Imagine you could run for president and stood a good chance of winning. Suppose, further, that money was no object, that anything you said would instantly make headlines around the country and that the normal constraints candidates face didn’t apply. What kind of campaign would you run? Which issues would you talk about and what positions would you take? How would you address the other candidates and the state of the country?
At some time or another, we’ve all fantasized about running for president or being one – especially those of us who follow politics closely. Though we know it isn’t possible, who hasn’t wondered what it would be like to play the leader who can get away with anything? It’s a compelling fantasy, and in most people it serves as a healthy psychological outlet for powerful feelings, mystical longings and quasi-dictatorial impulses that are best left in the realm of imagination or fiction. Indeed, this fantasy remains healthy so long as we remember that in the real world there are no Green Lanterns. Political leaders are neither uninhibited nor invincible, whether we see ourselves in that role or someone else.
If that’s true, then how do we explain Donald Trump? How can a political leader so wildly uninhibited and so completely impervious to the normal laws of politics even exist? This is the great mystery that millions of words already written and still being written about the man have yet to explain. Among the commentariat, there is a near universal faith that Trump’s poll numbers will eventually fall: that he cannot and will not win the Republican Party’s nomination for president, much less the presidency itself. Perhaps they are right. But even if they are, this belief amounts to a conceit that laws of political gravity will sooner or later reassert themselves. It does not explain why they have been suspended until now, even if only temporarily.
Whether you think of him as a politician, a businessman, a celebrity or all three, Trump is offering his supporters something that none of his rivals can match. To see what this is requires that we start by looking at his most enthusiastic followers, who belong to a distinct subset of the national electorate and the Republican base. Their demands and tastes have fueled Trump’s rise within the GOP – from dilettante donor to billionaire birther to the current frontrunner for the party’s nomination – and their support is keeping him aloft.
So who are they? The available polling suggests Trump’s strongest supporters are predominately white Republican men, middle-aged or older, with low educational attainment and either working class or lower middle class backgrounds. Some polls have suggested they are less religious than the typical Republican voter, somewhat more likely to live in the Northeast or the Midwest and may be Tea Party supporters or sympathizers. Despite what we don’t know, we do know that they are attracted to Trump because of his willingness to speak his mind and his sharply anti-immigrant views.
There are two particularly interesting things about this slice of America. The first is that if you ignore their contemporary party preferences and turn back the clock about 60 years, this is the same demographic segment that was at the heart of the New Deal coalition. By the 1980s, voters who fit this profile came to be called the “Reagan Democrats” as they fled the Democratic Party. By the late 1990s, many of them were voting straight ticket Republican. Political strategists and pundits have given them a number of colorful monikers – from “hard working white people” to “NASCAR dads” – and have made a fetish out of winning their votes, even in elections when they probably weren’t up for grabs. The truth is that these voters, especially the ones living in rural and ex-urban areas, have been a key constituency in the Republican Party’s base at least since President George W. Bush took office.
Most of these voters are old enough to remember a time when white working men – and their organized proxies in Washington – sat at the pinnacle of American life. Many of them still long for that long-gone age when being a white man meant you were on top of the world. And while these voters are nowhere near the bottom of America’s contemporary social hierarchy, they don’t see it that way. The entire trajectory of their lives has been the experience of relative decline in power, wealth and social status in relation to other groups – as women, people of color, gays and lesbians and other groups have won greater social acceptance and rights to which they were entitled but previously denied. At the same time, a similar shift has been underway on the global stage, as nations around the world – from China to Japan to Mexico – have become our competitors in the global economy. Add to that several decades of wage stagnation, exploding inequality and the disappearance of good paying jobs, and it’s clear that the white working class has experienced the past half-century as a steady and uninterrupted loss. It’s easy to see why they feel like losers.
So when Trump says, “We don’t win anymore,” as he did twice during the first GOP presidential debate, he’s complaining that white men no longer call all the shots. He’s playing to the racist, misogynist and xenophobic resentments harbored by these downscale voters. His confrontational, shameless, never-back-down posturing is more than just a quality these voters want in a leader – it’s a live demonstration of what it’s like to live in a world where you never have to apologize for anything, no matter how much it hurts or offends other people and other groups. Trump is what it looks like to win.
