Outrage and Outrageousness: The Secret to Trump's Popularity

Part 1: Why is Trump’s outlandish behavior so alluring to conservatives?

Posted Mar 18, 2016

Youtube Public Domain
Source: Youtube Public Domain

The Gripes and Grievances of Today’s Discontented

Given their more traditional social, religious, and moral values, political conservatives have had much to complain about. Changes that many of us might consider progressive—that is, more or less favorable developments in our culture and economy—have left them outraged. They’ve felt that the System has discriminated against and abandoned them. So they’ve longed for some “Rocky” to represent them: a champion, savior, hero, or protagonist who’d stand tall and right all their perceived wrongs. Or at least provide a militant voice for their incendiary anger and hatred. And, of all people, they’ve chosen the vulgar, brazen, bully, elitist billionaire Donald Trump as the one candidate most likely to “have their backs.”

This article will try to shed light on why those who have become so infuriated by the government—and the corporate lobbyists recognized as dictating its policies—have become so virulently antiestablishment. And how they now look to “the Donald” to vindicate them, to help them recapture what they feel has been taken away from them. So, if I regard as somehow regressive this not insubstantial portion of our (aggrieved) population, it’s because they so acutely miss what in the past they thought they could justifiably take for granted.

So exactly what have they lost? Or what do they fear they’re on the verge of losing? Much of what feels threatened to them may be more imagined than real. Still, they remain warily anxious, perhaps almost paranoid

Take gun control, for example. Despite all the mass shootings that have taken place in the past two decades, our government has done almost nothing to limit their constitutional right to buy guns—and some of the most lethal automatic weapons at that. But watching TV news (especially Fox) has led them to conclude that this “God-given” privilege is under serious jeopardy by ever-restricting “liberals.”

And why does unregulated gun ownership feel so critical to them? Mostly because, given the long-established principles that have given them dignity and superior status as males, possessing firearms enables them to hold onto the last vestiges of family rank and authority. Symbolizing their manhood, it affords them a sense of power and strength, which over time has eroded and led them to feel less in control. Implicitly, they view guns as “self-fortifying,” helping them maintain some masculine standing in a world experienced as increasingly marginalizing them.

Beyond this personal threat, in a variety of ways they’ve been forced to recognize that, more than ever before, minorities, foreigners, and women are now their economic equals. As a result, they’re plagued by feelings of fear, anger, hostility, resentment—and for some (even more to the point) rage.

Consider, too, their negative ideological stance on immigration—and, more particularly, on immigrants. Among other things, they see these “outsiders” or “aliens,” by necessity all-too-willing to work for low wages, as robbing them of jobs that rightfully belong to them. And they view these non-natives as driving down their earnings generally, making it impossible for them to get ahead—or even remain in the middle class.

Additionally, they attribute the increased violence in the country to those that simply “have no business” living side by side with them. Whether or not we call them White Supremacists (and various studies indicate that many of them can’t easily be classified as such), it’s unquestionable that they feel extremely threatened by many core elements of our (corrupted) democracy. In their eyes, it’s a democracy that has treated them unjustly and, without even realizing it, they assume that somehow a more “patriotic,” authoritarian leader like Trump would restore them to their proper station in life. Furthermore, Trump’s openly negative stance toward the different trade agreements that have so hurt them economically makes their allegiance to him all the more steadfast—virtually impervious to his verbal aggressiveness and vulgarity, which  otherwise might offend them. .

After all, it’s been several decades since these individuals felt they were prospering. And they’re keenly aware that Wall Street and the “professional/business class” have (compared to themselves) done handsomely—while shipping many of their own jobs oversees; that African-Americans are economically gaining on them (even electing one of their own as President!); and that their traditional values are being threatened by the increased acceptance of gays and gay marriages, atheists, and all sorts of, well, “weirdos.”

Government, too, is seen as more and more antagonistic toward them. Environmental regulations, for instance, limit what they used to be able to do with impunity (witness the so-militant, far-right Bundy protest movement in Oregon). In short, they see themselves as handicapped and oppressed. And that’s left them in a self-righteously indignant—and rebellious—state of mind.

Interviewing Michael Kimmel, who has written a book on male gender issues, Mark Karlin (in “Key Attraction to Trump Is His Authoritarianism, Study Finds,” Truthout, January 19, 2016) mentions Kimmel’s description of “the actual and perceived growing loss of entitlement and privilege among white males,” asking the author whether this translates to “white males . . . mad as hell that women and minorities aren’t kept in their place anymore by white men, and [that] white men are losing their jobs and patriarchal status as a result?” In response, Kimmel emphasizes that, finally, this frustrated outrage has less to do with race and gender than it does with class—or white men feeling “de-classed.”

But Kimmel hastens to add that “outlier” Tea Party women, too (comprising no less than 40 percent of the Tea Party), also feel disenfranchised by socioeconomic developments. In his words:

They resent having to work, they resent losing their ability to be homemakers and wives. They believe, as do the men in the movement, that what they call “Big Government” or the “Nanny State” has feminized their men and kept [them] from being the responsible breadwinners and providers to which they, as women, also felt entitled.

Moreover, consider Jay Frankel’s essay “The Traumatic Basis for the Resurgence of Right-Wing Politics Among Working Americans” (Psychoanalysis, Culture and Society, 20 [2015], 359-378). In referring to the rhetoric of politicians who endeavor to attract Tea Party conservatives, this author’s sentiments complement Kimmel’s. For he discusses how Republican politicians, by actually encouraging the white working class not to lose faith in their nationalist or ethnic superiority, appeal to their sense of dispossession and abandonment. However deceptive (or even deliberate) their tactics, that’s how they’re reassured that they’re the “real Americans,” the ones most exceptional, entitled, and deserving—certainly superior to whatever other groups these politicians may choose to scapegoat. Such “demagoguery” is seen by Frankel as offering the underprivileged the fantasy, or “narcissistic compensation,” they so desperately seek, which thereby impels them to end up voting against their own interests.

NOTE 1: Part 2 of this 4-part post focuses on how Donald Trump embodies precisely the qualities that would lead the disaffected I’ve described to “latch on” to him. Part 3  explains how Trump Republicans can be distinguished from other Republicans. And finally, part 4 discusses the “political incorrectness” of so much of Trump’s language (particularly its sexism), and then sums up the various reasons for the unprecedented phenomenon that Trump’s campaign represents.

NOTE 2: Later posts of mine, complementary to this one, are "Trump: How Dark Is His Dark Side?", "Is Truth in the Eyes of the Beholder?", and "Donald Trump: Is He as Unpredictable as He Seems?"

NOTE 2: If you could relate to this post and believe others you know might, too, please consider forwarding them its link.

NOTE 3: If you’d like to check out other articles I’ve written for Psychology Today—on a broad array of topics, many of them focusing specifically on the subjects of anger and narcissism—click here.

© 2016 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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