For three years, we have been told what Donald Trump is. We have been told that he is a racist, a xenophobe, a misogynist, a white supremacist, a demagogue, a Russian spy. The charges vary from extreme, unproven and serious to the bizarrely particular and trivial. We have for instance been repeatedly told that it is important that he has tiny hands, or silly hair, or eats McDonald’s.
Whether or not you agree with the many criticisms of Trump, there is one charge that supporters and detractors admit the truth of: Trump is divisive. But what does that mean? It does not necessarily mean, as the mainstream media always tell us, that he should be hated or considered dangerous. It could just mean that he reveals the deep faultlines in contemporary politics. Ironically, it is the continual vicious determination of his opponents to tell us how to view him that causes these divisions. Anti-Trump invective has had an effect on both sides of the debate. It has hardened the attitudes of supporters and opponents to the point at which Trump is no longer discussed as if we are talking about a human being. To his enemies, he is everything that is wrong with traditional ‘white America.’ To supporters he is ‘God Emperor Trump’, the last defender of an embattled set of American values that are everywhere threatened.
He is not a person, nor even merely a president. He is a symbol.
The US is a nation which from its very inception has had a peculiar genius for turning men into symbols. George III was not merely a king, but for revolutionary polemicists the living symbol of tyranny. George Washington became a symbol of rectitude, endurance, perseverance. Sometimes whole groups of people assumed this symbolic role as personifications of good or evil: the Pilgrim Fathers, the Mountain Men, the Puritans, the settlers, the cowboys and the Indians. When we think of the US we think of a line of human beings elevated into the pantheon of symbols, and this is true whether we are talking about politics (Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln), sport (Babe Ruth, Jesse Owens) or entertainment (Elvis, Monroe, Eastwood, Madonna). This is the nation that truly embraced and spread the idea of celebrity, and sometimes celebrity cut adrift from achievement.
Take last week’s outrage over his tweets against the so-called ‘Squad.’ These were reported as racist with no analysis of why that is the case. The outrage only emphasizes Trump’s transition from human to symbol. To huge numbers of people, the tweets represent racism, regardless of substance; that makes them racist. Trump himself seems to have a sense of this process and to deliberately guide it when he can. That is a major function of his Twitter account. He knows that the more hate is directed at him, the more supportive his own base, who have every reason to detest a media and a political elite that despises them, becomes.
The interesting aspect here is the ‘unsophisticated’ Trump voter understands exactly what Trump represents to his enemies, but the apparently sophisticated have no idea of what Trump represents to his supporters. They genuinely seem to think that these supporters want white nationalism or white supremacism, they believe their own fantasies about what the other side thinks. But the truth is that, as hateful as he is to his enemies, Trump represents something entirely different to his fans. He represents freedom.
The US heralds itself as the ‘land of the free’ but like all nations in which a large state is combined with a united political and media class, the lives of the ordinary citizen have become less free. More and more state bureaucracy means less and less individual liberty. The people who support Trump do so because they hate being hectored, bullied, and controlled by an increasingly intolerant ‘liberal’ minority with power. They don’t like being told what to think, what to say, what to do in every aspect of their lives. The instinct for freedom that told their ancestors to rebel against the British survives. Trump knows that.
Mainstream media talks a lot about Trump ‘doubling down’. It has done so in relation to the latest tweets scandal. Doubling down horrifies pundits. He says something that they find offensive, they scream and whine and distort the meaning of what was said, they use their magic attack words like ‘racist’, ‘white nationalist’ and ‘xenophobia’. They demand an apology, the backtrack.
But Trump doesn’t give them that. He denies the thrill of the fanatic, which is to see the chastised submit. Instead, he repeats himself. He points out that some countries are indeed ‘shitholes’. He points out that anyone who hates the country they reside in has the option of leaving. He ‘doubles down’, which is essentially media code for ‘he horrifies us by not submitting to us’. In this way he becomes a symbol of good for everyone who does not believe that he is a symbol of evil.
Trump’s greatest crime, and his greatest triumph, is to become a living example that you do not have to submit. You do not have to apologize. You do not have to back down, or grovel, or confess. You are free unless you accept your chains. What message is more hopeful or American than that?