Why Trump? The commentary class is rightly obsessed with the question. In the New York Times, Thomas Edsall provides a socio-economic explanation, highlighting the anger of a shrinking middle class. In the New Yorker, David Remnick offers a “coming home to roost” argument, noting how Trump is “the beneficiary of a long process of Republican intellectual decadence.” The comedian Louis CK weighed in with this: “[He] is a messed up guy with a hole in his heart that he tries to fill with money and attention. He can never ever have enough of either and he’ll never stop trying. He’s sick. Which makes him really really interesting.” John Oliver says it’s because the word Trump is a brand that invariably connotes power.
Insightful explanations. But they don’t directly account for the essential feature of the Trump phenomenon: the unnerving way the man’s rhetorical vulgarity drives his ascendency. Consider a brief hit list of Trump’s brashest moves. On national television, he said that Megyn Kelly, a Fox News reporter, had “blood coming out of her whatever”; he mocked Marco Rubio as “little Marco”; he said John McCain was “not a war hero” (because he was captured); and he characterized Mexicans crossing the US border as “rapists.” But it’s on Twitter where Trump has best streamlined the art of the insult, reducing McCain to a “dummy,” Bernie Sanders a “wacko,” Glenn Beck a “mental basketcase,” Frank Bruni a “dope,” Jeb Bush a “pathetic figure,” Karl Rove a “total fool,” Cokie Roberts “kooky,” and Frank Luntz a “clown.” That’s a very small sample.
My students—budding historians—tell me exactly what budding historians are supposed to say: It has always been like this. And in a way they’re right. Go back to the Early Republic and consider how Burr, Adams, Hamilton and the like went after each other. It was vicious. Adams was the worst. He famously called Hamilton “the Bastard brat of a Scotch peddler”; Paine’s Common Sense, a “crapulous mess”; and Jefferson’s soul, “poisoned with ambition.” But the difference with Trump is that, unlike past political mudslinging, his insults are divorced from political reality. Trump isn’t hissing out insults to underscore his political position, or to denigrate the political position of another. He’s doing it to bully for the sake of bullying. Trump issues taunts apolitically, all over the place (against Republicans and Democrats), and with abandon. He’s often compared to a third grader on a playground. But, honestly, that’s not fair to third graders, most of whom seem to understand that you don’t behave that way.
So rather than Why Trump?, the more relevant question might be: Why Trump’s taunting? Why does his brand of vulgarity work so well in the court of public opinion? This question became important to me after I watched Trump make fun of Marco Rubio’s televised response to Obama’s 2013 State of the Union address. In that episode, a much greener Rubio, twitchy as a cat, white knuckled his water bottle as if it was a life preserver, frantically sipping from it as if he’d just eaten a jumbo bag of potato chips. By any standard, the appearance was a little embarrassing, which made it exactly the kind of thing that Trump would feast on. So now, several years later, Trump (who had the limelight because Chris Christie, another bully, had just endorsed him) capitalized as only Trump can. He stood at the podium, puffed out his chest, grabbed a water bottle, and started pouring water left and right. “It’s Rubiooooo,” he taunts. Then he takes a sip from the bottle, swishes it around his mouth, lowers himself so his head barely pokes over the podium (little Marco), opens his mouth like one would do to imitate a mentally disabled person, bobs his head around, stands up straight, smirks, and tosses the bottle off the stage. Performance over.
What struck me the most in this display was the total absence of empathy. I’m no fan of Rubio, but this was too much. While it would be easy to claim that Trump is and always has been a nasty man, leaving the matter at that would overlook the fact that his nastiness taps into a thoroughly mainstream medium—social media—that rewards his expressions of meanness with “likes” and—in a way few could have predicted—votes. Social media enables Trump to connect rhetorically and stylistically with voters (of all generations and educational levels) who have communicated long enough in the digitized realm to believe that Trump’s way of scoring points—“dope,” “pathetic,” “clown,” references to one’s genitalia—is how it’s done. A ton of research has documented the normalization of online personal attacks, snarkiness, bullying and a corresponding lack of empathy, from Twitter and Instagram to the comments section of prestigious journals. Fueled as social media is by anonymity and a lack of accountability, there appears to be no sign of online nastiness abating. Trump knows this well. His genius, in part, is his ability to uncannily mirror this culture in his own behavior—a culture of insult that prevails in the darker arenas of the Web, in places where We The People are allowed to be at our worst.
But Trump does more than mirror the darkest discourses of digital life. He legitimates those discourses, and in doing so he offers up an explanation for his unlikely accomplishment. By removing anonymity from the culture of insult, by dragging the culture of insult above board and stamping it with the Trump (power!) brand, the man transcends politics as we’ve known it. He does so by appealing to that ubiquitous part of ourselves that, when challenged, would rather toss off a quick insult than do the hard work of relationship building and problem solving. The commentariat remain mystified by Trump’s appeal. But what normal human, when challenged to defend a position or build an argument against a fellow citizen, wouldn’t prefer to respond as Trump recently responded to Rubio, on Twitter: “Lightweight choker Mario Rubio looks like a little boy on stage”? Trump, through such cheap moves, bypasses the goodness in the American electorate and panders to the most juvenile but universal impulse that the more decent among us attempt to moderate. He makes a lot Americans feel good, in other words, about being our worst selves.
Of course, Trump’s personal fortune is critical to this appeal. Being a purported billionaire allows him to do what he’s doing, if for no other reason than that money can buy off a lot of shame. But it’s also his nuanced grasp of the media and how it manipulates popular opinion that’s fueling his march toward the Republican nomination. Trump supporters routinely say that their man “tells it like it is.” Pundits, for their part, are looking around wondering exactly what “it” these people could possibly be referring to. But that “it” is there, it’s real. It’s in the forums and the Facebook pages and Tumblr accounts and the comment sections, and much of it is mean, really, really mean—possibly even too mean to let Trump lose.
James McWilliams is a professor at Texas State University and the author of A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America and Just Food. His work has appeared in Harper’s, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, and The Paris Review.