This brings us to the second interesting thing about Trump’s staunchest supporters: They are basically the same slice of the country that many of Trump’s consumer brands target. From his clothing lines to his televised spectacles, from his restaurants and hotels to his bestselling books: Trump markets to a set of downscale, white and predominately male set of consumers who are attracted to opulent displays of power, wealth and status, as well as Trump’s pithy, plainspoken and hierarchical worldview, which makes success look like a matter of ambition plus determination.
Whatever he may be like in private, Trump’s brash and brassy public persona is interwoven with his consumer brands – and this is fundamental to his marketing strategy. As with all celebrity-branded products and services, when you buy a Trump fragrance or tickets to a Trump-sponsored beauty pageant, you’re buying a little piece of the man himself. You’re buying into the fantasy that a small morsel of his awesomeness will somehow rub off on you.
Before Trump ever set foot in a Republican primary, millions of Americans were already buying into his brand week after week after week. “The working guy would elect me. He likes me,” Trump told Playboy in March of 1990. That’s because Trump has spent the last several decades learning what makes these consumers tick, reacting to and cultivating their tastes, and fashioning a public persona that consistently captures their eyeballs and opens their wallets. In some ways, Trump may know his audience better than they know themselves.
Trump sells this audience a fantasy they find absolutely irresistible: that if you want wealth, power, fame and status, it’s yours for the taking. It’s a fantasy that promises total and instant gratification, without compromise or restraint. Trump’s innovation – the secret to his success – is that he has turned this fantasy into his own personal brand. What Hugh Hefner is to sex, what Santa Claus is to toys and what the Fairy Godmother is to Cinderella, Donald Trump is to American capitalism, at least to the version of it that downscale whites picture when they close their eyes and imagine what it’s like to be rich. To the slice of the country that finds him appealing, Trump is the epitome of everything that it means to be on top. Put simply, Trump is a wish fulfillment fantasy.
Here’s how Trump put it in The Art of the Deal: “I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular.” Trump didn't invent this sales pitch, though he has long traded in it. In fact, it is deeply interwoven into America’s corporate consumer capitalist culture – which depends upon whetting consumer appetite with spectacular and unrealistic desires for its survival. Let’s call this phenomenon the American Fantasy. In its most succinct and general formulation, it’s the fantasy that you're one lucky break away from having it all.
That lucky break and its rewards are packaged by our corporate capitalist system in a staggering variety of ways, always tailored to the tastes and demands of the target market. The lucky break could entail being discovered by a celebrity, a chance encounter that will change your life, a trip to an exotic location, a blind date, a new house, a new car or your dream job. As to the rewards, they might be love or happiness, fame or fortune, beauty or youth, admiration or acclaim, success or victory. Sometimes the lucky break itself is the reward. The possibilities really are endless.
Yet the antecedent to the lucky break – and its ensuing rewards – remains constant: You have to buy something. Even if you don’t have to spend money, you have to make some kind of consumer choice – or express some form of preference – from which someone, somewhere down the line will profit. Almost every waking moment, the sales, marketing and advertising industries are dangling before our eyes promises of ultimate fulfillment and instant gratification to tempt us into making purchases. These fantasies are the grease that keeps the wheels of the consumer culture turning.
It’s helpful to contrast the American Fantasy – that you’re one lucky break away from having it all – with the American Dream. Where the former entices with visions of unlimited delights, the latter offers a far more modest arrangement. In its most succinct formulation, the American Dream stipulates that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can join the middle class, have the opportunity to get ahead and leave your children better off than you were.
The problem is that the social contract and the economic conditions that once supported the American Dream are now broken. White working people are as attuned to this reality and its consequences as anyone. In America today, there is no guarantee you’ll be able to put food on the table. The middle class is rapidly disappearing, and intergenerational standards of living are in steep and accelerating decline.
With the social contract fundamentally broken, the American Fantasy looks a lot more appealing, especially to the white working class men who were once the chief beneficiaries of the New Deal and the American Dream. In a culture that runs on instant gratification, they don't feel like taking the civic risks and doing the long, hard work that would be necessary to make the American Dream viable again – not while they’re struggling to make ends meet and especially not when it means sharing the dream with blacks, Hispanics and other groups they see as undeserving usurpers to that dream.
