Trump’s CPAC lovefest was widely received as somewhat goofy. Comedian Jimmy Kimmel roasted it, and CNN commentator S.E. Cupp devoted a column to the essential strangeness of the flag-grab. But this wasn’t the first time Trump has plumbed the depths of his heart for political messaging. By his own account, Trump loves: “clean, beautiful West Virginia coal,” “the poorly educated,” “the evangelicals” and much more.
Trump’s effusive love may or may not be the result of calculated strategizing, but it’s not a bad tactic, even though it’s rhetorically bizarre compared with most electoral speech. He seems to intuit that decent swaths of Americans struggle not only with a poverty of material resources — which his policies have worsened — but also with a poverty of dignity and with emotional destitution that comes from being thought little of, mocked, ignored and dismissed by mainstream culture.
In his forthcoming book “Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America,” writer and photojournalist Chris Arnade — who worked on Wall Street before turning to his documentary work — photographs and interviews dozens of people who suffer from this dual lack. “This is not a book about ‘how we got Trump,’ ” Arnade warns, but he adds that “learning to see the country differently may help answer questions about the 2016 election.” The new perspective Arnade offers has to do with focusing on the kinds of emptiness “that cannot be measured” but that nonetheless alter the course of lives.
The people Arnade spoke to feel “stigmatized, ignored and made fun of,” he reports, and “with good reason. My circles, the bankers, businesspeople and the politicians they supported, had created a world where McDonald’s was often one of the only restaurant options — and we make fun of them for going there. We pretend that the addicted take drugs because of bad character, not because it’s one of the few ways they have to dull the pain of not being able to live good lives in the economy we’ve created for them. We tell them that their religion is foolish and that they shouldn’t expect to be able to earn a living unless they leave their hometowns.”
Arnade found that the dignity deficit appeared across a broad racial and geographic spectrum, though it’s worth noting that Trump’s brand of loving approval is always aimed at a narrow, white slice of that range. But for those people — who do feel belittled and disaffected — how powerful must that affirmation be. Trump doesn’t just promise to change their conditions but emphatically insists that they’re good, that they’re worthy, that someone as important as the president of the United States sees and loves them. Snuggling an American flag looks eccentric. But if one of your primary claims to pride is being an American, and you feel that liberal politicians, celebrities and pundits are constantly besmirching an important source of your dignity, it likely comes as a welcome reprieve. (And I don’t doubt that even the most ardent Trump fans recognized the gesture as a little tongue-in-cheek, though earnest in overall intent.)
Trump may have simply stumbled upon the power that’s possible to reap by addressing his base’s urgent need for affirmation. But it’s a useful object lesson for other politicians, too, especially as we head into another election season. It may be that the old beer quotient — the idea that you’re more likely to vote for the candidate you’d most like to sit down and have a beer with — needs to be turned on its head. It’s not so much whether you think you would like a candidate, but rather whether you think they would like you.
And so it seems that Trump, oftentimes obstinately callous and cruel, knows a thing or two about love, at least in its needful political applications. His love may well have been the engine of his strange rise and his continued grasp on his base. The question for 2020 is whether there’s a candidate available on the left who can (or will) convey a better, broader version of it — something grandly affirmative, but nonetheless sincere, that can tend to every wound.