All right: so let’s be clear. Donald Trump is not the problem.
I didn’t want to write about this, you know. I’m trying to keep this blog focused on lighter subjects, funny things, and on books and reading and teaching. And the Trump campaign is not funny. It hasn’t been since Iowa. Since we found out that people actually wanted to vote for him. People actually want Donald Trump to be the President of the United States.
That’s the problem.
Look — he denies that he’s a divisive incendiary racist demogogue. Who wouldn’t? I deny that I’m an subversive lazy egotist, but that doesn’t make it any less true. And one of the more disturbing things about Donald Trump (May I call him Drumpf? If you haven’t watched John Oliver’s splendid takedown of Mr. Drumpf, do so now. Though for the sake of clarity, I’ll use his actual name.) is that it seems impossible to tell if he is aware of the part he is playing, or if he is being as genuine as he can be. Because it could be that he’s playing a part, having learned how to act in this role of reality-TV-star-and-capitalist-mogul that has brought him fame and fortune; but it also could be that he is one of those lucky souls who has fit perfectly into his specific niche, and this is just who he is. The famed book of Hitler speeches by his bedside could go either way on this.
But it doesn’t actually matter if he really believes everything he says, and if he’s aware of the effect he is having on his followers and on this country, and if that effect is really his intent or if he is, as I have been arguing since the start of his campaign, just trying to increase his name recognition because that is the foundation of his wealth, himself as brand. It doesn’t matter because Donald Trump is not the problem.
The problem is that millions of Americans want to vote for Donald Trump.
And the larger problem is that the rest of us didn’t know this, and we are not doing what we should be doing to fix this.
I’ve argued with a number of Trump fans. And there are three things going on here. The first is the economy. This is the biggest reason why people want to vote for Trump: they believe that the problem with the economy is the government spending too much money, which piles up too much debt, which will bring our country crashing to its knees, just like an individual who owes too much money to credit card companies. They believe that Trump knows how to handle that, that he will stop the government from spending so much money, and he will reduce the debt, because he’s a businessman, and businessmen understand money and how to make a profit. The second thing is that Trump is a bully, and bullies are funny. People like things that make them laugh, and Trump makes people laugh. He also has a reputation for honesty, and honesty is something that Americans can’t make up their minds about.
Seriously. Let me just pause to talk about this for a moment. I ask my students every year, in one context or another, how they feel about honesty and lying. And every year, they say they prefer honesty, but think that lying is just fine in two circumstances: when the truth would hurt someone’s feelings, and when telling the truth would get you in trouble. What does that mean? That means they prefer lies, but don’t want to admit it (So they’re lying when they say they like honesty.). Because what other reasons, apart from those two, does anyone ever have for lying? People lie to spare someone else’s feelings, and they lie to cover their own butts. That’s the vast majority of lies, and if those are okay with you, then lying is okay with you. Sure, there are people who lie for profit, and people who lie for malice; I can accept those as categories of lies that even Americans don’t like. But for the most part: we prefer to be lied to. We like it. We like having our feelings spared.
And then Trump comes along and says things that most of us would never say, and would prefer never be said about us — and somehow he is admirable for doing it. He is “honest,” and we love him for it. My best understanding of this is that people believe that politicians are so dishonest and so corrupt that they lie with every word they say; and we are tired of it. So even though Americans personally would prefer some little white lies, we want a President who would never, ever lie to us. And I get that: I would prefer an honest politician, too.
There is also an impression of courage in the willingness to stand up and say ugly things. Makes the man seem tough. Comes back to the bully thing: we admire bullies. Always have. We like Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and we like mafia dons like Al Capone and John Gotti, and we love fictional characters that follow the same pattern. We like, as another Scarface would put it, a man with balls. And the willingness to offend, particularly in an arena — politics — where offending anyone in any way is shunned, and where people work very hard to twist themselves into knots trying to please everyone all at once, saying offensive things seems like courage.
These two issues — Trump’s business acumen as a cure for the economy, and his crass rudeness as A) a source of humor, B) a sign of honesty, and C) a sign of courage — are reasonable enough, are understandable enough. Trump isn’t the first guy to earn our admiration for his crass rudeness: pretty much every famous radio DJ and half of the talk show hosts and stand-up comedians we love are exactly the same way. Why do we like Roseanne Barr? Howard Stern? Rush Limbaugh? Simon Cowell? All the same reasons we like Trump. As for the business thing, that has roots that go back probably as far as the United States: we have always believed that there is something special, some secret knowledge, that comes with wealth; we always think that someone who knows how to make money one way knows how to make money all ways. As if that first million — or billion — dollars is a key that unlocks the Midas touch. Carly Fiorina ran on exactly the same platform, as did Herman Cain in 2012, and Mitt Romney in every campaign he ran.
