The Idea of Trump
I was wrong.
With regard to Donald Trump, I was spectacularly wrong. I considered Donald Trump to be a spectacularly unqualified, crude, amoral, fundamentally unserious buffoon, bereft of constitutional understanding or of any concept of how one might govern this country as president. I considered his presidential campaign to be a sideshow and a joke. I believed him to have no chance whatever of winning the Republican nomination.
But I was wrong.
I now consider Donald Trump to be a spectacularly unqualified, crude, amoral, fundamentally unserious buffoon, bereft of constitutional understanding or of any concept of how one might govern this country as president, whose presidential campaign is a sideshow and a joke–but who has a very strong chance now of winning the Republican nomination.
I began watching this campaign over a year ago, and when Trump entered the race in June, I had a pretty low opinion of him. Now, after having watched the man operate for nearly a year on the national stage, my opinion of him is far, far lower than it was back then. And thus
I truly thought that people would be repulsed by this man, by nearly everything about him. I truly believed that the gaping holes in his character, the way he often treated people, the language he employed, the past he still embraces, would alienate most all professing Christians–but I was wrong. I truly believed that his lack of basic knowledge about some of the complex issues that a president must deal with would turn off people who consider it important for an office-seeker to know whereof he speaks–but I was wrong. I truly believed that people who had long professed to believe in conservative principles would take one glance at his record, and give a few moments of listening to his words, and recognize that this man cannot plausibly be considered even a “moderate conservative”–but I was wrong. I truly believed that his massive ego would cause those of us who’ve found Barack Obama’s almost-as-massive ego to be insufferable, to recoil in disgust–but I was wrong. For all of these reasons and more I could name, I fully expected his candidacy to be quickly dispatched to the dustbin of American presidential history, languishing in Phil Gramm/Tom Harkin territory. But I was oh, so wrong.
And while I am often wrong about things–most of my friends can attest to that–I’m not sure I am just spectacularly wrong all that often, but here, I certainly have been. I didn’t see this coming in a million years, that Donald J. Trump could be atop national polls and a very serious player for the Republican nomination for president. And yet, that is exactly where we are. Now, what is left, for me, is to make sense of this–and I confess, it’s not easy.
Now, I am appalled at the ugliness with which some people have characterized the supporters of Donald Trump. I believe that Trump’s supporters are, by and large, fierce lovers of America and American ideals. I believe that they are genuinely concerned–as am I–with what they see as a huge drift away from the things that have made our country great. I believe that they are turned off by political correctness (and what’s not to be turned off about?). I believe that they are truly concerned that our sovereignty and our strength not be bartered away by incompetent ideologues who see the United States as just another country. Some in the mainstream media have been abusive and ugly toward Trump supporters, and in so doing they only serve to reinforce the idea that progressive, holier-than-thou elitists hate not only them, but that they also hate American values–and at least to some degree, this seems clear. These Trump supporters have some anger and some fear–and I not only understand, but feel some of the same: anger at the dishonesty and the treachery and the incompetence; fear that the country we love (not a perfect country, but the shining city on a hill that long encapsulated the best of our ideals and aspirations) is gone for good. These are good Americans, and I will defend their honor and their dignity.
I also think that in supporting Trump they are wrong; I fear that they may be dangerously wrong.
But the question is, why do so many wonderful people support Mr. Trump? Here’s the best analogy I can think of: when Barack Obama was elected president–a leftist with few qualifications other than an enviable ability to read a teleprompter–I remember reading a piece which I thought described to a “T” what had happened. The writer suggested that what America had voted for wasn’t so much Barack Obama or his policies, but rather “the idea of Obama”. He was young, he was black, he was handsome, he optimistically and persuasively spoke of “hope and change”, and the appeal of these things taken together obscured significant flaws and shortcomings (many of which were obvious to millions of us). The “idea of Obama” is what was elected president.
Fast-forward to 2016, and I think history is repeating itself, except that this time, many people seem enamored with “the idea of Trump”. Now, there are some differences, but I think that the basic analogy holds. Donald Trump, it is said, “tells it like it is”. Donald Trump “gets things done”. Donald Trump “won’t back down”. Donald Trump is “no slave to political correctness”. Donald Trump is “tough”. These are the types of things that seem to make up the constant refrain for those who support the man, and for many, it’s not a hard jump from these ideas to “he’d make for a great president”, because he’d “make America great again”. But just as it seems that emotions (anger, fear, etc.) are high on the list of factors that are causing people to look for a “savior”, it seems to me that it is emotion–and not solid thinking–that largely explains the support many express for Trump.
And this is what scares me: at a time when we need cool heads to prevail and solid reasoning to carry the day, there seem to be many who love “the idea of Trump” and are willing to fill in the gaping blanks about him in the most favorable way according to what they desire in a president. Bring up an issue of character and people like Jerry Falwell, Junior regale us with stories of Trump’s generosity (as though a guy worth a cool 4.5 billion being beneficent here and there is unusual, significantly praiseworthy, or mitigating of a truckload of past indiscretions and character flaws); the “blanks” are filled in, in the most-favorable way, because the idea of Trump is so endearing. Point out his lack of specificity as to solutions, and we are assured that his past experience will surely enable him to “fix” whatever problems ail us. Mention that Trump has been all over the place politically, and that he shows no convincing signs of a genuine commitment to conservative principles, and well, this doesn’t seem to matter–did we mention he can “fix it”? It is as though well-meaning people vest Trump with their confidence that he is the guy to “get things done”, whatever those things be that they imagine need getting done, and irrespective of everything else. Hence, “the idea of Trump”.
The problem, of course, is that by giving Trump the benefit of every doubt, and by supporting his candidacy with a fervor that caused him to boast he could shoot someone in broad daylight on 5th Avenue and not lose voters, there are many who are supporting, not the Donald Trump who is, but the Donald Trump whom they imagine him to be. Their imaginative idea is that Donald Trump will ride in, kick some butt, take some names, and set right all that is wrong, because (in their minds) that’s what he has a track record of doing, and so that’s what he’ll do as president. The “idea of Trump” is that we need him to fix all the mess that The Greatest Teleprompter Reader of Them All has created.
Nice idea. The problem, of course, is that any correspondence with actual reality is very likely, at the very least, greatly exaggerated. And while I think his chance of actually being elected is somewhere south of “very, very slim”, the truth is that on the off-chance that somehow he were, he gives no evidence whatever that he is up to the task of fixing what ails this country.