Trump and Gallows Humor

by Peter Spiliakos

I think the word anger is overused when it comes to describing Trump supporters. It is accurate, but I think that despair is even more accurate. If you watch a Trump speech or listen to him answering questions, Trump is much funnier than he is angry. He insults the political class, and he makes promises everybody knows he can’t keep. He is having fun for as long as this ride lasts, and,  in a sadder way, so are his supporters.

Trump isn’t going to be president and he isn’t going to burn it all down, and he knows this. His supporters know this too. He can anger the right people, and he can show his supporters a good time – at least for a little while. Then it will be back to something like business as usual, because there seems to be no real escape from business as usual.

Trump’s supporters are laughing in the face of despair. I see a great deal of commentary about how the Trump phenomenon showing how the Republican establishment has alienated grassroots conservatives. I think that gets to part of Trump’s support, but there is another group of Trump’s supporters who are just as important. These are ideologically heterogeneous, working-class voters who weakly identify with the Republican Party. These voters aren’t ideologically consistent enough to be conservative, and they aren’t politically involved enough to be called grassroots.

What these alienated conservatives and alienated working-class moderates have in common is the sense that our political elites can be neither replaced nor reformed. The most that you can do is emotionally hurt them through (ultimately futile) gesture of defiance. Trump accomplishes that. That is why self-described and self-respecting conservatives can support him despite his record of crony capitalism, and his support for abortion and tax increases. That is why working-class opponents of amnesty can support him despite his inconsistencies on that issue.

Trump and his supporters like to target Jeb Bush, but Bush’s flaws aren’t the problem. Bush is just one guy. If Bush was the problem, the problem could be solved by picking someone who was neither Bush nor Trump.

This is where the actions of other politicians have done so much to damage our political culture and erode trust in our political class. Marco Rubio went from opposing upfront amnesty, to supporting upfront amnesty, to opposing it again. Scott Walker went from supporting amnesty and a path to citizenship to opposing it, and then went from opposing birthright citizenship to supporting birthright citizenship.

For many Trump supporters, the actions of Rubio and Walker show that all of politics is a charade. Any shiny new conservative who appears to be an alternative to both Bush and Trump will turn out to be the same as Bush. Every politician’s election year promises are just a different combination of lies and misdirections to cover up the exact same governing agenda.

This despair about the political class is the cause of the laughter at the heart of the Trump campaign. The political class can’t be replaced, but they can be outraged. They can’t be reformed, but they can be mocked.

Trump is no more likely to be president than he is likely to win the Hispanic vote, but we should wonder if maybe Trump’s supporters are correct that the odds favor their pessimism. Nobody is coming to save us, and we may lack the social capital to save ourselves.