Trumpmentum appears to be a thing. And no one understands why.
I don’t blame them. On paper, Donald Trump’s candidacy looks like it should be a laughingstock in any Republican primary, let alone one in a party where ideological purity still means a great deal.
The anti-Trump case is comprehensive, so let’s review it. Trump identified as a Democrat until recently. He supports trade protections more draconian than even some unions propose. He speaks about his religion without a trace of fluency. He openly opines about whether he’d be dating his own daughter if they weren’t related. And he supported a “one-time” wealth tax. This reads like someone who’d only run for the GOP nomination as an extended exercise in concern trolling.
Yet until Thursday’s debate Trump was surging in the GOP field, where his former liberalism is apparently both forgiven and forgotten. His relentless love affair with gaffes that would end any other politician’s career have instead gotten him branded as a truth-teller in some circles. His undisciplined speech-making apparently comes off as authentic. Far from turning off voters and making him unrelatable, his Shelleyite “look on my works, ye mighty, and despair” brashness is apparently now considered endearing.
The Donald Trump Appeal
What’s going on? Pollsters may be inclined to scoff that the Trump bump is purely a function of his titanic name recognition. There’s probably some truth to this. Like it or not, Trump undeniably has a gift for making people know his name…again and again and again. But just because someone is known doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll inspire support. Name recognition can imply infamy just as easily as it can signify fame.
Nevertheless, the assumption is that Trump will flame out quickly. Unflattering comparisons to Herman Cain, another erratic billionaire flash-in-the-pain, are already being made. Perhaps this is true, but Cain’s appeal was based at least partly on the fact that many conservatives wanted to watch their liberal opponents implode when forced to reckon with the idea of the first black president facing off against a black challenger. Trump obviously enjoys no such advantage; if anything, he’ll give liberals a field day branding the GOP as a party of angry plutocrats. So even if he does end up like Cain, the appeal is clearly different.
What is that appeal? Well, here’s how I see it: Trump isn’t popular in spite of his gaffes, self-parodic image and apparent utter insensitivity. He’s popular because of them.
How can this be? Well, if there was ever a man who was suited for a national moment because of his flaws rather than his virtues, I would argue that it’s Donald Trump.
A Reaction Against Speech Totalitarianism
Consider this: Since the Republican implosion in the 2012 election, much of American political discourse has centered not so much on whether particular ideas are wrong as on whether they can be expressed at all. Sometimes this approach has helped to root out genuine ideological cranks, but it’s also a style that has clearly favored the Left more than the Right. Witness the constant barrage of arguments that people who dissent from leftist causes are on the “wrong side of history,” as if history is something that can be predicted in advance like the weather.
To be sure, the impulse not to live long enough to see yourself become a villain or a footnote is a valid one from a pragmatic point of view. However, like all appeals to authority, this “don’t stand athwart history” argument only has a shelf life for as long as it appeals to a reasonable authority and condemns transgressors who seem genuinely bad. The idea that egalitarian principles require us to legally sanction gay marriage might be persuasive, but the idea the same principles should allow gay-rights proponents to trample religious freedom is a much harder sell. Therefore, prudence requires not overextending that argument for it to maintain its effectiveness
But the Left, high on their own success, has not just overextended this argument: it has strapped it to the rack and dislocated its limbs. The idea that certain sentiments can’t be expressed without branding you as an artifact of a dark and unenlightened past has entered the realm of self-parody. It’s all well and good when your unenlightened feminist bogeyman is Todd Akin using cocktail napkin math to pretend rape babies don’t exist; it’s another thing entirely when it’s Laura Kipnis questioning whether grad students dating professors is really such a monstrous imbalance of power. Yet, especially in its natural habitat—the faculty lounge—the Left just bulls right on, trying to write anything and everything to the right of Karl Marx and bell hooks out of existence, until even Bernie Sanders is getting booed for “whitesplaining.”
The avalanche of stories and think pieces about trigger warnings, mattress-carrying bluestockings, and freakouts over “misgendering” someone who as of only a month ago was still a man have painted a very unflattering picture of our national culture. America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, appears to be in danger of becoming the land of the fragile and the home of the breakable. Everyone, both Left and Right, is getting fed up with treating their fellow citizens like overpriced glassware.
Into this great American China shop steps Donald Trump, aka the bull.
Donald Trump: The Rich Man Who Doesn’t Care
If Donald Trump didn’t exist, someone would have to invent him. While he probably won’t win the Republican nomination, the man will probably perform at least one public service by making it that much safer to speak honestly about your political views.
Only someone as rich, and seemingly immune to past failure, as Trump, could have played this role. A man who is at once worth so much, and also so used to bankruptcy court, is a man for whom the prospect of failure or disapproval no longer holds any fear.
In essence, Trump is wealthy and reckless enough to be immune from public opinion. It’s not that he has nothing to lose, it’s that he doesn’t care if he loses. Even if he weren’t polling so well, his campaign could go on for as long as he wanted it to, and continue generating headlines. If he doesn’t win the presidency (which seems likely), he’ll probably go back to raking in the cash, with a nest egg of several billion to sit on.
In other words, when Trump said no one could buy him off as president because he’s “really rich,” he had a point. His campaign doesn’t need donations, so he’s free to offend special-interest groups and other traditional kingmakers. Even if he’s not winning in the polls, his gift for incendiary gab will still grab headlines, so he can afford to alienate some voters without fearing the loss of relevance.
It doesn’t hurt that he’s an equal-opportunity offender who pisses off both the Left and the Right by shooting their sacred cows: illegal immigrants one week, military veterans the next, and so on. If by some chance his bump doesn’t vanish and he wins against one of the strongest Republican primary fields in recent memory, then he’s probably pretty prepared to take on the Clinton machine. Sure, Trump might be a loudmouthed braggart, but at least he’s openly so, whereas Hillary Clinton’s duplicity is already an “Saturday Night Live” gag. Is it really such a stretch to imagine Americans preferring the honest crook to the dishonest one?
Okay, maybe it is, but weirder things have happened.
Donald Trump Is What Happens When You Cry Wolf
However, to speak seriously for a moment, Trump’s candidacy should also serve as a cautionary tale about just what happens when you try to brand even the smallest indiscretions as evidence that someone is of the Devil’s party. To illustrate this, ask yourself this question: what label can the Left (or the Right, for that matter) apply to Trump that hasn’t already been so devalued by overuse?
That he’s a racist? So is anyone who criticizes President Obama’s golf swing these days.
That he’s a sexist? So is anyone who defends due-process rights.
That he’s a phony? What politician isn’t?
That he’s a fascist? So were the last two presidents, depending on which books you read.
That he’s a crypto-Nazi? Yeah, because Lyndon Larouche hasn’t beaten that one to death at all.
See the problem? Even if all of these labels were true of Trump, they’ve all been used to cry “wolf” so many times that now no one thinks they mean anything anymore. Short of openly waving a Nazi flag, eating black babies, or sexually assaulting someone on live television, there’s little Trump could do to actually give these labels the power to scare people. So instead of dismissing him with labels, people actually have to engage with his arguments, such as they are, and even if he’s proven to be gloriously, hilariously wrong, the fact of having to engage with him still lends him some degree of legitimacy.
I don’t agree with most of what Trump has said. I don’t think he’s going to win the Republican nomination. I’m not even sure how long he’s going to stay in the race. But I know this: I’m glad he entered it. If anyone can brave the slings and arrows of American Bulverism, it’s Donald Trump, and maybe, just maybe, if he manages that, we’ll stop wringing our hands over the existence of ideas and actually go back to the hard work of refuting them.