To whites living in Middle America, this land is their land. And politicians who can’t quite bring themselves to say so are just proving how little they get it. But Trump gets it. He knows what they want to hear. He knows exactly what Middle America would like to say and do to the immigrants and foreigners who’ve caused all their problems – but aren’t allowed to because of “political correctness.” Trump always tells it like it is, even when doing so breaks the rules. And that’s a big part of his appeal.
When Trump’s followers look at him, they see everything they want but can’t have. Trump is not only channeling the intensely felt desires of his followers; he’s also channeling the impotent rage that results from never getting what they want – whether those desires have been seeded by the consumer culture or by the conservative movement. From outlawing abortion to deporting every illegal immigrant, from intimidating America’s enemies with our military might to tax cuts that pay for themselves, the political agendas advanced by Fox News, talk radio and the vast network of billionaire-funded right wing advocacy groups are no less fanciful than the promises of fame, fortune, sex and status that the consumer culture propagates 24/7.
When desires are repeatedly aroused but never satisfied, they have a way of growing exponentially. Stimulation without satiation also provokes feelings of frustration, betrayal and powerlessness as well as resentment, hostility and mania. Whether or not they understand what they’ve done, both the conservative movement and the wider consumer culture have dug a bottomless well of rage and desire by convincing Americans that they’re one lucky break away from having it all – and never giving away the goods. Tens of millions of Americans believe the impossible fantasies are within reach, see Trump’s success as incontrovertible proof of their reality, and feel vindicated and validated by his transgressive bluster. Trump embodies the desire, the rage and, most of all, the wish fulfillment simultaneously. In the eyes of his followers, Trump literally has it all, and they want it too.
Once you understand that, it’s easy to see why so many of the far right’s leading political and media figures fall short and why Trump is likely to prevail in any conflicts with them. Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin, Tom Coburn, Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh and their ilk can sell fear, resentment, xenophobia and defiance; but when it comes to delivering on their promises, the best they can do is shout louder, fight harder and swear to remain purer than other conservative stalwarts. Impotent rage is all they have to offer, but that’s no longer enough. The Republican base is hungry for a leader who can deliver the governing equivalent of winning the lottery, deportations and all. That isn’t something any of the GOP’s clown car of candidates can credibly offer – no matter how impressive their records, how formidable their super PACs or how pure their conservative bonafides may be. As many voters on the right see it, the Republican Party’s politicians have broken far too many promises and betrayed the base far too many times to be believed – even more so when the GOP has won big at the ballot box in recent years.
Trump and his supporters have suggested that his extraordinary wealth makes him incorruptible, and therefore unlikely to betray the base once in office. That’s an appealing quality in a political system where money is equated with speech and money does most of the talking. But Trump’s own words and behavior tell a more nuanced and troubling story. After all, being incorruptible isn’t the same thing as being squeaky clean.
Trump’s message so far has been that politics is a wildly corrupt game, which he has mastered over many years by playing politicians on both sides of the aisle for his own personal benefit. In any other candidate, an admission like that would be self-incriminating and self-destructing. Thanks in part to Trump’s outsider status, it comes off as a refreshing bit of candor. Yet he isn’t promising to get money out of politics or to clean up the government, as U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) is now doing; nor is he pledging to hold himself and his administration to the highest ethical standards, as President Barack Obama did in 2008 as a candidate. Trump is merely using political corruption as a wedge to embarrass his opponents. At no point has he foreclosed on the possibility that he might use that corrupt system to his advantage – and even revel in it – as he has proudly admitted to doing in his personal affairs.
If America were to live through a Trump administration, it is likely he would behave much as he has behaved on the campaign trail: respecting the norms of political behavior when they benefit him and tossing them aside when they do not. Examples of the latter include attacking U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for being captured in Vietnam, giving out U.S. Sen. Lindsay Graham’s (R-S.C.) personal cell phone number, bringing a helicopter to the Iowa state fair and refusing to rule out a bid for the presidency as a third party candidate. Trump’s independence from other players in the political process and freedom from the purse strings of the corporate donor class would allow him to flout many of the rules and norms of the presidency and exploit the corruptions of the political process for his own benefit. It’s an imperfect analogy, but he would probably behave the way a mob boss runs the mafia.
