For most Americans, the connection between President Donald Trump and the roughly 40 percent of the electorate who tell pollsters they continue to support him, is difficult to understand. Most Americans are appalled by a man who holds the highest office in the Free World yet acts most of the time like an unruly child.
On a daily basis, they see the tweets and hear the never-ending flow of misinformation and disrespect that emanates, like a polluted river, from Donald Trump’s mouth. They hear him attack our closest allies while pronouncing his undying love and devotion to the world’s most despotic dictators, and rightfully question his sanity.
But none of that matters to Trump’s supporters. It’s a reality that Trump foreshadowed when he predicted that he could “shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue” and wouldn’t lose any support. Trump may not understand how tariffs work, or how America’s Constitutional system is supposed to function, but he does understand his base.
Trump’s support isn’t founded on the characteristics that normally provide the framework of consent for a president— things like temperance, intelligence, maturity, honor, dignity, and empathy. Trump exhibits none of these characteristics. In fact, in many ways, he’s a kind of “anti-president,” exhibiting the exact opposite of what we’ve come to expect from a President of the United States.
We don’t point this out in hopes that his supporters might recognize his flaws and reconsider their support. It’s very clear that they won’t, for exactly the reason that New York Times columnist Charles Blow posited in April— Trump isn’t so much a president as he is a folk hero to those Americans who continue to express their approval.
By transcending reality for the mythical, Trump has the protection of the ultimate Teflon. Trump spends his political life in the mud yet to his supporters he continuously emerges unstained because the rules are different for Trump. During the Republican primary, a few of his challengers tried fighting Trump on his level, but it quickly blew up in their faces because, as normal politicians, they were still bound by the rules of the political game.
Trump plays by his own rules, and that’s one of the hallmarks of the folk hero. People like Jesse James, the Sundance Kid, Pretty Boy Floyd, were outlaws and killers, but that never stopped a sizable percentage of the country from idolizing their willingness to challenge authority.
When the Access Hollywood tape was leaked, every political observer said Trump was finished. But it ultimately didn’t matter because, to his supporters, Trump’s willingness to be a braggart and a cad, not to mention a con man, was simply part of his mystique.
Like most folk heroes, Trump falsely portrays himself as the defender of the little guy, willing to break the rules to outmaneuver a deeply corrupt establishment that has abandoned the interests of a majority of Americans. They excuse Trump’s methods— which somehow always manage to line his pockets— as long as they believe, in some way, that he’s fighting for them. The fact that the leaders of both major political parties have, in reality, allowed large swaths of America to fall into despair, made Trump’s argument possible, and is one reason why the Democrats would be wise to avoid a candidate, like Joe Biden, who seems intent to run on the merits of the pre-Trump status quo. That’s a recipe for four more years.
If Democrats are going to truly take on Trump, they’ll need to honestly advocate for the interests of the little guy. And that means a fair-trade agenda, not “free” trade that directs all the benefits of trade to those at the very top. It means directing more resources towards improving America’s crumbling infrastructure. That was one of many campaign promises that Trump has failed to keep. It means ending the tyranny of college debt that our political establishment has hoisted upon the backs of young people, which has held back an entire generation. It means adopting universal health care coverage. It means seriously addressing climate change. And it means reversing Trump’s signature tax cuts for the rich, which should have convinced even some of his ardent supporters that the myth of Trump doesn’t wash with reality.
There is plenty more myth where that came from. Trump, like many folk heroes of the past, is no hero at all. Yet pointing out his many personality flaws— his vanity, selfishness, ignorance, and needless cruelty— is a waste of breath against Trump the folk hero. Democrats need to call him out on policy, not personality, because that’s where the real Donald Trump is exposed. They need, in the end, to show Americans that Trump’s biggest con of all is the notion that he cares, one iota, about the little guy. Like so many folks heroes of the past, Trump cares only about Trump.