Donald Trump, Portsmouth, NH
Donald_Trump_Portsmouth_NH_3x2.jpg Caption (optional): Former US President Donald J. Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Portsmouth, NH, January 17, 2024. Photo credit: © Michael Reynolds/EFE via ZUMA Press

What kind of mass hypnosis would cause them to look at a cruel, corrupt, deranged criminal and see a bronzed, NFT-worthy, superhero savior?

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I didn’t begin by loathing Donald Trump. 

To me, circa 2015, he was a virtual nonentity, a dim star in the constellation Celeb, plying his trade in tabloids I never read and on TV shows I never watched.

Perhaps it was because I never had much regard for money per se or for the stuff and status that gobs of it could bring. Ostentatious wealth, bling, strutting and preening, the gilded life was a pure turnoff — strike one. I suppose in my own way I was a bigot. 

I was born and raised in NYC, but my father and I were die-hard pre-miracle Mets fans, sticking with our lovable losers through thin and thin. We lived in the Bronx but never rooted for the Yankees, who were, as dad put it, “the rich man’s team.” Owner George Steinbrenner was just another Trump — another dim star, good for a cameo, perhaps, in a feel-good movie. My interest crested at vague disapproval.

So when it first came to my attention that Trump was running for president — many months after his grand escalatory descent, of which I had been blissfully unaware — I had no particular reason to fear or loathe. I knew nothing of his xenophobic “rapists … and some good people” launch speech, or any subsequent spews, and even briefly entertained the notion that it might be good to shake things up after the disappointing Obama years and with the prospect of yet more disappointment in the person of centrist Hillary Clinton.

My partner set me straight. I remember a quick exchange with her just about when Trump was rising to the top of the crowded Republican field. I said something to the effect that at least he was better than Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio and she looked at me like I was nuts and said, “God help us if he gets anywhere near the White House!” She proceeded to tick off a whole list of reasons to loathe and fear. 

She asked me, “Have you ever heard him?” I hadn’t. So I did a little boning up.

Needless to say, I didn’t like what I saw or heard. Foreign, domestic, economic, cultural: To the extent I could distill prospective policies from the word salad of his rants, I couldn’t find a single one that was acceptable, let alone enlightened. Then again, given my own politics, that had been pretty much the case with Ronald Reagan and the Bushes, and would be true to some extent for the lion’s share of Republican (and even a few Democratic) politicians of an increasingly polarized era.

It was the disabled reporter that clinched it for me. Viewing the clip of Trump’s imitative mockery of New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski, who suffers from a congenital joint disease known as arthrogryposis, transported me back to the lowest moments of second and third grade. It was beyond me to imagine such stupid, gratuitous, and instinctive cruelty in an adult, much less a public figure, and one aspiring to lead our nation and take his place on the world stage. But there it was. Strike two three.

And it was followed by strike four — as Trump made it still worse by claiming he didn’t know Kovaleski, who had interviewed him numerous times, and shoveling some nonsense that he was just imitating a generic, confused reporter — strike five, strike six, strike seven… I rapidly lost count. 

From smirk to sneer, baseless innuendo to bald-faced lie, from puerile mockery to deadly threat, I took in Trump’s shtick until I couldn’t bear to anymore. Too sick, too foul, too nauseating. The perfect embodiment of the detritus that one hopes and prays will sink to the bottom of the tortured human oversoul and never rise to trouble the world. 

I rapidly developed a fulminant case of what his acolytes, ever the masters of deflection and projection, were to call Trump Derangement Syndrome.

A major symptom of my TDS has been a morbid fascination with just what kind of actual derangement would give rise to tens of millions of my fellow countrymen worshiping at the feet of such a monstrosity. What kind of mass hypnosis would cause this MAGA cult to look at a cruel, corrupt, deranged criminal and see a bronzed, NFT-worthy, superhero savior in whom all flaws, from superficial to deepest core, are automatically airbrushed and/or forgiven?

