Donald Trump is a carnival barker rebranded as a presidential candidate. It is no surprise Trump is good at luring passersby into the big top—attracting attention has always been his gift. But an enduring mystery is how he manages to remain popular even when he does or says something that seems likely to torpedo his campaign.
In light of Trump’s resilience, political commentators have spent much time speculating about his supporters’ motivations. The list of potential motivations is long, and includes, among other rationales, racism, class warfare, misogyny, xenophobia, and his authoritarian style. There are certainly kernels of each within his congregation. However, these motivations do not clue us in to a curious strand of Trump’s appeals, which is a promise—as opposed to the avoidance—of disaster.
As a rhetoric scholar, I write and teach about how people use language to achieve goals. Donald Trump’s “goals” are rather uncertain, but his language displays a distinctive appeal to disaster. Unlike other candidates, however, he does not promise to avoid disaster; rather he promises to bring it about. Peppered among his signature self-congratulatory declarations are assurances he will confront world powers, wipe out opponents, unleash bombs, and topple entrenched interests. In these assertions, Trump bluntly commits to bringing disaster to the world. Examining this appeal can help explain what supporters find so enticing about him.
Longing for Clarity
Before I elaborate on Trump’s uses of disaster rhetoric, I want to suggest a specific way to think about disaster. For the past several years, graphic designer and filmmaker, John Koenig, has been developing what he calls the “Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.” The DOS is a collection of terms invented “to give a name to emotions we all might experience but don’t yet have a word for.” Around the time Trump floated the suggestion Muslims should be registered in a database, the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows added the term lachesism.
Lachesism is “the desire to be struck by disaster—to survive a plane crash, to lose everything in a fire, to plunge over a waterfall—which would put a kink in the smooth arc of your life, and forge it into something hardened and flexible and sharp, not just a stiff prefabricated beam that barely covers the gap between one end of your life and the other.” It is the desire for a momentous rupture in the steady progression of life. Of course, people are not necessarily eager to experience catastrophic disaster, but there is the sense—celebrated in recent post-apocalyptic phenomena such as The Walking Dead and Mad Max: Fury Road—that disaster reveals who people really are when the niceties of civilized society are stripped away.
The subtitle on the video that accompanies the definition of lachesism is perhaps even more evocative. Lachesism is “the longing for the clarity of disaster.” It names the desire to experience a life-altering disaster that will shed light on what is truly important. In a post-disaster moment, the complications of modern life are exchanged for moral, physical, and primal certainty. In promising to “Make America Great Again,” Trump embraces—even exemplifies—this kind of purifying disaster.
Donald and Disaster
According to Trump we are already in a period of crisis, if not outright disaster. One of his oft-repeated themes is America is constantly losing. “We don’t win,” he is fond of saying. “It’s really a terrible thing. I mean, our country used to win all the time. We don’t win at all anymore.”
Trump’s assertion reinforces a consensus that Washington is broken, political parties are broken, the economic system is broken, and so on. “Look, our country is going to hell.” In Trump’s formulation, though, America’s current state of disaster is a slow, steady decay that does not reveal fundamental truths in the way a typhoon or nuclear holocaust does.
It is in this distinction—between disasters that result in more complication and those that result in less—that Trump’s rhetorical appeals become comprehensible. What Trump offers is to bring about a clarifying disaster to replace the slow, muddying disaster in which we are currently ensnared. He promises a cataclysm to destroy ISIS, decimate Chinese economic dominance, erase undocumented immigrants, and obliterate political gridlock. He also promises to clarify his followers’ place in the world (which, of course, is at the center).
Trump’s supporters are not concerned about his lack of policies for solving the country’s disastrous descent. They care that “the system is broken” and “Someone is to blame, and someone has to pay.” In promising that he will make someone pay, he offers his supporters a form of disastrous revenge; and even when they acknowledge he may not make a better world, people seem reassured that he will generate the kind of disaster that results in purity, truth, and certainty.
Trump’s appeals to disaster allow him a certain amount of leeway to be bombastic. He courts disaster, which is part of the appeal of his “anti-PC” style. His apparent lack of concern about consequences reaffirms the sense that he is operating outside of—and in opposition to—the system.
Avoiding Donald, Averting Disaster
Trump’s appeal to the clarity of disaster invites different thinking about his effects on the electorate. Arguments that he is too simple, vulgar, frivolous and arrogant, or untrustworthy—to say nothing of specific arguments that he would be disastrous—do little to unsettle his effectiveness. In fact, they may increase voters’ faith in his disastrousness, and therefore, increase voters’ support of him.
Whatever other motivations arouse Trump’s supporters, the promise of disaster and the accompanying promise of clarity in the aftermath cannot be underestimated. One lesson is that anyone who wants persuade Trump supporters to switch allegiances needs to carefully weigh his unique investment in disaster rhetoric. The one thing everyone seems to agree on is that Trump would spell disaster for the American political system; but the repetition of that theme only feeds the conviction that such a spectacular failure would result in disastrous clarity.