The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Does the American electorate have daddy issues?

Donald Trump, shown here in July on the campaign trail in Colorado, is the “father figure” or “strict dad” America needs, in the words of some of his supporters. (Evan Vucci/AP)

A question that should be asked at the next presidential debate: Does America have daddy issues?

Donald Trump is the "strict dad" that America needs, said a 56-year-old emergency-room nurse last week at a rally in Melbourne, Fla.

"He's the kind of man you would want to be your dad," a Los Angeles Trump supporter, whose son was killed by an undocumented immigrant, said in July.

"He's the father figure I always wanted," a hairstylist told the Boston Globe in December. "I feel like he's protecting me."

“Trump reminds me so much of my father,” Jerry Falwell Jr. told Fox News.

Put aside the Oedipal stuff, the queasy sexual undertones of “father complex” — our emotional hang-ups, the whiff of fetish. America’s daddy issues might stem from the fact that our first experience with governance is our family unit. A parent is in charge, and traditionally, it’s Dad. Our politicians worship the Founding Fathers, the ur-daddies, the bigwigs in wigs. We can’t make any decisions, as a nation, without asking ourselves, “What would our Founding Fathers think?”

They’ve been dead for 200 years. We’re still trying to please them.

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The hyper-partisanship of today — and the campaign of Donald Trump — might be understood through two kinds of family forms: the “nurturant parent” family (liberal) and the “strict father” family (conservative), according to George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley.

In the strict-father worldview, Lakoff says, there is a moral hierarchy led by dominant forces: God above man, man above nature, rich above poor, adults above children, our country over other countries.

“Trump is the ultimate strict father,” Lakoff says. “It’s in everything he does. It’s in his body language. Conservatives tend to think in terms of direct causation: Build a wall, throw them out, use the bomb. Direct causation everywhere.”

Maybe this is too academic. Certainly some Trump supporters like him because they like his policy positions. But maybe some of Trump’s supporters secretly like him because he’s seven inches taller than Hillary Clinton and a man. On CNN in April, “Dilbert” cartoonist Scott Adams, who has opined extensively about the Trump mystique this year, predicted the general election would be about Mom vs. Dad.

“The thing about Dad is that Dad is kind of an a-hole, but if you need Dad to take care of some trouble, he’s going to be the one you call, you know,” Adams said. “If there’s a noise downstairs, you’re probably not going to call Mom, even if she’s awesome. You’re probably going to call the biggest person in the room.”

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Dads puts food on the table and insecurities in our brains. Barack Obama didn't really know his dad, so he wrote a whole book about him. George W. Bush's dad was president first, which is a lot to live up to. Bill Clinton's was married four times and died in a car wreck while the future president was in utero. ("I'm still waiting," Clinton wrote in his memoir, "hoping there will be one more human connection to my father.") Hillary Clinton's dad was a tough guy who withheld praise and berated her mother. (Hillary was a "daddy's girl," brother Hugh once said.) Fred Trump's "life was business," says Donald, who turned out much the same.

Donald Trump's employees view him as a "patriarch" more than a boss, Trump Organization Executive Vice President Michael Cohen told the Jewish Chronicle Online.

And yet the Trump children and Chelsea Clinton are routinely deployed to remind voters that their parents are, in fact, parents. “Yes, Donald Trump is my father,” the Trumplings imply as they praise him, “and he can be yours, too.”

Same goes with Chelsea.

"My earliest memory is my mom picking me up after I'd fallen down, giving me a big hug and reading me 'Goodnight Moon,' " Chelsea said before introducing Hillary at the Democratic National Convention.

Don’t worry. Mom and Dad are here. But you gotta pick one.

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Campaign 2016 seems like an exercise in infantilization. Or like a reenactment of "Kramer vs. Kramer," with Trump setting the kitchen on fire as he tries to cook breakfast and Clinton defending her maternalism from the witness stand. Or like a CBS sitcom starring Kevin James: When Tim Kaine and Mike Pence faced off in their only debate, social media jokingly compared them in the context of gee-whiz fatherhood.

Kaine is the Boy Scout troop leader asking whether you want cheese on your burger.

Pence is the youth minister who’s disappointed by your chalk drawings outside the entrance to church.

Clinton conspiracy theorists attempt to humiliate her with claims that her husband fathered children out of wedlock. Trump’s critics attempt to emasculate him by highlighting his patrimony.

"He was born with an inheritance but lost his daddy's wealth," Democrat Harry Reid said on the Senate floor in September. "He wants everyone to think he's this big, rich, rich man."

And many people do. Stern and resolute, Trump has promised to make everything better if elected. “The Apprentice” established his reputation as a hard-to-please disciplinarian, which he cemented on the campaign trail. His moral hierarchy is stone cold.

But what was the final sentence of his law-and-order acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention?

“I love you.”

Tough love. A strict father’s greatest gift.