In order to best figure how out how to contain the toxicity of Trump until we finally manage to get rid of him, a good start would be to stop imagining that Trump perceives the world through any set of analytical filters with which most of us are familiar. No, we would be better off to imagine the perspective of a two-headed snake. One head is dedicated to self-defense, one to aggression. One head sees boots that might stomp (ergo, legs he must sink fangs into), the other looks for mice to strangle and swallow. A creature with two simple drives: defend or attack.
Trump only sees compliments and insults, win and losses, friends and enemies. You are either for him or against him ― an ally or a threat. If he sucks his life force from the cheers of the crowd, he experiences rejection with equal intensity. We all remember that point in our life where we said melodramatic things like “I want to die” after a break-up; often we’d recover by displacing our infatuation with anger, even rage. This is a permanent feature of Trump’s emotional makeup. He never evolved to the point of seeking to understand the point of view of those who don’t love him anymore, or simply don’t even like him. The part of most brains that imagines the experience of others and factors it into one’s own decisions is not only lacking in Trump, it may be biologically absent. Others may use “brain-damaged” as a hyperbolic epithet; I think it may be an accurate diagnosis. How else could you describe someone physiologically incapable of empathy?
Of course, boiling down what’s wrong with Trump to its most fundamental components still doesn’t explain his appeal to the largely Republican electorate who would have overwhelmingly insisted, at the start of the primaries, that they would of course choose an experienced, bipartisan, mildly conservative problem-solver over a whiny, obnoxious, uninformed blowhard. Someone like John Kasich should have knocked him out by New Hampshire. But by the end of the primaries, far more than the fringe had gotten on the Trump train, and they proved enough to win.
I remember Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert comic strip (and former magician) predicting accurately the results of the election. “He’s practicing mass hypnosis,” Adams insisted to Bill Maher. I scoffed at the time, but chills ran up my spine. His words kept coming back to me in my obsessive search for a satisfactory explanation of how 62 million Americans could collectively make a patently insane choice in November. It is even harder to grasp because Trump isn’t even a decent orator — quite the opposite. What was so mesmerizing about his message?
It may not have been a conscious strategy, but Trump’s incoherence is nothing if not uncannily instinctive. “Make America Great Again” is a novel in a bumpersticker. It reminds the listener that he used to feel “great’ and invite him to consider when that was. Then the hypnosis begins.
Close your eyes and remember the sights, the smells, the sounds back when you had that well-paying factory job. Your neighborhood was white, wasn’t it? Spanish was something you heard from a teacher rather than at Target… You probably didn’t work for a woman, and you definitely didn’t get in trouble for trying to make out with one at the Christmas party… Your nephew was discreet about his “roommate” — he certainly didn’t send you an invitation to a wedding he couldn’t even legally have… And dammit, black people weren’t getting themselves shot by the cops all the time — or at least you never remember having to hear about it, much less get blamed for it.
Trump linked the personal economic decline of the white working class voter to the social progress that occurred alongside it. And, conversely, by attacking the markers of this social progress, he subliminally offered a way back to the prosperity of yesteryear.
This approach may even explain Trump’s appeal to conservative Christians for whom his personal life alone should have been a deal-breaker. Fans of Old Testament thinking respond to the subtext of reproach. What they heard from him was,
“God has punished you for turning your back on the old ways. You have allowed too much ‘progress,’ let America become dark and accented, feminist and gay. The only way to appease God for all of these sins is to elect me.”
Between the evangelicals, the aggrieved rust-belters and the red-state Limbaughscenti, Trump had enough strategically placed voters to game the Electoral College, with nary a pro-forma call for national unity afterwards. In Trump’s two speed-world, you’re a winner or a loser, and nothing is worse than being a loser. (Although he would have so preferred to win the popular vote and lose the electoral college. All of the popularity with none of the pain-in-the-ass governing. He certainly would have acted as if he had won — and happily glided into the role of perpetual Hillary denouncer. Ironically, just like many Democrats, who have heaped shame and scorn on the woman who got more votes than any white man to ever run for president.)
Trump’s plunging approval ratings indicate that perhaps millions of the hypnotized are starting to wake up. It’s becoming awfully hard not to notice that he is incapable of working effectively with the two houses of Congress, through which he still couldn’t tell you how a bill gets passed. And the promises he is trying to keep, via flailing executive orders, perhaps don’t look so hot. The anti-Obamacare voters agreed with the “repeal,” but only when paired with “replace.” But there is no “replace” that is better than the present system except “Medicare for all.” If Trump was smart, embracing universal health care was exactly how he could turn his presidency around. But he isn’t smart. The problem with this two-headed snake is that the brain was split between the heads and not enough oxygen is getting to either of them.
Well, hypnotized Trump voter, glad you’re snapping out of it, but it really wasn’t worth the pleasure of having seen you cluck around the stage naked. A whole bunch of us were not taken in by this repellent charlatan, whereas you chose to swallow his abracadabra snake oil. It is you who are responsible for the ascension of this indecent carnival barker, this scurrilous and stupid man-child.
He is appalling, but you are even more appalling. What you did will not be forgiven or forgotten.