The Coward that is Donald Trump


I’m writing to you as a fellow White guy.  I’m getting older but I can still remember lacing up my cleats in football and trying hard—and unsuccessfully—to dunk in front of the home crowd in basketball.  I had to try.  I still have my hiking boots, though they are more like a memento than something I wear.  I’m writing because I’m confused and need you to help me understand this Trump love of yours.

When I played sports, we were taught not to find excuses when we lost or when we didn’t play our best.  The idea was simple: I’ll do better next time.  We were taught to respect our opponent, especially if they had played a good game.  The way Red Sox and Celtic fans cheered for Jeter and Magic when they retired and how Yankee fans will cheer Big Papi next week.

We respect quality and effort.  We hate people who don’t give it their best.  We love that Brady works his rear end off.  We love the hustle guys, like Dustin Pedroia.  We hate the guys who trot to first base or who give up on plays.  We hate guys who focus on their individual statistics at the expense of winning for their team.  We love team-first players because… because they represent us.  At least, they represent the best in us, the people we want to be.

We aren’t the naturals who make it to the big leagues.  We have to hustle.  We have to depend on our teammates.  And we love our teammates.  When we are playing, there is no closer bond.  The closeness is visceral.  Truth be told, that’s one of the only place we can express that closeness without being considered a little less than the men we want to be.  At least that was true when many of us were growing up.

We like guys who keep their own counsel and don’t have to be told all the time how great they are.  What a drag those guys are, with their faces always in the TV camera, their insincere smiles begging for praise.  And when the praise isn’t forthcoming, they do the work themselves.  They boast and preen.  They are braggarts because they are needy.  They lack inner strength and faith in themselves.

Most of all, I think we respect courage.  The ability to take on something that’s hard, where we might fail, where we have to rise to the big moment. Watching guys like David Ortiz, bases loaded in the ninth inning in the World Series, we kind of know we wouldn’t rise the way he did.  But we dream of it and we admire it.  Guts.  That’s what he has.  That’s what the cops that we love following on TV have.  Guys like Frank Reagan in Blue Bloods.

We respect Frank Reagan not because he would take a bullet for a friend, though he would, but because he’ll wrestle with morally complicated issues.  Should he do the ‘right’ thing or should he favor his son.  Should he take the easy way out to please the public or risk public opprobrium to do what he most believes is right.  He struggles, he stays awake at night, he consults.  He does everything in his power to follow his ethical compass.  He’s not a poll watcher.  That takes courage and we admire him for it.

We would like to knock bullies on their rear ends.  We’ve all known them on the playground and at work.  Too many colleagues and especially too many bosses are bullies.  They pay us and they think it gives them the right to push us around, yell at us, belittle us.  We know that, in different circumstances, we could show them a thing or two.  We have heard like everyone else the line “the bigger they are, the harder they fall.”  We’d like to help with the fall.  We know that bullies are cowards.  But when do we get to be in places where we can force them to show their true colors.

We despise cheats.  Look at those guys who hit hundreds of home runs with the help of performance enhancing drugs.  Keep those guys out of the Hall of Fame.  Right?  Look at Spy Gate.  When Belichick and the Patriots stole signals from other teams, it turned the whole country against them.  Think about the basketball players who flop when you brush them with your pinkie.  They get fouls and points that way.  They are despicable.  Right?  They’re not our kind of guy.

These are all forms of lying.  Lying is not what men do.  We face the music.  We’d rather not cheat—that’s not what men do, either—but when we do and when we’re caught, we face up to it.  We like guys who, when they are wrong or when they let us down, they say something simple like “my bad.”  Then we’re done with it.  Guys who can’t admit they’ve failed are cowards.  They are weak.

Weak is not losing.  It’s losing without trying—for fear of losing.  Weak is when we can’t admit our own limitations.  Weak is when we can’t depend on others, just like point guards depend on big guys for rebounds and big guys need the guards to get them the ball in good position.  I just read that Derrick Rose, once one of the premier talents in the National Basketball Association, said that his job was now to support Carmello Anthony.  Rose had carried teams by himself until he began injuring his knees.  He’s still good but not great anymore.  He could demand to be treated as the top guy, he could let his ego rule, but he wants his team to win.  If that means recognizing his limitations and changing his role, he’ll do it.

I can’t speak for combat experience, but I can well imagine that guys who have been to war wouldn’t have much time for a person who only values himself and his own success, who lies and cheats and bullies, a buy who has no guts.  This is what puzzles me the most.  How could guys with these values connect with such a blowhard and a coward as Donald Trump.

Imagine how people would react to Donald Trump if he were to say that he doesn’t know that much about public policy but he’ll try to learn and he’ll surely depend on others to help him.

Imagine if Trump, upon being thumped by Clinton in the Debate, were to say that he lost fair and square and admires her abilities.  He could even say that debating isn’t leadership but still admit she’s a better debater than he is.

Imagine if Trump said that he exaggerates a great deal, probably because he’s afraid that the bare facts won’t pump him up enough.

Imagine if he said he is, in fact, thin skinned, gets hurt pretty easily, and then gets angry when he feels attacked.  He’s sensitive guy but he’s trying to stop that from ruling him.

Imagine if Trump were to admit that he’s like lots of other people: biased against people of color because he doesn’t trust them.  It’s hard, after all, to trust people he doesn’t know—really doesn’t know—and who look angry when he’s in the room.

He’d be a different guy and some people might give him a second look.

