Listening to Trump

What did millions of voters see in Trump? His speeches hold the answer.

Donald Trump in Reno, Nevada on January 10, 2016. Darron Birgenheier

Leaning into the mic, face flushed, speaking with unhurried and angry deliberation, Donald Trump told a cheering New Hampshire audience: “We’re gonna bring businesses back. We’re gonna have businesses that used to be in New Hampshire, that are now in Mexico, come back to New Hampshire. And,” pausing for applause, “you can tell them, to go fuck themselves! Because, they let you down, and they left!”

The crowd roared its approval.

It has become apparent that very few coastal lefties, progressives, or liberals actually watched any full-length Trump speeches. I have a different problem: I may have watched too many. During early spring I went down a multi-week-long, late-night, Trump YouTube rabbit hole. I found myself watching hours of raw video feed of Trump campaign speeches. Insomnia got me there but I stayed for the mesmerizing dada quality of the Trump show, and for the mind-bending experience of watching a reality TV freak articulate surprisingly subversive political truths about the economy and America’s role in the world.

Contrary to how he was portrayed in the mainstream media Trump did not talk only of walls, immigration bans, and deportations. In fact he usually didn’t spend much time on those themes. Don’t get me wrong, Trump is a racist, misogynist, and confessed sexual predator who has legitimized dangerous street-level hate. Most of all, Trump is a fraud. And his administration will almost certainly be a terrible new low in the evolution of American authoritarianism.

But the heart of his message was something different, an ersatz economic populism, which has been noted far and wide, but also a strong, usually overlooked, antiwar message. Both spoke to legitimate working-class concerns.

Furthermore, his message was delivered with passion and a strange warmth. Dare I say it? Donald Trump has charisma. It is a mix of almost comic self-confidence, emotional intelligence, a common touch, but also at times slight vulnerability. Let’s face it, even the aura of sex around Trump — sleazy and predatory, sometimes sophomoric, as in the “small hands” jokes — was at least part of a libidinal aura.

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, constrained by sexist double standards and lawyerly calculation, too often came across as bloodless. At her best moments, like facing down the vainglorious Trey Gowdy, she exuded impressive competence, brains, and steely self-control. She bested Trump in the debates. But more often, Clinton came across like a scripted and dissembling Human Resources manager.

At almost every turn the liberal pundits misunderstood, or did not hear, what Trump was saying. After his win in the Nevada caucus Trump said: “We won with highly educated, we won with poorly educated. I love the poorly educated! We’re the smartest people, we’re the most loyal people.” Liberals lampooned him, assuming that he had insulted part of his base.

A different interpretation translates those comments as: “Trump understands that it’s not all my fault that I couldn’t get an education. He understands that even people who don’t have advanced degrees can make good decisions and are worthy of respect.”

One of the few coastal elites to have cracked the Trump discursive code is the otherwise odious Peter Thiel, who told the National Press Club, “the media is always taking Trump literally. It never takes him seriously, but it always takes him literally.” Voters on the other hand, said Thiel, “take Trump seriously but not literally.” Bingo!

Or to translate this into the academese of Roland Barthes, perhaps Trump’s discourse was more “writerly” (scriptable) than its simple sounds suggested; that is his meanings, because of the form of their delivery, were open to multiple understandings and re-assembly by the listener. Even his endlessly invoked wall, in reality a proposal for more militarized policing, could sound like a public works scheme, an infrastructure-based jobs program.

The writerly nature of Trump’s rhetoric was apparent in his contradictions. He infamously kicked off his campaign with his racist “they’re sending rapists” comments. But later asserted that he had “a tremendous relationship with the Mexican people.” And said, “I love Mexican people.” “They’re great workers. They’re fantastic people and they want legal immigration.”

Again, the smart set smirked at Trump’s inconsistency. But in the logic of the Chaos Candidate’s discourse each statement was a floating signifier that audiences could use as they wished.

In Trump’s discourse A does not necessarily connect to B. If you don’t like A, just focus on B. The structure of Trump’s discourse will never demand that all the pieces be connected. That, in part, is what he meant with the Orwellian phrase “truthful hyperbole.” He has even described his own statements as mere “opening bids” in a negotiation.

Clearly, some people of color took Trump’s invitation not to connect the dots and focused more on Trump’s disavowal of racism than on his racist utterances. If in fact 29 percent of Latinos did vote for Trump (this shocking statistic is disputed) having sunk into the variety-show style discourse of his stump speeches, I can imagine how some people could convince themselves to overlook Trump’s racism and just embrace his ersatz populism.

Hillary never insulted Mexicans or threatened to deport them. Yet she never seemed to declare her “love” for them either.

