Now that Donald Trump appears on the verge of launching a presidential campaign, it is worth reflecting on the meaning of this low moment in American political history. Trump is a clown and a buffoon, and the odds of him winning even one Republican caucus or primary appear slim. But there is no denying that Trump has managed to tap into something genuinely worrisome in American politics. Democrats may be tempted to take pleasure in the fact that Trump will likely push the GOP presidential field to the right, and thereby help Obama in 2012. But this would be sheer myopia, and any delight over Trump’s arrival on the political scene is entirely misplaced. The Trump ascendancy calls not for glee, but for serious concern about the state of our country.
It’s true that the media erred in awarding Trump such a large spotlight—did all the cable news networks really have to cover his press conference on Wednesday?—but, at this point, the Trump phenomenon does not seem to be a mere media creation. His popularity (he currently leads in several polls) can no longer be denied. So what is Trump’s appeal? Why do his message and vulgar personality resonate with such a significant percentage of Americans? Trump’s embrace of birtherism has been the most widely discussed aspect of his rise. But this only scratches the surface of the Trump phenomenon.
What Trump actually stands for is an exaggerated sense of victimhood. This is the theme that unites his personal style with the political views he has thus far expressed. Are you tired of being pushed around? Are you tired of our country being pushed around? Trump’s political acuity lies in his ability to take these grievances and turn them into politics. His foreign policy views in essence consist of a pledge to bully other nations.
Trump’s thinly veiled accusation that President Obama benefited from affirmative action when he applied to college derives from the same theme. This time the victims aren’t Americans as a whole, they are white Americans; but the message—of anger, resentment, and victimhood—is identical.