smug, loud, angry, fact averse, he’s a tabloid hologram in a knockoff Brioni and serpentine tie whose professional life was a string of styrofoam castles in the air and shuttered casinos where the house lost. He is ethically and morally bankrupt, a misogynistic pervert, an inveterate liar and corrupt criminal whose ineptitude and narcissistic contemptuousness has not only resulted in the deaths of 215,000 (and rising) Americans, but has destroyed the institutions and norms of this country, including national security, in ways that won’t be reparable in my lifetime.

So, how can Trump earn and keep the support he’s had from Day One? What’s wrong with those people? Can’t they see the facts?

Maybe, maybe not, but there’s a larger story. Linguist George Lakoff has offered perspectives on the differences between conservative and liberal people, such as this one. Others have offered economic reasons–you know, NAFTA and globalism and free trade with concomitant job loss and all that. Some posit that endemic racism plays a major role, and that’s also true, though not universal. But for all that, Trump is what he is, and I’ve long wondered how people could be attracted to him, especially when his actions are antithetical to their interests.

Flash back to David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, which chronicles how the intellectuals of the Kennedy administration took us into the illogical and unwinnable Vietnam war. Around 58,000 Americans were killed, most of them from economic middle- and lower-class backgrounds. College students (like me) got draft deferments and some of well-connected enrolled in the National Guard (the term “weekend warrior” originated then). 

The Clinton era brought NAFTA, with the promise of an economy that would lift all boats. Yes, there would be some job losses and other disruptions, but really, free trade and globalism turned out to be more about the free movement of capital and the loss of American manufacturing jobs. When the Dot-com bubble burst in 2000, the venture capitalists, the bankers, the elite came out just fine. But two-thirds or so of ordinary people’s 401k plans lost a fifth of their value, some even more.

A few days ago, I listened to a podcast on Cafe: Stay Tuned with Preet. I love that show. His guest was one Michael J. Sandel, a Harvard philosophy professor (MAGA people if you’re reading—stay with me here), who just released a book entitled The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good. The dueling moments of the Minden Trump rally and the podcast collided. 

It was a long interview, and I won’t get into the whole thing except to summarize a bit. The so-called elites, he says, are pretty well convinced they know most of what there is to know, and how to do what needs to be done. And with good reason, he says. Social and physical sciences from our universities provide huge data and information sources offering empirical support for reasoned objectives and strategies in just about any field. But what if they’re wrong? What if, in their intellectual zeal, they miss something that some non-elite point of view might have caught?

Something like, oh, say, your friends and family were those who died in the Vietnam war, were among those who lost their jobs when NAFTA came, or were those who saw their savings shrivel post dot-com. There are other examples, but if you were among the non-privileged, you might suspect that the elites aren’t always right. Moreover, they don’t ask you about any of it and pretty much look down on you if you say, Um, wait, I have a point I’d like to make. They just tell you it will all be good and please go away and maybe get retrained in something that pays minimum wage.

At some point, you might suspect that those in charge don’t know everything and don’t have your best interests in mind, since they get so much wrong.

If you look at a plate from the side, it appears to be a line, but if you look at it from the top, it’s a circle. Both perspectives are true, and both are right. Maybe the HateTrump-LoveTrump is like Schrodinger’s Opinion, where they’re both true in different parts of the same universe.