To understand the Trump phenomenon, think of the line from the 1948 movie “Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” a line that was recycled in Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles”: “Badges? We don’t need no stinkin’ badges.”
Spoken in both cases by a heavily armed Mexican, the line expresses sneering contempt for an insistence on rules, regulations and official structures – really, for an entire way of life represented by an official police department entrusted with ensuring order and answerable to the public for its methods. The line might as well have been, “We don’t need no stinkin’ America.”
The candidacy of Trump has this character. Whatever it is that people have been told they need, he doesn’t have. He lacks constancy, integrity, charity, dignity, a sense of fair play, honesty, loyalty, tolerance, respect and modesty. He is uninformed, imprudent, careless, belligerent, disdainful, narcissistic, disorganized and indiscreet.
He is flamboyantly unwise.
And, at least in his own eyes, he is spectacularly successful, which, again in his eyes, more than justifies all the above. He don’t need no stinkin’ [fill in the blank].
A plausible candidate?
He would be a striking individual at any time. But why do so many people today view him as a plausible candidate for the most powerful office in the world?
What do people look for – what do they see – in a candidate for political office? Some candidates have presented themselves as gifted but sympathetic people who can understand the problems of ordinary people and can, as Bill Clinton once said to great effect, “feel your pain.”
Others, such as George W. Bush, have appeared actually to be ordinary, despite an extravagantly privileged upbringing. Still others have offered themselves as personifications of the aspirations of the nation, like Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, neither of whom pretended to be average Joes.
In almost all cases, the candidate represents himself or herself as a virtuous person. If we find out that they are less virtuous than they had claimed, that’s a mark against them.
Trump is different. His supporters see in him an image of life lived according to a completely different set of rules, or rather according to no rules at all, except, perhaps, “To the winner go the spoils.”
His wealth and prominence suggest to them that all the little rules they had been taught to follow, all the principles they were told were so important, were just so many attempts to deny them legitimate pleasures.
Trump’s supporters do not claim that he did not mistreat employees, purchase political influence, cheat investors, exploit women or bilk students at his “university.” To them, his general, indeed comprehensive fraudulence does not count against him, but merely reveals the fraudulent nature of the rule-governed life.
In this sense, Trump is not really a political candidate, but rather an embodiment of a fantasy of infinite power and freedom without costs (“the Mexicans will pay for it”), consequences or conscience.
A frontal assault on politics itself
His candidacy has united politicians of both parties against him because it represents a frontal assault on politics itself, on the entire earnest, orderly, rule-governed business of working with others in a system of checks and balances to make incremental change.
The most objectively qualified candidate for the presidency in American history, Hillary Clinton, is a perfect foil for him. Her entire history demonstrates, to Trump and many of his supporters, not evidence of competence or valuable experience but rather of her implication in a system they despise.
For Trump, every qualification of Clinton’s is a disqualification.
Indeed, according to Trump, virtually everything that politicians in both parties have done is, as he puts it, “a disaster.” No fact has been able to dislodge this conviction because it is not a conclusion based on evidence or argument but rather a way of seeing the world. For Trump and his supporters, it is a kind of wicked pleasure to look at all the official people, all those in authority of any kind, all those pious frauds, all those high-minded phonies with their stinkin’ badges and pronounce them unmitigated failures.
Many commentators have worried that Trump’s candidacy spells trouble for the future of the Republican Party. But the real threat is deeper.
The wall Trump is actually building, as opposed to the one he says he wants to build, is between American citizens and their own traditions, their own institutions, their own values, their own society.
Geoffrey Harpham, senior fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University, was director of the National Humanities Center from 2003 to 2015