A friend asked the other day whether I was taking the Donald Trump phenomenon more seriously as time goes by, what with the trash-talking tycoon’s confoundingly persistent dominance in most polls among Republican presidential candidates — a lead lately threatened, but only by neurosurgeon Ben Carson, another way-outsider with a mystifying appeal.
I said that as a Minnesota political junkie (and “jackal”) who had been jolted pretty good by professional wrestler Jesse Ventura’s “shock the world” election as governor 17 years ago, I had never been altogether surprised by Trump’s crowd-pleasing power. Ventura proved that boastful bombast, flamboyantly bad manners and theatrical claims of contempt for the whole conventional established order has a constituency — or maybe a “fan base.”
My friend, a smart political journalist, nodded, but observed that Jesse was able to sneak through as a third-party protest vote in a gubernatorial race — a victory path unavailable in presidential politics.
That’s when I knew we were moving briskly through the Seven Stages of Trump.
I guess we’ve arrived somewhere between Denial and Bargaining — no longer sure a Trump triumph is inconceivable, but charting all the ways it probably won’t happen in the end.
I first wrote about the Ventura precedent for Trumpism back in the ancient days of August, seconding a warning from U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, another Minnesotan who had cautioned scoffing national TV commentators that “stranger things have happened” than a Trump nomination.
But frankly, I didn’t expect still to be puzzling over the Trump mystery come November — much less that Carson would be the only rival making him sweat by then.
It was clear at last week’s debate that the outsiders’ opponents, and national journalists, are also careening in disbelief through the “stages” — witness Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s plea that Republicans “wake up” before they nominate a “fantasy” candidate, and moderator John Harwood’s asking Trump whether his isn’t a “comic-book” candidacy. The East Coast punditocracy, in general, seems to have reached the Guilt stage, spending a lot of time these days speculating on why the elite political press underestimated Trump’s, and Carson’s, staying power. This has the extra advantage of allowing them to continue thinking about themselves rather than pondering the alien sensibilities of the hordes swarming behind the Donald and the Good Doctor.
Because what we have in the outsiders’ success, in large part, is an embodiment of America’s new cultural divide. We hear a lot these days about political polarization, but what’s usually being discussed is our era’s angrier debate between liberal and conservative elites — academics and activists, pundits and politicians, financiers and power brokers of the left and the right. Yet such bitter combatants often have a lot in common — education, affluence, fashionable lifestyles.
Trump speaks the language of another American culture — a “working stiff” culture with simpler tastes and ideas and, increasingly over many years, a bitter sense of having been cheated and disrespected by self-appointed big shots.
Scholars across the philosophical spectrum have mapped this divide in recent years. Conservative sociologist Charles Murray documented it in his 2012 book “Coming Apart.” Identifying mythical communities “Fishtown” (where white Americans lacking higher education live) and “Belmont” (where the college crowd dwells), Murray quantified many signs of social decay in Fishtown — and emphasized that Belmont denizens, despite their many leadership roles in society, understand precious little about non-elite Americans.
New York University psychologist Jonathan Haidt, a wavering progressive, explored the chasm in another 2012 book, “The Righteous Mind.” Haidt theorized that modern liberals, focused on compassion and fairness, have lost many of the additional moral “taste buds” that U.S. conservatives share with most people around the world — powerful longings for authority, sacredness, patriotism, etc.
And in this year’s “Our Kids,” liberal Harvard social scientist Robert Putnam also reveals an America that has broken in pieces culturally, socially and — for him especially — economically, compared to the country in which he grew up.
The elite’s bafflement over the Trump/Carson phenomenon is a symptom of this cultural rupture. “Belmont” shares sports obsessions with “Fishtown,” but increasingly that’s about it — and working-stiff America is plain tired of the elite’s leadership.
A half-century of trendy culture’s disdain for all sorts of traditional standards, customs and mores — and for Haidt’s unfashionable moral “tastes” — plus an ever more viciously bare-fisted style in politics (formerly reserved for the ads) have made American public life safe for the harsh and ill-mannered norms of reality TV — an often abrasive cultural product, like so many others, invented in Belmont and peddled to Fishtown.
It isn’t Trump’s policy positions that really explain his magic. They are mainly an ideological jumble, the common theme being resentment of what Putnam describes — the economic quagmire the working class feels itself in. What distinguishes Trump is that swaggering style, bringing to life the new working-stiff spirit of defiance.
Carson, of course, is mild and pious where Trump is brash and worldly. But Carson’s provocations over Islam and democracy, slavery and Obamacare, evolution and more identify him, too, as a would-be insurrectionary leader aiming to overthrow the know-it-alls.
Maybe they have it coming. In “The Lessons of History,” written in 1968, the great historians Will and Ariel Durant warned that numerous societies down through the ages have seen estrangements and inequalities grow between a “cultured minority” and the rest of their populations, resulting in a swelling faction lacking “standards of excellence and taste.” Over time, they wrote, the less civilized “ways of speech, dress, recreation, feeling, judgment, and thought spread upward.”
They called the process “internal barbarization.”
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.