Donald Trump generates passionate responses. Supporters love him, opponents hate him. Loyalists remain fiercely true despite his recurring gaffes and revelations of his dodgy enterprises, like Trump University. Adversaries get worked up into a frenzy, likening Trump to Hitler, even though his proposals aren’t all that different from the policies of other candidates.
We saw these passions go head-to-head in Chicago on Friday evening, as protesters fought with supporters at a Trump rally. Trump’s campaign chiefs cancelled the event, citing safety concerns. More clashes seem in store as the election campaign continues.
Trump is becoming a larger character in American life by the day. His prominence in the social imagination, and the strong reactions he ignites on all sides, shows that he has become a cultural phenomenon, something more than just a contender for political office. Saying you are for or against Trump sends a broader message about where you stand culturally, not just politically.
Trump stands opposed to many aspects of the prevailing elite culture, as expressed in the media, entertainment and academia. He’s a throwback to the past. In a ‘You Can’t Say That!’ culture, where certain words and thoughts are not allowed, Trump says them, over and over – and then, when challenged, refuses to back down. In a society that emphasises human frailty and accepts low horizons, Trump calls for making the US ‘great again’, and suggests that people can succeed like he has. And in a world where masculinity is now described as toxic, Trump relishes the opportunity to present himself as the tough guy, like when he says he wants to punch a protester in the face. As Camille Paglia writes, Trump ‘has a swaggering retro machismo’ that will ‘give hives’ to feminists like Gloria Steinem.
As it happens, Trump is highly inconsistent as the leader of this countercultural backlash. He is self-centred, thin-skinned and whines about being unfairly attacked. He exaggerates the threat from demonstrators (calling them violent thugs), and can sound like a snowflake student when he uses security to protect his own Safe Space from protesters. His macho pose can descend into infantile talk about his anatomy, and, worse, become a prelude to promote authoritarian policies.
Nevertheless, Trump’s supporters are willing to overlook his inconsistencies and embrace him, perhaps because they know that just the mere mention of backing the uncouth Trump will send a message to the cultural elites. As interviews with Trump supporters reveal, the number-one reason given for supporting him is not his proposals on immigration or trade, but his willingness to be politically incorrect. Trump is ‘saying what a lot of Americans are thinking but are afraid to say because they don’t think that it’s politically correct’, says supporter Cathy Cuthbertson. ‘But we’re tired of just standing back and letting everyone else dictate what we’re supposed to think and do.’ Trump’s fans are as much signalling their defiance of PC culture as they are supporting particular political solutions.