I've been thinking for months about something I heard author David Frum say on a podcast back in July. Discussing Donald Trump's appeal to various kinds of Republicans, Frum noted that for many conservative activists and pundits, the relationship with the president is transactional and prudential. They don't especially like or admire Trump, but they view supporting him as the surest way to get what they most care about in politics, be it tax cuts, pro-life judges, or some other policy priority.
But Frum also pointed out that for many other Republicans — especially a certain segment of men — something else was at stake that was tied much more closely and directly to the president and his distinctive style of politics. "Trump allows jerks to be jerks," Frum observed. These people look to the president almost as "the leader of a jerk liberation movement," because he gives them permission to behave like cretins without shame or apology. When it comes to this faction of the electorate, "We're not actually having a political disagreement. We're having a disagreement about something I find repulsive and you find thrilling."
That explains much of the character of politics in the Trump era — and it certainly explains my own visceral reaction to Tuesday night's presidential debate.
I've been observing Donald Trump for a very long time. Born in New York City in 1969 and raised there and in the surrounding suburbs over the following two decades, I feel like Trump has been a presence in my life from the beginning. Through the mid-'80s and beyond, he was always there in the tabloid-culture background — a cartoonish blowhard bellowing low-brow ad copy in promotion of his gaudy, sleaze-bag-socialite lifestyle.
As he cycled through bankruptcies and new marketing schemes down through the decades, inching closer to launching a political career, Trump grew nastier, angrier, more openly bigoted, and more flamboyant in expressing his grievances and resentments. That's the Trump who Republican voters swooned over in early 2016, who narrowly triumphed over Hillary Clinton later that year, and who has been the obsessive focus of our national life ever since.
What America saw on Tuesday night was really nothing new, but it was still shocking. That's because Trump usually blends his distinctive viciousness and cruelty with the formalities and traditions of American democracy to varying degrees. His State of the Union speeches have been fairly normal, with the president mostly sticking to the teleprompter through interminable lists of accomplishments and policy proposals for the coming year. His rare national addresses from the Oval Office or other settings in the White House are similarly rote. Things get weirder and more hostile at his frequent press briefings, where he riffs, mixing sober-sounding pronouncements with outright lies and attacks on the press. It was that hostile-but-not-entirely-unhinged, mid-range Trump who showed up to the debates with Clinton in 2016.
But the Trump we got on Tuesday night was something else — more like the man who works himself into a sputtering, conspiratorial rage before audiences of thousands at his campaign events, the man who at a rally in Minnesota on the night after the debate goaded the crowd into booing refugees. Seeing that man — the Trumpiest of all the Trumps — in the setting of a presidential debate was uniquely appalling.
At least it was for me.
One of the things that gives politics its distinctive gravity — and in times of great division, its rancor and divisiveness — is the way it engages identity at the level of the political community. When someone stands at the podium on every fourth January 20th, swears the oath of office, and delivers an inaugural address, he not only speaks to all of us. He also speaks as and for us. Assuming the highest office in the land, the president feels like he embodies the country as a whole, and exemplifies it, on both the national stage and before all the world.
Of course this is largely an illusion. Even after the biggest landslides in American history, 40 percent of the electorate preferred the losing candidate. In more recent decades, pluralities or very narrow majorities are the best the winner can hope for in national elections. And sometimes, like in 2016, the winner doesn't even win the most votes.
But Trump is appalling for reasons that go far beyond a lack of parity between his level of popular support and the grandeur of the office he holds. Who does he speak for? Who watched Trump act like a rude, belligerent, loudmouthed jerk on stage for 90 straight minutes the other night and thought, "That man speaks for me"? Who watched and didn't find it repulsive? Who found it thrilling?
The answer is probably: a certain segment of men.
The partisan gender gap first began to open up in 1980, when Ronald Reagan won the presidency with support from 46 percent of women and 55 percent of men, a difference of 9 percentage points. In 2016, the gap was anywhere between 11 and 13 points, depending on the survey. But polling this year shows the gap becoming a chasm. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, for example, shows "Biden leading Trump by 31 points among female likely voters and Trump leading Biden by 13 points among male likely voters." If that spread holds on Election Day, it would be "the largest gender gap of any presidential election since the ratification of the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote a century ago."
The gap may be especially wide among white voters, but it could also be a big factor among Hispanics — where recent state-level polling has revealed gender gaps in the mid-30s — and a somewhat smaller but still significant one among Black voters.
Most women strongly dislike Trump and millions of men, including this one, stand with them. But what about those men who thrill to Trump's nastiness and see it as giving them permission to be jerks (or worse) to members of their families, neighbors, and fellow citizens without shame or apology?
In thinking about them, I'm reminded of a controversial 1997 essay about cloning by conservative bioethicist Leon Kass titled "The Wisdom of Repugnance." The article, its follow-up, and a subsequent book were quite controversial at the time because many liberal philosophers and intellectuals were troubled by Kass' suggestion that morality should be based on an "appeal to disgust." Such intuitions often lead to amoral or even outrightly anti-moral thoughts and actions, the critics insisted, and so they need to be tamed or dissolved entirely by rational argument and reflection. Only the outcome of such a rational process could produce genuinely moral principles. In response, Kass insisted that on an issue like cloning, where reasoning alone seems incapable of delivering a ground for opposition, it made sense to rely on widely shared intuitions about its wrongness.
Leaving aside Kass' claim about the need to actively encourage moral reflection on the basis of intuition, I think it's indisputable that we all do regularly make moral judgments on such grounds. It was an intuition, a feeling, that led so many to respond instantly with outrage to images of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on the neck of George Floyd as he struggled to draw his final breaths before he died.
Just as it was intuition that led so many to recoil from Trump's behavior on Tuesday night. No one was injured. No one died. But for over 90 minutes the president of the United States behaved like a bully out for blood — one whose penchant for verbal violence would not be restrained by rules, the norms of the occasion, or even minimal standards of common decency and public comportment.
How people respond to such a display tells us a lot about them. Do they believe in a politics modeled on blood sport or one that's more like a competition among rivals who nonetheless share the mutuality of civic friendship? Do they believe in a vision of masculinity tempered and elevated by ideals of honor and virtue? Or do they delight in cruelty and domination for their own sakes and see the opportunity to inflict harm on the way to victory as a bonus to be relished?
Do they prefer civilization or barbarism?
As Tuesday night's excruciating debate finally drew to a close, what I mainly felt was repugnance toward Donald Trump — and the conviction that in this feeling could be found the beginnings of wisdom.