observations and opinion
How a large ball of fur and teeth helped me understand the people voting for Donald Trump.
Yes, the puppy is cute. Piper is a large ball of fur, with quizzical eyes gazing out with curiosity. She bounds up stairs, falls down stairs. She’s cute as a button. But she’s also a royal pain. She may have been born in the middle of her litter, but she is the self-appointed queen of every domain she enters. No dog five times her size, is safe from a scolding bark – or worse. And no human servant is going to tell her what to do, unless they’d like to be bitten.
And so, after two months of trying every YouTube-video training technique and grinding through several books with no success, we hired Andrew. Andrew owns a boarding house for dogs and also, trains dogs. More accurately, he trains humans to teach dogs how to behave. He is teaching us that we are the alpha dogs in our pack and that Piper, despite her delusions of grandeur, is not.
Our job, Andrew says, is to make all of the decisions, all of the time. The only way Piper will learn to relent from her unnecessary and misguided leadership position, is if she trusts us to make decisions for her. We say when to sit. We say when to get up. We pick the pace, we yank the chain, we train her – physically – to stop biting everything around her. If we can step up and become the leaders of the pack, poor exhausted Piper will recognize that, and lay off.
The critical lesson that Andrew has provided so far, is that our puppy believes she is responsible for everything around her. As a result, she is constantly on guard, at attention and making decisions. It is deeply stressful. She has to choose where we walk, and at what pace, who we stop to sniff, which piece of furniture to chew, which pile of dirt to eat and which rug to barf on later. Decisions, decisions.
If we can lift the burden of decision-making from the dog, she will stop making so many bad choices. She will be more relaxed. She will become a Good Dog.
It was in the middle of this dog training that I finally understood the people who vote for Donald Trump. For those of us who have listened to Trump talk, thought about what he has had to say, cringed at his classless behaviour and grotesque comments, the “Trump voter” is a mystery. How could anyone admire this man? How could anyone be blind to his bullying, his cowardice, his brazen manipulation of bigotry, his rank hypocrisy? What is the matter with these people?
Some say they are disaffected, left behind by globalization and threatened by social change. That’s all true, but it’s also always true, at every election. There has never been an American candidate like this. This year, something is different.
What’s different now, is that someone has come along who is interested in the disaffected. He’s not interested in helping them, and he’s not just interested in exploiting them. What he offers them, is leadership. Real leadership – the opportunity to replace their own thoughts, with his. Someone who isn’t just asking to do their thinking for them – someone who in fact is telling them, NOT to think at all.
Donald Trump has offered himself as a leader whose grotesqueness replaces decency, whose tyranny substitutes for thought, whose authority makes democracy unnecessary. This is what is different in 2016: a leader has come who promises to lift the burden of decision-making from the American population.
What do we know about the Trump voters? We know that too many of them, make too many bad decisions. They drop out of school too early. They crash their motorcycles into walls and go on disability. They drink too much at NASCAR races. They get into fistfights. They call the wrong people “nigger” and get the crap beaten out of them. They get fired from jobs they really need. They buy the wrong trailer in the wrong trailer park and end up under rubble.
They make poor choices, and blame others for the consequences. These Trump voters have been bad, bad dogs.
But now they can be good dogs. They finally have someone who sees them – someone who cares enough about them to put a leash on them. Someone who will yank that leash. Hard. Someone who promises to fill their bowl, frequently. But more important, Trump offers them relief from the exhausting accountability of being a decision-maker in their own lives. A break from the biennial pressures of citizenship. He is their alpha dog.
Trump’s pack includes not only the predictable working-class white louts who are so easy to mock, but a surprising array of more affluent white louts: Chris Christie, alpha dog of New Jersey who was one of the first to surrender to Donald. Mike Pence, who tows the line with some evident discomfort. Paul Ryan, who pretends not to follow orders but will go along. The whole Republican Party now is “going along” like good little dogs. Ugliest of all perhaps is Rudy Giuliani, once a national hero, who would now jam a stick of dynamite up his own ass and light it, if Trump told him to.
Donald is their alpha. Donald makes all the decisions. Sit. Stay. Obey. Punch the protestors. Form gangs on Election Day to intimidate the opposition. Say anything. Be shameless. Vote.
All this sounds incredibly condescending and insulting to the Trump voters, because it is condescending and insulting. I’m not saying that Trump voters ARE dogs – they’re just as human as anyone else. They’re not dogs. They’re just behaving like dogs.
They have excuses (or reasons, depending on how sympathetic you feel). Many feel left behind by economic and cultural change. They can’t keep up, or won’t. It has been hard now for decades and it’s not getting easier. And “easier” is how they want it- they want to slide back to the time when you could make a lot of money in a factory, on the basis of no education and weak productivity. When straight whites got the jobs and chances in life, and other people did not.
Yes, that sounds condescending and insulting. But some of us know these people. Some of us grew up among these people. We know what we are talking about. And if you don’t have the benefit of that experience, hold your nose and listen to what they have to say: they feel pain, but they only feel their own pain. The only experience they recognize as legitimate, is their own experience. Intellectually lazy and morally hazy, the Trump voter – poor or rich, male or female – steeps in self pity and pisses blame.
Trump is very much one of them at heart, but he is also a titanic egomaniac. He smells an opportunity with them and has grabbed it. He knows people like to be bossed around (it’s what he does, indeed, it’s the one thing he’s really good at) and his entire pitch rests on that promise: “I will do whatever the hell I want, and you will obey.” This is impossibly puzzling and horrifying for many of us, but it is intoxicating for many others.
The rise of a demagogue is hardly new in human experience. It’s just new in American human experience. Now it is here, in the form of Trump and his voters.
The Trump voters actually exist in two packs: the casual and the intense. The casual ones reflexively vote Republican regardless of the circumstances. They may not be feeling much pain, but also don’t really care about the consequences of their vote. They’re lazy, take things for granted, don’t believe that Trump will do all the terrible things he promises to do. They’re cynics, willing to go along to get along. They are the casual Trump dogs. You know some.
The really true, loyal Trump dogs are a second group: they’re feeling pain, and for the first time in their lives have found someone to vote for who promises to take that pain away. These Trump voters want relief and in search of it, have abandoned their critical faculties. These are the opioid addicts and Donald is the big orange pill. They have traded rationality for a new deity. Instead of weighing information and making hard choices, the intense Trump voters have condensed all their mental activity into one big decision: the decision to follow Donald the alpha.
Suddenly, life is easier. Their disappointments are explained. Their decisions are all made. And so they love Trump, not just because of his so-called wit, or so-called success, or his impossible promises to turn back the clock to a time that never really existed. They love Trump because he has erased the need to think.
Indeed, to love Trump requires one NOT to think. They can get drunk, be crude, be rude, let loose their own worst instincts, fall asleep even. They can do it all, because someone else is driving the bus. Trump has freed his voters from the exhausting burden of freedom. They have been liberated from their liberty. They have adopted a profoundly undemocratic position, behind a profoundly undemocratic leader, because it is easier. They don’t have to worry anymore.
By making Trump their infallible leader, these people have put the choke chain around their own necks. They are begging for treats, and waiting to be told where to go. They have made themselves into dogs. If that sounds condescending and insulting, it is – condescending to those voters, insulting to dogs.
But still true.