Donald Trump’s supporters only ask one thing of their candidate: Never show weakness. In the face of contrary facts, or topical ignorance, or jeering lobbyists, or screaming protesters, or persistent journalists, they only insist that he maintains his aura of absolute strength. Everything else—and I mean everything else—is forgivable. But the second he shows vulnerability, the entire facade collapses, and they will abandon him in droves.
This in an unspoken transaction, and neither side might be able to verbalize exactly what’s happening. But they understand it, if only on a gut level, and no matter what transpires between now and November, you can bet they won’t betray each other.
I grew up in a half-enlightened small town called Saranac Lake, deep in the Adirondack mountains of upstate New York. We had a community theater and a couple small colleges and a biomedical research institute and concert hall and a high school that legitimately valued the arts. The rich and famous had once visited to cure themselves of tuberculosis in the crisp mountain air—which may have been the beginning of the culture infusion—and in 1932 and again in 1980 the Winter Olympics were held in nearby Lake Placid. It was a nice place for someone to grow up, and compared to the bleak towns surrounding us—old lumber and mining villages—we may as well have been living on the Left Bank in Paris.
But it was still a small town, with provincial attitudes, and the person you were in first grade was the person you would be for the rest of your life—or until you got the hell out. The place was full of townies, and the townies were xenophobic and small-minded, and their attitudes filtered down to their children and to the school playground—minefields of physical and psychological abuse.
I remember one boy—I’ll call him Pat—who spent the first 13 years of his life as a perpetual target. Pat liked sports, and he wanted to play with the jocks, but Pat was also alarmingly unathletic, and he had the unfortunate quality of crumpling to the ground at the slightest contact. He was born with a big mouth, zero instinct for self-preservation, and a face that managed to look arrogant even in weakness. The combination was lethal—he became a favorite punching bag for every little townie shit with a rotten home life and a predilection toward sadism.
The lunch hour was a theater of horrors for Pat. Football was our chosen sport, and his own quarterback would throw him passes on lazy crossing routes, in collusion with the other team, just to watch him get annihilated the moment he touched the ball by a vicious creature twice his size. Other times, between plays, a rogue kamikaze asshole would race in from behind and knock him to the ground. Enraged, Pat would give chase at the slowest possible speed, and while the attacker eluded him, one of his confederates would steam in from the side, shoulder lowered, and launch Pat back to earth, where he’d land with an ugly thud. This time, he’d rise more slowly, face red as both teams howled with laughter. After he dusted himself off, he’d be knocked down once more, just to erase any last delusions of mercy.
Pat couldn’t stay away, and he couldn’t shut up. Every day, he’d try to strike back against his oppressors with a verbal assault that he’d clearly practiced the night before. This was the heartbreaking part, for me—imagining him sitting down with his father at the dinner table, coming up with the insults that would free him from his daily nightmare and finally earn the respect of the cretins.
He didn’t understand the dynamic—not remotely. There was something absurdly brave about the way he kept coming back, believing in the possibility of a new outcome, but from where I stood, it mostly looked tragic. The scene always played out the same way—someone would engage him with an insult, he’d respond with a rehearsed comeback meant to be withering (“you’re a drooling neanderthal!” is one I remember distinctly, which set everyone off, shouting “neanderthal” at each other, while Pat smiled and wondered if they were finally on his side), and he’d only succeed in looking weak. It didn’t matter what he said. It could be the most withering description, or a razor-sharp insight on the mental or physical shortcomings of his tormentor. Nothing could change the essential fact of his total powerlessness. Even if he got the better of someone, just for a moment, they’d simply call him a “faggot,” push him to the ground, and beat the shit out of him.
Coming to his aid was unthinkable—why put yourself in the crosshairs for someone who was too stupid to stay out of his own way? For Pat, ratting on his abusers was equally impossible. You just didn’t do it, and even if you did, half of the attendants would be too apathetic to do anything about it, and the other half would go through the motions of giving a warning, secretly believing that this was how kids played, and that Pat probably deserved it.
I watched it all, and I studied him. I was better at sports than Pat, and a little tougher, but I also got good grades and loved to read and couldn’t help but engage in class in a way that betrayed my critical flaw of actually enjoying school. There was no way I was ever going to escape the prison of a small town without my fair share of indignities, but Pat taught me how to manage it. I learned to be quiet and stifle the emotional reaction that gives bullies their fuel. I learned to be aggressive and funny, but only at the right moments—I’d even get into a strategic fight that I knew I could win now and then, to foster the illusion of strength—and in the moments when I had to suffer, I kept my rage to myself.
