I would like to write about something that isn’t Donald Trump. But ever since watching Trump’s dark and frightening convention speech last Thursday, it’s been hard to think about much else.
I’m not sure I have much original to say about Trump—his rise, his followers, how his success echoes (or doesn’t) populist and nationalist and fascist movements of the past. So instead I’ll share a few links to pieces I’ve encountered in the last few weeks that stuck with me—each of which speaks to the question of why Trump appeals.
1. “Who Are All These Trump Supporters?,” by George Saunders, The New Yorker
The time-tested way to find out why Donald Trump appeals, of course, is to go talk to the people he appeals to. Saunders does just that, following Trump rallies and chatting up supporters and protesters. The portrait he paints is more complex than “angry, fearful, white men.” Though many fit that description, the voters he talks to are nonetheless fully human:
The Trump supporters I spoke with were friendly, generous with their time, flattered to be asked their opinion, willing to give it, even when they knew I was a liberal writer likely to throw them under the bus. They loved their country, seemed genuinely panicked at its perceived demise, felt urgently that we were, right now, in the process of losing something precious.
Sometimes it’s hard to recognize the shared humanity of those embracing a politician you find abhorrent. You just sort of squint your eyes from a distance, bewildered. Saunders makes the empathy gap easy to bridge.
2. “Leaving Conservatism Behind,” by Matthew Sitman, Dissent
This article isn’t directly about Trump or Trump supporters. It’s about one man’s journey away from conservatism. It resonated personally because, like me, the author grew up in central Pennsylvania, among working-class, fundamentalist Christians—Trump country.
Sitman vividly captures the world he grew up in—and eventually left:
We certainly were not middle class, and not even lower-middle class; but in the singular way the nearly-poor take pride in not being genuinely poor, we attributed the distinction to our own thrift and virtue—especially the latter….Strange as it might seem, only in recent years did I realize that it wasn’t normal to come home from middle school to see my father hunched over a sink splashed with blood—he had pulled one of his own teeth because we didn’t have dental insurance.
His call for a class-based politics, while idealistic, left me wondering if there are still possibilities for politically reuniting the struggling white voters who feel threatened by a changing America with the black and Latino voters whose economic interests they share.
3. “Never-Trump Confidential,” by Tom Nichols, New York Times
Next we move from the denial of conservatism to the denial of Trump. Nichols writes about the isolating experience of, as a conservative, remaining opposed to Trump in a Republican Party that has, for the most part, come around to support him. He describes a conversation with an old friend:
He understood how I felt about Trump, he told me, but “things had to change.” I asked him what, exactly, he would change. This is a question I’ve posed to many of my friends who are Trump supporters, because they’ve done well in postindustrial America and yet still see themselves as disadvantaged.
He admitted that his life had worked out, despite a few bumps along the way. But things are different now, he said. Worse than ever. A crisis, even. Pressed for details, he only shook his head.
This captures something that turns up in the Saunders piece as well—that Trump supporters are motivated by a sense of incipient threat, even as they themselves are doing, in quantitative terms at least, better than most.
4. “The Final Countdown,” by Zoe Chace, This American Life
Trump does not espouse straightforwardly conservative positions, and until recently many conservatives wholeheartedly rejected him. Yet in the last couple of months, more and more principled conservatives have climbed on the Trump train—Ted Cruz excepted.
This radio piece follows the process through which Doug Deacon, the son of a billionaire who calls Charles Koch “one of the most influential people in my life,” comes around to Donald Trump. Deacon is very political, very issue-driven, and at the outset he says, “Am I excited about Trump? No, I’m not.”
Eventually he meets with Trump, coming in with a checklist of policy questions—on “small government, criminal justice reform, ending government subsidies.” But he doesn’t end up asking any of them. Instead, he’s “charmed” by Trump: “He’s a really nice guy. And seems to think a lot like we do. You know, he believes that a businessman—at the end of the day, a country is a business.”
Despite not being convinced by Trump’s policy positions, Deacon finds himself signing on—he and his dad now plan to donate a few million to the campaign.
For now, Koch remains among the principled opposition, saying that a choice between Clinton and Trump is like a choice between “cancer or heart attack.” But who knows? He wouldn’t be the first Republican to reverse his position on Trump.
5. “Understanding Trump,” by George Lakoff
These last two pieces are less diagnosis and more “how to respond.” The first is a long blog post in which Lakoff does his Lakoff thing, diagnosing Trump in the context of conservative and progressive politics based on different models of the family.
That wasn’t the part of the piece I found compelling. What stuck with me was his advice for countering Trump:
Remember not to repeat false conservative claims and then rebut them with the facts. Instead, go positive….[S]tart with values, not policies and facts and numbers. Say what you believe, but haven’t been saying….Talk about the public, the people, Americans, the American people, public servants, and good government. And take back freedom.
It’s easy to succumb to the temptation to go negative–to talk to oneself, and one’s tribe, and dig further in. But in the end, that will just increase polarization. Hate and fear can be strong. But sometimes people want to be reminded of their better natures.
6. Clay Shirky tweetstorm
Which brings us to my final piece—which is not an article at all, but a tweetstorm. I came away Thursday night feeling scared, and sad, and helpless. Shirky reminded me that we are not helpless, and that those of us who oppose Trump have an obligation to act:
We’ve brought fact-checkers to a culture war. Time to get serious.
A final note: my list is entirely white, almost all male, and drawn from liberal-to-leftist publications. I think this reflects my attraction to “almost-Trump” stories—about people who are, could be, or have become—Trump supporters, as well, of course, as my own political position. But feel free to diversify this list with your own links in the comments.