Donald Trump worries and even scares me, and for reasons that have nothing to do with his chances of becoming president.
It’s not that he’s a bigoted, sexist, xenophobic bully. That’s cause to dislike him, not to fear him. The problem is that he has given a lot of other people permission to be bigoted, sexist, xenophobic bullies. He excites dark passions that are muted in civilized societies because those passions make a civilized society difficult to sustain.
At a rally this week in New Hampshire, for example, a woman shouted out an insult that compared Ted Cruz to an exceedingly vulgar term for female genitalia. Trump stopped, asked her to shout it out again, then proudly repeated the insult himself from the microphone. And the next day, in a primary for a party that claims to bemoan the coarsening of American culture, Trump drew more than double the votes of his nearest competitor.
I also worry because Trump thinks that American voters are — to use one of his favorite words — stupid. He believes that they can be easily manipulated, and so far they’re not exactly giving him cause to rethink that belief. From birtherism to abortion to guns, he has shown the con man’s instinct of reading his intended victim and repeating exactly what his mark wants to hear. They agree to be fooled, he agrees to fool them.
To woo evangelicals, for example, Trump cloaked himself in a cartoonish and transparently insincere mockery of Christian faith, and while it has offended some evangelicals, others have gravitated toward him. Their eagerness to abandon what they claim to hold most dear in order to join his cause can only confirm Trump’s cynicism.
I worry about Trump’s impact because he is constantly running down America, and because people believe him. His constant refrain is “America doesn’t win anymore; we never win,” and by almost any metric that you care to use, that’s ridiculous. We win in almost every setting and context, and the last thing the world needs is for the United States of America, the most powerful nation on the planet, to begin acting like an aggrieved, put-upon victim.
I fear him because the only solution that Donald Trump offers is Donald Trump. Through sheer force of personal will, Trump will build the wall and make Mexico pay for it, Trump will crush ISIS, Trump will end the heroin epidemic, Trump will “be the greatest jobs president that God ever created,” Trump will deport 11 million, and of course Trump will “make America great again.”
However, the implicit price of Trump making this country “so big, so strong, so powerful” is to first make Trump “so big, so strong, so powerful.” He is selling an approach in which he succeeds by brooking no opposition, foreign or domestic, and he is asking the American people to validate that approach.
Finally, I fear Trump because of what may come after him. He is selling his supporters on a narrative that they have been betrayed, while he himself sets them up for a much deeper betrayal. He cannot achieve any of the things that he claims, and when he fails — not if, but when — the disenchantment and anger of his followers can only deepen.
I don’t know where things would go from there, but I’m not eager to find out.
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Credit: Ben Hendren for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Credit: John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com