I’ve always distrusted people who never question their assumptions or test their opinions against their critics’ arguments. I believe empathy is the starting point of wisdom, and imagining things from an opponent’s point of view is essential to solving problems in a closely divided polity.
Yet on the subject of Donald Trump, my mind is closed. Slammed shut. Triple-bolted. Sealed like a tomb.
Nothing anyone could reveal about Trump could get me to change my opinion that he’s an asshole. And not a “yeah, but he’s our asshole” kind but rather a cartoon villain, a fake, a cheat, a liar, a creep, a bullying, bragging, bullshitting, blowhard kind of asshole.
There have been lots of candidates in the past I’ve disagreed with, even loathed. There’s only one I’ve wanted to punch in the face as he’s doing one of his pursed-lips, chin-tilting Il Duce impersonations.
I grew up in Iowa, where people are widely admired for their courtesy, generosity, and modesty, for their un-Trumpness. Iowa was the first state to offer a new home and resettlement assistance to Vietnamese boat people. It’s also welcomed refugees from other war-torn and oppressed countries. Until the terrorist attacks in Paris, eight hundred more were expected to arrive in Iowa this year. Most Iowans of my acquaintance are just good people.
Yet for months a xenophobic bigot has been leading most polls there and nationally, with his acolyte, Ted Cruz, in hot pursuit. I don’t believe them. I think they inflate his support. I can’t imagine how Trump could appeal to more than a disaffected few who are resentful, misinformed, and misled but unlikely to go to the trouble of participating in a caucus. Mostly, I don’t want to believe the polls. I don’t want to believe Iowans or any decent person would choose Trump for president.
If you regard honesty and humility as virtues, which I think most Iowans do, his ridiculous boasts demand derision. He’s the business genius who brags about screwing his investors and who has declared bankruptcy as often as some people overdraw their checking account. He sports the world’s silliest comb-over and makes fun of other people’s looks. He’s the tough guy who never served in the military, never risked his life or his interests for anyone other than himself, and disparaged the service of a decorated veteran.
He promises to make America great again and rejects the ideals and decency that made us great in the first place. Trump isn’t a fascist. He just says stupid, offensive things, seems unaware we have a Bill of Rights, and surrounds himself with aides who appear to have graduated first in their class at the Baghdad Bob School of Awesome Ass Kissing. Fascism is an ideology. Self-aggrandizement isn’t.
But he does preach resentment of and hostility toward others—the mythical dancing Muslims of Jersey City, the Mexican day laborers pillaging our culture and raping our women. He incites people to consider fellow citizens and aspiring citizens outside the protection of our Constitution and the norms of a just society.
He isn’t a terrorist, either, but his crude populism, with its scapegoats and simple answers and appeals to the worst in people, intent on offending every Muslim on earth, makes him an ally of terrorists.
My daughter thinks I’m paying Trump a compliment by taking him seriously. To her cohort, raised in the age of reality TV and the Internet’s infinite store of human folly, Trump is just a joke gone viral without being very funny. It happens. There’s always a market for crudeness and bad taste.
But Trump is bringing out the worst in me, too.
In my contempt, I’m channeling Trump, slinging insults and scorn not at him alone but also at the people who support him, who applaud his pretensions, cheer his slurs, and nod in agreement with his asinine ideas. I’ve belittled their intelligence and character. I’ve stopped trying to understand their point of view. I’m treating them as the other, undeserving of my respect.
Some Trump fans are likely as boorish as their candidate. But what explains the people who support a man for president they wouldn’t want as a friend or neighbor or coworker? Among them are people I know—some I’ve known for many years. They are salt-of-the-earth people, good people.
I sat next to a woman at a basketball game the other day. We go to the same church and our kids attended the same schools. She’s a thoughtful, courteous, nice person. She told me she was supporting Trump. I was dumbfounded and asked her why. She gave me a version of the answer I’ve heard from other Trump supporters: The country is in such bad shape that we need someone like Trump, someone who will really shake things up.
That’s a sentiment I thought was a tendency in Latin American politics, not here—the preference in troubled times for a caudillo, a strongman to break rules, to rule the people when everyone is too scared or weak or corrupt to govern themselves.
Are we in such dire straits that we must dispense with civility, kindness, tolerance, and normal decency to put a mean-spirited, lying jerk in the White House? Are we not still the strongest, wealthiest, freest society on earth, with more opportunities for more people than anywhere else? We fought the last presidential election mostly over a 4 percent difference in the top marginal tax rate—not exactly an ideological battle for the ages. Four years on, is the notion that the country is hopeless so widespread that people are willing to throw in the towel by nominating for president someone who admires Vladimir Putin?
I don’t get it, and I’ve stopped trying. That’s on me and I’m sorry. I know how I appear to a lot of Trump supporters. I live in Washington. I used to work in the government. I’m not worried about losing my job. I’m not looking for answers or for someone else to hold accountable for my circumstances. But neither is my friend from the basketball game or other Trump supporters I know personally. The only explanation I can come up with is that they’ve given up on the country for no good reason. I know that’s a failure of discernment and empathy on my part.
Of course, were Trump to succumb to a rare bout of honesty, he would confess he thinks we’re all just suckers.
I hope we’re both proved wrong. I really do. Because right now that asshole is making us all look bad.
Mark Salter is a former longtime aide to Senator John McCain and a veteran of two presidential campaigns.