The Way Donald Trump Appeals to Americans

July 23rd 2016

Ian Gurvitz

“May you live in interesting times” – it may sound like a blessing, though the adage’s true meaning is more ominous, wishing on someone a life of chaos and turbulence. And whether or not its origin as an ancient Chinese curse is apocryphal, it could easily apply to the 2016 election.


Elections take place in time. They become flash points for whatever’s pushing our buttons, reflections of the zeitgeist — thermometers up the ass of the nation. And while most presidential campaign themes are centered on hope, change, prosperity, and a bright, shiny American future, the theme of this election has become fear of an ugly, dangerous present. And no sells it better than Trump, as he demonstrated, at length, during the closing address of the 2016 Republican National Convention on Thursday.

Bad things are happening! Mexico’s sending rapists and murderers! Terrorists are sneaking into the country! Isis is coming to kill you! The government’s gonna take your guns! The military’s weak! Hillary’s a crook and a liar! We need a wall to keep out illegals! A ban on Muslim immigrants! The not-so-subtle message: bad people are coming to take your jobs, your sisters, and your lives.

Trump University, Trump Institute, Trump steaks, Trump wine, Trump hotels. Now we’ve got Trump Fear, peddled by a tiny-minded, tiny-handed demagogue who’s scaring the bejesus out of people who just want their jobs, their guns, their God, and their safety.

The code words of Nixon’s “law and order” message are gone, replaced by the actual words. There’s no dog whistle language. The dog is barking out loud: “I am the law and order candidate!”

Unfortunately, our interesting times are backing up his play. Since JFK’s assassination in Dallas, the names of American cities have morphed from places to live or visit, to synonyms for murder: Newtown, Charleston, San Bernardino, Orlando, Baton Rouge, St. Paul. And now Dallas all over again. It certainly feels like there’s good reason to be afraid. It seems like at any moment, anyone, anywhere can get shot.

Slain Dallas Police Officers

While Trump uses the language of fear to stir up his crowds, their loud, visceral, and occasionally violent reaction seems to arise from something deeper than existential terror. It’s less fear for one’s life than fear of a black planet. People can play the Black Lives Matter/All Lives Matter game all day long, but Black Lives Matter is just the modern incarnation of the NAACP or the Black Panthers. The message is the same: racism still exists. It rears its ugly head whenever people get gunned down in church, shot by cops, or shoot cops.

Minn Black Lives Matter Protesters

And as long as it exists, candidates can tap into it and turn it into a political weapon. Something Trump has been keenly aware of since he first stoked the birther buillshit five years ago, which was never about the words. It was about the music. And it continues to play with his crowd, who are still pissed off that we elected a black president, then re-elected the black president, then didn’t impeach the black president for the high crime of being president while black.

But along with the disease of racism, there’s also a dis-ease in the country — a discomfort, an anxiety — the result of changing social mores, hard economic times, and the fear of a global economy. And Trump is equally adept at playing that card. China’s screwing us! Mexico’s killing us! They’re taking your jobs! The system’s rigged! The media’s dishonest! Climate change is a hoax! Abortion’s a crime! Hillary’s crooked!

It’s like he’s doing a solo good cop/bad cop routine. First he scares the crap out of his acolytes, then he steps in as their savior, shifting from fear to the message of hope eloquently expressed on his hat: MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN! His promise: I’ll bring back your jobs! I’ll make the country rich! I’ll make the military strong again! We’ll be winners! It’s like he’s selling himself as a human boner pill — the cure for a flaccid economy and limp military.

But whether it’s guns, jobs, immigrants, or terrorists, Trump’s hope is false hope, based on the notion that only he can fix our problems. That you can arm yourselves to the teeth, but only fat, rich orange Jesus can save you. And it’s playing. Just check out the crowd when he blusters behind the podium, flashing that porky smile, with his blow up doll wife, daughter/wife, and replicant sons behind him. He makes his people feel re-empowered. And that’s why this cartoon character running a cartoon campaign has made it this far. Desperate, frightened people want hope. And false hope is better than no hope.

As said, elections reflect the mood of the country, and we tend to careen back and forth between hope and fear. In the ‘50s, Eisenhower offered stability to a country exhausted by war. JFK symbolized hope for a new generation. LBJ was a voice of sanity when contrasted with Goldwater and his nuke-happy running mate. Nixon played the “law and order” fear card in a time of anti-war protests, riots, and social revolution. Carter represented a post-Watergate, cleansing return to our ideals. Reagan sold national pride to people sick of introspection, and prosperity and strength to a country tired of inflation and the Iran hostage crisis. Bush 1 — well, we just punted on that one. But Clinton was the boomer JFK. Then Bush narrowly rode in on a return to old-time values. And Obama promised a return to competence after 9/11, a disastrous Iraq War, and near economic collapse, while also symbolizing social progress as the first African-American president — literal hope and change.

Now we’re back to fear. And given the heinous things we human beings have done to each other, and continue to do, it seems this election will be swayed less by inspiration, and more by desperation. And whether the fault lies in our stars, or in ourselves, it certainly feels like we’re destined to live in interesting times.