A typical Trump speech would tee-up with reference to “the wall” but then quickly pivot to economic questions: trade, jobs, descriptions of economic suffering, critiques of deindustrialization. His speeches were rambling, freewheeling, peppered with non-sequiturs and shout-outs to local businessmen, effusive thanks to key local supporters and to the crowd as a whole. “Beautiful. So, so nice. So nice. So, they say we set a record tonight.”

Often Trump’s sentences were just distinct phrases strung together. The lack of structure, far from boring, gave his stump talks an almost hypnotic quality. The listener could relax and just let it flow. In this regard Trump seems to a have stepped from the pages of Neil Postman’s old book Amusing Ourselves To Death, in that he personified the cut-up dada style assault on coherent thought that is the essence of television.

Choppy as they were, Trump’s speeches nonetheless had a clear thesis: Regular people have been getting screwed for far too long and he was going to stop it.

“When I see the crumbling roads and bridges, or the dilapidated airports, or the factories moving overseas to Mexico, or to other countries, I know these problems can all be fixed, but not by Hillary Clinton — only by me. The fact is, we can come back bigger and better and stronger than ever before — Jobs, jobs, jobs!” And amid the wacky bricolage he would suddenly sound like Bernie Sanders: “I would never support what has to be the craziest idea in the history of US politics: allowing the government to invest Social Security retirement funds in the stock market.”

Then he might read a few poll results, mock an opponent, and move on, perhaps to praising veterans. “So backstage, I met some of the vets, the greatest people we have in this country.” From there he would slide into antiwar, anti-NATO, maybe even anti-imperialist riffs, delivered not in a “woke” fashion, but rather in the “let them fight their own wars” vein of American isolationism.

“She made a terrible mistake on Libya. And not only did she make the mistake, but then they complicated the mistake by having no management once they bombed the you-know-what out of Gadhafi.” He told his audiences what many of them already knew but never saw discussed on TV, that US foreign policy has delivered apocalyptic outcomes: “We would be so much better off if Gadhafi were in charge right now. If these politicians went to the beach and didn’t do a thing, and we had Saddam Hussein and if we had Gadhafi in charge, instead of having terrorism all over the place, at least they killed terrorists, all right?”

Meanwhile, Hillary ramped up her anti-Russia and anti-Assad rhetoric, giving voters the impression she would deliver yet more war. Trump also linked war to economic suffering in America. Consider this, from a New Hampshire speech:

We spent $2 trillion in Iraq. China is taking a lot of the oil, just so you understand. ISIS may have it and Iran may have it, but China is taking out a lot of the oil. Can you imagine? We spent — we never do anything right with China. We spent $2 trillion. Thousands of lives of great people, mostly young, beautiful people, wounded warriors, who I love, all over the place, all over the place, not treated properly by the way.

And then:

Iran and Iraq, they were the same. They were twins. They have wars for years — wars, boom. One goes this way, one goes that way. One — and I said if you take out one, the other one is going to take over. Well, we took out one and look at the mess we have. We destabilized the Middle East and it is a mess . . . I mean I’m not a fan of Saddam Hussein, but he ran the place. And, he had no weapons of mass destruction. And now instead of Saddam Hussein, we have far more brutal. We have ISIS . . . What do we get out of this? What do we get?

Much to my surprise, the young Yemeni American shopkeeper at my local convenience store in Brooklyn supported Trump. Why? Because, instead of hearing in Trump’s rhetoric a threat to round up Muslims, he heard a promise to stop supplying Saudi Arabia with bombs to drop on Yemen. “Over a thousand school kids killed by those bombs! Just little kids!”

Mainstream media typically treats American imperialism as sacrosanct, beyond criticism, and so Trump’s antiwar message was mostly just ignored. But in much of the heartland — where the people who actually fight America’s wars come from, and go back to with their PTSD, missing limbs, addictions, and related financial burdens — there is deep if quiet concern about the broadly defined costs and apparent failure of our belligerent foreign policy. Even the average “low information voter” — while perhaps confused about the details — knows that the country is at war, that this is expensive, kills people, and doesn’t seem to lead to peace.

On election eve a friend in Alabama, a combat-disabled Iraq veteran turned contractor, sent me the following text:

I’ll tell you man, this is how we won. Some percent of minorities, LGBT, women and Muslims crossed over . . . People are sick of the corruption and trump is going to be very socially liberal, minus abortion. And his spending priorities are totally anti-conservative, minus military. Honestly man, I’m praying that he doesn’t let the system change him. It’s gonna be a lot harder than he thinks. Fuck Koch brothers. And Fuck Paul Ryan too.

Turns out my Trump-supporting friend was to some extent correct. Despite Trump’s infamous bigotry he outperformed both Romney and McCain among African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos.