Mostly, I longed to get away, and when I finally made it out of Saranac Lake, the freedom was every bit as wonderful as I’d always imagined. But I retained the lesson Pat taught me, which is that in situations where authority is absent, strength will always dominate, and weakness will always be exposed.
I think of Pat now and again when I watch the Republican debates. Candidates like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio and especially Jeb Bush remind me so much of him. Just as he railed against his oppressors with prepared invective, so they launch scripted volley after scripted volley against Donald Trump, delivering each with the conviction that this, at last, will be the salvo that exposes his weakness and turns all his supporters against him. And each time, they’re woefully, pathetically wrong.
The first thing to understand about the year 2016 in electoral politics is that the authorities have vacated the premises. Reince Priebus and the Republican National Committee are essentially cuckolds, watching their former constituency have a torrid affair with an alpha male from outside the community. As Matt Taibbi wrote at Rolling Stone, this is what happens when you spend decades winning votes with the language of populism and anger, and then using your power to exclusively serve the rich and powerful. Even the dimmest bulbs—and man, there are some dim bulbs—will eventually understand that they’ve been used, and duped. Political justice, even in its corrupt form, has gone missing. Hence, the vacuum that has produced Trump.
The second thing to understand is that when Donald Trump proclaims himself as the only uncompromised candidate vying for the GOP nomination, he is absolutely right. It’s been great fun watching the mainstream media—including many liberals—try to convince themselves that someone like Jeb Bush is a man of quiet dignity, when the truth is that, as Albert Burneko so wonderfully put it, he’s a “sack of shit.” He’s the beneficiary of hundreds of millions of dollars in super-PAC money, and someone whose only aim in political life is to keep the wealthy class happy and widen the nation’s inequality. John Kasich has less money, but in essence he’s no different, and the same is true of Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz (who adds a dash of religious insanity for good measure).
In one of the most absurd moments from last night’s debate, Ted Cruz attempted to attack Trump on his conviction that he wouldn’t let sick people die in the streets. It was hard to believe what we were seeing, but it couldn’t be ignored—Cruz was trying to paint Trump’s general decency (or the appearance of it, anyway) as a fatal flaw. Cruz would present it differently, of course. He’d say that Trump’s compassion signified support for socialized health care, which is decidedly not a conservative value. But again, Cruz is playing by old rules. “Conservative values” resonate when you have a thriving middle class full of people who want to keep their money and resent paying taxes—and by extension, the poor minorities who benefit. But when you have historic levels of wealth inequality, and the people making up your base are doing worse and worse because of the politicians they keep voting for? That coalition ain’t gonna hold, and the conservative values you’ve preached since the ‘80s will ring very, very hollow.
We’ve seen it again and again: Cruz, Rubio, and Bush, staring out at the audience in disbelief as Trump credits Planned Parenthood for its non-abortion services (making it very clear, despite necessary claims to the contrary, that he has no interest in de-funding it and is almost certainly pro-choice), or argues the merits of eminent domain, or talks about leveling punitive tariffs on companies who outsource jobs, or expresses concern for the poor and hungry, or refuses to demonize Palestinians and express unequivocal support for Israel. How can they be losing to this guy? How can someone expressing these very liberal values be leading every poll, and making them look so foolish?
The reason is simple: Their so-called ‘conservative values’ have always been bullshit, and people are finally starting to see through the smoke and mirrors. The saddest thing about those candidates is that they still believe in the myth of a classic Republican coalition at a time when the economy makes that idea ludicrous. Establishment Republicans, for their arrogance and presumption, deserve everything they’re getting.
But none of that answers the critical question. Yes, history and decades of GOP bullshit have created this vacuum, but why Trump? Why someone whose politics are so confused, and who barely even has a message beyond a vague promise of restoration?
The answer, of course, is that he makes people feel powerful. This is the most resonant message of all, and his ability to convey strength makes him immune from specifics. Rich people and the establishment media don’t get it, because they have power. Progressives don’t get it, because many of us have education. Trump’s core supporters, by and large, have neither. Sure, his anti-Islamic, anti-Mexican rhetoric has made an impact, but even those points trace back to the urge for power, and the sense that somewhere along the line, we have been wronged.
