Folks are angry: 1 percent controls 90 percent of America’s wealth. Corporate types “pay to play.” Coal mines, oil refineries and factories have closed, leaving small towns hollowed-out shells. People work harder but get paid less. Some 47 million Americans live below the poverty line; 28 million have no health insurance.
Suicide rates double among hopeless rural youth over urban youth. Struggling from paycheck to paycheck, rural folks sense their values of faith, family and hard work are demeaned while they’re attacked as small-minded “deplorables.” People in “fly-over America” worry of Muslims with bombs, gays with AIDS, Mexicans with drugs and “urban youth” rioting, while the “liberal elite” attack Christmas trees, complain about cage-fed chickens and fixate on who can use what bathrooms.
Enter the Donald Trump Reality TV Show and a chance for the downtrodden to throw a brick through the status-quo’s window.
Obviously, Trump followers are not racists or Nazis — at least, they didn’t root against Indiana Jones — but some feel they’ve become everyone’s punching bag. As a wise Oklahoman warned: “Don’t (urinate) on my leg and tell me it’s raining!” Some say Trump is a master manipulator, but when you hear a warm-up speaker (right-wing Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke) say it’s “pitchfork and torches time in America,” the question should be who’s using whom? Trump, brimming with Hefnerian values, is no ideologue himself but has branded himself as the voice of The Angry.
Psychologists tell us that seething with anger releases soothing endorphins; for anger addicts, it feels good to feel bad. And even if watching the Trump campaign at times feels like watching a zeppelin slowly flying toward the docking station in Lakehurst, New Jersey, loyalists love the fact that Trump apologizes for nothing because, well, they don’t either.
Remember in July 2015 when former Texas Gov. Rick Perry said of Trump’s insulting of U.S. Sen. John McCain’s military service: “As a veteran and as an American, I respect Sen. McCain because he volunteered to serve his country. I cannot say the same thing of Mr. Trump. His comments have reached a new low in American politics.” Yet Trump engages many because he has no shame. When a veteran presented to Trump what appeared to be the veteran’s Purple Heart, the casino mogul, who avoided serving in the military because of bone spurs, replied: “I always wanted to get the Purple Heart. This was much easier.”
Trump initially denied a quote attributed to him by John O’Donnell, former president of Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, saying (1991): “Black guys counting my money! I hate it. The only kinds of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day . . . . That guy is lazy, and it’s probably not his fault because laziness is a trait in blacks.” Later, when confronted about this explosive quote for an interview in Playboy (1997), Trump admitted, “The stuff O’Donnell wrote about me is probably true.”
But now all is forgiven because Americans are angry. Instead of Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America,” Trump sees a disturbing dystopia where it is “Midnight in America.” Remember his telling Fox News, “We have cities that are far more dangerous than Afghanistan.” Really?
Clearly, in an understandably hostile age, hateful screeds of nativist paranoia are good politics. Still, maybe it’s not such a good idea to entrust the presidency to the Mighty One behind the curtain. Hopefully, steady reason will prevail and our nation will awaken from this feverish dream of anger and find healing from a bitter, divisive political year.
A. Christian van Gorder is associate professor or religion at Baylor University. His books include “Three-Fifths Theology: American Christianity Confronts Racism.”