The American Conservative's Rod Dreher is interesting here about a phenomenon that is affecting conservative pundits in the face of the Trump candidacy:
Last summer, as my father lay dying, I sat by his hospital bed watching a Trump rally in Mobile with him and my mother. I listened to the things Trump was saying, and thought it was absurd, and surely the American people would wake up to the demagoguery. But my parents liked what he had to say. Trump’s words resonated with their own thoughts and experiences.
You know what? They might have been wrong in their political judgment. I believe they were. The point here is not that my parents were wrong and I was right. The point is that I could not grasp how anybody could believe what Trump was saying. Nobody I knew from my circle of intellectual conservatives could grasp it either. We assumed it would evaporate. And here we are, on the verge of the Iowa caucuses, with Trump poised to sweep to the nomination.
Trump voters may be blind, but so are we who did not see him coming, or foresee the political, economic, and cultural conditions that produced him.
They believe what he's saying because they already believed it. Trump's worldview aligns with their own. Dreher thinks of himself as an intellectual and that means he thinks in principles, but most people don't. It's not about the conservative brand or principles; it's about what feels right or wrong, and what feels right or wrong for most people is shaped by beliefs formed when they were kids, and those beliefs were shaped for most by their family acculturation. Some people move on from early worldviews and beliefs, but, again, most don't.
I've been reading Perlstein's The Invisible Bridge, which is mainly about the rise of Reagan. And what's most striking about the portrait that emerges there is the way the late 19th century American ideal of a stouthearted manhood shaped his worldview and sense of identity when he was a kid. Teddy Roosevelt was a lot smarter in the IQ sense than Reagan, but they both shared this Gilded-Age adolescent fantasy of becoming the adventure hero as shaped by the potboiler fiction of the post Civi War era. This is for them what it meant to be a real American and a real man. Most of us outgrow these fantasies, but Reagan and Roosevelt did not. Perlstein is interesting on this:
In Ronald Reagan’s chaotic Childhood the imagination was armor. There is nothing unusual about that; transcending the doubts, hesitations, and fears swirling around you by casting yourself internally as the hero of your own adventure story is a characteristic psychic defense mechanism of the Boy Who Disappears. He pushes doubt and confusion from the forefront of his consciousness with the furious energy of a boy who fears that if he does not do so he might somehow be consumed.
The strategy can backfire, however, when the boy becomes a man and must finally face the austere everyday ambivalence and incoherence of the adult world. The long delayed realization that one’s fantasies do not actually map reality can leave behind a wrecked grown up more alienated, helpless, and terrified than he ever was before. Which is why most people, with greater or lesser degrees of success, simply grow out of it.
But Ronald Reagan was not like the rest of us. He was, in this particular sense, a much stronger man. Perhaps it was that he worked out in the psychic gymnasium of boyhood fantasy with ten times the furious determination of an ordinary boy. Perhaps it was a more mysterious gift. However the outcome was achieved, it’s not a controversial point to make: turning complexity and confusion and doubt into simplicity and stout-heartedness and certainty, Ronald Reagan’s power was simply awesome. As an athlete of the imagination, he was a Babe Ruth, a Jack Dempsey, a Red Grange. (p. 48)
I think this might be one of the keys to understanding the Trump phenomenon. There are lots of talented people but the phenomenal success enjoyed by Roosevelt, Reagan, and Trump lay in their being stronger than the rest of us in clinging to the hero fantasy. I believe there are real heroes, but they are usually ordinary people who rise to the occasion when circumstances demand it of them. These are people who don't think of themselves as heroes, but who act heroically. The difference between that kind of heroism and the kind that shapes the identities of people like Roosevelt, Reagan, and Trump is that their deepest sense of identity and imaginations of themselves are rooted in the idea of being "special" because they are heroes The world is a stage on which they enact their heroic destiny. There are worse ways to be delusional, but I think it's important to recognize that this kind of dreaming is fundamentally delusional and self-alienating.
There is something so profoundly shallow and stunted about this kind dreaming, and yet there is something so quintessentially American about it. It's at the heart of American exceptionalism, which is so unhooked from the weight of the corrupt old world and notions of original sin. America is so strange that way: on the one hand it is Puritanically obsessed with evil and the depravity of man, and on the other obsessed with starting over, with the reinvention of the self, with dreaming dreams untethered to the past or to reality in general. Americans create their own reality.
