I know someone who is a lot like Donald Trump, except he doesn’t have power or a lot of money. This person, whom I’ll call “Dave,” is bombastic, opinionated, and aggressive. His father divorced his mother when he was 8, and then Dave never heard from him again, until Dave sought him out shortly before his father died. Dave’s mother was difficult, the daughter of a narcissist, who was angry and abusive and generally frustrated with her life and limitations.
As he grew up, Dave’s mother remarried, and he gained a step-brother and two half-siblings. But Dave was insecure and had low self-esteem, in part due to years of emotional abuse from his hyper-critical mother. He entered the military, where he found a sense of family and belonging for the first time in his life. Dave didn’t have a lot of inborn identity, or sense of who he was, so he identified with the military and took that into his identity. He was a military man, a guardian of freedom and the American way. He was somebody now. An attack on the military was an attack on him.
Although his parents were solid Democrats, Dave became a Republican, because Republican ideals aligned more closely with military ideals. By extension then, a support for Republicans meant a support for the military, his family, his sense of identity. And from thenceforth, any attack on the Republican party was an attack on him.
Dave never went to college, couldn’t afford it, and had goofed off too much in high school to have good grades. But the military provided, sending him to technical schools so that he could learn to perform a highly specific job: build and maintain nuclear weapons. Dave was not stupid, inasmuch as his capacity for science and engineering went, and he thrived. He was proud of the specialized work that he did, and he felt that his ability to perform it meant that he was smarter than the average bear.
Dave secretly worried, inside, that maybe he wasn’t really smart enough or good enough to do anything—his mother had told him so repeatedly. So he latched on hard to anything that would prove otherwise, and an attack on anything he had latched hard onto was an attack on him.
The thing is, one did not have to actually attack any of the things that Dave had decided were central to his identity. One had only to disagree with Dave, and the attack would be thus perceived. I witnessed the father of a friend of mine casually mention politics to Dave; the man was a Democrat. In tone, speech, and body language, Dave made certain that this man knew how wrong he was. He was strident, boorish, and unkind. I wanted to hide under the table.
You see, Dave was my father, and I spent many years figuratively hiding under the table when he went on the attack. He had a peculiar talent for imparting icy, dripping, disdain for the other person. He behaved this way to my mother’s entire (very large) family, letting them know with certainty how far beneath him they were. They were country bumpkins; he was an intelligent person.
Dave’s personality was not only constructed by his military and political alliances; it was constructed with his own white, male privilege. This is incredibly common, particularly for those who do not have a strong sense of self. So even in the military, his black coworkers were beneath him, he condescended almost daily to my ignorant mother (which was unfair, since she had the common sense he lacked), and he had a clear idea of what was “women’s work” and what wasn’t. I was also acutely aware that it would have been better if I were a son instead of a daughter, but as I was the only child, I would have to do.
Dave was visiting us once while our carport was being rebuilt by the insurance company (that’s a long story). The men working on the roof were Hispanic. One of them came to the door with a question. Dave was, predictably, horrible, and humiliated him about his speech, or his accent, or whatever, before deigning to provide an answer. My wife was nearby, horrified. When the man left, Dave turned to her and said, “HE’S not doing a job an American wouldn’t do!” Ahnna relayed the story to me later, and I realized why my smiles and greetings to the workers went unreturned. We were all marked as racist assholes.
As a warrant officer in the military, Dave could order people around. He liked this. A lot. I once saw him go after a soldier who passed him on the sidewalk without saluting and dress him down. I was appalled. No getting lost in your own thoughts, soldier. At home, Dave tried to run things in much the same way, once yelling at me, “I not only want respect, but by God, I demand it!” As you might guess, I lost any respect I had left for him in that moment. Nevertheless, the way to get things done, in Dave’s view, was to scream a command. My mother, being the strong-willed narcissist that she is, was the only one who could cow him. The implicit threat that she might abandon him (as his father once had) was enough. Theirs was a pure love-hate relationship: he loved her codependently; she hated and tolerated him.
I could easily see my father as the boss on The Apprentice, barking at people, enjoying their suffering. My father often stated that if he were put in charge of this country, he’d have everything straightened out in two weeks. Because, you know, he’s a genius, and no one else is. Trump’s words at the Republican Convention, “Only I can fix it” reminded me of my father. Only dictators, tiny (in Dave’s case) or large (fill-in-the-blank), think like this.
For my father (and Trump), there exists only his suffering. If his needs are met, but other people are lacking in those needs, it doesn’t concern him. He is not affected, and if others suffer, it must be their own fault or stupidity. Trump operates much the same way. He has his; to heck with you. Whatever cements his power, feeds his ego, validates his self-perceived greatness and intellect—that is all that matters. Trump has millions of naïve people cheering him on, so he will continue whatever is necessary to keep winning that love. For Dave, his validation came with the arbitrary power of rank. After he retired from the military, that shield was no longer available, and he struggled to keep a job. (He was laid off three times.) While he was often competent to do the work, that had to be weighed against the pain of his bombastic attitude and condescension to his bosses. Trump, as his own boss, doesn’t have that problem.
I suspect that a number of the people who voted for Trump resemble my father a great deal. They are insecure, clinging to superficial identities, such as “whiteness,” a construct that is meaningless. They feel aggrieved, victimized somehow, but they aren’t sure whom to blame. Those brown people, maybe. Then along comes someone just like them, who says the same things, but from a position of power and wealth. This is how fascist dictatorships are made.
Of course, not all Trump voters are like my father. I think many of them are confused, but sure about one thing: something is wrong in our country. And something is wrong. The wealthy people running the show have been funneling money upward for years, to the detriment of our entire society. And yet, it’s easier to blame immigrants, poor blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, gay marriage, or what have you. These are the equivalent of gladiators in the ring: distractions from the real problems.
What’s the answer? I know I can’t reach people like my father. He’s as mentally ill as Trump so clearly is. You can’t negotiate with someone like that. But compassion, not just for those who are being hurt, but for those who do not see or cannot be reached, must figure in somehow. Attacks raise defenses. They don’t work. Resist? Yes. But continue to reach out, or at least be compassionate. It’s our only hope.