In Donald Trump’s America, women fit into two categories: “nasty” or “suburban housewives.” Conservative evangelicals are dupes who can be manipulated into believing Joe Biden is “against God” and “against guns.” African-Americans are a monolithic voting bloc who will pull the lever for a rapper, presumably because he’s Black. And Trump once suggested that Jewish people who vote for Democrats are disloyal—and that immigrants and foreigners are dirty and can never be considered real Americans. I could go on.
Trump’s America is a cynical and base place where people are identified as extreme avatars and insulting stereotypes instead of as complex individuals. But is it reality? This worldview helped him win in 2016, because enough voters believed the caricature he sold us about himself (a bogus image of wealth and success), as well as the image he sold us about others (Lyin’ Ted Cruz, Crooked Hillary, the “fake news” media, you get it). But after nearly four years, it is helping him lose bigly in 2020.
Trump sees the world in a perverse and superficial way—and he thinks you and I do, too. This projection is sometimes effective and has been reinforced by his success. But at some point, the twisted way he views the world went from being an asset to a detriment.
The first time I picked up on this concept was back in 2016, when Trump was asked by Chris Matthews about abortion. His answer (which was, essentially, to punish the woman) sounded like something no actual conservative would say. As Marc Thiessen, a former chief speechwriter for George W. Bush, observed at the time, “Trump is not a real conservative—he is the liberal caricature of a conservative.”
“Since Trump does not actually understand what pro-life conservatives truly believe,” Thiessen explained, “he mindlessly echoes the liberal caricature of pro-life conservatives. He mistakenly thinks this is what these conservatives want to hear. They don’t.”
Except, much to the chagrin of Tiessen and yours truly, they did want to hear it. (Or, at least, it didn’t bother them at the time.)
But let’s stick with Thiessen’s theory (his 2016 theory that is; Thiessen subsequently became more Trumpy), which I think actually helps explain Trump’s current problems. As one friend explained to me, we all think in stereotypes about matters of which we’re ignorant. But most of us are only ignorant about a few things. Trump is ignorant of most matters and therefore thinks in stereotypes about most things.
No matter what Trump’s antediluvian mind tells him, college-educated white women are not, by and large, 1950s-era “housewives”—nor are they particularly afraid of how Joe Biden is going to “abolish the suburbs.” Instead, they are working moms repulsed by the vulgarity, chaos, and unrest unleashed by Donald Trump.
Likewise, African-Americans (who saved Joe Biden’s political career)—are not, by and large, going to vote for Kanye just because he’s Black. Indeed, it’s possible this move could really backfire, by ironically taking Black votes away from Trump.
Even white evangelicals are increasingly conscious of Trump’s transparent, if awkward, attempts to pander. After Trump held that Bible up at St. John’s Church, I noted that “something changed” that night. As Republican strategist Liam Donovan told The New York Times, Trump’s “intimate connection with the base is one of shared grievance. But when it comes to what they’re for, it inevitably comes off like a cartoon version of what a New York billionaire would think conservatives believe.”
Trump read the room right in 2016—at least when it came to conservative evangelicals. He accepted the left’s negative perception of conservatives and, sadly, they lived down to his expectations.
But in 2020, he’s misreading the room. What gives?
Obviously, the world is different. There’s a pandemic. Trump is also facing Joe Biden, not Hillary Clinton. Perhaps most importantly, we have had nearly four years of evidence that the image Trump cultivated and sold us was gilded at best.
In 2020, Trump’s preference for symbolism over substance has finally fizzled. Instead of fixing America’s problems (like, say, COVID-19), he sought to weaponize statues, masks, the Confederate battle flag, and (even) Goya beans. None of it took.
By treating us as collective blocs of identity groups who can be conned, fearmongered, and exploited—rather than as individuals who must be convinced and persuaded—Donald Trump has alienated many of the very people he sought to manipulate.
More and more of us see him as a laughable cartoon character. An orange, girthy, old, greedy, golfing, limp, racist, Jabba the Hutt, vulgarian, soon-to-be-one-termer.
My apologies if this seems simplistic, or even, crass. Live by the caricature, you die by the caricature.