That might seem like a godsend to his supporters who are fed up with an unresponsive political system. In reality though, it’s the perfect recipe for an authoritarian strongman – a part that Trump appears eager to play. What makes Trump so dangerous is his masterful exploitation of the weaknesses of his opponents and the vulnerabilities in the political process. He has an uncanny ability to recognize when he holds all the cards and knows exactly how and when to play them. In his own words: “I like leverage.”
That remark is the perfect illustration of one of Trump’s signature traits: he has a tendency to explain the transactional and power dynamics behind his business and political decisions. When it comes to the expectations, implications and insinuations that are usually left unstated, Trump routinely states them out loud as a matter of pride. Below are some additional examples:
- “When you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do.”
- “I’ve used the laws of the country to my advantage.”
- “My brand became more famous as I became more famous, and more opportunities presented themselves.”
- “Because I’ve been successful, make money, get headlines, and have authored bestselling books, I have a better chance to make my ideas public than do people who are less well known.”
- “That’s why the banks love me. They love my reputation.”
- “If you don’t win, you can’t get away with it.”
If Trump’s self-aggrandizing swagger seems crass or profane, that’s only because the rest of us have rendered implicit what Trump makes explicit: that America runs on a toxic brew of greed, vanity and manipulation. Trump appears genuinely proud of his mastery of the game – whether that game is business, celebrity or politics. And as he revels in the underlying logic behind his success, he exposes the dark and ugly underbelly of our corporate consumer capitalist culture – a culture that has metaphorically and literally conquered our political and governing systems. Trump is proof that if you have enough money, power, fame and a large enough following, the only real limit to what you can get away with is your own sense of shame. If you have no shame, then there are no limits.
In the language of Jungian psychology, Trump is an eruption from our collective shadow. He is the personification of the dark side of our culture, economy and politics. Just by being himself, he forces a reckoning with a manifold of ugly truths about our country that many Americans have long denied. But eruptions from the collective shadow – especially when they occur in the political domain – are inherently unpredictable and extremely dangerous. When embodied in single person, they are nearly always the symptom of a collective psychosis rather than its root cause. In other words, a mindless consumer culture that fails a substantial subset of its population is fertile ground for the kind of demagogue who specializes in desire, rage and fantasies of wish fulfillment. So it should come as no surprise to see a worshipful cult of personality coalescing around Trump that is as unaffected by the normal laws of politics and indifferent to empirical reality as he is.
Even at their most lucid and reflective, Republican Party politicians and the right’s leading activists, thinkers and media figures are only barely tethered to the empirical world. Thanks to decades of reactionary propaganda and a right wing media and policy ecosystem that has walled itself off from outside criticism, most conservatives now live in a parallel reality with their own private set of facts and universal truths, updated daily to enrage liberals. Conservatives may share our streets, sidewalks and buildings, but the meanings attached to these objects – and what to do about them – have been twisted beyond recognition in a way that systematically caters to the psychological needs and political fantasies of right wing audiences. Trump’s followers, along with a large part of the right, have taken up permanent residence in a fantasyland, a place where Trump is at the height of his powers.
The Republican presidential nominating contest may have been a reality-based exercise once upon a time and could become one yet again. At the present moment, however, it is not a reality-based exercise – not while wish fulfillment fantasies are the largest factor motivating the party’s key constituencies. It should be clear by now that Republicans are not engaged in the normal consensus-defining and coalition-building activities necessary to nominate and then elect a president – a process to which the normal rules of politics would apply. Nor do Republican voters appear to be rallying behind a rebel leader, though in some ways it might preferable if they were. After all, rebels can be defeated at the ballot box or on the battlefield.
With Trump, it’s more like the Republican base is summoning a powerful demon to torment and banish their enemies, humiliate and dethrone their rivals and satiate their deepest desires. The problem with summoning a demon from the dark side to grant impossible wishes is the same as it’s ever been. Genies are impervious to attacks by mere mortals, and they predictably refuse to go back in the bottle.