Donald Trump
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Despite all the horrible things Donald Trump might do to the country I find myself obsessing about something else: what life lessons would a Trump victory teach?

I’m not talking so much about the kinds of things focus groups dislike: that he curses in front of the kids or makes fun of the handicapped. I mean something deeper. If he wins, what does this say about how the world actually works?

Being with a “winner” overrides everything.  Most Republicans are, in the end, going along with him. That validates Trump’s basic life philosophy that if you win, people will forgive you anything. You can even get away with humiliating opponents and allies, as the son of JFK’s assassin, Rafael Cruz, will attest.

Blessed are the wealthy. Early in the campaign, Trump said that if he won he would be the “most successful” person to have been nominated.  No one else had been more accomplished? Not George Washington, Thomas Jefferson or Dwight Eisenhower?  Obviously, in Trump’s mind, success is a synonym of wealth.

Trump supporters admire his wealth because, they figure, he must have been clever or hardworking to achieve it. Notably, the first evangelicals who rallied around Trump were not the old-line fundamentalists but the prosperity preachers who say God wants us to be wealthy and, implicitly, the truly successful are especially chosen. In other words, wealth is a sign of merit.

To me, there’s very little correlation between wealth and most positive character traits, even less so when the start-up money is inherited. But a Trump victory would seem to indicate that my view is in the minority.  Or as a Trump voter recently told us, “how crazy can he be if he made that much money?”

Popularity matters most.  Trump justifies everything on the basis ratings and popularity. Life is middle school.  In 2016 alone, he’s posted 31 tweets with the word “ratings” in them. He justified pushing the Birther movement on the principled ground that “people love this issue.” He defends including Roger Ailes on his team because he’s very successful. It’s all entirely amoral; popularity itself is the virtue.

It’s better to be less transparent. Although Hillary has been criticized for being insufficiently transparent, she has been far more open than Trump and has mostly been disadvantaged by that. She released donor lists for the Clinton foundation which led to investigative stories about potential conflicts. She released emails which led to more investigative stories. Meanwhile, Trump has taken the historic step of refusing to release his taxes – and, if he wins, will have gotten away with it. We know far, far, far less about his business empire and his financial relationships than we do about the Clinton foundation.

Money can buy you safety.   If his accounts of his sexual exploits are true, then it turns out money can buy you love, or at least sex.  But more important, money can buy you silence.  Trump uses his money to subdue people. His lawyers hound foes or litigate against those who had been cheated out of proper payment. Money probably even got Trump out of being labeled a rapist. His wife, Ivana, said in court documents that he pulled her hair out and sexually assaulted her. While not ultimately retracting the facts, she pulled back as part of an overall divorce settlement. Perhaps that was the ultimate case of money being able to buy him out of trouble.

Fake strength beats real strength. We’ve all seen people in the workplace like this. They try to show they’re strong by being bellicose or rude – or at the very least, supremely self-confident and declarative. Eventually it catches up with them, right? Surely, in the long run making the right decision is even more important than seeming decisive. Being quietly confident is rewarded over being showy.   Or not.

Fear mongering and scapegoating works.  It’s a cliché among politicians that hope and optimism beats fear and pessimism.   Apparently not. In fact, the real lesson seems to be you’re far better off being overtly racist than use dog whistles.

Lying works.  I’ve always told myself that persistent, obvious lying sometimes works in the short run but never in the long run. But what if, in between the short and long run, you get the big prize? Why not do it?

Cowards outnumber heroes.   Yes there are a few Republicans willing to go against him but the vast majority were willing to go along.  I’m not saying it would be easy to be a Republican and break with Trump. It would take guts, and some people might even have to risk their careers. But far more have decided to loathe him and support him. Perhaps the reality is that such bravery is the exception rather than the rule.

Viciousness is strangely alluring.  We’re taught to think that cruelty is a sign of moral failure or weakness — that bullies are really weaklings who are just one snowball-in-the-face away from  bursting into tears.  But maybe that’s not what we actually believe.  Perhaps on a deep level, we do equate viciousness with strength — doing what needs to be done.

Willingness to apologize is primarily a sign of weakness.  While some might conisder the capacity to apologize as a sign of confidence, ability to listen, basic human decency, strong relationship skills, or as a trait that separate us from reptiles, others view it primarily as a sign of weakness. A Trump victory would indicate that many if not most of us think the costs of apologizing outweigh the benefits.

Homework is for losers.  George W. Bush romanticized instinctual decision-making.  Taking time to make a decision, thinking it through, equated with indecisiveness. But Trump has taken it to a new level.  He almost defiantly refuses to do homework, elevating impulse-based decision to a virtue.

It’s not like Donald Trump invented all these horrible characteristics. They’re part of human nature and we see people like this around us all the time. But usually, in the long run, those who haven’t managed to keep their worst elements in check seem to fail.

The Founding Fathers feared that democracy would be ruined by a capitulation to our worst impulses. That’s why they thought virtue — driven by religion — was important. Religion is what would keep us from following our dark sides, or the people who appeal to them.

In that sense, Donald Trump is the most irreligious person ever to run for the presidency. I’m not referring to his not going to church much or his cursing.   I mean he makes no effort to suppress his worst traits. Quite the contrary, he celebrates them and puts them at the core of his message. So if that message succeeds, what does that say about how it all works?

Steven Waldman

Follow Steven on Twitter @stevenwaldman. Steven Waldman is the president and co-founder of Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. He is the author of Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody, and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedom. As senior adviser to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, he was the prime author of the landmark report Information Needs of Communities.