Sunday, March 13, 2016

Donald Trump Knows Exactly What He's Doing: Politics, Theater, and Rhetoric

I live in St. Louis and teach at a community college. My classrooms (almost entirely made up of minority students) were abuzz with the news of Trump's presence on Friday. They don't like him, and they were angry that he was so close. Their anger was mixed with disgust, a disgust that extended not only to the man himself but to anyone who supports him. They cited all of the horrendous things he's said about people of color and immigrants. They talked about the young black protesters being assaulted at his rallies while he looked on with glee barely masked as disdain and encouraged the violence.

I share their anger, and I imagine that a lot of them felt the way I did later that day when they heard that protesters managed to shut down Trump's rally multiple times throughout the event: proud. I don't want my city to be seen as a place that welcomes this kind of rhetoric and vitriol. I mean, just look at this compilation of his aggressive comments that egged on violent attacks.

As Rachel Maddow points out in this video, St. Louis, Chicago, and Cleveland have a very powerful thing in common: they have been the recent sites of racial unrest and organized protests for racial equality. They were also all scheduled stops for Trump's campaign this weekend.

Leading up to these events, Trump has repeatedly bemoaned a "politically correct" country that is nothing like the "good old days" when peaceful protesters would have been "punched in the face" and taken out of the room "on a stretcher." As his crowd cheers such blatant calls for censorship, violence, and terror, he laughs that it is "so much fun." "We've become weak," Trump challenges his followers. We've let people "get away with murder" because they walk into a room and put their hand in the air with the "wrong finger" extended. Yes. Flipping the bird is getting away with murder, even if you are flipping the bird because you are protesting people literally getting away with murder. Of course, Trump tells his listeners "these people are so bad for our country" and "they contribute nothing." Once again he cites their raised middle fingers as such an insult that it not only can be justifiably met with violence. No, it is such a problem that it should be met with violence. Violence, Trump insists, is part of how we "Make America great again."

I think Maddow makes one mistake in this otherwise powerful compilation, however. She says that the Chicago rally that night "had" the be canceled because of the escalating threat of violence. She says that Trump's rhetoric is what led up to the violence erupting in Chicago, and I completely agree. However, I think that Trump wanted to cancel Chicago. He wanted to demonstrate just how "weak" our current climate is so that he could embolden his supporters to more aggressively "take it back" by voting for him.

She notes that they waited until the streets and speaking hall were filled with thousands of people on both sides of the debate before canceling and then just let them "fight it out," and she shows images of protesters and Trump supporters clashing to make an impassioned call for recognizing that this is not what politics is supposed to be in America. But I think that those exact same images are being circulated around Trump's community of supporters with a very different message: we're not being weak anymore.

Ignoring that reality is a mistake we can't afford to make. Everything about Trump's campaign suggests to me that this reaction is exactly what he wants, and it's playing perfectly into his overall strategy of political theater.

Umar Lee's article for The Nation on the St. Louis Trump rally says this:
Trump left St. Louis a weakened man, like a fighter who endured a lot of punishment in the early rounds. Chicago was the next stop. Thousands showed up to protest Trump at the UIC-Pavillion and in the end Trump tapped out and refused to speak. Trump submitted to the protesters in Chicago like Conor McGregor tapped to the rear-naked choke of Nate Diaz just days earlier.

St. Louis and Chicago were a lot less friendly than the town halls of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and the SEC Primary states. Trump leaves the Midwest wounded before the March 15th contests.
I'll gladly come back and eat crow if I'm wrong (and I guess we'll see when the votes come in Tuesday night), but I don't think that's the right interpretation of these events. I don't think Trump left the Midwest weakened. I think that he orchestrated a very specific theatrical event right before the Midwestern primaries because he knew exactly how much it would embolden his base and get out the vote, and he didn't give a damn how many people were bloodied in the exchange or what kind of racially-charged wounds it slashed in already-torn cities across America.