But there’s no chance that Donald Trump will fess up to the truth—because he is a coward.  That’s what’s underneath.  He lies, cheats, bullies, brags, and preens like an insecure little boy in search of a big blond mother to make him whole again.  That won’t happen either.  He won’t feel whole because he is looking outside, not inside, for the sources of his anxiety and fear and neediness.  That makes him both pathetic and dangerous.  Dangerous because he will do almost anything to try to reclaim his absent manhood.


Trump and the Power of the Eighth Grade Bully

When I was a boy of 14, the ability to “put down” others seemed like an essential social skill which I never had.  In fact, I couldn’t do it.  It seemed cruel and I was a sensitive boy.  Others were brilliant at it.

“Put downs” were simply efforts to humiliate others by pointing out their inadequacies or imagined inadequacies.  They targeted kids who were slow footed and didn’t make the sports teams, who were not quick witted or who seemed “too smart for their own good,” kids whose pubic hair was late coming in—oh the terror of the locker room.    There was no end to the wounds and fears that made us vulnerable to these verbal bullies.  My hairline was low, for example, and boys used to say that it met my eyebrows.  Why that seemed so devastating, only a pimply adolescent can tell you.

Some “put down artists,” as they were called, were bullies and big enough to push others around more directly if they chose.  Some were little kids, who managed their size by being the best “put down artists.”  You knew how bad it could get if you challenged them, and that made many of us timid.

I can hardly remember anyone defending the kids who were put down, except sometimes a really nice girl.  The girl who became my love when we were seniors in high school was chief among them.  And she seemed to do it without humiliating the bully too much.  But the complicity of everyone else was evident to all of us.  We even talked about our complicity, about our lack of courage, and found comfort in others who shared our cowardice.  But we never, individually or collectively, planned a counter attack.  Rather we took the bullying for a fact of life.

The guys—girls didn’t do it to boys in their presence—who were good at “put downs” were either loners or leaders.  I don’t understand how these two pathways converged in this way but they did.  The loners seem to guarantee their privacy and safety with their skills. The leaders could get other kids to pile on.  They could squeeze other kids out of a social circle.  They could get activities going.  You loved it when they hurt others who you didn’t like. You really wanted to be on their side.

These boys, all pimples and insecurity, were ripe for mobilizing.  Targeting others as scapegoats, proved a great relief.  In a small but very important way, this adolescent interaction teaches about the ripeness that foretells the rise of fascism.  According to Robert Paxton, the eminent scholar, fascism is not an ideology, not a clear set of ideas or an agenda for the future.  It is the “mobilization of passions,” mass passions, almost as chaotically at first as the assaults of the 14 year old put down artists.

The mobilization depends chiefly on the following conditions:

A sense of crisis. Demagogues succeed, according to Paxton, when there is “a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solution.”  Donald Trump, the Republican nominee to be President of the United States, speaks to a white, largely male electorate who feel left behind, lost, and diminished.  They no longer believe that government can or even wants to help.  Over and again, Trump plays to America’s downward spiral, and particularly the loss of power to which the white working class is entitled. The psychology of crisis draws them in.

Feeling victimized.  “The belief that one’s group is a victim, a sentiment that justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against its enemies, both internal and external.”  In other words, the crisis didn’t arise from vague forces.  Someone made it happen: “Dread of the group’s decline under the corrosive effects of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences.”  The sense of American society bowing before the forces of “foreign hordes” has fueled populist movements throughout our history and before. As in Europe, American culture is in the midst of a renaissance of such nativism.

“The right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law, right being decided by the sole criterion of the group’s prowess within a Darwinian struggle.”  From the start of the campaign, Trump has put himself forward as the strongest, the one who is destined to survive.  He mocks Jeb Bush’s lack of energy and Marco Rubio’s sweaty underarms. They are inferior creatures destined for extinction.  Watching the Republic primaries, we saw how easily he turned those debates into eighth grade free for alls in which he, simply by putting others down, fulfilled his promise to survive and thrive.

“The need for closer integration of a purer community, by consent if possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary.”  We see this in Trump’s wall, in the segregation of Muslims, Latinos, and others—all in the name of “making America great again.”  This is the kind of ‘isolationism’ that is the kissing cousin of American exceptionalism.  For us to be great, we must believe that others are lesser beings.

Faith in the superiority of the leader’s instincts over evidence and reason. Trump tells us, over and over, to “trust me” because he’ll “make a better deal.”  He talks about his business experience but what he really means is that he was born to a certain kind of wisdom.  Like the pimply adolescents of my youth, Trump’s fans want toughness, decisiveness, confidence far more than thought and reason.  They love that he speaks spontaneously.  It feels authentic to them.  They don’t care about lots of thought. They don’t even like or trust it.  Thought and ‘excessive planning’ are effete.  Trump will know the right thing to do when the moment comes.  As Robert Tsai puts it in What Aryans See in Donald Trump: “He is the Aryan warrior, come to save whiteness itself.”

I have been following politics for over sixty years.  I was brought up during the McCarthy scare, which was horrifying in its indiscriminate scapegoating of “Reds” and the way that it made so many millions too timid to raise their voices against anything that wasn’t “red blooded American.”  Donald Trump may have the ability and the audience to replicate the Red Scare but, more importantly, he has the potential to go much further.  His bullying of all who oppose him, his racism, his convenient nationalism, his lack of any consistent set of values, his capacity to marshal the worst in American culture is more reminiscent, still, of Benito Mussolini.