But, you’re not going to like it.
Joe Biden may have won the election, but what many of us can’t seem to wrap our heads around is how Donald Trump received over 73 million votes. That means one out of every five Americans voted for him.
Isn’t that incredible? I mean, I trust nothing that comes out of his mouth. Well, that’s not quite true. I believe he’s being honest when he calls himself “great” or “the best”. Sadly, as far as I can tell, everything and everyone play second fiddle to his self-interest.
He is perhaps the greatest narcissist the world has ever seen.
I’ll give him that one.
So, what is it about Trump that’s so appealing? What mobilizes 73 million people to vote for someone whose actions seem to be tearing the country apart?
If your answer is “they’re all racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic bigots”, well, you might be part of the reason they voted for him.
It’s all in the juxtaposition
In one of Sam Harris’ most recent podcasts (#224 — The Key to Trump’s Appeal), he discusses a reason he thinks so many people voted for Trump. For me, it paints the clearest image yet of what’s going on here.
Harris begins by talking about how Trump really has none of the qualities we would typically call “virtuous”. Trump whines and complains, in particular about being asked tough questions. He’s brazenly hypocritical. He’s bragged about how his stardom allows him to do anything he wants to women, including grabbing them “by the pussy”. He’s not physically fit and only one pound away from being considered obese. He frequently eats fast food. He uses Twitter to spread lies, as well as to direct petty insults at anyone getting in his way. Finally, Trump demands mob-boss style loyalty but gives none in return.
Where in all of this mess do we find even a sliver of virtue? Nowhere, which might actually work in his favor.
According to Harris, Trump’s saving grace could be that he never claims to be morally superior to anyone. How could he? He doesn’t pretend or aspire to be anything other than the writhing mass of malice and narcissism that he is. He couldn’t possibly judge anyone and his supporters know this. They watch him wear his flaws with a shamelessness the likes of which they’ve never seen.
Harris describes Trump’s shamelessness as a kind of “spiritual balm” that gives comfort to people in a world that’s constantly telling them they’re not good enough. According to Harris:
“He offers a truly safe space for human frailty and hypocrisy and self-doubt. He offers what no priest can credibly offer— a total expiation of shame.”
A good example of this is our attitude toward fast food. With documentaries like Super Size Me shining a light on the dangers of fast food and the United States’ burgeoning obesity epidemic, everywhere we look people are now telling us what, when, and how to eat. Consciously or not, all of this advice is set against the backdrop of fat-shaming. Who wouldn’t want relief from this shame?
Indeed, a nationally representative survey showed that the more media coverage about Trump’s eating habits people viewed, the more likely they were to have a positive perspective toward fast-food. If we consider that any president becomes a de facto role model for the country’s people, we can understand why this would be the case. We might also start to get an inkling of why Trump’s shamelessness is appealing to his supporters— his actions are telling them, you don’t need to feel ashamed.
But, according to Harris, Trump’s appeal is even better understood juxtaposed to the perspectives on the far left.
What is being demonstrated by the far left today is a level of sanctimony that defies all reason. The left has taken the you’re either with us or against us approach, and God help you if you’re against them. If you don’t smile and nod while they scream in your face, you’re a racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, transphobic bigot and you deserve nothing more than to be torn down and destroyed.
The left is nothing but pure judgement.
And if you happen to be a white, cis, straight male, which is Trump’s base, best of luck to you! Not only are you guilty for your own sins, but you’re also guilty for the sins of your forebears, including slavery and colonialism. So, as Harris puts it, “tear down those statues and bend the fucking knee.”
The messaging between the left and the right couldn’t be starker. And when you hold both perspectives simultaneously, it’s possible to see Trump’s allure.
Crazy begets crazy
What I think we’re watching today is crazy on one side driving crazy on the other. Each side is continually upping the ante of crazy and that’s driving the polarization we’re seeing today. It’s a vicious cycle, but how do we end it?
I recently listened to an interview with Bill Doherty who is the co-founder of an organization called Braver Angels. Braver Angels offers workshops that bring democratic- and conservative-leaning participants together to learn about each other’s political perspectives. Critically, the workshops are structured in a way that allows people to humanize the other side. According to Doherty, he’s seen people walk into these sessions as enemies and leave as best friends.
How does he do it? He gets people to listen to each other. Doherty believes that much of the anger we see in politics comes from people having their perspectives misrepresented by the other side. So, he creates a safe space for people to talk openly and share their stories, and what happens is that everyone gains a better understanding of each other.
Through this process, the participants are able to break down stereotypes and discover that they share common values. So, even when they still disagree — Doherty calls this accurate disagreement — participants leave the sessions with the knowledge that they have more in common with the other side than they ever thought possible. Everyone is more optimistic about the future, as a result.
I think we need more accurate disagreement in our lives. We need to stop writing people off by calling them stupid or racist or homophobic because those answers are too easy, too simplistic. People are more complicated and less evil than we give them credit for.
So the next time you’re talking politics, try to aim for accurate disagreement. You might just stop the next Trump from being elected.
Thanks for reading!
Most of the information presented here comes from the two podcasts linked below: