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Glass Half-Empty: The Trump Candidacy

Jan 14, 2016

It came to me before I was fully awake, the word impunity. I sat up in bed thinking I’d finally landed on the best word to describe Donald Trump. I’d finally found the word through which I could examine this ruthlessly attractive and repellent man. A man who strides through his days believing himself exempt from the injurious consequences of his actions. After all, he insists, he can’t help himself. He’s merely telling the truth. He can’t be held responsible for what happens after that.

There exists a class of American-born white males who live this Dream. Trump aspires to be not so much the leader of, but the gold-plated icon for a rarefied class of white males who are truly free. For the rest of us, there are always consequences, often brutal. We rarely escape liability for what we do. No special dispensation is afforded us. The majority of Americans don’t possess a Get Out of Jail Free card or even the telephone number of someone who does.

But Trump is not thinking about us; Trump is thinking about himself. Impulse control is not in his wheelhouse.

Trump characterizes his truth-telling as a particularly masculine strength. For a real man, the “truth” to which he must give voice, whether it manifests in the form of what you or I might call a "lie," or more delicately an "untruth" presented as a question, insinuation, insult, or mockery of and about particular individuals, women, refugees, immigrants, or ethnic groups need not be linked to any empirical fact. He is not interested in facts. When challenged on the merits, his answer is a shrugging Hey, it must be said. Don't blame the messenger. The self-restraint that has, at least since the Enlightenment period, been held as a requirement for wise leadership is just one more target of Trump’s disdain.

He’s a "truth-teller" in a world of people who can’t handle it; Colonel Jessup in an America turned T-total pansy. Or so I imagine he might imagine himself.

(Trump’s sneering self-righteousness reminds me most of an amalgam of three of Robert DeNiro’s most damaged characters: Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Dwight Hansen in This Boy’s Life, and Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. What all these white men have in common, in addition to their nasty tone of voice, is absolute impunity.)

Trump has made it pretty clear that he thinks a successful man can’t dilly-dally around worrying about what people think. He can’t concern himself with the feelings of others. He has to say what he has to say. And it’s about time someone had the strength to do that again in America, because Political Correctness, what Trump defines as a pathological unwillingness to tell it like it is, is destroying this country.

So, what would a Trumpian America sound like? Would America under Trump be an endless presidential campaign, with The Donald constantly telling people to sit down, shut up or get the hell out?

Clearly, in Trump’s American Dream Presidency, he continues to tell people exactly how he feels. Restraint is for pussies. Self-censorship for the sake of another person’s well-being reveals dangerous weakness. My well-being is not now and never will be Trump’s concern. My reaction to his words is my problem, period. That’s out of his hands. Consider this past-as-prelude moment: He calls a protestor a “loser” and repeatedly commands the crowd to “get him out of here.” Later he insists that it’s not his fault that the crowd reacted by beating, kicking and hurling racial epithets. Not his fault. He just said what had to be said.

In Trump’s American Dream Presidency, diplomacy is for fools afraid to go after what they want and take it. Diplomacy is for people who would rather think than act. A real leader acts. And never, ever apologizes.

In Trump’s American Dream Presidency, whatever slim hold we may have on civilization falls away. What replaces it is his right (and, I assume, the right of all men like him) to say whatever pops into his head, regardless how mendacious, racist, misogynist, xenophobic, cruel and hateful. This Trumpian prerogative takes absolute precedence without exception over my right, and the right of every other American citizen who is not “like Trump,” to be respected as an American citizen and fellow Homo Sapiens.

And lest you forget, this should come as no surprise. He warned us daily on the campaign trail: If any of us are offended, maybe it’s because we need to toughen up. Political Correctness has made us soft.

If I am to take him at his word, he seems truly not to care that verbal attack, and the pointed use of racial and gender epithets, labels and stereotypes effects outcomes for real American citizens in the real world. Such is the accrued interest of a lifetime of impunity that he seems incapable of caring that those effects are invariably negative, and often permanently, terminally so. Implicit in his disregard is the assumption that if you are a person who can be affected by such offense, you’re a loser anyway. So why should he care?

Think about that for more than a moment. Such is the terrible beauty of Trump’s circular logic.

