Through the looking glass: the many faces of Trump and his fans
M. Scott Brauer
Donald Trump's campaign presents a funhouse-mirror distortion of reality – but also reflects some uncomfortable truths, Cathal Kelly finds
To get to Donald Trump's house in Palm Beach, Fla., you drive up a winding coastal road lined with homes that all look like the White House. There are four-foot breakwalls on the ocean side of the street.
It's a nice visual metaphor of the American dream's current trajectory – some of the most desirable real estate on the planet, and all of it will be under water during this century.
As you'd expect, Mr. Trump's place is the grandest of them all.
We don't get to see much of it. Just past the hedgerows, the press is herded toward the servants' entrance. The Secret Service (wearing badges that read "Secret Service") stands around looking professionally bored. There are sniffer dogs and metal detectors. Everyone's sweating through their suits.
Mr. Trump is about to win the Florida primary and, most likely, the Republican nomination. He will appear in a ballroom surrounded by local supporters. This isn't the establishment – too slick, too loud, too many Ferraris parked on the lawn, and too many bright colours. This is new money.
Many of these people have plainly spent a great deal of time styling their hair. I'm talking about the men. One well-refreshed partygoer wearing a straw hat festooned with Christmas lights and small "Trump" tassels staggers toward the mob of press penned at the back to have her picture taken.
Cumulatively, the word that leaps to mind is "gauche."
Standing among the media are David Nesenoff and his son, Adam. Both are rabbis. They're behind something called Rabbis For Trump.
I ask Mr. Nesenoff if, as a man of the cloth, he has a problem with the violence that animates some of Mr. Trump's support.
"When a terrible person in a cowboy hat punches a black protester, the media plays it over and over again," Mr. Nesenoff says. "It's vulgar. The media is divisive."
He gives me an appraising up-and-down look. I nod noncommittally and try to appear Canadian.
BRIAN BLANCO/Getty Images
Mr. Trump is a sizable man with commanding physicality, though with an amusing edge of foppishness. The hair, the pout, the arm-swinging gait. He looks like the head of some comically evil college fraternity after 40 years of soft living.
He doesn't give a speech. That would suggest he'd prepared something.
Instead, he rambles for 15 minutes. Mr. Trump is the overbearing uncle at your wedding who insists on toasting the bride. Then he spends the whole time talking about himself.
Amazingly, in person at least, it works.
The secret to Mr. Trump's approach is that he has turned a weakness – his lack of nuanced ideas – into a strength. None of this meandering dialogue sounds calculated. He hops spastically from topic to topic, as if they're all just occurring to him. Because they probably are.
Since you're never sure what he's going to say, you're compelled to listen.
In Palm Beach, he wanders off on a digression about meeting pro golfer Adam Scott ("a handsome kid from Australia"). By time spent, it's the main topic of his speech.
For anyone else giving what should be a major address after their biggest political victory, this would be symptomatic of having an onstage stroke. With Mr. Trump, it sounds authentic. Famously, there is no one who helps craft his message. It's all him, and can change wildly from day to day. Like the man.
Contrast this presentation style with Hillary Clinton's. Although she is saying much more, all that a certain sort of disaffected person hears are the prepackaged beats within it. You know where she has been told to hit a talking point, or emphasize a key word. She often pauses for applause before there is any. Like any other professional speaker, Ms. Clinton's approach is meticulous and deliberate.
This isn't a good time in American history to be meticulous at anything, and certainly not anything serious.
Near the end, Mr. Trump rounds gently on the media jammed at the back of the room.
"Disgusting reporters," he says, gesturing off-handedly toward us. "Horrible people. Some are nice. Some are nice. Some really disgusting people back there."
The crowd laughs. Many of them turn around in their seats so that we can see them laughing. A few of them point.
Well, this is a first – being jeered by a mob of plutocrats.
But it's hard to take offence. Although the words read as incendiary, there is no malice in Mr. Trump's tone. At most, it's bemusement. Like so much else here, the episode will be spun in the direction of a (fancy) beer-hall putsch. But on the ground, it's funny. Even when you're the target.
"There is great anger, believe me," Mr. Trump had said earlier. "There is great anger."
No doubt. But the man leveraging it never comes off as very angry himself. There's no shouting or trembling lip. Although routinely petty and mean-spirited in a silly schoolyard way, Mr. Trump never seems anywhere close to out of control.
Contrast his style with that of Ted Cruz – a man who always seems to be on the verge of lapsing into high-pitched German.
Unlike his chief competitor, Mr. Trump is a conduit for rage, rather than a receptacle. The emotions of the crowd pass through him and can be reflected in any way at any target.
