Like so many others, I am mystified by the numbers of people who have voted for Donald Trump, and I can only cling to the hope that they are still a rather small minority of the citizens of this nation.
And like many others I have been grasping for an explanation of this phenomenon. Analysts and pollsters have pointed out that his support has come from rich and poor, schooled and unschooled, conservatives, libertarians and otherwise.
But in listening to interviews of his followers, two things are plain: those who support Trump do so in spite of his vague positions on issues and not because of them. And they are chiefly drawn because he reflects their own general anger and frustration.
I myself do not discount the notion that the same Republican insiders who now, in a panic, are trying to stop his nomination, have ironically created the conditions for Trump’s rise with their rhetoric. Contrary to the plain facts, they have claimed that our national pride and character have been somehow trashed by the Obama administration. And since the time of Ronald Reagan they have offered no ideas about governing besides a reduction in the size and power of the federal government with concomitant reduction and flattening of taxation.
However, liberals and Democrats have also been joining in a chorus for many years now, decrying the growing inequities of income and wealth in the United States. At times little nuance is offered to the protest.
My own theory of the rise of Trump is something that pollsters and political scientists would find impossible to test for: I believe he has tapped directly into a large vein of resentment—a resentment that has been fueled by intemperate political rhetoric.
All of us, on our way to adulthood, pass through a period in our lives where we feel extremely vulnerable in regards to our personal sense of self and our status among others. We want to belong. We want to be respected for who we are. On the surface of things the first thing that comes to mind is being treated fairly.
It is so easy to pile up resentment, partly because fairness is in the eyes of the beholder. There are many ways things can be sliced. Parents get caught up in this dilemma all the time. A younger child will think it terribly unfair that their older sibling gets a bigger allowance. An older one would, of course, think it unfair if they were to be held to the same allowance or set of privileges as their younger brother or sister who has many fewer needs. It’s hard enough to be fair in a family—how much more so in running a nation?
Of course there are people who get stuck in the development of their egos—stuck in this stage when fairness is everything. When we are like this we feel perpetually vulnerable to being treated unfairly. When we get stuck we carry deep resentment within our souls. The casual insults that fly at everyone every day because so very few people truly and deeply understand us, sting and leave lasting wounds for us when we get stuck in our development and can’t shake the hunger for that elusive justice. We feel slighted when others seem to discount our worth or our suffering. It galls us when the sufferings and needs of another class of people are attended to. If black lives matter, what about us whites? If urban dwellers are subsidized for their transportation, rent or utilities, are we rural folk getting anything? If we too are underemployed why are immigrants, refugees and illegals allowed in to compete for our jobs and services?
Of course, justice and fairness are at the core of the purpose of government. Of course there are many questions of policy that demand urgent and careful attention. But so far Donald Trump has been given a pass. He has not been pressed, nor has he offered any precise policy proposals that would effectively address any of this nation’s crying needs for fairness. All that he has done is convince resentful people that he would be their champion. He sounds angry and extreme, and that seems, in a very vague way, to match up with our anger and our hunger for extreme measures. He promises to make America great, and that will somehow make us feel great.
Unfortunately, some of Bernie Sanders’ rhetoric works this way too. While he has given far more specificity than Trump, he does tend to fall back way too often on the call for a “revolution,” without detailing why revolution is better and more practical than evolution.
As a parent I was pressed often by my two children for fairness. I think I was quite right to come back to my children and press them, “Do you really want me to be fair?” They soon understood that what they needed and wanted was not fairness, but compassion and respect and concern. They knew that the more they trusted that dad had a big heart and there was more than enough to go around to everyone—even enough to share with friends and neighbors and strangers—the less anger and resentment they felt.
As a Christian I believe that when Jesus was born in a manger, walked the dusty roads, and suffered the most blatant kind of injustice and unfairness on the cross, he became my true Champion—merciful more than fair. I need no other Messiah. I will trust no one else to be my Messiah. I will look instead for leaders who admit their limitations and will work with others to make some steady progress.
Decades of strained political rhetoric has deceived us. We instinctively think, “We can’t afford this and we can’t manage that.” Too often we believe, “If government helps them, it won’t help us.”
So the resentment grows. It is mindless. It is pointless. It is destructive, and we must loudly and forcefully resist it. We must distrust messiahs and look for honest and decent women and men to lead us.