But the fact is that words matter. They matter a lot. Over the short history of the United States, there has been increasing unacceptability of the use of race and gender epithets and xenophobic language, especially by persons in positions of influence, including teachers, coaches, politicians and corporate leaders. The extent to which we, as a people, began to change social custom in this country, whereby such language became increasingly intolerable in the public square is the extent to which our actual policies and procedures, the laws on the books and the way those laws are practiced, have become more equitable. They are not perfect, but they are better than they have ever been. I call this progress.

What I call progress Trump disparages as Political Correctness as if it were a silly social tic. What I call a framework for civilization, however fragile, Trump mocks as meaningless politesse, empty etiquette standing in the way of closing deals and making money undistracted by the voices and unencumbered by the real world needs of losers. Trump insists that the straightest path to a former greatness he claims America has lost is to drop all this Political Correctness and tell it like it is. And every day, from the campaign trail, he shows us just what this greatness would look and sound like under Trump’s American Dream.

Every day on the campaign trail we accompany not Doctor Who but The Donald on a Tardis trip into a George Wallace wet dream. (Remember George, the segregationist governor of Alabama? He was the kind of guy who dealt with protesters at his Presidential campaign rallies by calling them bums and claiming they didn’t know the words W.O.R.K. or S.O.A.P.) With his rhetoric, Trump returns us to a time in American history when the social custom of many of the white males who controlled all the levers of power in this country was to slander, denigrate, and abuse their fellow citizens based upon the color of their skin, their country of birth, or the fact that they menstruate, and to do so with impunity, without fear of consequence. Indeed, in the full knowledge that these unapologetic behaviors would only gain them more power. And who were these men? They were governors, mayors, judges, business owners, teachers, coaches, and every occupation of white man who made himself feel bigger by participation in keeping another citizen down.

It seems pretty clear to me that the greatness to which Trump exhorts America to return is of a very mean sort, both deeply unkind and profoundly limited. Simply put, it is a presumptive greatness for the very few predicated on the necessary suffering of the very many. The so-called “truths” he asserts can produce no other result. Indeed, the violence he provokes as a candidate is proof enough that his appeal is solely to the reptilian brain. Much like George Wallace, he engages no higher-order functions.

When I imagine a Great Society, I envision an advanced stage of human social development, where universal human rights are implicitly recognized and explicitly upheld.

Trump has no dream of America becoming such a civilization. If you, like I, hear the word civilization and think pluralism, enlightenment, culture, justice, make no mistake that these concepts are meaningless to Mr. Trump. Yes, he flashes the trappings of culture he has acquired because they are visible proof of his wealth, which is sole justification for his quest for power. But do not be persuaded. We know him by the way he behaves. No more than grapes can be gathered from thornbushes or figs from thistles can a great American civilization, as you and I imagine it, be inspired by the likes of Donald Trump.

What he can inspire is more of what he already has inspired: denial of history, demonization of the other, casual cruelty, and self-righteous boorishness. The subtext of every speech is a petulant entitlement he asks his audiences to share, to take up as their cause. Don’t you wish you had more? You deserve more! Do you know why you don’t have more? Political Correctness. And by the way, he reminds his audiences, he’s the only candidate with the guts to tell them that. “It’s true,” he says again and again. “It’s true.”

Having already confessed that I awoke this morning thinking about the man, it will come as no surprise that I have taken the Trump campaign very seriously since day one. You see, I believe there are (or at least there have been, up until now) two types of white, male presidential candidates.

Glass half-full: These candidates appeal (or attempt to appeal) to the angels of white people’s better natures. They ask us to dream bigger, go deeper, try harder. They tell us change is inevitable; and thus challenge us to embrace change for the sake of a more inclusive and indelible American glory to come.

Glass half-empty: These candidates appeal to the aforementioned reptilian brain. They tell white people (implicitly, if not explicitly) that white men, in particular, are getting less and less of their fair share every year. White men have to “take back” America from a host of fill-in-the-blank “others” before it’s too late and America is lost to white people forever.

As neither a pollster nor a professor of political science, I will go out on a limb and suggest that, regardless of party affiliation, white American voters fall into one of these two categories. The candidate that appeals to their personal “glass half-full” or “glass half-empty” leanings is the candidate that will get their vote.

The U.S. has not seen a candidate so skilled at tapping the “glass half-empty” fears of white America since George Wallace. Imagine what Wallace, who got 10 million votes, winning 5 states in 1968, might have accomplished with Twitter and the 24-hour news cycle? Oh, wait, you don’t have to imagine it. Just watch The Donald.