Think about your own frustration, whatever that might be. At the height of it, the last thing you want to hear is a solution to your problem. What you want is the opportunity to stamp your feet and feel sorry for yourself.
By providing no answers and making no attempt to upstage his public in the calculus of frustration, Mr. Trump is the perfect sounding board.
The previous generation of politicians succeeded by appearing to speak directly to people. That's stopped working, perhaps because angry people don't want to be spoken to. They don't want their problems rationalized. They don't feel like being sensible.
What they want is to be listened to in silence. Because he offers nothing in the way of fixes, Mr. Trump manages it better than do his competitors.
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For months now, Mr. Trump has felt omnipresent, largely because the American electronic media has pretzelled itself around him like a lover.
This co-dependency prompted Barack Obama to scold the fourth estate for failing the Edward Murrow test. "I was going to call it 'carnival atmosphere,' " the U.S. President said recently. "But that implies fun."
On the ground, Mr. Trump is impossible to find, and less and less fun once you do. Many of his events aren't scheduled until the day before. He doesn't campaign every day. His bullhorns are friendly TV outlets and occasional bursts of spleen on Twitter.
He rolled through Washington recently to whip up an arena of attendees at a conference for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Early in the day, he swung by one of his own properties to give a speech that amounted to an early ribbon-cutting.
Out on the corner, beforehand, two men are in the midst of what looks like a friendly conversation. It isn't.
Tony Ensminger, 62, is selling Donald Trump kitsch – buttons ("Hot Chicks for Trump") and knock-off ball caps. Eric Wilson, 50, has sidled up for a little talk.
They are shoulder-to-shoulder, careful to stare in opposite directions. This is the posture of men who want to argue, but don't want things degenerating into a fistfight.
Mr. Wilson is speaking at high volume about lost jobs, manufacturing and the willful blindness of people who support Mr. Trump. Mr. Ensminger is fumbling around for a substantive rebuttal. The best he can come up with is, "He's telling it like it is."
He's losing the fight, and seems to know it.
Mr. Trump is due to speak at the building we're standing in front of – an old post office currently being refitted into a Trump-branded hotel – in about an hour. People are stopping to watch Mr. Wilson and Mr. Ensminger bicker in this odd, kabuki way.
At this moment, a few dozen construction workers in hardhats and coveralls begin coming out of the building. They're buoyant – knocking off early for the day. Most are speaking Spanish.
Mr. Wilson, the anti-Trump guy, gawks as they pass. He points at them feebly, one by one. "Look at them coming out of here," he shouts at no one in the particular.
"Look at the workers. They're not Americans. They're Mexicans or whatever."
It's a jarring about-face that suggests the dividing lines in the pro- and anti-Trump camps are more than a little blurry, made all the blurrier by the fact that these guys are exiting a Trump-owned work site.
Having found a new target for his frustration, Mr. Wilson forgets Mr. Ensminger. He's well down a tangent about foreigners taking American jobs.
The organized protesters, almost all of them white, will be here shortly for a fun few hours of chanting. Mr. Wilson, who is black, isn't with anyone.
He's an unemployed chef living in D.C.'s Maryland suburbs. He has a beaten, shuffling look, shoulders hunched, hands stuffed in his pockets. He's missing a few teeth. He seems very close to desperate.
"I came down to get a personal view about what's going on around Donald Trump. I've listened to most of his rhetoric, which I don't agree with. It's being divisive instead of being inclusive," Mr. Wilson says.
In the background, people are yelling. Mr. Wilson is getting worked up again. Everybody here is tilting toward rage.
"That's understandable, because no one's being heard," Mr. Wilson says.
"Even myself, six months out of work. I just cashed in my 401K so I can support myself for another six months. My retirement is gone … " He hesitates. "I don't want to start crying. This is why everybody is angry. People are hurting, and there's no one speaking to the hurt. Everyone's speaking to the anger."
It's as good an encapsulation of the looking-glass America being exploited by Mr. Trump as you are likely to hear. Everyone is angry, but no one is sure exactly who they should be angry at. They just want someone to tell them that being angry can make it better.
Just seems like an outsider
Years ago, I spoke to a cosmologist about some breakthrough in Big Bang theory. He rattled off a scientific answer, and then turned to philosophy. "The problem with all this is, how can you properly consider a system of which you are a part?"
That's the American establishments' – both right and left – issue with Mr. Trump. He is treated as a contagion from outside the system, but he is still of it. No one wants to think too hard about why.
Instead, they waste huge amounts of energy trying to explain away Mr. Trump's appeal, as if categorization were the same thing as understanding.
The media and political elites are bound together in this process.
