CNN aired its town hall with Trump and received some criticism for it. But it had been scheduled for a while and since the Right likes to accuse the Left (which CNN is at best only an honorary member) of Cancel Culture, the question to air or not to air doubtless prompted them to err on the side of not canceling. Nevertheless, opinions about the man on the stage notwithstanding, I have no carp about that. The only downside to something like this is that it took up space where something else of presumably more value might have been aired. As that seems rarely a consideration in the board rooms of media companies (what is value? what is worthwhile? what is meaningful? ratings) I’m fine with them going ahead. I am fully capable of exercising my prerogative to not give him any oxygen or eyeballs (mine) and attend to something else.
What I do find useful is the polling afterward and as reported during the audience response. Applause, cheers, enthusiastic support from his supporters. After all the demonstrated toxicity inhering to the man and even after the just-finished libel case that did not go his way, he has followers who bathe in every insipid utterance that falls from his mouth. We have, the rest of us, been scratching our heads and asking why since 2015. What seems obvious to us appears to be grounds for adulation for them and we are profoundly puzzled.
When stripped of all the polemic and rube-goldberg extrapolation and analysis, this tells us something about populist politics that is very useful to recognize. Hard to accept, yes, but real nonetheless, and I think it time we deal with it directly. Going all the way back to the Founding, we have heard warnings about it. Many of the Founders did not trust democracy. We keep hearing that and consider it an aberration, but in truth they recognized something basic about the relation of government to the governed that we are now seeing in full cinematic glory.
What do people want from their government?
This questions is at the heart of this phenomenon and it’s time we faced it and recognized its consequences. We can point to examples throughout history in which the same issue has so distorted a nation’s social and political landscape as to cause dismay and horror at the result. What were they thinking?
To my mind, this question can be answered by three related but distinct apprehensions.
For most of us, here, we want government to reflect our values. By this we implicitly acknowledge that sometimes our choices in how those values manifest may be off the mark and we presumably put in place people who can parse the complexities and do what is proper according to the basic ideas inherent in those values.
For others, we want government to validate our values. That is, we want government to reassure us that we feel and believe that which is right and beneficial. We may not be entirely certain what our own values are. We might have a good sense of them, but what does that mean? Does everyone else feel the same way? In this we wish our representatives to reassure us that yes, we are part of a community that shares what we feel.
Then there are those who want government to validate their prejudices. What we dislike, disapprove, disdain takes the place of a positive set of values because all we can see or feel is that which makes us distrust or resent. Maybe we feel that if only all those things we think do not belong can be gotten rid of, things will be all right, and by that I mean things will go to our benefit. This leads, if unchecked, to a policy of discrimination, of segregation, of injustice, of hate. You can see this in political movements the sole purpose of which is to take things away from certain people.
This latter group is what we see in Trump’s base. He has from the beginning validated their resentments. Nothing he says or does matters other than as a target for the kind of response from those they scorn. He has told them, by word and deed, that they’re right to feel besieged and that who they feel they are is fine. In fact, more than fine, it is what being an American means.
They love him because he validates their resentments and prejudices and fears of the Other.
Trying to reason with them repeatedly fails because the rest of us always start with the wrong set of assumptions. In aggregate, they do not want to be more inclusive, but the opposite. When he made fun of the disabled journalist, most of us were horrified. His supporters reacted against our horror by doubling down on their presumed right to make fun of who they want, to laugh at things rather than grow any empathy, to find humor in tasteless reductionism, and to ultimately sort people into Us and Them camps based on nothing but an unwillingness to extend themselves to consider that intolerance is shameful and destructive. Much of this is aesthetic.
So I’m okay with seeing this aspect of our culture on display where we can come to terms with the irrationality and pettiness of it. I just wish more of us would get over our reluctance—a reluctance often born of those values most under threat—to call it what it is and then take steps to counter it. Effectively countering it, though, necessitates dealing with it as it is, not as what we wish it were. Many of us resist seeing others in such starkly unflattering light. We tell ourselves there must be deeper causes, more complex meanings, that it can’t be that base and simple. Well, the circumstances in which this thrives are deeper and more complex, certainly, but the people rushing to cheer on the evil clown are not. They have lived by stereotypes and clichés—such things have allowed them to feel good about themselves in their immediate surroundings—and they want their government to tell them they have been right about all that.
And then…there are those who know perfectly well what this is and are willing to take advantage of the chaos to gain power and/or profit. They aren’t at the town halls cheering. They are watching and checking their ledgers and waiting for the rest of us to do nothing.