Trump Digital Trading Cards

Trump Digital Trading Cards. Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Trump Digital Trading Cards and Mohammad Shahriyar / Pixabay

Many theories have been advanced for Trumpism, for why it endures, prospers, and continues to threaten to take America down to dictatorial darkness. 

Perhaps the most popular is the idea that no one else was addressing the mass discontent of those who felt left behind in a new Gilded Age of obscene wealth inequality. According to this theory, Trump caught the working-class vibe and set himself up, absurdly, as the Tribune of the Plebs, taking on the coastal elites, the deep state, and the whole corrupt system, and doing it all for the powerless “little guy.”

The absurdity of this casting seems genuinely lost on pretty much all the MAGA little guys, who have abandoned in droves the leaders and representatives — at this point nearly all Democrats — who pass or attempt to pass legislation, decide court cases, and issue regulations that actually favor the have-nots, generally in the teeth of a unified MAGA-GOP resistance cheered on by Tribune Trump.

One might understand mass support for a genuine, or at least plausible, populist like Bernie Sanders. Trump in that role doesn’t even come close to passing the laugh test. And yet…

Then there is Trump as culture warrior, darling of the evangelicals, avatar and avenger of that golden past when, as Archie and Edith Bunker sang, “Goils were goils and men were men!” Here too, as with economics, Trump makes a singularly bizarre champion: a twice-divorced, self-professed pussy-grabbing, multiply-accused sexual abuser (and, in the eyes at least of the judge who tried one case, proven rapist), a strutting checklist of the deadly sins. And yet…

I could work through a long list of rationalizations for Trump’s singular, epochal appeal but there is one explanation that stands out to me as the MAGA deity’s superpower. 

It is his unfailing and uncanny ability to transform resentment into contempt.

Resentment is a funny animal. Vanishingly rare are the human beings who make it from cradle to grave without at least the occasional bout of it, and under the right circumstances it can easily become a chronic sentiment — the abiding sense that others, in one way or another, have it better. It comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes: personal, tribal, classist, racial, gender-based, historical, mild, consuming, evanescent, abiding.

We humans are nothing if not comparative and competitive. As Shakespeare famously put it: “Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope.” We award participation trophies to kids in a well-meaning attempt to hide the ball and perhaps mitigate a bit the harsh realities of the eternal rat race. But we are all — I suspect even the most enlightened and “evolved” among us — doomed to devote a good part of our psychic energy to looking up and looking down. It’s a big part of how we figure out who we are.

The “spectrum” from top to bottom — in talents, wealth, possessions, success, life experience — is very broad, far broader than it is for any other species of living creature. We look down with a sense of satisfaction and superiority, up with a sense of inferiority and shame. If the spectrum is a number line, say from 1 to 10, we come to know our number — often with remarkable, decimal precision.

You may find this overly cynical or reductionist, something approaching a Hobbesian view of a Darwinian struggle. And indeed, it is possible to make one’s peace with life’s fundamental unfairness, its plethora of inequities. The great religions try their hand at guiding us here — traditional Christianity, for example, with its “camel” and its “eye of a needle.” Their strenuous efforts and heavenly promises are testament to the enormity of the task.

It is a task that has become even harder in the “Information Age,” in which social media bathes us in the (curated) lives of others, especially the rich and famous. Influencers. 

This constant immersion has greatly exacerbated a mindset known as “relative deprivation,” a phenomenon of relentless comparison in which a lifestyle that might be satisfactory viewed in absolute terms comes to feel unacceptable relative to the superior yardsticks seen around us.

It may sound silly, but I think I can trace the roots of Trumpism back to a single television commercial from the 1980s: Michelob Light’s brilliant “Who says you can’t have it all?!” The ad campaign featured that catchy jingle accompanying footage of well-off, socially advanced, hunky young men and beautiful young women working out or chatting and laughing and sexing it up at some “in” bar downtown, while you watched — relatively bored, lonely, and forlorn — from your couch in some dowdy outer-borough walk-up. As Bruce Springsteen sang at about the same time, “Down here it’s just winners and losers and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line.” Except that, compared to these Michelob Light revelers, pretty much everyone else was meant to feel like a loser.