Even at such rigorously even-handed outlets as The Washington Post, the coverage often edges into open mockery of Mr. Trump and his supporters. The newspaper is right in the sense that Mr. Trump is a proven liar, a prevaricator and a twister of simple truths. He is coarse, ugly and thrives on fear.
What's lost is all the real people also being ridiculed, and the real consequences for doing so. None of those viewers, listeners and readers – presumably the ones who need to be convinced to re-engage with the American community – will get past the tone of that coverage to the substance within it.
When commentators taunt Mr. Trump as a buffoon, they forget that huge swaths of their countrymen are buffoons as well.
It sounds cruel written out like that, but what else can be said of a population that accepts a mass-casualty shooting every day (367 last year) as fair trade for the right to keep a machine gun in the bedroom closet? Of poor and working-class people who argue against socialized health care? Of the continued reliance on a political system designed by 18th-century paranoiacs for the sole purpose of not working?
If America is collectively great – and despite the handicaps, she surely is – you would not often get that impression by talking to Americans. They are too fearful and contemptuous of each other to worry about greatness.
A few minutes later, Mr. Trump's motorcade arrives. Cops are pushing protesters off the street onto the sidewalk. Everyone is shrieking. All you can see is a sea of raised cellphones. Even the people who hate Mr. Trump trill with excitement as he drives by.
Given all that Americans have, relatively speaking, why are their politics so zero-sum and extreme? Because they expect more than the rest of us.
Mr. Trump's meagre genius is in identifying the wedge – exceptionalism and isolationism – that separates the losers from the winners, especially when the country has been weakened by foreign wars and domestic financial crises.
He has promised people that they will be made "great" again – though never says exactly how.
When was America last great? Like Moscow pensioners rallying for Stalin, it's not clear his supporters have any hard idea of exactly what it is they remember as being so great. You suspect that "great" has become a byword for "stable."
Every politician tries some version of this. Mr. Trump's difference lies in recognizing that some people don't want things fixed. They want things as they were, and if they can't be as they were, they want them to burn.
When you break down his messages, they amount to a kind of destruction. Hobble your institutions, hem yourselves in, renege on your deals, cut yourself off from the outside world. The people who want to hurt you surround us. Let's keep them out. Together.
M. SCOTT BRAUER
Mr. Trump isn't a fascist in the classic sense. There is too little coherent ideology at work, no alternate proposals that rise above "That's wrong." He is, instead, a saboteur.
In order to keep the news cycle turning over, his scattered shots are being aimed lower and lower. His target at the moment seems to be any woman who disagrees with him – journalists who get in his way, or women who should be subject to "punishment" for receiving an abortion, currently a legal medical procedure.
His turns into darkness have grown so frequent, they are almost lightened by his petulance. When he contorts himself to support a campaign manager taped manhandling a female reporter, or goes back on a high-profile pledge to endorse any winning Republican nominee, the result isn't shock. It's glee. We've grown dependent on a supply of outrage comedy.
Six months ago, you couldn't imagine this sort of thing happening around the campaign of a mainstream candidate of any political stripe. But once the politics of rage proved resilient to public dismay, a malevolent inertia took hold.
On some basic level, people know they can't really be made happy. They want someone else blamed, and then made as unhappy as they are. Mr. Trump seems to promise that.
Amid all the talk about xenophobia, paranoia and race-baiting – favourite pastimes of the American right since Jesus was a cowboy – there is never any mention of happiness. And happiness is at the core of America's current state of confusion.
Other democracies offer their citizens a fair shake – safety, a job, the chance that their children may one day be better off than they are.
America promises its people happiness. It's there in the Declaration of Independence. It is one of "three inalienable rights." That it's worded more craftily than that doesn't mean people don't think of it as a guarantee.
Happiness is a high bar. If you are poor or uneducated or unemployed or just feel the ground shifting underneath you, it can be impossible.
Fifty years ago, your neighbourhood was your world. Happiness was relative to whomever you lived beside. As long as they were just as miserable as you, you could feel okay about yourself.
These days, you live beside the Kardashians in just as real terms as you do your next-door neighbours. You probably know more about the lives of the former. And they look a hell of a lot happier than you.
In this moment, it is hard to avoid overstating Mr. Trump's importance. He is a symptom of the American malaise, not its cause. Nothing rots from the outside-in.
The last person I speak to in Washington is Eric Wilson, the unemployed chef. He's hanging around until the end because he has nowhere in particular to be.
I walk over to shake his hand and wish him luck.
"I got God on my side," Mr. Wilson says. "I know I'll be all right."
It's a lovely idea. But it wouldn't win you an American election.
Cathal Kelly is a writer at The Globe and Mail
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