The rise of Donald Trump in the polls has prompted a rise in think pieces pondering Trump's success. Why is Trump, who seems too unpleasant to share an elevator with, killing it in the Republican primary polls? His expressive face is blamed. The goofiness of his insults. Some have even suggested it might be that the voters agree with his bigoted opinions.
That’s a big reason, but then again, the rest of the Republican candidates are no less bigoted. So what explains Trump's success?
There’s one reason Trump stands out from the crowd of Republican candidates, even though they largely share his hostile opinions about women, immigrants and social progress generally: He is a loud-mouthed bully. More specifically, he’s the rich, white male bully who revels in his privilege and enjoys stomping on those with less unearned social power than he has. And the Republican base is eating it up.
It seems weird to consider that, in 21st-century America, someone who is an out-and-out bully would be so popular. After all, Donald Trump fits a type: the privileged white male, born to wealth, who clearly thinks the rest of the world is not fit to shine his shoes; that has been the favorite villain of pop culture for decades. Every other beloved comedy of the '80s had a villain at the center who might as well have been modeled on Donald Trump: coiffed blonde hair, a sweater tied casually around his neck, and a love of picking on those who weren’t fortunate enough to be born into his wealth and privilege. Caddyshack,Revenge of the Nerds, Trading Places, and for the '90s and female spin, Mean Girls. Looking at American pop culture, you’d think no one was more hated than a bully, especially one, like Trump, whose overblown sense of self is due entirely to an accident of birth.
Yet here we are, in 2015, with a guy who is straight out of central casting, complete with a private plane and a penchant for trophy wives, and football stadiums are cheering him on. Did Americans learn nothing from our own pop culture?
Obviously, the answer is a bit complicated. After all, the only people who actually like Donald Trump are Republican primary voters, while the rest of us would probably crawl over broken glass to vote against the guy. It’s yet another sign of how much right-wing America, which has its own media and culture, is completely out of step with the rest of America. While the rest of the country has moved toward an anti-bullying mentality — as evidenced by the anti-bully bent of pop culture — right-wing media has been teaching the opposite lesson, that to be a bully is to be manly and powerful.
Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter? Where the rest of us see belligerent, screaming bullies, conservatives see their own fantasies of who they want to be, people who are rich and snooty and who enjoy pissing off the liberals as sport. In many ways, the bully is an aspirational image for many conservatives, most of who will never be as rich or as powerful as the people they emulate. Conservatives love to play the victim, claiming they’re just old-fashioned people who are being put upon by a cultural elite. But the fact that they keep worshipping people who uncannily invoke some '80s teen comedy villain who kicks dirt in our hero’s face tells a very different story.
But conservatives thrilling at their own fantasies of being yuppie bullies only share in some of the blame for Trump’s rise to the top. The fact is that even as the rest of us might dislike rich, entitled bullies, we still thrill in watching them work. Liberals in particular might hate Trump, but they enjoy hissing and booing at him. They can’t look away. This, in turn, reaffirms the conservative sense that supporting Trump pisses off the liberals, which just increases support for him.
Hollywood knows how much we are entertained by bullies, of course. That’s why Donald Trump was the successful host of "The Apprentice" and "Celebrity Apprentice" for so many years. It wasn’t because of his business acumen, so much as his willingness to treat the people, especially women, around him like dirt. A lot of people who didn’t like him at all tuned in to be appalled at his gross behavior, and to boo him like he was the villain in a scripted movie.
If there was any doubt that the point of the show is to watch some sexist bully push people around, that was all removed when it was announced that Arnold Schwarzenegger was replacing Trump on "Celebrity Apprentice." While Schwarzenegger is a businessman, he’s not exactly famous for it, unlike someone such as Mark Cuban.
So it might seem like an odd choice on its surface, but it’s not, because there is one major thing Schwarzenegger and Trump have in common: They are entitled, sexist bullies. It’s worth remembering that Schwarzenegger has been accused by at least 16 women of sexual harassment and assault, including trying to forcibly strip clothes off a woman and many instances of reaching into women’s clothing to grab their bodies.
Schwarzenegger responded by claiming most of it wasn’t true, but did a little ass-covering by saying, “And then other things may be true, and in case it is, that's why I said I want to apologize if I offended anyone, because that was not my intention.”
Just as Trump likes to fling misogynist insults around, Schwarzenegger is a big fan of insulting and verbally abusing women. He suggested he would like to shove Arianna Huffington’s head into a toilet. He told Esquire, “As much as when you see a blonde with great t*** and a great ass, you say to yourself, Hey, she must be stupid or must have nothing else to offer, which maybe is the case many times.” At this point, it’s clear he’s being hired because he, like Donald Trump, can be counted on to sneer at and bully people, especially women. Some in the audience will jeer, some will thrill at it, but we’ll all be entertained.
And that, more than anything else, is what the Trump campaign is about: America’s continuing fascination, and in some cases love of pompous bullies. The only question is whether Trump, like Schwarzenegger before him, will ride that fascination to victory.