Even as Donald Trump lauded the Republican National Convention as “incredible” and “amazing,” historians debated whether the hate-filled, divisive and ultimately dreary affair was the worst convention in U.S. history.
But none of that matters to the reality TV star who, after dragging the Republican Party on his bigot express, returned to thin-skinned form by feuding with Ted Cruz after his “I Alone” strongman speech capped the RNC.
That savior complex garbed in petty revenge largely explains why Trump continues to be within striking distance of Hillary Clinton despite spending the last 13 months rolling across America like an exploding oil train raining down hellfire and poisonous fumes.
When he declared, “I am your voice” and thundered about “law and order,” pundits agreed Trump was channeling Richard Nixon by appealing to aggrieved people in the U.S.
However, there is a crucial difference, although Trump, like Nixon, has won over many white workers. While some economic cracks were showing in 1968, there wasn’t a big opening to capitalize on economic woes. So Nixon rode to victory by stoking the backlash to the Black Power movement, counterculture, and anti-war movement.
Today, Trump’s support is strongest where white workers are dying the fastest. His denunciations of NAFTA and free trade as a “disaster” resonate with struggling workers, keeping him neck and neck with Clinton in the rustbelt Midwest states that will decide the election.
But there is more going on than whites pining for days when a good-paying factory job was to be had right out of high school.
Trump talks about creating more jobs and boosting the economy, but his only plan is to kill trade deals old and new. The president can do that, but hastily withdrawing from NAFTA would cause havoc as it would be hard to untangle the three North American economies, wounding the very workers who support Trump.
Rather than use the convention to showcase detailed economic plans, Trump offered only himself: “I am going to bring our jobs back ... I am not going to let companies move to other countries ... I will make individual deals with individual countries.”
It’s a will-to-power fantasy that’s seduced many workers who see in Trump hopes for good times rolling once more. But Trump is not offering them economic success. He is giving them the joy of personal revenge.
The media treat Trump’s incessant bickering with Ted Cruz, Megyn Kelly, Elizabeth Warren, Mark Cuban, Jon Stewart and others as distractions of a mercurial character. But it matches the abuse Trump hurls at Muslims, Mexicans, feminists, and Black Lives Matter activists who are defined as enemies. And Trump offers to punish every one of them for the terrorism, the humiliations, the suffering they’ve supposedly inflicted on real "Americans."
In lashing out at his personal enemies with white-hot hate and bigotry, he enables his followers to act out their revenge fantasies. That was evident in Cleveland. Trump fans scooped up t-shirts calling Hillary Clinton a “b—h” and delighting in violence toward her. Thousands in the arena chanted, “Lock her up,” and pictures displayed Clinton in an orange jumpsuit, hinting at torture.
Trump is a focal point for rage. He speaks to the “forgotten men and women” living in a country where the infrastructure is in “Third World condition” and afflicted by “one international humiliation after another.”
Trump is an Old Testament Dirty Harry. “Beginning on January 20 of 2017, safety will be restored,” he says and personally warns “every last person threatening the peace on our streets and the safety of our police … I will restore law and order to our country.”
When it comes to terrorism, Trump says, “We are going to defeat the barbarians of ISIS and we're going to defeat them fast.” His mere word, criticizing NATO for not paying its fair share, is enough to compel action, leading it to set up “a new program in order to combat terrorism.”
That sense of personal power and revenge trickles down. It can be seen as a prime reason supporters say they like Trump because “he’s not politically correct.” Rejecting political correctness is code for not feeling guilty about being a bigot. He gives supporters the joy of revenge in daily life. They can make racist and sexist remarks freely, talk about banning Muslims and deporting Mexicans, and it’s no longer beyond the pale but a rational policy and pleasurable act.
Whether or not he can restore the economy and jobs may be besides the point to many of his supporters. Trump has welded together economic and social resentments. Bashing Muslims, Mexicans, Blacks, and women can give his aggrieved white males the satisfaction and power they feel deprived of. As borne out by the hatefest in Cleveland, the right has evolved from “drill, baby, baby” to “kill, baby, kill” during the Obama era.
But even if Trump loses, he has de-legitimized Clinton to much of the country. Whereas the Tea Party was founded on a swamp of racism just weeks after Obama entered office, a Clinton presidency may see more extreme violence toward women and misogyny as the consolation prize for the angry men denied the joy of revenge.
But there is a lesson from the Obama years. Trump’s toxic politics can’t be ignored; it has to be cleansed lest it continue to poison the political landscape.