Unraveling the Trump Phenomenon

We may have known, thanks to pundits and pollsters, that Donald Trump would win South Carolina’s Republican primary, and perhaps handily. It doesn’t make the night of and the days immediately after feel any less like a movie.

One of the best scenes in Malcolm X, for my money, is the one where Malcolm stands in front of a crowd of fellow Harlemites and, after he has told them that black people are about the closest thing in the world to a constant, who were there before nations and will be there after nations have sunk into history, and that white people have been funneling vice – liquor, drugs, gambling, prostitutes – into black communities on purpose, he says to his entirely black audience, matter-of-factly disgusted: “I say, and I say it again, you been had. You been took. You been hoodwinked. Bamboozled. Led astray. Run amok.” It is a chilling scene; it gives me goosebumps every time. I hate to talk about “truth,” because there’s a whole mess of semantics to be picked apart when that word comes up, but we can talk about facts: and Denzel Washington-as-Malcolm X is talking about facts.

And one of the better series of shots, a tone-setting montage in Milk, shows very early in the picture, where Harvey Milk’s tape (“only to be played in the event of my death by assassination”) is being recorded. He recounts that he came up with a signature line for his speeches pretty quickly – “My name is Harvey Milk, and I want to recruit you.” – and is shown in front of a group of people in shadow, in his red jacket in front of a group of people who are obviously rapt but obviously disgruntled; as we find out later in the movie, “disgruntled” is a tame word.

When they make the movie of Donald Trump’s campaign for president, however it turns out (will they call it The Donald? Trump? President Trump?), they’ll show the speech. And Ed Harris or Kevin Spacey or whatever Oscarbait ’90s holdover they get to play Trump will stand in front of a raucous crowd. He’ll be in that gray suit, or maybe the blue one, and he’ll be standing in front of a group of middle-aged white people who look alternately weatherbeaten or blue-screen-beaten. “The Iran deal is the worst deal I’ve ever seen negotiated,” he’ll say. “Have you seen the polls lately? Jeb Bush, out of the race, I’ve been telling him for months to get out of her. ‘My brother kept us safe,’ are you kiddin’ me? Jeez. Muslims cheering in the streets in New Jersey on 9/11, and he wouldn’t have done anything about it. No sir.” And over the sound of cheers, practically intoned on the Trump volume meter: “You all are a great crowd. I’ve been all over the country campaigning and talking and whoosh, it gets me a little wiped, but you guys, you guys are the best. We are gonna make America great again.” Trump’s speech, in that movie, will sound suspiciously like the illegitimate bastard child of Malcolm X (“You been took”) and Harvey Milk (“I’m here to recruit you”). The appeal of Donald Trump is, so ironically, the same appeal that those two men – not just the movie versions, but the real men, real men if ever there are such things as “real men” – brought decades ago to the front lines of civil rights movements. He’s here to tell his people that they’ve been wronged, and that they must be the avatars to make change. What made Malcolm a scion and Harvey a hero, of course, was that they spoke to people who really had been wronged, and to people who could make a change for the better. What makes Trump a villain and a stooge is that he speaks to people who have never been wronged, and whose vision of change is a return to a past that never really existed.

It must be horrifying to be a white man of a certain age (past his prime), certain education (not enough), and certain social class (deserves to be rich, but ain’t). Location and ideology, even, hardly matter. To know that you are in your adult years, past the shine and unconcern of your youth, and to see that you really aren’t going to be much better off than you are now. To know that the limited education you have is not enough to cope with the language of wonks making policy or widgets changing your job. To know that the things you want, you probably won’t get. It must be easy to look back at a simpler time – maybe it was when we Vietnamized the Vietnam War, maybe it was when we invaded Grenada, maybe it was when we funded the Taliban, maybe it was when we handled war crimes in the former Yugoslavia – and think, “We used to be able to do this.” And when you look around those times, you don’t have to listen too hard to hear AC/DC or Mellencamp or Metallica on the radio, and no one thought too much of a guy on a football field “getting his bell rung,” and no one worried at all when racial, ethnic, gay, or sexist slurs got thrown out there, because no one meant any harm by it, not harm to anyone who mattered. One can imagine a time when the men were men and the beer was cold, etc., and of course it would only be imagination. Enter Donald Trump, a political Willy Wonka offering golden tickets to the lucky, good white children, promising marvels mostly unseen. Things just was back then, and so much of Trump’s political platform is based on making things how they was again, regardless of likelihood, or desirability, or historicity. Nothing ever just was, and I expect if you asked a Trump supporter they’d tell you that themselves. “NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle…” or “Reagan tax cuts” or “Soviet Union” might come up.

