One of the more puzzling aspects of this bizarre election has been the insistence of Trump supporters that he “tells it like it is.” Here is a candidate who lies constantly about matters large and small, and is just as constantly publicly unmasked as a liar. (Think, for example, about his easily checked recent assertion that the NFL sent him a letter about the Presidential debate schedule. The NFL immediately denied doing so.)
Not only are his lies frequent and obvious, he routinely contradicts himself. So what accounts for the refrain that he “tells it like it is”?
I think New York Times columnist Charles Blow implied the answer to that question in a recent op-ed. The entire essay is well worth reading, but here are a few of his observations:
[Trump] appeals to something deeper, something baser: Fear. His whole campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” is in fact an inverted admission of loss — lost primacy, lost privilege, lost prestige.
And who feels that they have lost the most? White men.
As the New York Times’ Upshot pointed out in July, “According to our estimates, Mrs. Clinton is doing better among basically every group of voters except for white men without a degree.”
It is overwhelmingly these men who see Trump as a “truth teller”–not because he is making accurate statements of fact, but because he is speaking directly to their sense of displacement and loss. As Blow says,
These are the voters keeping Trump’s candidacy alive.
He appeals to a regressive, patriarchal American whiteness in which white men prospered, in part because racial and ethnic minorities, to say nothing of women as a whole, were undervalued and underpaid, if not excluded altogether….
Trump’s wall is not practical, but it is metaphor. Trump’s Muslim ban is not feasible, but it is metaphor. Trump’s huge deportation plan isn’t workable, but it is metaphor.
There is a portion of the population that feels threatened by unrelenting change — immigration, globalization, terrorism, multiculturalism — and those people want someone to, metaphorically at least, build a wall around their cultural heritage, which they conflate in equal measure with American heritage.
In their minds, whether explicitly or implicitly, America is white, Christian, straight and male-dominated. If you support Trump, you are on some level supporting his bigotry and racism. You don’t get to have a puppy and not pick up the poop.
What Trump supporters hear–what they believe constitutes “telling it like it is”–is that they have been unfairly deprived of the privileged status that straight white men once enjoyed by virtue of being straight white men, whatever their other accomplishments or lack thereof. They hear Trump saying that “those people”–Muslims, Jews, immigrants, blacks– have taken over the country they used to dominate, and that he will put “those people” (along with those uppity women) back in their former places.
I keep thinking about a snarky Facebook comment someone posted following the conventions, to the effect that “no intelligent person could possibly vote for Trump–so it will be a close election.”
I don’t think Trump voters are stupid; I do think most of them are bigots. (Granted, there’s a good deal of overlap.)
On election day, we will see how many Americans agree with what Trump is really saying–how many of our fellow countrymen are responding to his not-very-veiled message of white nationalism–and that will tell us how far we have to go to make e pluribus unum a reality.