The Bigger Bully hypothesis

Warning: contains discussion of current political matters. I know, I’m not happy about it either.

Just like most Americans I’ve been watching the Donald Trump campaign with stupefied curiosity. Surely this is a joke, right? It’s going to end soon? And it keeps not ending. There’s a very real chance he could be the next president. What is happening?

While I was still trying to make sense of it all I came across a Daily Beast article that I thought was the best take I’d seen: How the P.C. Police Propelled Donald Trump. Excerpt:

It’s pointless to try to explain Trump in terms of political platforms because Trump himself is too stupid and too incoherent to have any kind of consistent political views about anything beyond hating minorities and immigrants. Nuclear weapons? “With nuclear, the power, the devastation is very important to me.” Drugs? “That whole heroin thing, I tell you what, we gotta get that whole thing under control.” A random word generation program could do better.

To understand Trump’s seemingly effortless seizure of the public spotlight, forget about programs, and instead zero in on the one complaint that seems to unite all of the disparate angry factions gravitating to him: political correctness. This, more than anything, is how the left created Trump.

The extremist adherents of this new political correctness have essentially taken a flamethrower to the public space and annihilated its center. Topics in American life that once were the legitimate subjects of debate between liberals and conservative are now off-limits and lead to immediate attack by the cultural establishment if raised at all. Any incorrect position, any expression of the constitutional right to a different opinion, or even just a slip of the tongue can lead to public ostracism and the loss of a job. (Just ask Brendan Eich.) There is a huge vacuum left by this leftist attack on speech, and Trump is filling it.

There’s more, and it’s worth reading, but I’ll cut it off there. I admit it’s an oversimplification, I don’t endorse it 100%, but it was the first thing I read that made any sense of the campaign’s success, and it was one of the first from a decent-sized media outlet that didn’t try to condescend as much as possible to its subjects—that would have been satisfying, perhaps, but not very useful. It led me to my current working hypothesis: Trump supporters feel bullied, so they rally around a bigger bully.

People will disagree with the statement that they are actually bullied. As with any social phenomenon it’s complicated: I think their belief is justified on some margins and unjustified on others. But that’s not even the relevant point. The point is they feel bullied. I can already see the reaction “Good, they should feel bullied.” That, too, is orthogonal to this discussion.

Let’s use an example that in news cycle time is ancient, but happened less than a year ago: the episode with the Indiana pizzeria whose owner’s daughter said it would refuse to cater a gay wedding. Remember that?

Kevin O’Connor, who owns Memories Pizzeria in Walkerton, Ind., with his two children, spoke with the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday, shortly after his daughter’s comments to a local television reporter went viral and made his restaurant the latest battleground in the national dispute over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Critics have denounced the legislation, calling it an invitation for business owners in the conservative state to discriminate against gays and lesbians.

Although he supports the legislation, O’Connor told The Times he did not make a public decree that he would not serve same-sex couples, nor did anyone ask him that question.

But in the television interview, which led thousands to attack his business on Facebook and on Yelp, his daughter Crystal said she would flat-out refuse service to a gay couple who asked to have their wedding catered.

You might remember the storm of criticism, calls for boycott, and threats made against the place. You’re less likely to remember the flood of donations the place got in response to the criticism. I bet Trump is picking up support from a lot of these donors who felt that a very common belief about the traditional Christian faith of their country was now under attack.* Again, I know a lot of people think this belief should be under attack, that religion is no cover for discrimination, etc. The trouble with governance is you have to work with the people you have, not the people you wish you had. Sometimes they need a push, but be careful lest they push back.

Moreover, opposition to gay marriage was very recently the Democratic Party’s position as well, and hardly any member of the left argued that President Obama early in his term deserved to be excommunicated from polite society for it. It’s like the mass of the cultural left thinks the cultural right doesn’t remember anything.

It’s not just gay marriage. I doubt Trump ever had strong feelings about it either way, though as a wealthy New Yorker who was at least nominally a Democrat he probably wasn’t dead-set against it. (Thankfully that’s a settled issue now anyway. Also, a surprisingly large percentage of its opponents several years ago supported civil unions, for what it’s worth.) It’s many things, but really it’s a feeling. That’s why the Trump campaign is so light on substance, even lighter than the usual fare for national political campaigns: they know substance isn’t the issue. The attitude that the candidate will speak his mind, no matter how stupid the rest of the world thinks it is, no matter what the actual question was, that’s the appeal. It’s why media takedowns of his ridiculous rhetoric don’t hurt his poll numbers. Of course the media would say that, his supporters think.

I can already imagine a reader responding that some things are bad and should be driven out of society. I agree. But the process matters. I’m sure if Georges Clemenceau could have seen the future he would have pushed for a less punitive settlement after World War I than he did. Fiat justitia ruat caelum is for the very, very exceptional case, not a recipe for ordinary governance.

I know this isn’t the complete explanation but the more I think about it the more sense it makes. Hopefully I won’t have to keep developing it for too much longer.


* Whether that belief about the Christian faith, that having said faith obligates one to oppose gay marriage, is true or not is a separate issue, although it certainly didn’t help that many non-Christians were at their condescending best explaining to Christians what their own faith really meant.

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Author: rfmcelroyiii

Student and instructor of economics.

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