Tom Nichols of The Atlantic has a simple question:
…I have been baffled by one mystery in particular: Why do working-class white men—the most reliable component of Donald Trump’s base—support someone who is, by their own standards, the least masculine man ever to hold the modern presidency? The question is not whether Trump fails to meet some archaic or idealized version of masculinity. The president’s inability to measure up to Marcus Aurelius or Omar Bradley is not the issue. Rather, the question is why so many of Trump’s working-class white male voters refuse to hold Trump to their own standards of masculinity—why they support a man who behaves more like a little boy.
I believe there actually is a simple answer.
For Nichols, he’s perplexed because the working class men he grew up around would generally look down on a person like Trump. They don’t easily show their emotions and they don’t brag about their sexual exploits. Their word is their bond, and a handshake means something. Working hard without a lot of complaint is considered virtuous even if individually there’s always some griping.
Trump exemplifies none of these ideals, but he’s able to accomplish something else that these men value. And the reason he can do it is because he has the one thing they definitionally lack–power.
Nichols eventually gets around to this explanation when he says, “I think that working men, the kind raised as I was, know what kind of “man” Trump is. And still, the gratification they get from seeing Trump enrage the rest of the country is enough to earn their indulgence.”
Ordinarily, a man who complains about how he has been treated is demonstrating weakness, and the same is true of someone who always tries to pass the buck. Someone who brags about his accomplishments is considered annoying and insecure, and even more so if they take credit for others’ work or exaggerate their own role. But Trump does these things from the White House as the commander-in-chief of the most fearsome armed forces assembled in the history of man. When he lashes out at his enemies, he’s not doing it as some ineffectual worker bee who can be squashed by his employer. This makes all the difference.
For months during the 2015-2016 Republican primaries, Trump’s most effective campaigning tactic was to dismiss every criticism by pointing people to the polls, which showed him in the lead. If people questioned his expertise, he said “I’m rich, I’m famous, I’ve slept with a lot of beautiful women.” These boasts were true enough, and they separated him from the average Joe who might try to elevate himself over his peers.
The most important thing that Trump does to win working class support is pick the correct enemies. He insults the people who make working class folks feel inadequate, or who at least seem to lightly regard their virtues. He also picks at the things that make white working class folks uncomfortable, which most definitely includes the increasing diversification of the country.
And, finally, Trump may play the victim in a very unmasculine way, but stoicism is much more of an ideal than a reality. Working class folks, with plenty of justification, feel like they’ve been getting screwed for decades. Trump gives voice to that, including in the realm of so-called “religious freedom.”
Some people have tried to argue that Trump’s support is rooted in male sexual insecurity, but that’s too narrow. It’s rooted in insecurity in general. People have enough to worry about with their jobs being outsourced that we don’t need to ask how many of them have been googling about erectile dysfunction.
Above all, Trump is a spectacle. He’s entertainment. And his show is almost entirely dedicated to insulting people who have either flourished while the working class has foundered, or who seem to look down on religious folks who work with their hands for a living. Trump goes after the cultural enemies of the white working class, and he actually makes them suffer. He’s not ineffectual, and so many people get a visceral thrill out of his performance.
There are still tens of millions of white working class men and women who see right through Trump and dislike him for all the reasons that Nichols believe they should dislike him. But they’re a minority.
Yet, they could be a majority before long. One key to Trump’s political success is that he doesn’t create negative consequences for his base. But that’s no longer true with 40 million Americans out of work. Suddenly, Trump’s act isn’t so funny, and more people understand directly that you can’t run America like a reality show.