It’s true that the media erred in awarding Trump such a large spotlight—did all the cable news networks really have to cover his press conference on Wednesday?—but, at this point, the Trump phenomenon does not seem to be a mere media creation. His popularity (he currently leads in several polls) can no longer be denied. So what is Trump’s appeal? Why do his message and vulgar personality resonate with such a significant percentage of Americans? Trump’s embrace of birtherism has been the most widely discussed aspect of his rise. But this only scratches the surface of the Trump phenomenon.
What Trump actually stands for is an exaggerated sense of victimhood. This is the theme that unites his personal style with the political views he has thus far expressed. Are you tired of being pushed around? Are you tired of our country being pushed around? Trump’s political acuity lies in his ability to take these grievances and turn them into politics. His foreign policy views in essence consist of a pledge to bully other nations. China is “decimating our country.” OPEC is imperiling the economy. And ungrateful Libyans and Iraqis are trying to build a society from oil that is rightfully ours. (“We won the war. We take over the oil fields. We use the oil.”) When Bill O’Reilly, in an interview with Trump, seemed taken aback by the idea that we could simply force OPEC or China to do our bidding, Trump appeared surprised that anyone could view international relations as anything more than a contest of machismo. “The messenger is the key,” Trump told O’Reilly. “If you have the right messenger and they know how to deliver the message … you’re going to scare them, absolutely.”
Trump’s thinly veiled accusation that President Obama benefited from affirmative action when he applied to college derives from the same theme. This time the victims aren’t Americans as a whole, they are white Americans; but the message—of anger, resentment, and victimhood—is identical.
America is currently engaged in three wars. The country faces major economic challenges. Global warming is continuing apace. There is no chance any of these issues can be solved by yelling at foreign countries, or stirring up anger at Iraqis or Libyans or minority applicants to elite colleges. Donald Trump has appointed himself spokesman for some of the nastiest impulses in American politics, and he seems to have a following. The sooner the Republican mainstream rejects him, the better. And we liberals should be cheering them along as they do.
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