This blogpost, then, should not be understood as a personal statement of support for Trump’s candidacy, though I don’t hide that support. It should be read, instead, as an attempt to explain to my friends who are mystified by Trump’s appeal just how he gathered the support to be elected President, and how he has managed to keep enough support to possibly be re-elected.
But first, the caveats
Let us take it as read that Trump’s personal behavior is outlandish, uncouth, frequently immature, and all-too-often unpresidential. He frequently embarrasses even his supporters. And this behavior has some real-world consequences in how other nations regard us. That’s not nothing. In Presidential Comportment, Trump earns, at best, a D. The reason I don’t assign him an F is that there are other times when he can do us proud, giving a good speech, recognizing the humanity of someone ordinary, talking about American virtues. Also, Melania shows some real class now and then, and helps humanize Trump.
When Trump was elected, I likened him to King Ralph, who in the eponymous movie is a piano bar performer suddenly thrust into a position of dignity and responsibility. Ralph hasn’t the first clue how real power works, and he never, ever manages to fit in among the great and powerful, but he has a good heart, and he tries. Like Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny in What Opera, Doc, he’s trying to do the thing right, but all he’s got is what he is. And Trump is like that. He isn’t a politician. He isn’t even a very good businessman. He’s a carnival barker, a celebrity, a guy who trades on his image of being rich and famous. God love him, I do think he’s trying to do this presidency thing right – but he is severely limited by his own handicaps.
So, what’s his appeal?
To understand how Donald J. Trump was elected President of these United States, you have to consider whom and what he was running against. Hillary Clinton is perhaps the most repellent politician I have ever seen. She aroused intense dislike, both for her persona and for her policy preferences. I said at the time that I would crawl over broken glass to vote against her, and I was not the only one. But Hillary, with her “basket of deplorables” remark, was also building on the legacy of Barack Obama and his “bitter clinger” zinger. A very, very large number of Americans were, invisible to elite eyes, getting very fed up with how they were being regarded by those same elites.
When a large number of ordinary people proclaimed themselves the Tea Party and marched on Washington some years before, they were derided as boobs and bigots, made the subject of obscene jokes, and presented as a nascent fascist menace. For those paying attention, the Tea Partiers came to present their grievances, and having done so in Civics-textbook fashion, blessed America and went home. Nobody was hauled off to jail for disturbing the peace, no windows were broken, and they even picked up their own trash on the way home. They trusted the process.
Which explains how Trump won the Republican nomination, which you have to somehow do in order to explain how he beat Hillary in the general. For the GOP elites curried favor with the Tea Party, co-opted their causes, raised funds on their values – and then delivered precisely squat in response. And these same Senators and whatnot assumed they could show up and deliver the same smooth soundbites and climb to the nomination employing them. Over against the dozen-plus of them, Trump stood out. He had no smooth soundbites, but he spoke the language of the outsiders. All of the tried and true Republican leaders looked somehow phony against the advent of Trump. Now, this is quite a feat for someone who has been on all sides of all the issues, and seemed as if he would say anything just to sell himself, then likely do something else later on. But he not only made these high-flying overachievers look small, he made them look like people who only mouthed the words, then never delivered.
The great middle class unwashed looked at Trump and sensed something they didn’t sense in any of the other candidates. And, when you look into his background, you find that Trump has always been an outsider. As long as he had money to donate, the real powermongers would flock around him. He could always buy an entrée to the show – but the real elites laughed at him behind his back. Even in New York, Trump was considered by the real elites as “not one of us.” Michael Bloomberg was asked where Trump rated on the scale of power and social status: an A-lister? B-lister? Bloomberg dismissed him as a D-lister or below. So Trump wasn’t polished, he wasn’t rehearsed, and he wasn’t one of those who had spent years telling ordinary folk “you didn’t build that,” etc. He might betray them, but they were used to that. He might fail, but at least he seemed to be speaking for himself, not mouthing stuff he didn’t believe. And so he won the nomination, and then the presidency – to his own surprise, I think, as much as anybody’s.
Today, that constituency – hardworking Hispanics, ordinary middle-class Whites, evangelicals of all sorts (egad, even the Amish are sporting Trump signs on their buggies!) – seems as committed to Trump as ever, and maybe even has grown. Many progressives try to explain this support with the same quid-pro-quo economic or political reasoning with which some historians try to explain the Reformation. But to place the theologically illiterate Trump in religious terms, think Cyrus the Great. The Jews loved Cyrus, not because he was a righteous man, nor even because he was a good emperor, but because he let the Jews return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple, and he showed them consistent favor (and then left them alone). Or you could compare Trump to Jephthah, one of the Judges. The author of the Book of Judges is a snob who obviously thinks Jephthah is uncouth. Jephthah was an illegitimate son sent away by his tribe to the frontier, where he prospered as a kind of bandit chieftain. But he became indispensable when the Ammonites threatened, and he returned to head up the Israelite army that defeated them. But he remained “not one of us,” a man about whom any outlandish tale might be told – including human sacrifice (cf. Judges 11:34-40). Yet, the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews lists the violent and uncouth Jephthah among the Heroes of the Faith.
Enough ordinary conservatives, GOP loyalists, and others for whom Hillary Clinton was just a bridge too far, joined Trump’s constituency to put him over the top in enough States to win. So, how’s he done in the office?
