Yesterday, Chris Cillizza had a fascinating article about two focus groups conducted among "Walmart moms" and their views on Donald Trump. Generally, their views were favorable, even when confronted with evidence of his sexist views.
Also, yesterday, my housemate was listening to Trump speak at a rally in Rhode Island, and my housemate could not stop laughing. "He can’t help himself," he said between guffaws. "You couldn't script this. It is pure stream of consciousness."
Not for the first or last time, Mr. Trump provokes wildly different reactions.
The Walmart moms were women with children under the age of 18 who had been to a Walmart in the past month. They were all Republicans and they were evenly divided among those already supporting Trump and those supporting someone else. One focus group was in suburban Pittsburgh and the other in suburban Philadelphia.
In an effort to dig down into people's underlying attitudes and elicit more than a mere mimicking of what one hears on TV, the Walmart moms were asked what kind of car or animal they think of when they think of Trump. A Porsche, a Ferrari, a muscle car, an Escalade, a bulldog and a lion were some of the responses. Wealth and power are the common denominators among those responses and, as Cillizza points out, people like Porsches or at least imagine themselves enjoying having one. Here we can identify a chief problem for Trump’s challengers, including Hillary Clinton: Americans raised on "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" have adopted a passive, vicarious enjoyment in the riches of others, even, perhaps especially when those riches are displayed in gross overstatement.
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Think of the 80s TV shows "Dynasty" and "Dallas." Everyone watched them. People focus on Trump's time as a star of reality TV, but I think a candidacy like his only became plausible when a generation of people grew up watching the nighttime dramas about the filthy rich. Before that, it was considered somewhat unseemly to flaunt one's wealth, on TV or in real life. Yes, the Kennedys and the Roosevelts had expansive estates in Hyannisport and Hyde Park, and there was a glamor that attached itself to their lives. But, they did not flaunt their wealth the way the Carringtons and the Ewings did. TV families before the 1980s were decidedly middle class, like Dick Van Dyke or the Bunkers. Something changed in the culture in the 1980s. Frugality, that core Calvinist value that had so defined early America, was consigned forever to history. People did not feel resentment at these portrayals of lavish wealth. They ate it up.
Donald Trump seems like a character from one of those shows, does he not? He puts his name on every building he can. He conducts interviews in the marble bedecked lobby of Trump Tower. He has his own plane, also with his name emblazoned upon it. Trump boasts about how rich he is and then turns it to his electoral advantage by making the case that other politicians are bought and paid for, a charge that has resonated in both parties this year. The fact that his long business career has involved ill treatment of employees is not more important to these Walmart moms than the fact that Walmart, too, engages in business practices that have caused real harm to them and their friends.
The Walmart moms also commended Trump because he "tells it like it is." After years of our hearing politicians be evasive at best, perhaps Trump's manner of speaking in stream-of-consciousness mode has a certain appeal. This has been one of the most frequent attributes heard from his supporters. Nonetheless, this is kind of ironic because Trump often says things that are obviously untrue. He has repeated in recent weeks that he is beating Hillary Clinton in the polls when the polls all show him losing to her, and losing badly. He clearly does not understand certain questions, or has not thought through the consequences of his instincts, as seen in his effort to answer Chris Matthews' question about whether or not a woman who procures an abortion should be punished, or when he was asked about the nuclear triad during a debate. Yet, people think he "tells it like it is."
What Trump does do, and what provoked such guffaws from my housemate, is that he tells it the way he sees it, whether his vision corresponds to reality or not, and he tells it in a manner that is so unscripted, the Walmart moms can be forgiven for thinking he is telling it like it is. If you are well read, or a news junkie, you see the vast gulf between reality and what Trump says about it. He began his rise to the GOP front-runner status by calling for a wall along our southern border, a wall that would be paid for by Mexico. Of course, if he knew anything about the border, he would know that in many places, it is permeable and appropriately so. A friend was in El Paso for Pope Francis' visit to Ciudad Juárez. They crossed over on a pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Ciudad Juarez and on the bridge saw a family with gifts and birthday balloons: The bridge connected family members on both sides of the border. Indeed, El Paso and Ciudad Juárez were once a single city with no border between them, a Franciscan mission that spanned the Rio Grande. Where would Trump put his wall? And how would people get through it to attend a birthday party?
At his rally yesterday, Trump's speech went from trashing the "collusion" between Sen. Ted Cruz and Gov. John Kasich, dismissing their effort to avoid splitting the anti-Trump vote as "pathetic," to condemning NAFTA. Then back to the Cruz-Kasich pact, then back to NAFTA. Within the space of five minutes, he must have mentioned NAFTA 10 times, but his criticism was not thoughtful or sustained. It was a slogan, that's all. My housemate laughed but I suspect the Walmart moms didn't care.
The fall election will tell us not only who will be the next president but whether more people inhabit, and enjoy inhabiting, the world of the Walmart moms, where Trump's lack of coherence and inability to speak truthfully matters less than the force with which he utters his pronouncements, or more people live in the world were facts are checked and coherence is still a virtue. We would be foolish to think the numbers are on the side of my scoffing housemate. A lot of people shop at Walmart every month.
[Michael Sean Winters is a Visiting Fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]