Consider the location for his St. Louis rally. He spoke at the Peabody Opera House in the heart of Downtown St. Louis. For comparison, Mitt Romney's 2012 St. Louis campaign stop was in Clayton, an affluent suburb with a majority white population. Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck teamed up to speak in 2011 and did it at the St. Charles Family Arena, a mostly-white St. Louis exurb that is more easily accessible to the supporters that filled Trump's rally. I can promise you that most of them had to travel to hear him speak on Friday. There are not many Trump supporters living inside the city limits.

I believe whole heartedly that he chose a Downtown location because he was certain that it would draw not just protesters (who would likely have shown up in scattered numbers even in St. Charles) but organized, passionate, focused protesters who would enact an orchestrated response. That's exactly what he got, and he used it to his advantage. Look at what he tweeted:

For a sense of just how valuable this was to his campaign strategy, look at the way it was reported by Brietbart. "Day of Trump-Hating Rage Began in St. Louis," the headline proclaims. It then shows pictures of protesters stomping on the American flag and notes how many times the "rowdy" crowd interrupted the event. 

And when the Chicago Tribune reported on the Chicago rally cancellation, they did so with this headline: "Trump Cancels Chicago Rally Amid Organized Protests." 

There it is again. "Organized" protests. Trump carefully chose to have his rallies in dense urban core locations where motivated, well-organized Black Lives Matter protesters have been working for months so that he could illustrate the "real threat" to the "good old days": organized minorities who are fighting for equality with well-orchestrated protests. 

Listen to sociology professor (and Turkish immigrant) Zeynep Tufekci speak about the historical significance of this strategy in this interview. She notes that Hitler would often schedule speaking engagements in beer halls to ensure that there would be clashes between protesters and supporters in order to enliven his base. 

And why does it enliven his base so much to see non-violent protesters bloodied and sucker punched? 

It's easy enough to chalk it up to pure, simple racism. As this SNL skit effectively lampooned, there is a very common thread running through his support system: 

But that feels a little unsatisfying to me. I personally know a few Trump supporters (though, for what it's worth, even my very conservative family seems mostly appalled at the possibility of this man becoming president). While racism is certainly a factor, it's not the blatant racism of the Klansmen or the neo-Nazi shown in the SNL skit. That's easy enough to recognize and (relatively speaking) easy enough to combat. (It's also worth noting that Trump's failure to disavow David Duke suggests he'll happily take those votes, too.)

I think that what a lot of Trump supporters are getting pushed up against is the discomfort of facing a world that might be righting some wrongs, the discomfort of equality (however slow it might be leaking in). 

This morning, I read this blog post titled "When You're Accustomed to Privilege, Equality Feels Like Oppression." Read it. 

The author uses a clever anecdote that doesn't bring up race or class. He talks about working as a server at a restaurant when a new hire named "Chuck" comes in and starts throwing his weight around. An intimidating guy, Chuck was hard to get along with, but his most nagging habit was that he would never be the one to step aside when there was about to be a head-on collision in the narrow restaurant aisles. Chuck acted as if he deserved the space more than anyone else, and one day the author decided to simply not move out of the way. When the collision knocked Chuck off balance, he was so enraged that he cussed the man out and shoved him in front of customers, one of whom complained to management about Chuck's behavior. 

Chuck, you see, didn't think about the author's right to the space. He only thought about his own. And when that right was (rightfully) challenged, he didn't see it as someone else claiming their own slice of the pie. He saw it as someone claiming his slice.

