Understanding Trump: An Imperfect Guide From A Stunned Liberal

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 10.854% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I’m not going to claim to understand all of Trump, because frankly, Trump’s nomination is the culmination of hundreds of intersecting cultural trends.  Anyone who claims to have a simple answer for Trump’s appeal and his rise to power and his history is lying as badly as, well, Trump.
But I have figured out a few things.
Trump’s Not A Good Liar.  America Wants To Believe Rich People.
The slightest fact-checking would tell you that Trump has always lied to the press, often when he didn’t need to, often in ways that are trivially verified.  I grew up in the shadow of New York City, so I’ve been watching Trump get away with flagrant and fragrant whoppers almost all my life.
Trump is an awful goddamned liar.  I’ve seen five-year-olds who lie better than he does.  You want to watch a good liar, watch Bill Clinton – his speech of “I did not have sex with that woman” was impassioned, believable, precise in what undeniable truths it left out, and took hard-dug evidence to contradict him.  That’s how you lie convincingly, folks.
But the horror show of America is that Trump doesn’t need talent.
We’re so in love with wealth that we assume anyone with money is telling the truth.
Trump’s always been a consummate bullshit artist, but he’s always had fans because he was born wealthy, and Americans are desperate to believe that wealth is the sign of talent and hard work.  (And, conversely, poverty is the sign of indolence and incompetence.)  To much of America, “having lots of money” means “You made smart decisions, so we should listen to you.”
Thankfully, I grew up Connecticut among trust fund kids, so I am deadened to that lie.  I’ve seen dumb, lazy kids given millions and still wind up with hundreds of thousands.  Being rich and well-connected means you can make catastrophic fuckups that would get other people jailed or bankrupted, and come out with more than most people have.
Now, some people have worked hard for their money and made wise decisions.  I support those guys.  But America’s inability to distinguish between “earned wealth” and “luck wealth” means that all millionaires are essentially self-made Gods to many, these greater-than-human people who don’t err.
People don’t fact-check Trump because that would break the illusion.  They need Trump to be someone who tells the truth, because otherwise millionaires might be fallible human beings, and deep inside they burn for the day when they become wealthy and perfect and inevitable.
We subsidize patently awful lies to keep this illusion going.  Which is why Trump has gotten away with it all along.
Part Of Why You’re Hearing Trump’s Flaws Is Because The Machine Is Turning On Him.  
I posted this Tweet this morning about how Trump asked, repeatedly, during a national security briefing, “…why can’t we use nuclear weapons?”
Note that this unsourced accusation is from Morning Joe, a conservative talk show.  A talk show that, several months ago, was vaguely pro-Trump.
Note how he said this meeting happened “several months ago,” and yet somehow he’s only bringing this topic up now.
I’m not necessarily saying that the accusation is a lie.  In fact, I suspect it’s absolutely true.  (But that’s my anti-Trump bias showing.)
What I am saying is that the conservative party has always held a tight focus in what their journalists have been allowed to say, and Morning Joe would have lost viewers, support, guest access, and support had he allowed this to be spoken on his show when Donald Trump was in favor with the Powers That Be.
I’ve said that you have to keep in mind that the leaks you got about Hillary the DNC was orchestrated by Putin to affect the election.  You can get mad – because what happened there was suuuuuuper shitty – but also keep in mind that someone is purposely magnifying Hillary’s flaws to make her seem unelectable, and keep your outrage, if not checked, at least within a firm context that it’s part of a smear campaign.
Likewise, I loathe Trump, but a lot of the things that are being said by conservatives are things that are allowed to be said now, because key figures to conservative media have finally decided it’s okay to take a potshot at Trump to keep the party together.
Get mad.  But also remember that Trump hasn’t changed; what’s changed is the opinion of the guys who hold the reins on people like Morning Joe.  And you should be asking yourself, “Hmm, I wonder what stories from other Presidential candidates who sucked up more effectively got swept under the rug?”
Because, you know, several months ago Trump was baffled why he couldn’t lob nukes around like tennis balls.  You’re hearing about that now, along with all sorts of other things that are undermining his campaign.  All the facts that fit this “Trump is unfit to be President” narrative were there all along, it’s just that the media chose not to display that until now.
Question that process.
Trump Is What Happens When You Remove All Possibility Of Apologies.
People were shocked when Trump went after Khizr Khan, a grieving father of a decorated veteran. But that was Trump’s only strategy!
Look.  Trump is about two things that appeal to narrow, yet terrifying, portions of the electorate:

  • They want a strong candidate who’s not afraid to go toe-to-toe with anybody.
  • They want someone who never apologizes.

