Donald Trump is ahead of us on a thing that PT Barnum figured out a century ago; that there is a sucker born every minute. HL Mencken was all over it too: "No one in this world, so far as I know - and I have searched the record for years, and employed agents to help me - has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people."
I am not suggesting that all of Donald Trump’s supporters are stupid. Many are, make no mistake about that. Many, many, many of them are. And not just good old folksy, C-student stupid either. I mean full-on ice cream cone to the forehead stupid. And while there is plenty of stupid in the Trump camp, it does not compose anywhere near the entirety of Trump’s following. What all Trump supporters do have in common, however, is that every one of them has been fooled. The more you support Trump, the more you have been fooled. If you more or less like what he says and might vote for him, you’ve been a little bit fooled. If you have four Trump signs, one in each of the four windows of your dismal apartment, you’ve been completely fooled.
And Donald Trump knows how to fool people. He has been connecting with the reality TV demographic for more than a decade now; he knows how big it is, how unfulfilled it is, how simple it prefers its truths, and how it aches to identify the architect of its frustration. Take terrorism, for instance.
Trump’s solution to foreign terrorism in the US is to ban all Muslims from entering the United States. This idea resonates with the Honey Boo Boo demographic, because most of the people who like this idea don’t fly internationally. The disruption involved in banning Muslims from entering the United States on airplanes would cripple entire airlines, disrupt commerce and pleasure trips to an unprecedented level, and cause phenomenal ill will across the world, all to a net result of zero. It would be a bold gesture, yes, but oftentimes, as in this case, boldness has stupidity as its concomitant. The idea of banning all Muslims from travel into the United States is breathtaking in its stupidity, and yet, it resonates.
The loyal Trumpster will stand arms akimbo with shaking head and muttering, “Whatever it takes, man, whatever it takes.” This despite the fact that more people are killed by armed toddlers in America than are killed by foreign terrorists. This wildly disproportionate and illogical approach is attractive precisely because of its boldness. Its implausibility is born of inexperience with international travel and an understanding of how the United States fits into it. Wholly apart from the financial, political and family disruptions, assuming such a program could be implemented, what would be the verification methodology? Where does it take place? Would there have to be a new global norm for passports? Would they all need to be recalled and stamped with the individual’s faith now? Or does the interrogation happen at the airport?
“Mister Mohammed, are you Muslim?”
“No ma’am, I am Zoroastrian.”
“Um, quick, what’s the Avesta?”
“It is the chief Zoroastrian text.”
“Right this way, sir…”
Let’s be serious. Anyone who was trying to get in by ducking the ban could claim to be Bahá'í. Might you encounter a discussion with an Alawite as to whether the syncretistic aspects of the Alawites places them outside Mr. Trump’s definition of what a Muslim is? Who is going to arbitrate all of these theosophical quibbles? Who is going to determine that so-and-so is or isn’t a practicing Mandaeist? There are a fair number of Yarsanists and Samaritans in the Middle East, as well as pockets of Shabakists, Ishikists, Ali-Illahists. How do you tell a sunny Christian from a Sunni Muslim? Okay, I’m being ridiculous, but you get my point.
This all makes sense to Trump’s television audience though, because if you reduce it to the rubric of “Ban All Muslims,” it takes on a simplistic, feel-good sense of having made a bold step after all of this mealy-mouthed pussyfooting we’ve been doing. It quickly identifies itself as a stupid idea once you even begin to think about it, but that’s the other side of the coin Trump traffics in; the seeming fact that it doesn’t quite sound stupid until you actually do begin to think about it. The trick then becomes to keep people from thinking about it.
Give people an idea, a big, stupid idea, and then quickly move on to the next big, stupid idea. Like the wall. Which sounds good to some people. Again, until you actually start to think about it. And once you do, you quickly realize that it is as stupid as the idea of trying to identify one and a half billion people as being ineligible for air travel to the US. With immigration currently at sum zero, it is something of a solution without a problem. Add in the mass deportation component, and people like the idea even better. The reality of a crumbling farm industry alongside parents being ripped away from their children and loaded onto railcars is part of the not-thinking-it-through that Trump is counting on. Again, the trick is to sum up the big, stupid idea in three words, and then move on to the next big, stupid idea. Ban all Muslims. Build the wall. Deport the illegals.
Trump’s trick of getting people not to think works because it’s easy and it can feel good in the moment if you are sufficiently angry and resentful. A powerful personality has identified the enemy and boldly pledged that he would do something to vanquish it. Something big, something bold. And they have faith that he can and will, because they’ve seen him perform forcefully in boardrooms.
Episodes of “The Apprentice” have availed them fly-on-the-wall status, and they saw firsthand the prowess of a powerful leader. Of course it’s just a silly cardboard replica, a Potemkin village of an office environment with no actual consequences in the downside and a sudden and unrealistic return on the upside. No one learns a thing from it, and the only winner, as always, is Trump himself. But this is the lazy thinking of Trump’s audience: the desire for easily identified heroes and villains, for predictable justice in terms of consequence and rewards.
It is easy, binary thinking. People need either to be fired or hired. Not developed, managed or educated. Countries need to be thought of as either good or bad and deserving of either subsidy or invasion, and not much else in between. Through his rhetoric, Trump has instructed his slack-jawed, doe-eyed, zombie-like followers to appeal to their basest instincts for guidance rather than any long-codified core ethics and morality.
As rooted a thing as civic education, sports environments and academics are, those places where most Americans learned how to get along and work in teams, it can all fall to dust in an instant with the right appeal to fear and resentment. Trump understands all of this. He is exploiting it, and it is irresponsible and I think highly detestable of him. Just because you can do a thing doesn’t always mean you should, and in this case I believe he shouldn’t have, and that he has orchestrated all of this is to his great shame. He has reawakened a sleeping giant of racism and hatred that was on its way to across-the-board social unacceptability.
The real damage is that Trump has fooled a lot of people into thinking that it’s okay to be judgmental, prejudiced, unforgiving, violent and cruel. And it’s not. Trump is wrong, and his followers have been fooled. The other piece of bad news is that when this has passed, with Trump not being president, he is going to betray every single one of his supporters and return to business as usual. And where will they go then?