I should have figured this out four years ago–actually five would have been better—but tomorrow is Election Day 2020 with a capital E, so I guess it’s better late than never to let the cat out of the bag for any of you who still plan to vote tomorrow.
One of our most loyal and good friends over the past 30 years told us last week that he’s voting for Trump “because of his Christian values,” meaning Trump’s. In the same conversation he let us know what a relief it is now that his church is back to worshipping in person again and what a beautiful thing it is to hear the choir singing again. No, they don’t wear masks in their church.
I know few people as adept as this man at avoiding conflict, so he was not trying to yank our chains. He was sharing joyful news. And in the back of his mind our friend also knows my wife’s main job right now is guiding the University of Cincinnati to contain this second surge of COVID-19 cases amid record high numbers of cases in Ohio. And he knows what enthusiastic Democrats we’ve been all the years he’s known us, and especially this year. When he came this week to visit bearing gifts, Vic asked him to put on a mask, and he said he couldn’t. He can’t breathe with a mask on. He left his gifts on our kitchen counter and drove home, apologies all around.
“Blame it on COVID” is our mantra for all that goes haywire these days. This too will pass and our friendship will survive, but this tender point in our week raised again for me the nagging question of how Trump, of all people–this unbeliever who rarely attends church or bends to prayer–pulled off the trick of persuading the Evangelical right that he’s their man. What’s his method? And then you have to wonder how Trump pulled the same trick with the NRA, and the pro-lifers, the anti-immigrant groups, and the rural white blue collar workers in the Rust Belt. And most consequential of all, how did this former pro-choice Democrat pull off the same trick with the whole Republican Party?
Most people who vote for Trump don’t seem much concerned with the character of the man. They like some of his results, such as the stock market or tariffs for China or suppressing abortions, and any one of those results offers a good enough reason to vote for him. But for me, character is everything.
One thing we know now about the character of Donald Trump that we did not know so painfully clearly four years ago–thanks to the large numbers of tell-all books that all tell the same story about him—is that, though he is not as rich or talented as he would like us to believe, he does have a talent for smelling fear in others. He is keenly interested in what we fear. And he loves to fight to win. His niece Mary Trump tells us what he hates, above all else, is to lose. These are good breeding characteristics for pit bulls, and we have to grudgingly give The Don credit for imagining against all good judgment that they might also be good breeding characteristics for presidents.
His method is so simple I’m embarrassed to confess it just came clear to me yesterday. For each of the groups he courts to support him, he identifies what they fear, who their enemy is, both in reality and in fantasy. Then he aligns with that fear by offering to fight that enemy. He pitches this offer in a pugnacious, tenacious manner that leaves no room for doubting him. He will fight to win for “you.” If your enemy is his enemy and he will fight your enemy, then he must be on your side. You can vote for him. This is not some crafty political strategy worked out by his advisers in smoke-filled rooms. This was what The Don learned on the campaign trail in 2016, winging it from the podiums, trusting his intuition about his audience, seeing what ignited his followers and then feeding them what they hungered for. Maybe it worked beyond his (and our) wildest dreams.
If you’re afraid of science wielding more power than the church, Trump’s your man. If you’re afraid of ultra-liberal Democrats like Bernie Sanders, Trump’s your man. If you don’t give a damn about Sanders but you’re afraid of Roe v Wade, Trump’s your man. If you’re afraid of Mexicans taking your job on the assembly line, Trump’s your man. If you’re afraid of losing power to a majority of minorities, Trump’s your man. It’s hard to say no to such an offer, no matter how he wears his hair or talks to women. If he fights for you, that should be enough. And so, by the thinnest of margins in the Electoral College, he won the 2016 election.
And it would be enough if he truly fought for you and your cause. But we know now, if it wasn’t so clear four years ago, that this man cares much more about the fight and his grip on the national news cycle than he cares about you or your cause. Negotiation and compromise are not in his playbook. He makes a better pit bull than president. The line of once-Trumpers who now feel betrayed by him is long and angry and loud.
Is Donald J Trump, Jr, the slickest con-men in the history of American politics? I don’t know, but I know he will go the way of all con-men. And we who have been duped still have a choice. We can lay low and grumble, or we can take our lessons and vote smarter about our leaders. One lesson we can learn from this man is that our democracy is available for dismantling. Uncountable lawsuits, the Mueller Investigation, and a Congressional Impeachment hearing could not stop his hobbling of the State Department, the Justice Department, the EPA, the intelligence services, the CDC, the Post Office, and his campaign for voter suppression. Only this year’s resolute march of voters can prove powerful enough to stop him. Will we be ready when the next con artist tries to Trump his or her way to the White House?
Another lesson is that a con-man can find plenty of people to follow him, even long after he has betrayed their interests. Trump will pass, but his followers remain our neighbors and our friends. How do we close the gaps? Character counts. And votes count. This week we learn again just how much the votes and character count.