But then there’s the third reason why Trump is winning. And it’s the most disturbing. The third reason is that Trump is a bigot. He denigrates and objectifies women, an attitude that you can see reflected in the malice and bile that Americans direct at Clinton. He treats Muslims and Latinos, and women, like Untouchables: fine as long as they stay in their place and know who’s boss, but needing a lesson as soon as they get uppity and start breaking the rules that are meant to keep them in their place, separate from the nice white Christian American folks (Or, in the case of women, barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen.). And that message resonates. It resonates strongly. There are millions of Americans who feel exactly the same way, particularly about those two racial/ethnic groups. Never mind that illegal immigrants (the epithet Trump uses for Latinos, because that wording divides the “bad Latinos” from the “not so bad ones” — you know, the ones that stay in other countries instead of coming to this one) and legal immigrants, which comprise all racial groups and nationalities — but when Trump is talking about building a wall on the southern border, he isn’t talking about Asians coming to California on cargo ships or Europeans overstaying their visas — are actually good for the country, bringing a necessary labor force and a positive addition to the cultural mix. Never mind that Islam is no more violent or dangerous a religion than every other: that is to say, when fanatics use it to convince others to commit violence, it is a staggeringly effective tool; but if guns don’t kill people, neither does Islam. Never mind that women are better than men (That’s right. I said “better.” My wife is smarter and more talented than me. More organized, harder working, more reasonable and level-headed. Better.), and even though I personally support Sanders, I would dearly love to see Hillary Clinton debate Donald Trump. Because she’ll grind his bones to make her bread, and all he’ll be able to do is make a comment about menstruation.
The truth is, millions of Americans believe women should submit to men. The truth is, millions of Americans hate and fear Muslims and Latinos. They fear that Latinos will take over this country and make it different; and they fear that Muslims are terrorists. And they want a leader who thinks like they do.
The problem isn’t Donald Trump. It’s that despite all of the progress we have made since the Civil Rights era, despite all the political correctness and the affirmative action and everything else we have tried to do to achieve racial equality and a just society, we haven’t really done anything. We haven’t really changed anything. But we’ve convinced ourselves that we have: we elected a black President, after all. And the Ku Klux Klan is no longer hanging people by the side of the road in broad daylight. So surely we have improved; surely the problem is less now.
But it’s not. And the problem is still here because even those of us who want to try to fix the problem are not going about it the right way.
I said it above: I’ve been arguing with people who support Donald Trump. I’ve been doing it frequently, on Facebook; my students would never try to challenge a teacher on a political issue: they know how angry people get about politics, and while they don’t mind arguing with their teachers, they don’t want to make us mad for fear of grade-related consequences. And though I argue as reasonably and courteously as I can, people get angry about politics. I get angry about politics. No, that’s not true: I don’t get angry about the topics. But when someone I’m disagreeing with says, “Lol, your a retard. You need to grow the fuck up.” then I tend to get angry.
My wife can always tell. The volume and speed of my typing always goes up when I’m mad, as I start hitting the keys harder and faster. “Are you arguing again?” she asks. “Yup!” I say, pounding away. Telling someone that I don’t need to grow up, they need to learn how to think.
And that’s what we’ve been doing. Those of us who don’t support Donald Trump, who can’t believe that other people support Donald Trump, have begun every discussion with his supporters with “What the hell is wrong with you? Trump? Really? What are you thinking?!?” But they’re thinking what I listed above. They are thinking reasonable things.
You cannot convince people who are thinking reasonable things to change their minds by telling them they are unreasonable. Just like I get mad when someone says “Lol, your a retard.” That is no different from saying, “How can you support Trump? What is wrong with you!” You cannot win an argument by insulting your opponent.
To deal with Trump as a candidate, people need to treat him as a candidate: the people who support him for rational reasons need to be talked to like rational people. They need to be questioned fairly, and their answers listened to, and then, perhaps, argued with if we can do that without losing our tempers. I hope that the two people running against him (whichever wins the nomination) will behave like the long-time politicians they are, and focus on his ideas and qualifications, and refuse to go down to his level and have a bully-fight. If they can stay rational and courteous, I don’t doubt that Trump will lose the general election. The fact that gets lost in the uproar and hoopla is that he really doesn’t know what he’s talking about when it comes to running a country. Because he is not a politician, he is not a government worker, he is not an elected official: he has no experience. He does not know what he is doing. Businessmen can run businesses, but the country is not a business. But that is not our argument: that is either Bernie Sanders’s or Hillary Clinton’s argument.
What the rest of us need to focus on is going back to square one. There are bigots in this country. Millions of them. Our current system of affirmative action and token representatives (“The Oscars/Hollywood aren’t racist! Halle Berry won Best Actress in 2002!”), paying lip service to real understanding through nonsense like politically correct speech, have done nothing. If anything, we have pushed the problem underground, where it can fester and swell. And now it’s bursting out. Which means, as hard and uncomfortable and ugly as it is, now is our chance to clean out the infection.
We have to deal with racism. We have to fix this problem at the root: and the root is not Donald Trump. Donald Trump is not the problem.