If the Democrats Aren’t Careful, Trump Might Get the Last Laugh

Early in December, a video circulated widely around the globe that showed a group of world leaders at an international summit — including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and then soon-to-be Prime Minister of Great Britain, Boris Johnson — appearing to mock Trump. The video prompted a tremendous outpouring of commentary and discussion about Trump’s standing and stature among world leaders.

In a characteristic treatment in The Washington Post, Michael Birnbaum and colleagues described the situation: “President Trump, who has demeaned his domestic political rivals for being laughed at around the world, found himself the scorned child on the global playground at a NATO summit here Wednesday, as widely circulated video showed leaders gossiping about and mocking him.”

In an op-ed column entitled “The World is Laughing at Donald Trump,” Post columnist Paul Waldman wrote that “For someone who has spent much of his life obsessed with the idea of being laughed at, desperate to gain acceptance from the elites he simultaneously scorns and seeks approval from…it must have cut him to the bone.”

From the moment he announced his candidacy in 2015, Trump proclaimed his intention to regain respect for America — and Americans — through the force of his will, his skill at making deals, and his ability to get things done. “We don’t want other leaders and other countries laughing at us anymore, and they won’t be,” he said.

“Yet now,” as Waldman wrote, “there is literally not a single person on Earth who gets laughed at more than Donald Trump.”

But his supporters are not laughing.

(Some of his more effective propagandists on Fox “News” parried the insult by trying to turn it into a positive for the president. For example, in a clever inversion of reality, Greg Gutfeld, co-host of The Five, argued that the so-called “laughing” incident was evidence of Trump’s strength, as it is common practice for employees to gossip about their boss.)

To many of his exasperated critics, the most confounding thing about Donald Trump is his ability to retain the loyalty of tens of millions of Americans, even after repeated public exposure of his gross misbehavior and manifest unfitness for the office of the presidency.

One way to understand this curious phenomenon is to think about the emotional and identity issues bound up with Trumpism. To be sure, some of Trump’s support comes from the traditional Republican constituency of upper middle-class and wealthy whites, who aren’t hardline Trumpers but do appreciate the money he’s put in their pockets via tax cuts and deregulation.

Similarly, his support from white evangelical Christians derives primarily from his aggressive pursuit of their policy agenda of rolling back women’s reproductive freedom and LGBT rights — among other hot-button culture war issues.

But Trump’s success at sustaining the devotion of his core of non-evangelical white working-class and middle-class supporters is not due primarily to policy. It has more to do with his intuitive skill at positioning himself as a vehicle for white grievance, especially white male grievance. This skill catapulted him from real estate heir, tabloid playboy and reality TV star all the way to the presidency of the United States.

Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign struck a powerful chord with white male voters, many of whom have felt embattled for decades in the face of challenges to their cultural centrality posed by the transformational movements for civil rights and feminism.

As the pioneering psychologist Carol Gilligan wrote in Darkness Now Visible: Patriarchy’s Resurgence and Feminist Resistance, “Trump’s sense of shamed manhood — never being taken seriously by New York City elites — elicited a response in many of the white men who voted for him because his rage and shame resonated with theirs. These men and their wives had assumed a hierarchy now very much under threat both from people of color and from trade agreements which led jobs to be moved overseas.”

According to Gilligan, in 2016 “It was evident, or should have been evident, that Trump’s policies would be less in the interest of those who voted for him than those of Hillary Clinton. But it was not rational self-interest that drove his election.”

Which brings us back to the world leaders laughing at Trump, and the cautionary tale it offers for 2020.

Countless supporters of Trump report that one of the things they love most about him is that he’s a “counterpuncher.” When hit, he hits back even harder. This was an especially appealing quality for white men who felt constrained about fighting back against “political correctness” and other attempts to limit their social power.

Trump capitalizes on this source of his appeal by employing a simple but powerful rhetorical technique: framing any criticism of him as criticism of them. Thus when he is ridiculed, they feel as if they are being ridiculed.

So when he fights back, he not only defends his own fragile psyche from the narcissistic injury that accompanies harsh judgment; he defends all the people who strongly identify with him.

When it comes to impeachment, the message that Trump sends loudly and clearly every day in his tweets and rallies is that in essence, the Democrats are not just impeaching him — they’re disrespecting the hard-working, (white) Americans who elected him. They’re impeaching them!

This is Trumpian identity politics in a nutshell.

After the humiliation of impeachment, many of Trump’s followers are licking their wounds and plotting their revenge against the “elites” who mock him, and them. Commentators across the political spectrum predict that anger over the impeachment will drive Republican turnout in next November’s election.

In that hugely consequential election, it is a safe bet that one of Trump’s most powerful messages to his base will be that the “elites” and their “deep state” henchmen don’t hate him as much as they hate you: your way of life, your values, your “patriotism.”

They’re laughing at you.

Vote for me to strike back against those condescending coastal (and Canadian/European) snobs!

That’s why Democrats have to be very careful about gloating over Trump’s impeachment by the House, something Speaker Nancy Pelosi clearly understands, as evidenced by her curt signal to her caucus to refrain from cheering when she gaveled home the impeachment vote.

Liberal and progressive commentators have to be cautious as well. They need to use language that signals to the electorate that they are resolute and united in holding Trump accountable for his self-dealing and shameless demagoguery, while simultaneously offering a way for people who voted for him or a third-party candidate in 2016 not to feel shamed and judged for it.

In particular, they need to craft a narrative that allows white men to oppose Trump with the same fervor and righteous indignation he and his allies in right-wing media will muster to defend him — and themselves.

If they can’t pull this off, the right will surely mobilize a tsunami of voters fiercely determined to defend their honor by doubling down on support for a man whose continued rule not only upends norms of civility and dignity in public life, but poses a mortal threat to the preservation of the rule of law and American democracy itself.

Author and expert on masculinities, politics, and culture. Creator and co-producer of “The Man Card: White Male Identity Politics from Nixon to Trump.”