A couple months ago I was listening to bloggingheads (or something) and I heard conservative columnist and author Matt Lewis trying to explain Trump in terms of Maslow’s Pyramid (hierarchy of needs). He wasn’t being seriously serious about it, but I got what he was getting at … until I realized I had Lewis’ intended point precisely upside down and backwards.
Lewis was thinking about Maslow’s lowest level, the pyramid’s base: Trump as expression of populist economic desperation. We need food and shelter. White males dying early. Trump will bring jobs back. I had automatically started at the apex: Trump as avatar of expressive self-actualization. We’re voting for Trump not because we seriously think he will provide food and shelter, good blue collar wages like we had in the good old days. Obviously Trump can’t fix the world. (We’re not dummies, we Trump supporters. We know his casinos failed, so why would he be able to fix the economy?) No, Trump is a middle finger held high to ‘elites’ in both parties. Trump is trolling the political system this season. The reason Trump supporters don’t care is not that they don’t notice – duh, the Mexicans aren’t paying for any wall! – but because they themselves are down for a spot of high-quality trolling. Trump is payback to the Republicans. You disrespect us by not doing what we tell you to, once you are elected. We humiliate you by voting Trump. And they enjoy scandalizing the left by doing and saying anti-PC stuff they aren’t supposed to do and say. For Trump supporters, the carnival pleasure of this unprecedented release is its own catharsis and reward to such an extent that anything more is extra. Policy fixes? That would be the cherry on top. But it’s darn nice without that.
So Trump isn’t fooling his supporters. He’s giving them the first thing on their wish list. This thing: the campaign. Him, as a token of respect for them, in the form of recreational disdain for others.
Trump’s supporters are trolling alone … together. And it feels so good. For a change.
It’s worth conducting a thought-experiment in the safety of your own head. Think about the issue that most gripes you, which you feel in your bones is important and righteous, also personal, which is suppressed by the US political system. It ain’t on the agenda. Now imagine that, miraculously, a candidate emerges from nowhere – literally, arising out of a 0% chance that this would happen, so it seemed – and puts that issue on the table. WHAM! Puts it there so forcefully he blows up one of the two major parties, so it seems. Now suppose, additionally, this candidate is obviously a charlatan. But he is YOUR charlatan, insofar as he at least got it on the table, didn’t he? He’s authentically wrecking stuff up, which is a form of genuine authenticity. How would you feel about that? (Remember that one’s own clown face looks better. It’s easier to honk the red nose on thy neighbor’s face than to see the grease paint round thine own eye.)
It’s tempting to say this is political nihilism, if that’s how it goes. Just transforming the political sphere into lurid reality TV, for your own disinfotainment, out of despair at anything better. But if you found yourself in the above situation, and you supported your charlatan, you wouldn’t feel like a nihilist, much less like someone hiding behind a lie. The whole situation would just seem complicated, unstable and more than a bit ironic. I very much doubt Trump supporters are failing to notice how ironic all this is, and relishing that, but also banking on it, in a speculative way. Activation of heretofore suppressed issues and attitudes ain’t nothing, ergo isn’t nihilism. (I’m sure Sanders supporters don’t feel like nihilists just because, seriously, there’s no chance we’re getting that ‘revolution’ of his this season. I don’t mean Sanders is a charlatan, like Trump. He obviously isn’t. But it isn’t irrational for Bernie supporters to brush off concerns that his policy proposals aren’t ‘realistic’. Realistically, Bernie proposing realistic stuff isn’t the only way for him to do good here, long term.)
Back where I started. Of course it can be both: safety and self-actualization. There is such a thing as holding onto pride because it’s all you’ve got. Self-actualization as compensation for erosion of basic (physiological/safety) stuff. This is a problem with Maslow: the pyramid needs to wrap around.
But in US politics terms, the issue is this: Trump is an eye-watering orange meteor, flaming across the electoral firmament. I don’t think he will get elected. I don’t think he’ll stick around if he loses. He isn’t going to build a movement, or become, institutionally, the leader of the Republican Party. For him, this is about him. He will move on when the long strange ego-trip is over. But it is hard to say what this weird, uncanny orange light in the sky has illuminated.
Do you think the post-Trump future of US politics is increasingly a function of economic class divisions? On the one hand, Trump’s voters skew low-income, lower education. This fact really has busted up the order of things in the Republican Party, and might yet bust things up in the general. (I’m not saying Trump is going to win. I’m saying he might lose in a weird way.) On the other hand, there is evidence that Trump’s voters aren’t especially concerned about the economy. Is it more about race? On the one hand, there’s a lot of evidence of that. On the other hand, I find it hard to believe that the Republican party will become, explicitly, the White Worker’s Party. Is it about culture? On the one hand, there’s a lot of evidence of that. On the other hand, I find it hard to believe that anti-PC resentment is enough to be the permanent, main pillar of a major political party.
I really don’t know what I think. But my other, primary thread is getting kind of long. So I give you this fresh one for your speculations.