Washington’s political establishment remains stunned by Donald Trump’s continued rise. They had thought that Mr. Trump would definitely have self-destructed by now – whether with his remarks about women or immigrants. In defying that expectation, Trump in effect joyrides the entire American establishment.
If Trump does not want to go down as a loser, and that is against his elemental nature, he must be sure that he defines his key opponent. Only amateurs believe that Trump sees the rest of the Republican field – “losers” as he calls many of them – as his opposing number.
To him, the real opponent is Hillary. And, paradoxically, the better he manages to define her — instinctively and almost imperceptibly — without ever really talking about her, the more successful he will be in the end.
In a nutshell: Trump will loom large just as long as Hillary Clinton does. Trump and Clinton are the conjoined twins of American politics – and of the 2016 presidential race.
Trump, as a phenomenon (rather than as a mere presidential candidate), is a direct reflection of a profound nationwide fear among white men. The rise of Trump shows just how elemental the worries about seeing Hillary in the White House are among that set. Hillary Clinton symbolizes just about everything that has “old-school” American men – and there are many of those – afraid.
Here are 10 ways in which he plays to them.
1. The Siegfriedian super-provider
The Donald instinctively appeals to them in their moment of prolonged personal crisis that has deep cultural and economic roots.
With his near-Neanderthal looks, albeit one with hair that is beyond the range of human evolution, Trump provides a perfect shield to protect men against their current existential fears.
Many American men have fears of failing their wives and families as “providers.” Enter Trump, the instinctive, but – despite occasional missteps – at the core amazingly sure-footed psycho-political strategist.
With his constant references to how many people he employs and pays, he casts himself, at least subliminally, as a super-provider.
Talking of archaic forces in play, it is no exaggeration to say that today’s American men feel downright emasculated, especially considering how they were raised with, or socialized to, rigid gender norms and expectations.
2. The anti-Hillary shield
Not only do they have to contend with a world where women are more successful at university level.
Coordinating careers and family lives, American women have also proven vastly superior to men when it comes to multitasking – a pivotal attribute in our ever more complex lives and workplaces.
U.S. women have also managed to shrink the income gap. The “glass ceiling” – a longstanding construct to protect less productive men from better-qualified women – is seriously cracking in the United States.
Among young professionals, women are ever more widely recognized as the real performers. And, according to photo-rich essay features even in such noble places as The New York Times Magazine, in colleges it is now increasingly the women who go on the hunt.
In addition to reversing the old hunter-gatherer model, it is also no longer men who necessarily bring home the larger share of “the bacon.”
As a result, American men – by tradition presumed to be the “strong” ones – now increasingly feel as if they are the weak gender.
It is not an overstatement to say that the constant references to male “strength” may have been human history’s most successful PR campaign.
The fact that they cannot really admit to weakness in a society that still emphasizes male strength so much – just witness the still existing contrast between hunky American football players and cheerleaders – only makes the problem worse for them.
3. The American dreamer
As the contrast between that expectation and men’s self-perception as meek and beat becomes ever more undeniable, Donald Trump enters the stage. Whoever feels the blues that way must be smitten by the performance of Donald, the Primordial.
While Arnold Schwarzenegger’s entire image is rooted in being muscle-packed, Trump’s is that he gets his way with good-looking women, whether on reality TV or in real life (and all of it while doing high-powered business deals).
His admiring audience is sure of one thing: The Donald never backs down when challenged by women, including by the steeliest of them.
The implicit message and his direct appeal is clear: How many other men do you know who are as folksy and down to earth as Trump, while also being spectacularly rich?
To be sure, Trump’s is the vulgar version of the American Dream. But, unlike so many of his admirers, at least he still gets to live it – and in a truly full-throated version.
His may be an admittedly garish version of that dream. Nevertheless, a vast pool of people who no longer harbor any delusions about themselves longs to partake in his dream life.
4. The lancer
In many ways, Trump acts like the rough-hewn courtier of a bygone era. He operates on the basis of some very straightforward principles.
These may be repugnant to some, but prove remarkably effective in an American operating environment: Never apologize. Never back off. Always be on the offensive – and count on the other side retreating.
Based on this stance, despite all his relative ignorance and rudeness, Trump simply oozes confidence. Under his wing, men feel paradoxically protected.
He acts a bit like the medieval knight who, full of unshakable belief in himself, rides straight ahead at the opposing knight, certain that he will knock him off his horse.
Most amazing of all, Trump doesn’t seem to care even to put his visor down as he accelerates on horseback to lance his opposing number.
5. The underdog
At a popular level, Trump manages to capture the emotional elixir of many Hollywood movies devoted to the subject of being elected President of the United States. Kevin Kline’s “Dave” (1993), Chris Rock’s “Head of State” (2003) and Robin Williams’ “Man of the Year” (2006) — all in their own ways — are thus scripts for the Trump campaign.
What these Hollywood dreams all have in common is that they feature a completely unlikely candidate as being on the road to take the White House.
Virtually every of these movies has a moment at which the prospect of getting elected president has become wholly unlikely. Only a truly bizarre turn of events unfolding could still deliver what is otherwise a certain failure of the campaign.
As with Trump, these movies’ particular narrative arc is that the candidate’s ultimate success becomes all the more certain as serious, basically insurmountable obstacles are thrown his or her way.
6. The mirror image
Trump is a true nightmare for the Republican Party. In the past, it excelled in driving forward policies that benefitted the country’s rich, while putting up candidates for President who were not all that rich — and certainly not ostentatious about it.