The Internet, like American public education, doesn’t make society but reflects it. The swarm of people who type for days about racism against white people (or, the politically correct version, “reverse racism”), or how Christians in America can’t get any respect (as if “Christians in America” is a 600-word Wikipedia page rather than a fabulously complicated mosaic with more than 450 years’ worth of chipped pottery to piece together) have been there for years, long before the Internet gave them each a soapbox and a .gif cross to hang their troubles on. I remember being a little boy in church in the ’90s, listening to my peers say things about how Christians were persecuted in this country, which is code for what they heard their Christian parents say. Donald Trump, if the South Carolina primary is any indication, appears to be speaking to white evangelicals like the people I went to church with in a tongue that they can understand, well enough that he won the Republicans over in a state which, demographically, favors Ted Cruz; he had already managed to charm the “they took our jobs!” demographic, and while evangelicals and people who are caricatures of the caricatures in “Goobacks” aren’t mutually exclusive, it speaks to the curious tongue that Trump possesses, one which calls all the martyrs who won’t go down without a fight. It’s the language that Jerry Falwell and George Wallace spoke, that Joe McCarthy and Charles Coughlin spoke, that Clement Vallandigham and Robert Barnwell Rhett spoke. Donald Trump, who would be a demagogue if his supporters knew words with that many syllables, is a scathing package, nearly as omnipresent as Big Brother, and he has the goods: a message of impotence for people without any impotence, and permission from a better to feel victimized when you are, in fact, the victimizer. “It’s your turn!” he cries from the podium. “It’s your turn to be the victim! Soak it up! Climb up that cross and feel as much pain as you want to! You can get down any time you like! Or, for a limited time only, upgrade it -”

White Americans have, and this is incredible to say, never lacked power so much as they do today. With every passing year, non-Hispanic whites creep closer to losing majority status in this country; it’s predicted that they will become merely a plurality in 2043, and God defend the right. White people who would deny the existence of white privilege entirely are hellbent on protecting it, emasculating the Voting Rights Act of 1965, challenging affirmative action, dismissing the Black Lives Matter movement as uppity and any Latino as a fence-jumping illegal. It’s the rattle of a rattlesnake, at once signifying danger and fear. In the face of wholesale change that has been due since about 1619, or 1513, or 1492, recognizing that people of color (and sometimes, even women) are coming for what’s theirs, what’s been theirs, white America is flopping like a Barcelona midfielder who’s just lost possession, crying foul, sure that injustice is on fire in their front yards.

There’s a black president, and despite overwhelming opposition to his existence, he’s still standing. (People who complain about Barack Obama for reasons other than “Race to the Top” or “drone warfare” or “hunting down Edward Snowden,” or some other similar reason, remind me of Gangs of New York, when McGloin sees that Jimmy is in his church. “Father!” McGloin cries out as he sees the priest. “Did you know there’s a nigger in your church?!”) Beyonce has supplanted Madonna. Cam Newton is the coolest guy in Sportstown, as long as Steph Curry’s on the road. Somewhere, Trayvon Martin, hungry for Skittles, puts on a hoodie, and Tamir Rice, like half the other twelve-year-old boys in America, puts a plastic gun in his waistband.

Pitchforks are grabbed. Someone dips a plank into pitch and lights it. A crowd grows.

Donald Trump, being pushed down the one hallway of an insane asylum, reaches out his hands to his supporters who are sure that their peculiar institution is worth protecting. “I absolve you,” he says, both gently and brusquely. “I absolve you.”

Victimhood is immensely appealing as long as nothing especially bad is happening. When the economy is improving under the administration of an African-American – when a white quarterback is bailed out by his black defense – when the least threatening white pop-rock band maybe ever is upstaged utterly by a black woman and her entourage – people have to convince themselves that the world is crumbling. How else to explain that they don’t feel like kings in their castles? How else to feel that deference to whiteness is a wet dream deferred into eternity? How else to cope with a world that spins far too rapidly, where the small changes we could believe in are blown out of proportion?

He stands there like a stone wall which has been there, growing stouter since the 1980s, when Viagra wasn’t invented and none of his constituents needed it yet. He is unchanged by the maelstrom (even though the maelstrom was, if we’re honest, only a few drops). In his world, the Equal Rights Amendment just fell through, and Oreos still had trans fat, and no one cared about shooting from three, and AIDS was still as clear a message from God as manna or trickle-down economics. He squints sternly at the gathering he has called to him. He recognizes their pain. He would empathize with it if he hadn’t had emotional liposuction a few years ago. He is one of them, after all, despite having nothing in common with the crowd other than skin color and a gnawing fear.In his house there are many mansions: if it were not so, he may have told you there were anyway, just to keep up appearances.

He nods. A heaven of martyrs all but drools to hear his testimony, wants their feelings shouted back to them, wants someone to express the strange hole they feel, the incompleteness of adulthood and the unfulfilled longing for an American dream that no one ever really thought was real in the first place. Something was taken from these people (after they took for so long). It’s their time to be out in the cold without a safety net. They want to believe that there is some reason, some conspiracy, behind the disillusionment they created for themselves. They’ve been let down, over and over again. Someone in the box told them so, anyway, so it must be true. And there he stands, greater than any of the people in the box: he transcends the box. Those other people just shouted for the ratings, or for the pageviews, but not this guy. He is the picture of sincerity, the Great Pumpkin of the political firmament. He’s different from all the other men who look the same from fifty feet off, and who sound the same from much closer. He – let it not need to be said twice, but let us say it as often as we can and maybe put it on some baseball caps – is the one who will make America great again.

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