These were Hillary’s firewalls and they all cracked, at least enough for a few sparks to get through. Half a million black women who voted for Obama in 2012 stayed home in 2016. 13 percent of black men voted for Trump. And where Obama got 60 percent of voters making under $50,000 in 2012, Hillary was closer to 50 percent. That’s not a crack; it’s a gaping hole.

The Democratic Party establishment, now spinning desperately to cover their own strategic incompetence, is blaming the white working class as “deplorable” racists. Progressives and leftists who echo this line are making the worst mistake possible.

If Trump’s victory were merely the result of racism how could it be that many white blue-collar, rust-belt areas voted for Obama by wide margins in 2008 and 2012 but then voted Trump? Obama received 1.5 million more votes from white men than did Hillary.

If Trump’s victory were just sexism how could it be that 42 percent of women with college degrees voted for him? Something deeper is going on.

Nate Cohn of the New York Times described the geography:

The Wyoming River Valley of Pennsylvania — which includes Scranton and Wilkes-Barre — voted for Mr. Trump. It had voted for Mr. Obama by double digits. Youngstown, Ohio, where Mr. Obama won by more than 20 points in 2012, was basically a draw. Mr. Trump swept the string of traditionally Democratic and old industrial towns along Lake Erie. Counties that supported Mr. Obama in 2012 voted for Mr. Trump by 20 points.

Obama won Iowa in 2012; Trump won it this time. That same pattern — Clinton underperforming Barack Obama among white working-class voters — spread all across the upper Midwest and Northeast. This cost her key electoral college states she had expected to win, most notably Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

What was it that the voters saw in Trump? The mainstream media version of Trump was as a crazy and brutal pig — not entirely untrue. The words “huge” and “tremendous” were leitmotifs in mocking Trump’s limited vocabulary. But his stump speech lexicon also included “loyalty” “win” “pledge” “beautiful” and “love” — lots and lots of “love.”

In that New Hampshire speech where Trump dropped the F-bomb he followed it up with: “We want the businesses that stayed. I’ve toured a lot of businesses that stayed. It’s hard for them to stay . . . those are the ones that we have to love and cherish.”

Or consider the particularly emotional exchange Trump had with a father from upstate New York. “I lost my son two years ago to a heroin overdose,” says the father from off camera. “Well, you know they have a tremendous problem in New Hampshire with the heroin,” says Trump. “Unbelievable. It’s always the first question I get, and they have a problem all over. And it comes through the border. We’re going to build a wall.”

Then, instead of moralizing anger, playing against type come compassion and respect: “In all fairness to your son, it’s a tough thing. Some very, very strong people have not been able to get off it. So we have to work with people to get off it.”

At this point it becomes clear that the bereaved father has started to cry. Trump shifts to tough-guy reassuring. “You just relax, OK? Yeah, it’s a tough deal. Come on. It’s a tough deal.” And, in a veiled reference to Trump’s own brother’s death from alcoholism, “I know what you went through.” Then, to the audience while pointing at the father: “He’s a great father, I can see it. And your son is proud of you. Your son is proud of you. It’s tough stuff, it’s tough stuff, and it could be stopped.”

My point is not that we should like Trump but rather that the Left must understand why almost sixty million Americans voted for him. The answer seems clear: it was Trump’s ersatz populism, antiwar message, and his ability to, in a Bill Clinton style, “feel” people’s real pain.

Ultimately, the Democratic establishment brought this loss on themselves. They spurned and tried to sabotage Bernie Sanders and his class message. Trump took the Bernie-style populism, emptied it of real class politics, reduced it to a jumble of affective associations, and used it to beat up the smug liberals of the professional managerial class. It worked.

Alas, too bad for all those well-meaning Trump voters and everyone else. Trump is a fraud, a ripoff artist who leaves unpaid bills and collapsed casinos in his wake.

The next four years look very grim indeed. As president he will attempt to govern by Twitter and soundbite, dragging American political discourse deeper into the muck. The worst-case scenario is that Trump will establish a modus vivendi with the far-right Koch-brother-led wing of the GOP and achieve a historic gutting of the regulatory state plus a momentary debt, tax-cut, and infrastructure-funded economic boom. This could consolidate a new right-wing populist base — at least until it all comes crashing down. If the Democrats continue shunning the working class, they will only help solidify Trumpism.

Or perhaps the Chaos Candidate’s colossal ego, infamously short attention span, and apparent pleasure in firing people will produce the Chaos Cabinet and exacerbate divisions within the GOP and paralysis on the policy front. Perhaps, the Clinton- DNC cabal can be broken up and run off and the Democratic Party can re-launch on the basis of a neo-Rooseveltian/Sanders style set of programs.

Either way, the grassroots left — as in social movements, advocacy groups, and organized labor — faces scary and unprecedented challenges.