Trump makes mincemeat of that finely calculated “modesty.” He personifies the exploitation of nearly every business loophole game ever served up by the U.S. Congress. For Democrats, he is the personification of the “greed is good” message which Michael Douglas first made famous, playing Gordon Gekko (what a perfect moniker for Trump) in his 1987 movie “Wall Street.”
Trump embodies exactly what the current Republican Party and their highly elitist and utterly materialist philosophy stand for — however much they refuse to see that. His rhetoric and style are perfect displays of what the Republican Party has wrought with its turns over the past two to three decades.
7. The devil
Trump plays a doubly devilish game — not just regarding the Republican Party, but especially so regarding Hillary Clinton.
Archetypal leitmotifs aid him in that effort. The late 17th century Salem witch trials, which occurred in what was then known as the Province of Massachusetts Bay, are the main reference point of mass hysteria directed at women on the territory of today’s United States.
Recall that Hillary Clinton is regularly perceived among significant swaths of the Republican Party electorate as a “witch” – if not a label even less charitable – and is constantly made the scapegoat for all of America’s problems (e.g., Benghazi), at least as far as they cannot be laid at the feet of its first Black president.
Inserting crass and admittedly archaic approaches into political races is part of the American political tradition, even though they have so far primarily taken the shape of race-baiting and religion-baiting – not gender-baiting.
The rules of the campaign game in this regard are simple: You can do it, if you can get away with it. That, in turn, requires one not to leave any fingerprints during the act of transgression, so that one cannot be judged as being out of line.
This goes beyond attacks on Hillary. As if to salvage himself from charges of gender baiting, Trump is also acting as a “devil” vis-à-vis other Republicans as he plays games with them on women’s issues.
The party has subliminally used its anti-abortion stance as a “wedge” issue, to create a sharp contrast to Democrats. More fundamentally, it has used this issue as its very own way to hold women in check to this very day.
Enter Trump. He upsets the Republican apple cart with a simple two-step maneuver: First he deliberately highlights his rivals’ anti-women policies and he then creates a strong contrast to his own positions – by vowing to stand up for “the whole issue of women’s health.”
This move is designed to go right at the party establishment’s current standard-bearer Jeb Bush.
During the recent flap about Planned Parenthood, the third Bush who finds himself in the race for the White House has argued in favor of excising any funds for the organization from the federal budget.
Hard though it may be to believe, on women’s issues – of all possible issues! — Trump is really a master class in effective political communications.
While bedeviling the Republican Party, he manages at the same time at least to neutralize some of those charges from the liberal camp about him being a misogynist.
Achieving all this while knowing that his own political appeal very much rests on capitalizing on nourishing deep-seated fears among men about being dominated by women begs disbelief – if it weren’t so real.
Consider what may well happen next: If and when Trump gets to the main event, being selected as the Republican candidate presumably against Hillary Clinton as an opponent, he can then perform another masterstroke.
In the general election campaign, he could argue to Democratic voters that he, Trump – with his views on women’s issues – has done more to alter traditional Republican Party position than anybody else.
Trump’s goal is self-evident. He wants to further confuse the party faithful and toss up the race.
8. The killer executive
Ever the one to up the ante, Trump has already cleverly staged his self-inoculation against further charges of misogynistic tendencies.
Talking about women in business in particular, he has stated that “They are amazing executives. They are killers.”
Ever the dialectician(!), what is ostensibly intended as a compliment to women also creates further fear in men. In his own imagery and experience, Trump isn’t just referring to them as competent executives, but – via the killer analogy – as veritable business Amazons.
While using that phrase as an anti-misogyny shield for himself (toward women and liberals) among his core constituency of meek men, that killer image also conjures up the mortal fear of Hillary, the Democratic Party woman who is marching ever closer toward being the country’s top executive.
To all those living in fear of that, the subliminal message is clear enough: Who else but Trump, the “killer” executive, can stop her?
9. The gambler
We don’t know whether Trump has read his Dostoyevsky. Most likely, he hasn’t. And yet, he surely acts like a character out of the 19th century Russian novelist’s dark work.
Call it genius, dumb luck, unbelievable or whatever, but where it’s game over for everybody else, Trump always manages to find a new trap door — for himself as much as for other people’s emotions.
What is truly unbelievable, as shown above, is how he is often able, in one fell swoop, to find an answer for the very different calculations and emotions of both sides of the political equation.
Trump’s campaign manager may be none other than a famous imaginary character — Alexei Ivanovich, the central character in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1867 novel, The Gambler.
Like a figure right out of Dostoyevsky, Trump himself – through often bizarre turns – plumbs ever greater depths of the American national character.
To the frustration of both Republican and Democratic Party political operatives, at least so far he has managed to get away with his big gambles.
10. The greatest reality TV producer
The missing link in transporting Dostoyevsky right into the America of today is “reality” TV. It thrives upon keeping audiences hooked on wanting to know – from one commercial break to the next, week to week and year after year — what new, crazy low its main characters will reach.
The success or failure of each of those shows is directly related to the ability of the producers of those shows to select the right characters.
Ideally, they have a totemic appeal (like Trump), which allows the show to reach – and stay connected to – the largest possible audience.
Trump is a master of that art from his shows on NBC. His biggest campaign weapon thus is the subconscious connection that is embedded in so many Americans’ psyche today.
For the viewers, these shows are a pressure valve. For Trump, it is the ultimate thing money cannot buy – a tool to entertain himself, while casting a true spell over the entire nation.