Donald Trump is showing voters their ugliest beliefs. They won't like it.
Donald Trump's rhetoric is distinctive in many ways, but one of the most striking is how he takes what is ordinarily implied and makes it explicit. Instead of trying to convince you he's smart, Trump just says, "I have a very good brain." Instead of painting a detailed picture of the benefits his presidency will bring, Trump says, "I will give you everything. I will give you what you've been looking for for 50 years. I'm the only one."
When it comes to personal boasting, this tendency just makes Trump sound like a fool. But he also takes the kind of thing Republicans have long implied about Democrats and about the world, strips off the veneer, and shoves it right in everyone's face. Immigrants are criminals. Muslims should be kept out of America. I'm big and you're small.
There's a reason things like that are usually implied, not stated. It's because there are some ideas and opinions we don't want to believe we have, even if we do. Republicans have gotten very good at tickling those corners of the public id carefully, to generate the desired response without going overboard. But Trump doesn't do anything carefully.
So after the Orlando massacre, Trump decided to share his thoughts about Democrats and their loyalty to the country. At such a moment, you're supposed to say that your opponent "doesn't understand the threat," or that their ideas would make us more vulnerable. If you're asked whether you're challenging their patriotism, you say, "I'm not questioning my opponent's patriotism, I'm questioning her judgment."
But that's too subtle for Donald Trump. Talking after the Orlando shooting, he said, "Look, we're led by a man that either is not tough, not smart, or he's got something else in mind." Trump called for President Obama to resign because he doesn't utter the magical incantation "radical Islamic terror," the speaking of which will turn all of America's enemies to dust. When asked why, Trump said, "He doesn't get it or he gets it better than anybody understands — it's one or the other and either one is unacceptable."
"He gets it better than anybody understands." In other words, Obama is somehow in league with terrorists, or at least letting them mount attacks with impunity. And let's not forget, this is a man who went on a lengthy quest to prove that Obama wasn't born in the United States. There too, Republicans always favored implication; you're supposed to say "I take him at his word" that he's a Christian and an American, leaving open the possibility that he might not be while allegedly showing how magnanimous you can be.
If you asked Trump, he'd probably say this is all just proof that he's not "politically correct" like all those politicians, always measuring their words and trying not to offend. And that's what so many of his supporters cite as their main reason for backing him: He "tells it like it is," by giving voice to their prejudices and fears and hatreds.
What Trump doesn't seem to understand is that politicians clothe their ugliest appeals in subtle rhetoric so they can maintain deniability not just for themselves, but for those who would vote for them as well. When we respond to a politician's arguments, we construct a story for ourselves about how we came to believe what we do. We want to see ourselves as reasonable, informed, and unbiased. Almost no one wants to think they're filled with hatred or prejudice.
But Trump doesn't allow you to make a generous interpretation of your own motivations. If you're truly with him, you want to build those walls, keep people who don't look like you out of the country, and turn back the clock to a bygone time. He doesn't seem to understand that even if there are a substantial number of people who thrill when he tells a crowd to knock the hell out of a protester or says Mexicans are rapists, the number who do is nowhere near a majority. If he's to have any chance of winning, he'll have to appeal to millions of voters who don't think of themselves that way.
That could wind up being one of his biggest impediments to Trump winning a majority, even if his unsubtle appeal was why he won the Republican nomination. As the campaign goes on, Trump will likely make it harder and harder for moderate Republicans to vote for him, and nearly impossible for independents to do so — not just because of who he is, but because of what they fear voting for him would say about who they are. By the time we get to November, there may be nothing subtle about that.