The formula is, in a way, simple: Not having or being enough makes you feel the need to be and have more, which makes you a better, more motivated consumer — not just of beer but of everything. And what better place to set the bar than at “all?” If you can have it all, you should have it all — so why the hell don’t you? Consumer capitalism runs on that empty feeling.

Today, social media marinates us in the Michelob mindset, the Michelob imperative. And not just young urban strivers but pretty much everyone everywhere is a target. The sense that what you have and what you are is not enough — that others, deserving or not, have it better; that still others are catching up, threatening to “replace” you — is pervasive, endemic. Is the nation’s bad mood any great mystery? The bewilderment, the shame, the anger, the resentment are palpable.

Enter Donald Trump. His speeches (and his posts), in both words and tone, throb with resentment. Everything, which once was great, is now awful! They stole my — uh, your — sacred electoral landslide! They’re coming for you — not just the murderers and rapists but the coastal elites and the deep state! And the judges. And the generals (formerly, my generals). And the Chinese with their Kung Flu. Peter (Strzok) and Lisa (Page) are making out in their little love nest; here, let’s listen to them climax!

It’s such an ugly world, full of imagined injury and insult; chaotic, treacherous, terrifying. And a world, too, where others always have it better, where others always take what’s yours, where others always have the pleasures, the orgasms, you’re not having. Such a bitter pill — and you take a bottle-full every day.

But here’s Trump’s little trick, his dirty-water-into-finest-wine alchemy. 

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Resentment comes with the feeling of being underneath, inferior, and that gets old

Trump takes all these objects of resentment and converts them to objects of contempt. From Serge Kovaleski in 2015; through the buried “suckers and losers” who gave their lives to their country; through hundreds of other targets, including many if not most of his “disloyal” former subordinates; all the way up to Maj. Michael Haley (Nikki’s husband, serving his country abroad as a member of the National Guard and thus absent — a la Melania Trump, albeit for very different reasons — from his campaigning spouse’s side) just a few days ago — Trump’s derision has been vile and relentless. 

He is a master of mockery and ridicule. His instinctive combination of scornful words (often word salads), sneering tone, and mocking gestures carries his audience along to a cheap high place from which they look down.

That is Trump’s empowering gift to his cult. And it is what keeps them worshiping at his feet. 

Facts and logic have little or nothing to do with it. Indeed, facts and logic would get in the way and gum up the works. 

Of course, any good magician needs a side-man, a shill — and Trump has a small army of them, from Fox News and the rest of the far-right media machine to his election-denying congressional echo chamber — to play along with the gags, ratify the lies, echo the warped logic, keep the emperor clothed. 

And, to be sure, the MAGA masses don’t need much persuading: They’re hooked on the feeling — of contempt, scorn, superiority. Like the lover in Fleetwood Mac’s “Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies,” they want to live in this fantasy world, in Trump World, and can’t bear the thought of going back. Any effort to drag them back will likely, as we have begun to witness, be met with violence.

This is what makes Trump so successful and Trumpism so dangerous.

Hitler comparisons abound today but the styles of the two demagogues could not be more different. Trump never bellows, never spits. He almost simpers — softly, seductively crooning his scorns, often trailing off mid-sentence as if he were just too tired, from giving so much of himself, to go on. As if he would be doing us all a favor by finishing the thought. 

It brings to mind Saruman, the true villain of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, who relied on his honeyed, ever-changing voice as a weapon to charm, bewilder, or cow all who listened. It is a weapon and a power not to be underestimated. 

This is not at all to say that the world is fair and beautiful and everyone should be content. It is only to acknowledge the reality that a single man with literally nothing constructive to offer — but with a singular talent, a superpower — has made himself the menacing pole around which our horribly divided, half-drunk nation is compelled to dance.

Jonathan D. Simon is a senior editor at WhoWhatWhy and author of CODE RED: Computerized Elections and the War on American Democracy.

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