A few weeks ago, my colleague, Professor Ed Egan, wrote a helpful summary of statements and events that showed us what Donald Trump is: a racist. I would like to add a few observations about what Trump represents as well: established hierarchies of privilege that he thoroughly, if inadvertently, undermined. I’m less concerned with the nature of Trump as an individual than with the meaning of his popularity.
Indulge me in two comparisons: one with his predecessor in office and one with his rival for it. Comparing Barack Obama's impeccably conventional moral character with that of Donald Trump, we can ask whether any black man with several marriages, mistresses and allegations of sexual assault could ever have been elected president. The answer is an obvious no.
Second, compare Hillary Clinton's preparation for the presidency to Trump's. She had already lived in the White House for eight years as First Lady, served as Senator for New York and worked extremely hard as Secretary of State. Never mind that her husband provided another example of how white men can win presidential elections despite debauched behavior. The point here is that given a choice between a thoroughly qualified woman and Donald Trump, whose record of public service both before and after assuming office would insult the number zero, the American people chose the woman. The Electoral College, however, chose the man.
Only a white man can be elected president with zero experience and a complete lack of character. If none of Trump’s predecessors have proved the point before, Donald certainly showed the nation and the world that one thing is certain: neither being white nor being male are job qualifications.
Prior to the pandemic, Trump had no accomplishments other than embarrassing America’s friends, betraying our allies, sucking up to dictators and getting impeached for an extortion that was simultaneously petty and geopolitical. Once COVID-19 struck, it was Trump’s responsibility as president to mobilize and coordinate America’s massive medical and economic resources to combat the disease… and he flatly refused to do it, preferring instead to pit state against state and wage a homicidal campaign of disinformation that undermined public health experts. Epidemiologists routinely calculate excess deaths attributable to infectious disease; having to estimate excess deaths attributable to the executive incompetence of a President who only ever cared about how the pandemic affected his approval ratings is a sad state to be in.
As if that weren’t enough, Trump continued to play his part in Vladimir Putin’s campaign of discrediting democracy around the world, going so far this year as to demand that his own Vice President somehow make Congress pick and choose which states’ electors to recognize. He actually demanded that Mike Pence should ensure that Pence continued in office no matter what the majority of voters and the states’ electors said. Failing in this brazen attempt at discarding both the Constitution and the will of the people, Trump unleashed a deadly horde of fascists, embedded in a bubble of bewildered bystanders, against the Capitol. Blue lives matter, indeed!
Yet, he still has supporters! None of his failures, none of his scandals seems to register. His supporters, after all, heard him boast of grabbing women – dozens of women have confirmed he actually does – and voted for him anyway. Men with wives and daughters and mothers and sisters voted for him after that. Heck, even women voted for him after that. Why? Credit where credit is due: Trump is masterful in his cultural appropriations (reality TV, beauty pageants, pro wrestling, gold-plated everything) and this made many think he represented some kind of working class rebellion against insufferable elites with college degrees and passports. But Trump has never shown anything but contempt for people who work for a living; he doesn’t even pay them if he can get away with it and he would never allow his base into his hotels. As president, he aggressively redistributed wealth upwards and left the working class to die. Trump as champion of the working man is as plausible as Obama as Grand Wizard. So, it is not.
As my colleague illustrated, Trump’s appeal was always racial. White people at all income levels favored him over Clinton in 2016. If you want to know what elitism sounds like, go listen to a college-educated liberal blame the working class for Trump, as if people who prefer pickup trucks to the Prius were predisposed to applaud the public perversions of politics which Trump prolifically provided the prostituted pundits on CNN. (CNN paid people to advocate for Trump on air.)
Trump became president because he was white and male. That was his appeal and that was the entirety of his “qualification” for office. There were enough Americans who wanted to keep women in their place and couldn’t abide having had a black president that Trump could play to their identity politics and win in spite of himself. He remains popular and polarizing because of what he represents: white supremacy and male (Derek) Chauvinism. His only service to the nation while in office was to explode the myths underpinning both.
It will be up to President Joe Biden to demonstrate whether white men can ever be trusted with the Presidency again. Good luck with that, Joe.
Note: The descriptions and interpretations here offered are my own and should not be attributed to my employer, colleagues or spouse.