I never understood how Trump’s contemptuous remarks in regard to John McCain’s military record (“I like the ones who weren’t captured”) didn’t immediately end his campaign for President. The fact that they didn’t revealed the emerging pathology of a growing base for whom this would have previously constituted the crossing of an inviolate line. It also marked the moment the vague nausea in my gut about this appalling human being began its transformation into the lacerating ulcer it is now.
Trump’s base has only one historical analog: The non-slave owning antebellum southern men willing to sacrifice their lives to defend an institution from which they didn’t even benefit. (In fact, the lot of the rural farmer was made worse by slavery, as he was never able to be paid a fair wage for his labor, nor possess the kind of buying power that might have produced a Southern middle class like the one burgeoning in the north.)
But slaves represented a crucial source of self-esteem to the “cracker” class even as they could afford none. Enslaved people were a huge swath of the southern population that every white person, no matter how poor, could feel superior to. Hundreds of thousands of Confederate soldiers lost their lives in devotion to this very sentiment. They may have died, but their malignant insecurity survived them by 150 years.
The ascension of Barack Obama made manifest the growing reality of an American society in which being born Caucasian in the United States wasn’t an accomplishment but the mere accident of birth it should have always been. Trump’s corrective to this downgrading of automatic white status consisted of the following message:
“Make me President, and I will prove that the content of your character is unimportant next to the posture of your personality. The only essential thing is being a ‘winner’, and if you make me President, then that will make you a winner too.”
The possibility that the Dear Leader will not be re-elected doesn’t just threaten Trump’s gargantuan ego, it strikes at the very core of his supporters’ sense of self-worth. Under the dichotomy Trump has so blatantly defined, if he doesn’t win re-election, he will be a loser — but so will they. No wonder why his approval ratings have such an unmovable floor. The base is scared to death of not knowing who that person in the mirror is without his MAGA hat on. That’s how deeply their identity has been subsumed by the cult’s.
The feral need of Trump to view the world in stark Manichean terms might also expand our understanding of his inability to feel any empathy for unarmed black people who are killed by police. It’s not just that he’s a racist — though obviously he is. It’s that anyone who is a victim of violence, who is any kind of victim at all, is by definition “a loser.” That, for Trump, is the ur-crime, the original sin that he cannot get beyond — and it extends even to the military. Sympathy for such a person would mean getting personally tainted by their pain and vulnerability, by the grief of their loved ones. Start down that road and the next thing you know, you’ll be apologizing for things you’ve done and even feeling a sense of regret about them. Experiencing such empathy is the definition of hell for a malignant narcissist. To quote the devil in The Exorcist: “It burns.”
This pathological inability to perceive degrees of grey between two opposing positions is so primal within Trump that it had to have embedded at an extremely early age. So I came up with an all-encompassing explanatory scenario that I bet Mary Trump would term “not at all unlikely.”
Little Donnie is a petulant and argumentative four-year old, increasingly acting out as the only way to get attention in a house where unconditional love is a foreign language no one speaks. Fred Sr., raised in his own charnel house of German turn-of-the-century “White Ribbon” discipline, rapidly loses patience with any child-rearing techniques that do not produce results. If his long-suffering wife cannot get his son toilet-trained with pleading and cajoling, then Fred decides the boy must learn the hard way. His diaper will be removed and he will be thrown into a closet and told to hold it until directed otherwise. Because, as the 4-year old hears from his father through the door, “only losers still wear diapers at his age.”
My sole moment of sympathy for the experience of Donald Trump is for that toddler screaming in terror in that dark closet. I can see quite vividly the look from husband to wife that made clear that she would under no circumstances open the door until he commanded it. Mary only musters the courage to do one thing when Fred leaves the room, turn on the TV so that her son, looking through the door slats, can see it across the living room. After his wailing stops, he is afforded an hour or so of hypnotic distraction as he peers at the screen. His imagination projects himself into that magic box, that perfect two-dimensional world where his father cannot torture him.
Eventually, of course, the need to relieve himself becomes intense, but he knows he most absolutely hold it in or suffer God-knows-what consequence. With an unerring sense of timing, his father returns for a final interrogation.
“Donald. Do only losers still wear diapers at your age?”
“And you are my son, aren’t you, Donald?”
“Are my sons winners or losers?”
“So are you going to be a winner or a loser from now on?”
“A winner, sir.”
Fred opens the door, his silhouette looming like Satan as the boy adjusts his eyes.
“Go,” his father commands. Donald barely makes it to the bathroom in time to relieve himself. A relief more intense than he has felt ever since. In the room he will feel always feel safer in than anywhere else.
When he emerges, a vow has hardened into the deepest pathways of his brain. Never be a loser. Always be a winner. He experiences these two possibilities as the difference between life and death.
Another lesson is just as visceral. TV is his church, and his life’s work will be to become its one and only patron saint.