As 2015 winds to a close, the attempts to understand the rise and persistence of Donald Trump as a Republican presidential contender inspired New York Times reporters Patrick Healy and Maggie Haberman to dive deep on 95,000 words of Trump’s remarks from the five months he has been on the campaign trail.
“The most striking hallmark was Mr. Trump’s constant repetition of divisive phrases, harsh words and violent imagery that American presidents rarely use, based on a quantitative comparison of his remarks and the news conferences of recent presidents, Democratic and Republican,” Healy and Haberman wrote. “In another pattern, Mr. Trump tends to attack a person rather than an idea or a situation, like calling political opponents ‘stupid’ (at least 30 times), ‘horrible’ (14 times), ‘weak’ (13 times) and other names, and criticizing foreign leaders, journalists and so-called anchor babies. He bragged on Thursday about psyching out Jeb Bush by repeatedly calling him ‘low-energy,’ but he spends far less time contrasting Mr. Bush’s policies with his own proposals, which are scant.”
Trump’s harshness extend even further, whether he’s suggesting that Fox anchor Megyn Kelly’s tough questioning was prompted by menstruation; imitating a reporter with a disability; or suggesting “maybe [a Black Lives Matter activist who interrupted a November Trump rally and was attacked by the crowd] should have been roughed up.” Each of these outbursts was hailed as the certain end of his campaign. Now, the coverage has shifted to marveling at the way Trump’s campaign keeps rolling on despite moments that would be deadly for any other campaign. But I think it’s time to move on to a third stage of discussion that treats this meanness as the core to Trump’s appeal, rather than a distracting sideline.
As Healy and Haberman note, us-vs.-them dynamics have been a powerful force in American politics in decades past. And Act Four columnist Sonny Bunch wrote in August that pop culture, particularly Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing” and “The American President,” has for years been urging audiences to embrace straight-talking political candidates who theoretically cut through the obfuscation of other politicians. The joke on liberals like Sorkin and his fans, Bunch suggested, was that the candidate who employed this method of straight talk most successfully wasn’t a left-leaning academic like Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen), but a showman like Trump.
Yet if there are broad templates for Trump’s rise in both American political history and American popular culture, there have been more recent and specific cultural signs that Trump’s coarseness would be the key to his success rather than the definitive weakness that brings him down.
Take Gamergate and the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies controversies over this year’s Hugo Awards.
Both cultural movements — the first aimed at video gaming, the second at the preeminent award for science fiction and fantasy writing — were responses to the gains that women, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people, and people of color had made in mediums and genres historically dominated by white men. Both were animated by the idea that video games and science fiction and fantasy writing had been corrupted and damaged by the increasing prominence of these new constituencies. And both movements were animated by the idea that extraordinary action was necessary to defend against these incursions, whether that meant intimidating certain video game creators and writers out of the business or advocating for agreed-upon slates of candidates for this year’s Hugo Awards.
All three of these elements are hallmarks of Trump’s candidacy. Immigrants may be the enemy instead of feminist video-game critics or non-white fantasy authors. Trump’s signature “Make America Great Again” hat is both a way for his campaign to make money from the sales of apparel and bumper stickers and an articulation of Trump’s core idea: that America is in decline and needs a winner like him to halt the skid. And while Trump doesn’t have to dox anybody, his fascinating, freewheeling Twitter presence has some stylistic flourishes in common with some of Gamergate and the Hugo movements’ stars.
It might be easy for left-leaning critics to condemn Gamergate and the Sad and Rabid Puppies as crude in their execution and mistaken in their analysis, just as it’s a layup for political commentators to point out that Trump’s language is outside the norm for national politics. It’s much harder to reckon with the real constituencies these cultural movements and Trump have attracted — or to find effective responses to them. Criticizing Gamergate constituents or Trump fans as crude or bigoted becomes proof that Gamergate leaders and Trump are speaking truths that others have tried to exclude from public discourse. Condemning Gamergate or Trump ideas as violent or absurd becomes evidence that these tactics are effective. You can’t shame someone who sees your standards of what’s polite and what’s decent as an attempt to suppress a frank conversation America badly needs, an idea that became explicit in a Twitter conversation this summer:
It’s true and important to point out that the same characteristics that make it so hard to argue effectively against these sorts of movements also often end up limiting their efficacy. Zoe Quinn, one of the targets of Gamergate, landed a significant book deal for a memoir about the experience, and Scarlett Johansson may play her in a movie adaptation. Hugo voters rejected the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies slates; many of the categories this year were awarded to no one. And Trump may not end up as president of the United States. Even if he wins the Republican primary, he’s likely to be going up against a candidate whose superpower might be the only effective Kryptonite to the harshness that makes Trump appealing to so many voters: Hillary Clinton is never more popular than when she’s under nasty, sexist attack.
But whatever the result of this election, it’s worth taking a lesson from this year in cultural uproar, and the real damage that has been done to the video gaming and science fiction and fantasy communities, as well as to national political discourse along the way. Liberals can feel self-satisfied by distinguishing themselves from Gamergate, or the Sad and Rabid Puppies, or the supporters of Donald Trump. But that’s not exactly the same thing as beating them for good.