Donald Trump appears to relish stoking the emotions of his audiences toward the inevitable climax that connects his use of forbidden language with the audience's own repressed outrage; outrage at the rules of the game that prevent them from saying out loud what is on their mind, at the shoddy deals Washington doles out in the name of public policy; at the never-ending failures of immigration policy; or at Hillary or Obama or other classic Right Wing targets of our recent past. With a wink and a nod Trump and his audiences clink glasses at the end of a bar, congratulating each other for the courage they have found to share unfettered gossip, the television cameras recording every word be damned. It is this sense of Trump's linguistic courage, suggesting genuine political courage, that is being rewarded in the polls. Trump understands that his followers want the next president to have balls, huevos, cojones, and probably testicles as well; in short, they seek masculine leadership.
But Trump's courage in breaking verbal taboos is not confined to those that hamstring the Republican Right. Trump also ventures into Bernie Sanders land to validate the politically incorrect thoughts his followers might have about income inequality. “These are not nice people, I can tell you,” he confides, referring to the sordid greed of Wall Street. When The Trump, a creature of Big Money, says something like this it lends more credence to the Bernie campaign than anything Sanders himself or any self-respecting, certified leftie might say about American capitalism. Another taboo is broken: yes, you can be a migrant-Muslim-Hillary basher and still clink glasses in the bar with Bernie! You may not be one of us, Bernie, but, yes, you got that one right; have another Bud.
Again like Sanders, Trump acknowledges twenty years of failure in foreign policy, violating a strict taboo by the enforcers of Washington-speak: television producers and talking heads, congressional leaders who Went Along lest they be accused of being soft on terrorism, etc. Again the Trump message liberates cultural conservatives to think forbidden liberal thoughts. Neither Trump nor Sanders is likely to become President but their impact on language of American politics today goes far beyond the highly ritualized mating calls of presidential politics as practiced in the past three decades. Their double-barreled impact undermines the very authority we have allowed the purveyors of culture and our political class to impose upon our thoughts for all these years, and it is deliciously satisfying to see this play out. However goofy you might think Trump's ideas about policy might be, is he not profoundly correct that outrage and outrageous language are only effective response to, and possibly remedy for, the tyrannies of contemporary American political speech?
But what are we to make of the other end of the candle Trump burns as he targets specific categories of people, echoing the anger of his followers: lying journalists, Muslims, Mexican migrants, Hillary's bathroom break, Fox News' Megan Kelly? These make us more uncomfortable. Is Trump talking about these targets as living human beings who deserve his visceral contempt, making him a first-class cad, or is he puncturing them as cartoon balloons, knee-jerk clichés of piety that political discourse has taught us to substitute for thought? Or does he really feel that way? Either way, we are reminded that politics is not about forcing language to keep people comfortable: Any change at all will cause discomfort to some and why should we be slaves to someone else's norms about speech? I have a hard time imagining Trump, as President, actually stoking hatred as a tool of government policy. But on the other hand history screams out at us that public bashing of people and groups can easily get out of hand.
Less troubling is the sometimes hilarious rhetorical trick Trump plays in associating the names of his competitors with performance failure: Trump's Carly Fiorina got fired for failing at business and now wants to run government like a business. In spite of spending all that frontrunner money Jeb Bush's performance in the polls is dismal. Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State helped create the foreign policy mess we are in but now she lectures us about how to get out of it. Cruz may lie in wait hoping to pick up Trump's supporters down the line, but he doesn't have the "temperament" to be President. We want winners, not losers; how did these characters ever get onto the radar screen?
If you think of Trump's campaign not as a true quest to become president, but as a chance to use the bully (pun intended) pulpit to change the verbal sham American politics has become through bipartisan political correctness, his campaign makes sense, and we should all be grateful for this. If you think of Trump as a serious contender for steering public policy into the second twenty percent of this century, there are some serious flaws.
Billy Graham's talent as an evangelist was to be able again and again with his language and voice, to fathom the rivers and currents of deep-seated, inexpressible frustration with life in thousands of people gathered in his presence, and channel them, however momentarily, into a vision of beckoning spiritual redemption. Trump's followers are the spiritual (if not biological) grandchildren of Graham's converts, but the redemption Trump offers is not born again salvation, but The Trump himself. Reagan invited Americans to pitch together in to light up the “city on the hill.” Trump, on the other hand asks Americans to leave it to the Trump to Make America Great Again. This summarizes Trump's weakness as a potential president: so far there is no hint the Trump and his bar companions on the left and on the right, could possibly forge the political alliances, the energy, the inspiration, necessary to Make America Great Again. That will take a lot more than Trump has shown us so far or, indeed, any of the candidates running on either ticket this year.