I used to think that Moby Dick was our great national epic, but I'm leaning toward thinking that The Great Gatsby should have equal billing. Moby Dick tells a story that is saturated with one man's self-destructive obsession. Gatsby's obsession is the other side of the coin from Ahab's obsession, but it is equally self-destructive. that is analogous the self-destructive fantasy Fitzgerald's Gatsby. Nixon and Cheney were Ahab types; Reagan and Trump are Gatsby types. (There's a whole cultural left side of this dream that comprises, imo, with Robespierre and Stalin in the Ahab role, and people like Bill Clinton and Bruce Jenner in the Gatsby role, but the focus here is on how this plays out on on the cultural right.} .
In this right-leaning obsessive imagination of the Real, good and evil are black and white, and human beings are on the Team Good or the Team Evil . If you do evil things, they're not really evil if you're on the Good Team. If you do good things, they're really not good if are on the Evil Team. This certainly plays out in the way white people imagine black people as a category, i.e, blacks they don't know well--they may know and like some black individuals, so that enables them to think they are unaffected by this deep black & white fantasy.
But these racial attitudes are part of a bigger American identity complex that shaped the broad emerging white, middle-class culture of the late 19th century. For this swath of conventional white Americans, other Americans who do not comfortably fit into that identity complex are on Team Evil. Communists, Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Italy, Jews from eastern Europe, labor activists, Blacks, Hispanics, gays, lesbians, Liberal intellectuals in the media and universities--all at one time or another didn't fit well into the fantasy, and while some within these groups have become 'real' Americans, most are still suspect if not still robustly rejected as non-Americans.
This kind of black & white thinking, of course, is not unique to Americans, but we Americans give it our own perverse stamp. Ronald Reagan was for most Americans on the Team Good because he was the embodiment of the virtues of the Gatsby invent-yourself dream. He was a model citizen in the Republic of American Delusion, and so if conservative intellectuals like Dreher want to understand Trump, they first have to understand Reagan. Reagan was never taken seriously by the media during the sixties and seventies. Nixon and Kissinger thought he was a moron. Trump is every bit as formidable as Reagan was. And if Americans could vote for Reagan, they are just as capable of voting for Trump. The imagination of the American Dream that made Reagan a possibility is the same imagination that has made Trump one.
Their success would not be possible if this were just their individual private fantasies; it's one they share with so many Americans whose idea of the American Dream is stuck around 1885. These Americans cling to it because the really Real is too messy and complex. That's why they think that Liberals who embrace complexity have no principles. Conservative intellectuals who stand outside this fantasy recognize that there is such a thing as a Liberal with principles, but conservative non-intellectuals have a hard time recognizing principles that are different from their own. That's why if there is no arguing or even agreeing to disagree with so many on the cultural right. The only necessary arguments are to affirm what is believed. It is impossible for them to imagine that anyone who cannot affirm their beliefs or world view can be anything other than the spawn of Satan. Liberal arguments that seem to make sense but which undermine their fantasy are dismissed as like the clever arguments of the serpent in the garden.
The intractability of the problem lies not in that Conservatives have significant policy differences from Liberals--those can be worked out; the problem lies in that they imagine these differences in black and white terms that shape what is whether they imagine as a Manichean struggle, whether they would use that term or not. They can't give up their fantasy of the war between Good and Evil that requires the stouthearted to keep the faith and to fight the good fight against the Satanic foe. To give an inch is to risk being set adrift in a sea of identity loss. Taking on the Spawn of Satan in the culture war is a way to avert identity loss and the fear of drowning in modern/postmodern complexity. But fighting this battle, while it provides short term benefits does not end well. It didn't for Ahab, and it won't for them. The only question is how many people will they take down with them before they find that out.
Some conservative do give up the black and white fantasy, and they don't drown. They don't necessarily become nihilists or cynics. Some of them are conservative intellectuals at places like The American Conservative. They don't give up their religious faith. They just become more down-to-earth, humble, more capable of seeing other's points of view rather than seeing them as evil empires or as the spawn of Satan. They learn to live in hope rather than with the callow optimism of a Reagan or Trump.