AFTER ALL THIS time, all these debates, all these primaries and caucuses, the pundits still don’t truly understand Donald Trump’s appeal. I have in mind the TV talking heads — highly paid, well-educated men and women, white, black, and Hispanic, who make their living trying to figure out what the average voter is thinking. As a political junkie and son of a one-time politician, I watch them obsessively, and I’m continually amazed at how distanced they are — with their laptops, Twitter feeds, and ‘‘inside sources’’ — from the millions of people who cast votes for Trump.
I should mention that I will not be one of those millions. I’m trying to explain his appeal here, not endorse it.
There is no question that bigots and racists have found a home in the Trump camp, and little question that he says things to give them fuel. But it’s a gross oversimplification to suggest that most of his appeal is bigotry and racial hatred. That line of reporting increases ratings, but also fans the flames of the country’s racial divide.
Likewise, it’s another oversimplification to assert that his appeal is purely the result of anger. In his Salt Lake City speech, former presidential candidate-turned-establishment-hitman Mitt Romney said, “I understand there is anger out there,” but it was said with about as much familiarity as a Martian saying, “I understand there is water on Earth.”
Trump’s appeal is not primarily grounded in racism or anger. It’s primarily grounded in humiliation. And this kind of humiliation is impossible for most of the talking heads and for someone like Romney to understand.
I grew up in the working class. We were not poor, but we knew people who were poor and, even now, with my upper-class education and the middle-class status it has afforded me, I’m close to people who are working, and poor. There is a particular kind of humiliation involved in their lives, though many of them are too proud to use that word.
They’re not hungry. They have a decent place to live. But every hour of every day they’re shown images of people who have things they will never have. Virtually every TV show and Internet site offers ads featuring relaxed families sitting in nice-looking dining rooms eating a meal together and laughing. These TV families own a home, have new cars, take cruise-line vacations, and use the kind of electronic gadgetry that would bankrupt the working poor.
If they are white and straight, the people who watch these ads are also continually hearing news reports about the difficulties of minorities and gay people. Here’s the key point: Most of the working class and poor people I know — and many of Trump’s wealthier supporters — have no objection whatsoever to the idea of African-Americans and gays getting fair treatment. They do not want innocent black men to be shot. They do not care if two gay people get married. As is true of just about everyone else on earth, while they do care about others, they care about themselves and their own families first. The idea that these people have what is commonly referred to as “white privilege” may be generally true, relative to the horrible plight of many nonwhites in this society. But imagine what it’s like to come home from working a job (or two jobs) you hate, that exhausts you, that leaves you five dollars at the end of the week for a child’s birthday gift, and hear someone call you “privileged.” Imagine what that feels like. This is a territory into which the Mitt Romneys and talking heads of this world cannot stretch their thoughts.
And then along comes a tremendously successful guy who speaks your language, not candidate-ese, and who tells you he’s going to make America (i.e., you) great. Most of his voters don’t have time to go to a political rally. So when they see protesters disrupting the speech of the candidate they hope can change their lives, and when they hear him say, “I’d punch that guy in the face”— the kind of language they grew up with — and when they listen to him talk about the decent-paying jobs that were moved to China (something Trump says more often than any other candidate), is it really a surprise that these people go into the voting booth and cast a ballot for The Donald?
But the pundits keep shaking their heads in amazement that this candidate — who doesn’t use the scripted language of Washington, who isn’t bursting with memorized, specific plans and knowledge of various bills, who says things they find offensive — keeps winning. To some of us, it’s no surprise at all. If James Carville were advising Trump in 2016, instead of Bill Clinton in 1992, he might say, “It’s the humiliation, stupid.” And he would be right.
Roland Merullo’s recent novella is “Rinpoche’s Remarkable Ten-Week Weight Loss Clinic.’’