Trump! Trump! Trump! That’s practically the only story that is being discussed by the news analysts in the United States these days. And it’s practically the only story that is being discussed by my friends in Chicago. Everybody is in disbelief. How did this happen? This man who comes across as a narcissistic, vulgar, offensive, racist, sexist shapeshifter, a man who shocks his audiences by constantly putting on new faces for them and constantly modifying and contradicting things he had previously said.
News analysts are explaining the Trump election surprise by suggesting that the fundamental problem was that the established Democratic and Republican power structures had simply not taken into sufficient consideration the anger of white working class men, who saw their jobs going overseas as a result of the multinational trade agreements or else being taken over by machines and robots and who felt that the principal beneficiaries of these economic changes were the very wealthy. I share this analysis as far as it goes. Trump has focused on the issue of economic policy, although he has not come up with any specific solutions.
But I feel very strongly that the content of Trump’s message was not the only level on which he seduced people to take up his cause. As people who have regularly read my column know, I am very interested in the way people experience life situations. And the way his supporters experience Trump tells us a lot not only about Trump himself, but also about his supporters.
To some of us, the fact that Trump was constantly switching his positions on many different issues and that he was constantly finding novel outrageous ways to attack his opponents and other people was a really indicative sign of his lack of emotional stability. Was this the kind of person one would want to have as the person who could determine whether or not the U.S. would use a nuclear bomb? But what us skeptics did not understand was that what we found to be concerning, a lot of other people found to be delightful. This second group of people liked Trump’s vulgar, offensive, outrageous comments, his threats to put Hillary in jail and to carry out law suits against different imagined enemies. This second group loved all the media coverage that Trump got for nothing. They loved the fact that he was always throwing us skeptics off balance and making us angry with his comments. They loved the fact that he was always adding so much tension, so much friction to normally orderly campaign events. To his supporters, Trump gave vulgarity, offensiveness and outrageousness a good name.
And, of course, the news media ate up Trump’s behavior. Every time Trump changed his position on something or attacked somebody verbally, it became a newsworthy event. Trump didn’t have to spend a whole lot of money on campaign advertising, because his outrageous behavior drew so much media coverage. The media paid attention to him the way an audience would have paid attention to a clown, a magician, or a mud wrestler. He was simply mesmerizing.
But it is one thing to pay a lot of attention to someone, and it is another thing to vote for him. To vote for him is to say you want to see his continued presence in your life. It is to say that you don’t want the stage act to end for a while. The truth is that many people in the United States, including the people in the news media, got kicks out of his constantly shifting positions on most things as well as his outrageous attitudes and behavior. Trump jolted them out of the experiential vacuum in which they live, all the mediated experience in which they were living. These people spend a lot of time being numb spectators of consumer technological processes on their televisions, computers, and smartphones. And all those workers who had been displaced by technology and the movement of factory work overseas had another layer of numbing vacuum in which to live: all the unemployment, all the partially employing jobs and all the underemploying jobs. For numb people like this, what could be more exciting than a presidential candidate who was constantly in people’s faces, a person who acted assertively on his impulses. To experience Trump is not the same as getting the organic stimulation from a more traditional natural living environment. Such an environment would give a more sustained source of stimulation that would pull them more completely and more permanently out from their numbness. But lacking this sustained organic stimulation, people in modern technological society look for quick fixes: alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex and risk-taking in general.
And Trump falls into this category. He has become a high-risk addiction for many Americans. And the more changeable he is, the more outrageous he is, the more intense is the kick that he gives. The more he pulls Americans out of their numbness and their jadedness. The more abrasive and unpredictable he is, the more these people feel the shock, the kick.
Since winning the election, Trump has been very conciliatory and has pulled back from many of the threats he has made. He is no longer going to try and lock up Hillary. He is going to save parts of Obamacare. And suddenly, Obama is a man who advises him and is a man with whom he wants to continue to confer.
But Trump is a shapeshifter. He is constantly reinventing himself. Right now he wants to pacify all the groups of people he has offended, although as the demonstrators show, he is obviously not succeeding. Nevertheless, the people who voted for him, believe in him, and believe in him no matter what. When asked about his offensive behavior or some of his controversial positions, many people defend him by saying that he will change. He will change all right. He will change and change again and change again, giving whatever presentation of himself is appropriate for a particular situation. Such is the nature of a shapeshifter. And this is what is so worrisome. He can take some very dangerous positions for the purpose of expediency. Like verbally attacking certain groups, so that his followers can have their scapegoats. And he can turn the hatred on and off as is needed. All for the purpose of solidifying his strongman position by being a supposed savior.
And, on one level, he is a “savior”, even if it is just for short periods of time. He is a “savior” by shocking people to life temporarily with his attacks and with his vulgarity, much the way heroin is a “savior” that shocks drug addicts temporarily to life. So on a certain level, Trump is definitely like an addiction for the people who voted for him. He pulls them out of their experiential vacuum, their numb lives, with his abrasive attitudes and behavior. He gives them a stimulation that allows them to feel something strong in their lives.
The problem with Trump’s election is not just related to Trump himself. It relates to a good chunk of the American population that connect with him. And they will continue to be here after Trump’s term or terms in office. If they continue to exert the influence they did in this election, we could have another disruptive person as president after Trump is gone. Wouldn’t that be something to look forward to?
(c) 2016 Laurence Mesirow