One of the most robust findings from decades of research in social psychology is that circumstances strongly influence our behavior. Given that, what are the cultural or social circumstances that we find ourselves in today? Those circumstances make Trump the perfect president for this environment.
We live in a capitalist culture. That culture emphasizes consumerism for the simple reason that the raison d’être of capitalism is the generation of profit. That generation means that persons must consume the products that capitalist enterprise produces, even if (or especially if) persons don’t want or need those products. So the creation of demand for products—often the business of Madison Avenue and other such creative enterprises—is concomitant with capitalism.
So effective is this means of creating demand that our culture has gone so far as to cement in place the idea that what one owns or has is sufficient to mark that person as distinguished, special, or successful. Our culture encapsulates such a view in the grotesquerie that “he who dies with the most toys, wins.” Well, wins what? Apparently, wins applause, admiration, and success. Such is what many of our fellow citizens think.
Creating familiarity with the product is one method of generating demand. When the product is a person and when we add a consistent presence before the American public to the steady bombardment of images, symbols, jingles, stories, and exaggerations involving this person, then you have celebrity. When it is accompanied by wealth, which conveys fame, power, success, mastery, and control—and innumerable toys—then celebrity becomes the hallmark of the culture.
Enter here Donald Trump, who for 20 years hosted the television series The Apprentice and The Celebrity Apprentice. More than Trump steaks, wine, or hotels, the shows promoted and sold us Donald Trump. By the time he ran for president, Trump was virtually a household name, a celebrity who embodied the fame, wealth, power, dominance, and mastery that our culture lapped up as the milk of success.
Trump was a rich and famous television personality and businessman—the pinnacle of success in our capitalist system. Nothing he did or said could undercut the reputation that he had earned (the operative word) through his celebrity. “I could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue,” he famously boasted, “and I wouldn’t lose any [political] supporters.” So far, nine months into his presidency, he has shown that that observation was right: His right-wing base and 85% of the Republican Party remain with him, despite his tantrums, name-calling, racism, sexism, lies, ignorance, policy failures, brewing scandals, potential malfeasance, and overweening self-regard.
How can he remain popular? Because his popularity perseveres not despite the list above, but because of it. Trump’s base admires that he “tells it like it is,” “shakes things up,” and disrupts Washington (read: the federal government). He can load his cabinet with billionaires and millionaires, with ties to the very industries that they regulate or oversee, and still be seen as “draining the swamp” of Washington. He can violate the Constitution’s emoluments clause by receiving gifts, profits, or fees from foreign governments, and yet all of that is seen as a demonstration of business acumen.
Trump knows how to sell himself. He did so on television for 20 years. So it wasn’t just that Trump was on television. He created a persona that we grew accustomed to, familiar with, at home with. In addition to the wealth, dominance (through domineering), power, and success, that persona presented misogynism, race baiting, scapegoating, and white supremacy. These weren’t hidden; they were part of his product because they were part of his history.
All of these traits fueled the emotional neediness of his followers. They heard his racist and misogynist dog-whistles. Supporters either embraced them or looked past them, because what they needed to hear was that Trump heard their grievances. No matter that none of his policy ideas—from healthcare to tax cuts to anti-immigration—would actually address those grievances. His followers consumed his images, his braggadocio, his lies because underneath all of that lies the principal grievance: whiteness was being eclipsed.
Whatever else pundits and pollsters might look to—wealth, education, occupation, region residence—race is the common feature among Trump supporters. As Ta-Nehisi Coates explained in two quick sentences: “Not every Trump voter is a white supremacist. But every Trump voter felt it acceptable to hand the fate of the country over to one.”
As long as Trump feeds the emotional cavity deep within those who fear the eclipse of whiteness in the culture, regardless of what he actually does or doesn’t do, he will have political support. Almost all of what he does and says is tinged, if not overflowing, with racism. “Make America Great Again” is code for “Make America White Again.” That’s a message, broadcast in all its forms, subtle and overt, that elected him president. That’s a message easily sold and hungrily consumed in this capitalist-induced culture of celebrity. It makes Trump the perfect president for this era. Unless we undertake systemic change in this country, Trump won’t be the last “white” president or, for that matter, the last “male” president. He will only be the latest.