This is how privilege works. You don't usually know that you have privilege. You're just living life. Then all of a sudden someone else comes along and tries to take something away from you! It's enraging! You're not listening well enough to hear that they're actually just trying to claim what is rightfully, legally, and ethically theirs. You only know that it has always been yours and you do not want to give it up. He sums it up well: 
Equality can FEEL like oppression. But it’s not. What you’re feeling is just the discomfort of losing a little bit of your privilege… The same discomfort that an only child feels when she goes to preschool, and discovers that there are other kids who want to play with the same toys as she does. It’s like an old man being used to having a community pool all to himself, having that pool actually opened up to everyone in the community, and then that old man yelling, “But what about MY right to swim in a pool all by myself?!?”
And then he shows that this metaphor explains not just what's happening on the Trump side of the equation, but the other side as well: 
And what we’re seeing politically right now is a bit of anger from both sides. On one side, we see people who are angry about “those people” being let into “our” pool. They’re angry about sharing their toys with the other kids in the classroom. They’re angry about being labeled a “racist,” just because they say racist things and have racist beliefs.They’re angry about having to consider others who might be walking toward them… strangely exerting their right to exist. On the other side, we see people who believe that pool is for everyone. We see people who realize that when our kids throw a fit in preschool, we teach them about how sharing is the right thing to do. We see people who understand being careful with their language as a way of being respectful to others. We see people who are attempting to stand in solidarity with the ones who are claiming their right to exist… The ones who are rightfully angry about having to always move out of the way… People who are asking themselves the question, “What if I just keep walking?”
While I don't think that Bernie Sanders has a monopoly on people who care about equality in his camp, that seems to be the way the lines are being drawn. And, again, the man drawing those lines is the one playing the role both in front of and behind the curtain: Donald Trump.

Trump has publicly come forward to blame Sanders' campaign and its supporters for the violence. He even went so far as to threaten to send his supporters to Sanders' rallies.

I can't help but feel that move is the next step in a carefully-planned campaign strategy, and it has me legitimately worried. I don't believe that Trump will be our next president. I really do think that there are more people who recognize the need for equality, but I'm concerned about what the clashes will look like in the meantime--especially since the people who feel their privilege being infringed upon have some deeply rooted baggage and pain to go along with it.

While I don't agree with Umar Lee's conclusion that Trump has been weakened by the St. Louis protests, I do think that he's right about the particular mix of political history that made St. Louis such a powder keg for the rally. Lee writes about his own North St. Louis family members who lost jobs when factories shut down in the early 80s:
When I looked at the middle-aged men in the crowd I thought of my father. He grew up near Ferguson in the industrial northern suburbs of St. Louis. The first handful of African-American students entered Riverview Gardens High School as he was graduating. The school now is virtually 100 percent African-American. After growing up with white privilege in a unionized blue-collar area of segregated St. Louis County, he entered an increasingly diverse workforce.
And that loss of racial privilege hit those who already had a lack of class privilege particularly hard. Suddenly white blue collar workers who couldn't so easily cloak themselves in racial preference were competing head-to-head with people of color for jobs that they all needed to survive. It was much easier to focus anger on the person standing next to you than it was the big boss you might never see who was pulling the strings.

Trump's rhetoric speaks to these concerns as well. He rails against China and says that we'll build factories in America again. He knows about the hardships his supporters have faced, and he's building up the optimism and hope with one hand while he stokes the flames of anger and resentment with the other.

And the reason is simple: he doesn't care which motivation his supporters use to catapult him into power. He just knows what they want to hear. If they come and vote for him because they believe he'll change things for the better and produce jobs, great! If they come and vote for him because they believe that black protesters and immigrants deserve to be beaten as a sign of the country's strength, also great!

For Trump, there's no distinction. His supporters are a means to an end and nothing else.

It's working very well, and Trump knew that it would. Back in 2013, Trump was approached about running for governor of New York. He declined, but admitted he had a plan for the bigger prize of the presidency. And what's more, he wasn't going to pay for it. The media was going to catapult him to stardom for free. Just read Politico's report of this incident:
“He said, ‘I’m going to walk away with it and win it outright,’” a long-time New York political consultant recalled. “Trump told us, ‘I’m going to get in and all the polls are going to go crazy. I’m going to suck all the oxygen out of the room. I know how to work the media in a way that they will never take the lights off of me.’”
He's playing us. All of us. Those of us who loathe him. Those of us who love him. Those of us who scoff at him. Our roles were already written into this play before he set it into action, and I'm not even sure how we change the script, but I know it needs to change.

Images: Tim Hamilton, ulterior epicure

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