For a lot of people, “an apology” is a weakness.  It means you did something wrong – and remember when I said the people who believed Trump were seeking someone who’s infallible?  They don’t want a President, they want a Godhead who dispenses perfect decisions the first time, every time.
Any time Trump breaks that narrative of “Trump is never wrong,” he loses core votes.
So you can’t apologize.  What’s left?  Well, you could ignore the remarks, but strategically, then you look weak if enough people are addressing it – and Trump’s gotta go toe-to-toe.  Once an issue gets enough media attention, which Khizr Khan’s speech did, Trump can’t afford to not bring it up.
So what are Trump’s options?
He’s gotta go on the attack.  When you can’t back down, and you can’t ignore, the only option is to go assault the person and tear them down until they’re no longer a worthy opponent.  You’ve got to go after their moral standing so the things they said are compromised; that’s exactly what he did with Hillary.
And I’m not saying this is a campaign strategy, but it’s the sad strategy of the Alpha Dog who believes very firmly in status.  If someone’s risen to a challenging status, you have to lower their status.
I doubt that even Trump understands what he’s doing, but watch his Tweets – he’s literally confused by the concept that someone, anyone, would get to say nasty things about him and he’s not allowed to respond.  Alpha Dogs can’t ignore threats, and he perceives himself as the ultimate dog.  WHY SHOULD I BE LEASHED.
That’s why he lies all the time.  He can’t say “I was wrong,” because that would indicate weakness.  Instead, he pretends he never said what he said and never did what he did.  This is what happens when you remove “Yeah, my bad” from the equation.
(And if, as a conservative, you’re upset at what Trump has done, keep in mind that y’all opened the door to this when you mocked Kerry’s war record in 2004. Either veterans are deserving of respect no matter when they disagree with you, or you’re mocking a decorated veteran by wearing “Purple Heart” bandages to show that any idiot can get the medal. That is on you.)
Why Does Trump Appeal To Poor White Voters? 
I don’t pretend to know.  But I think this interview with J.D. Vance, who wrote a book called Hillbilly Elegy, which discusses the motivations of the white working poor, talks a lot about how desperation and culture affects you. I’d definitely read that; I plan to buy his book.
That said – and read that guy more than me – I’d remind you that “dignity” is a thing that people will literally kill for.  People will tolerate being poor, as long as they’re seen as worthy members of the community.  But they cannot tolerate being shunned or mocked.  And the saddest lesson of history, shown time and time again, is that folks who get the shaft will almost always listen to comforting lies that assure them their lives are worthwhile.
The rise of Trump is fundamentally an upper-class liberal failure.  When we bitch about hicks and idiots, we’re exacerbating the problem.  I’m not sure how to reach to them, because part of the issue is that I don’t connect to people like that on a regular basis.  (I know a lot of poor people, but they’re all Democrats like me.)  But I am smart enough to know that this failure to connect is an issue.
Which is not to say that the people who vote for Trump are somehow correct in what they do, or free from unexamined racism.  But I think the only way to change that culture is to interact with it in more positive and less dismissive ways, and that’s something upper-class liberal twits like me have consistently failed at.
We need to do better.  I need to do better.
But again, read that interview.  And maybe the book.


  1. Alexis
    Aug 3, 2016

    Very astute observations. I would also like to read “Hillbilly Elegie.” In terms of appealing to poor white voters, I won’t claim to be an expert, but I think we have to reframe votes for Trump as votes based on fear. Right now, a lot of them think their doing something brave and sticking it to the man when they vote for him. It’s their way of smacking the GOP, and the rest of the country, in the face. “F*** your stupid tax cuts, I’m voting for this guy!”
    If we treated voting for Hillary as a brave, courageous thing to do, and Trump-voting as cowardice, it would rob him of the anti-establishment defiance that appeals so much to people who feel f’ed by the system.
    I picture commercials with a compassionate person saying something like “I know you’re scared. I know he’s made a lot of promises to you. I know you want to believe him. It takes real courage to look deeper at the man behind the curtain, but I know that you have that kind of courage. You’re a survivor, and you don’t need him to get by.”

  2. Billy Higgins Peery
    Aug 3, 2016

    Less than a decade ago, so many of those poor white voters were fighting marriage equality, just like they’re now fighting Black Lives Matter, transgender bathrooms, and so on.
    Honestly? Trump and his voters have appropriated the language of oppression for themselves. “The media’s unfair to me,” “Well if liberals keep making fun of me then why shouldn’t I vote for a fascist lunatic!”
    I’m not here for it. They used to bully people like me by calling us f**s, now they’re trying to bully the left and the media. It seems they’re doing that by ignoring both logic and decency.
    Could we have done anything about that? Idk. But I, personally, was never inclined to reach out to homophobes and make the attempt.

  3. Mark
    Aug 4, 2016

    Good interview, thanks for sharing!

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