The issues, to Trump supporters, are irrelevant. If they actually cared about that kind of thing, and had opened their eyes to the state of America, his poor and lower-middle class adherents would have flocked to Bernie Sanders by now. Like Sanders supporters, Trump devotees understand that the establishment has failed them. Unlike Sanders supporters, they don’t concern themselves with the details. They know that they’re supposed to feel strong—it’s their birthright as Americans—and they know that they don’t. “Make America Great Again” was music to their ears, and the only other requirement was a man who could project the kind of power that made the words believable.
They got their wish in Donald Trump. Unlike every other candidate, Trump understands the art of strength. He understands that in certain historical moments, like the one we’re currently experiencing, a certain type of bold personality with great stage presence can grab the political world by the balls. His billions of dollars, his beautiful wife, his gaudy hotels and casinos and golf courses, are all projections of this high status, and his people are eating it up. They feel good when they watch Trump on TV, or see him at a rally. This guy isn’t scripted, he isn’t polished, but he cuts through the bullshit and gives voice and form to the fractured fantasy of strength and power—the self-conception they know is true, present realities aside, and that they know they deserve. Trump is the one who will restore the thing that has been stolen from them.
How can a feckless little coward like Jeb Bush stand up to that? It was abundantly clear, before he dropped out, that Bush did not understand the essence of the bully—that unlike his brother, who has a natural mean streak, he had been sheltered by his family name his entire life. I mean, Jesus, can you even imagine Trump having a “please clap” moment? It’s unthinkable. Cruz, too, seems to believe in the power of rhetorical flourishes, and looks puzzled when Trump dismisses him with a single word: “Liar.” Kasich’s desperate appeals to dignity are horrendously out-dated, and only reveal that he’s not man enough to stand up to Trump.
Rubio comes closest with his aspirational GOP-Obama schtick, and he nearly landed a solid blow last night when he called Trump out for the way he repeats himself—an ironic reversal of the Christie salvo that tanked his own campaign before New Hampshire—but even as he scored his point, he couldn’t help grinning at the audience like a little boy showing his mother a frog he’d just captured. He, too, lacks the native cruelty to play this game.
Everything about Trump, from his voice to his idioms to his very careful hand motions, is designed to convey a very specific message: All these other people are beneath me, and I trust that you, the voter, can see it. You’re not the kind of person who suffers fools, are you? You’re not the kind to put up with bullshit. You’re with me.
That’s the appeal here; even as a progressive, there’s a dark fascination when I watch him humiliate his opponents, and it’s easy to see why poor conservatives who feel betrayed by the system love to watch him torch the terrified establishment.
The current strategy of the other GOP candidates is a total failure. How do you beat the alpha male of the lion pride? It’s not by talking, or subtlety, or appeals to decency. You beat him by fighting one-on-one, blood and all. But the king is the king for a reason, and that’s exactly what he wants you to do—that’s where he’s strongest. The beauty of Trump’s campaign, so far, is that he’s established the terms of engagement. The others don’t want to admit it, but for them to beat him, they’re going to have to fight by his rules. And Trump is very, very good on his own turf. He lives in a world where a simple insult can override a litany of legitimate policy critiques. It’s a world where a well-timed smirk can undermine an entire political career. It’s a world where specifics don’t matter, and where image is everything. Trump has been training for this battle for a lifetime, and far from challenging his dominance, the others don’t even seem to realize the fight they’re in.
If he wins the nomination (I still think Rubio has a chance to beat him, but only in the very unlikely scenario where everyone else drops out right away, including Cruz), Trump will have a harder time against Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. Clinton will be the more vulnerable of the two because of her establishment ties and her reputation for dishonesty—Trump won’t even have to change his game plan—but she’s far better than anyone on the GOP side at projecting power, and she’ll be able to exchange body blows with Trump in a way that the GOP nominees cannot. As for Sanders, he can’t be smeared with the establishment attack, and he’s the only candidate who can compete with Trump on authenticity. Sanders has a fighter’s instinct, and he’ll be able to match Trump’s no-nonsense Brooklyn style with the added benefit of a rough, grandfatherly compassion. It’s hard to see Trump prevailing within that dynamic.
But we’re not there yet, and on the GOP side, Trump is the undisputed king of the jungle. He understands the bargain he’s made with voters, and he’ll guard his territory jealously. He’ll smirk, and he’ll preen, and he’ll never let his people down. And until his opponents recognize his brute appeal, and how he infuses his supporters with the feeling of power they crave so deeply, they’ll be like poor Pat on the playground—reciting a string of meaningless words, righteous and hopeful, unaware that they’re about to be cruelly blindsided. Again.