In terms of deportment, alas, he hasn’t done very well. But in terms of policy, he hasn’t done bad at all. Listed below are a few of his achievements or attempts, along with some serious challenges and how he’s handled them.
Immigration and border control Trump campaigned on building the long-promised wall between the US and Mexico and controlling illegal immigration. Despite much resistance, his administration has built or re-built a fair amount of border wall, and illegal immigration is down. When Trump pressed on this after his inauguration, I was surprised. I thought he was only saying what would get him elected. This was the first issue that made me realize that Trump intended to actually DO what he promised to do if elected. That was a pleasant surprise to me, and it revealed to me that I had quit believing the blandishments of my favorite Republicans some time before this. In an age where no matter whom you voted for, you got the same policies, only delivered faster or slower, this was a good thing.
Judicial appointments Trump promised to support judges of a certain temperament – and even published a short list of Supreme Court prospects – to prove his bona fides to constitutional conservatives. And he has delivered on that promise, over and over again. Again, this was a surprise. And a good thing.
The economy I don’t like Trump’s refusal to take our debt seriously, but I can’t argue with his tax policies. He helped launch an economic recovery the likes of which we haven’t seen in my lifetime. This included the lowest rate of Black unemployment ever recorded. His administration has actually rolled back an enormous amount of burdensome regulations on business. Now, his trade wars will not be a good thing in the end, but there were signs that he was moderating that approach a bit before the covid-19 virus hit. In any case, people were getting ahead, and especially those who had been left out in both the left’s and the right’s previous economic policies.
International relations Most of our allies don’t like Trump, but then most of the people in our allies’ leadership are the same sort of elites that we have in this country, and all of them are much of a muchness. Trump has in some ways weakened NATO, which I don’t like. He has also been far too open to Russia’s nefarious meddling. On the other hand, he’s been willing to intervene in Syria without getting us into another war, he’s made our allies start paying their fair share for the common defense, he canceled the abominable Iran deal, he has somehow or other managed to quiet North Korea, he has re-oriented us to face the challenge of China, and he has pulled off a couple of staggering achievements in the Middle East as two separate peace deals between Arab nations and Israel have been celebrated. On balance, Trump’s administration has done pretty well in international relations – far better than the Obama administration did.
Cabinet Departments Trump is a hard guy to work for, and he’s gone through a lot of Cabinet secretaries. He seems to have found a team he can work with, for now, and some of them are doing some very good things. William Barr is sorting through the Russian Collusion nonsense, trying to get the truth out and get the DOJ out of politics. Mike Pompeo seems to be doing a good job at State. I am a fan of Betsy DeVos, for two reasons: her promotion of charter schools, and her rollback of the outrageous “Dear Colleague” letters that threatened higher ed with government displeasure if they didn’t enforce various progressive straitjackets upon their personnel and students.
COVID-19 Trump's response to the virus was shaky, but no worse than what I would expect. Everybody was caught flat-footed by this, and the air was full of quick-fixes. In the long run, he’s done about as much as the federal government can do. The States are showing the real successes (and failures). And there are signs that the economy is re-covering from the lockdown faster than expected. This is a good thing.
Race relations Trump has been tarred with the label of White Supremacy, but then, who hasn’t? Yes, some of the racist uglies of the Right emerged early in his administration, and he was slow to condemn them. But then, Trump doesn’t know how to speak in code, like other government leaders do. He sounded to me just like all the people I know, who were trying to condemn the uglies while refuting the accusation that all of us ordinary folk are somehow covert racists. Far more sophisticated and articulate people than Donald Trump have had their careers ruined trying to stake out a middle ground against the racist uglies of the Left that want to govern all our speech. In the end, Trump is from New York. He has moved among people of all races – even been given awards by Civil Rights orgs – for years. To say he is a White Supremacist is to torture language. To say that all of his supporters are White Supremacists is an obscene libel.
Rule of Law Trump has been accused of being a fascist by the same people who were calling George W. Bush “Hitler.” He talks outrageously, I’ll admit, but in terms of how he actually operates – well, despite all his carping, he let the Mueller investigation run to the very end (only to turn up nothing). In the end, his bluster is just that, bluster. It’s intemperate, and I don’t condone it, but he believes in following the law. He is a great supporter of the police, and I know policemen who simply adore him. Whether that is good or bad of him largely depends on what one’s view of the police is. But comparing Trump’s administration to the widespread lawlessness of Obama’s administration, there’s just no contest.
Well, I said I wasn’t going to try to persuade, but only explain Trump’s appeal. But this last section on what Trump has done explains why many of us are sticking with him. We look at the Democrats and are frightened and appalled by what they say they want to do. For that matter, we look at how they have behaved in Congress, and we are shocked at the behavior of Nancy Pelosi, Jerry Nadler, Adam Schiff, et al. We look at all of Trump’s weaknesses and liabilities, and we say (not with satisfaction) that he’s still a better bet than Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. I understand those who say they must vote third party, that they can’t support either the Dems or the Repubs this go-round. And I understand the long-time Democrats among my friends who will support anything riding a donkey. But if you want to know what Trump’s appeal is, well, I hope I’ve shown that reasonable and sophisticated people can see him as more desirable than the alternatives, again.