Opinion

How Donald Trump locked up the jerk vote

America's worst people have found their champion

Lest there be any doubt that Donald Trump attracts the most thoughtful people to his cause, his most important endorsement in advance of Tuesday's Indiana primary came from former basketball coach Bobby Knight. When asked by NPR what domestic issues attracted him to Trump, Knight said, "What the hell do I know anything about domestic issues? That's for somebody a lot smarter than I am. And you got to understand that I'm just talking about a guy that I think and all those things that need to be done, like domestic issues and whatever, here's my choice of the guy to do it. It's just that simple." The interviewer followed up by asking whether Knight believed Trump can unify the country. "How the hell would I know that?" Knight responded. It was as inspiring as any halftime pep talk.

But we know the real reason for this most weighty of endorsements: Bobby Knight is a jerk, and he supports Donald Trump because Trump is a jerk, too.

And it isn't just Knight. Among Trump's most prominent endorsers are a convicted rapist, the jerkiest governor in America, the NFL's best-known bully, conservatism's foremost performance artist of hate, and various members of the Ku Klux Klan. If there's a dirtbag or scumbag in America who isn't on Team Trump, it'd be hard to find him.

We all know that Trump has harnessed the disgruntlement and anger of the Republican base and used it to feed his campaign. But it would be a mistake to see it only as a temporary state of mind that Trump has exploited. It is that, but there's also the fact that America's worst people, who were terrible before this election began and will be terrible after it's over, have found their champion.

You can see it in Trump's running critique of "political correctness" and his supporters' insistence that they're attracted to him because unlike other politicians, he "tells it like it is." In truth, Trump doesn't tell it like it is — he spews more inaccuracies, distortions, and outright lies than any other candidate. But there's no doubt that he says things other politicians won't. That's not because they're some kind of deep truth that the powers-that-be find threatening, but because they're vulgar and offensive. When Trump says that Mexicans are criminals and rapists, or invents belittling nicknames for his opponents, or sends all kind of misogyny Hillary Clinton's way, he may be saying things others are unwilling to say, but that's nothing to be proud of.

Nevertheless, it's undeniable that there's something compelling about a candidate who doesn't talk like other politicians, and most politicians try very hard to convince everyone that they're nice. They try to be approachable, likeable, genuine, and authentic. They try to make us feel as though, if we had the chance to get to know them, we'd become great friends. And yes, most of the time it's phony.

But that doesn't make Trump's persona any more real, and it doesn't mean that if you make an effort not to offend people you're just being "politically correct." When someone says that political correctness is being used against them, what they usually mean is that they said something offensive, and somebody else told them not to be such a jerk.

But many people find Trump's jerkiness intoxicating, for the same reason they feel the same way about certain talk radio hosts. Trump can be a jerk on your behalf, saying the things you think but are reluctant to say out loud, because the norms of politeness in a civilized society prevent it. It's fitting that Trump comes to politics from reality TV, a genre which allows us to watch "real" people act like monsters to one another. Trump talks about how bored we'd all be with him if he acted "presidential," and since he seems to think being presidential just means not insulting people, he's probably right. A Donald Trump who treated other human beings with kindness and consideration wouldn't be nearly as interesting to watch, and wouldn't be leading the polls in the Republican primaries.

But imagine if someone you actually knew acted like the Donald Trump we see on television. Let's say you and your spouse invited someone over for dinner, and after the meal he said, "Well that food was crap, and not only that, your outfits are ugly, your taste in decor is abominable, and your kids strike me as uncommonly stupid." You probably wouldn't say, "Wow, how refreshingly honest — he really tells it like it is!" You'd say that guy was a jerk, and never invite him over again.

Trump's success so far is proof that we have more than our share of jerks here in America, and they're coming out for him in force. But do jerks make up more than half of the electorate? It's hard to imagine.

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