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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

This is a sincere question asked recently by a fellow member of the Rockbridge Civil Discourse Society. Usually I’m surrounded by family and friends who take the answer for granted, but RCDS is a group of Democrats and Republicans trying to build understanding across the partisan divide. Which means I have to give the question more serious thought than I would normally. That’s a good thing. Having to explain myself to someone who doesn’t already agree with me is an even better thing. So this is my sincere attempt at a thoughtful response.

  1. I didn’t like Trump before I didn’t like Trump.

Before he was a politician, I knew Donald Trump only as one of those self-fulfilling celebrities famous for being famous. I never watched an episode of The Apprentice, but everyone knew the one-man promotional brand playing himself on TV. I categorized him in my head with Hulk Hogan. Saying I didn’t like him is misleading. He was no more real or relevant to me than Paris Hilton or a Kardashian. Except his caricature was even less savory. A serial adulterer marrying absurdly younger trophy wives while flaunting his comic wealth. None of this has anything to do with politics.  It never occurred to me to wonder what political party he might belong to because political parties involve groups of people banding together to pursue common goals. The goal of Trump was exclusively Trump. This was before 2014—before I knew he was running for office. At first I didn’t believe it, not really. It had to be another gimmick product, Trump Wine, Trump University, Trump for President, one more way to expand his business brand, pump up his ratings with more outrageous showmanship. It didn’t occur to me that he could win a primary let alone a nomination. It didn’t occur to me that someone, anyone, could view him as anything but a pop cultural personification of ostentatious greed, because I sincerely understood him to be that and only that.

  1. Trump says things that aren’t true.

Some people call that lying. Others say he’s only using exaggerations—or just savvy business practice. Whatever you call it, Donald Trump knowingly and wantonly makes statements that are not true. He also knowingly and wantonly makes statements that are true. The accuracy of his statements is irrelevant. He says whatever is most useful to him. His 1987 memoir ghost-writer called it “truthful hyperbole,” a way of playing “to people’s fantasies,” “a very effective form of promotion.” Admittedly, an indifference to truth sounds useful in a cutthroat business environment, and as long as Trump remained in that environment, his exaggerations, lies, and hyperboles were no concern to me. Then he became a politician, a profession known for its own brand of mistruths. But Trump is different. Look at all the presidential nominees of my adult life: Mondale, Reagan, Dukakis, Bush, Clinton, Dole, Gore, Bush, Kerry, Obama, McCain, Romney, Clinton—all of them were constrained within a similar range of allowable spin. I’m not arguing any are better, more honest people. If they could have gotten away with Trump’s level of mistruth, they probably would have. But his go unpunished. Maybe it’s his business savvy, his ability to sell anything, but its application to U.S. politics deeply disturbs me. Again, this has nothing to do with political parties. If Donald Trump had run as a Democrat, he would be the same democracy-gaming salesman appealing to a slightly different set of voters with a slightly different set of self-promotional hyperboles.

  1. Trump says things that offend me.

I’m not going to say Donald Trump is a racist. Conservatives tend to define that term as a necessarily conscious belief, that only a white person who actively believes he is superior to non-whites can commit racist acts. I don’t know if that describes Trump or not. I suspect when he refers to Central Americans as rapists, murders, etc., he is not expressing deeply held personal convictions but politically useful hyperboles of the kind discussed above. That doesn’t make it any less offensive to me. I also don’t know if he ever committed sexual assault, but I know he bragged that he did. Some defended his words as “locker room talk,” that it’s normal and therefore okay for men in the privacy of other men while unaware of being recorded to brag about assaulting women. I never have, and I have never heard any male friend or acquaintance of mine brag about assault either. Maybe I’m the wrong kind of man. Maybe Trump is no different from all our other white male presidents, saying out loud what the rest privately thought and privately committed. If so, then they all offend me equally. Again, this has nothing to do with political parties. No one who brags about sexual assault and expresses offensive stereotypes about ethnic groups should be electable, and I’m offended that Donald Trump got elected anyway.

  1. Trump thrives on the political divide.

It never even occurred to me that he would keep using Twitter after the election. It never occurred to me that he would continue to attack and mock his political opponents at literally a daily rate. Maybe I’m just old. I remember when George Bush’s campaign rhetoric went into panic mode a week before the 1992 election. He said, “My dog Millie knows more about foreign policy than these two bozos.” He nicknamed Gore “Ozone Man” because “we’ll be up to our neck in owls and outta work for every American.” Those sound like presidential tweets now, and during a Trump presidency, it’s always a week before the election. I’m not suggesting Trump created the political divide. Exactly the opposite. He got elected because the divide was already so extreme, and he is the perfect salesman to thrive in that political marketplace. And even this isn’t about political parties. I want a president—preferably a progressive one—who tries to bridge differences, not focus exclusively on his base by stoking their outrage in an endless get-out-the-vote campaign.

  1. I don’t like his politics.

Now, finally, this is about political parties. I’m a Democrat. Democratic candidates more often reflect a larger number of my political preferences than Republican candidates. That’s an absurd understatement. I have never seen a Republican candidate that came even close—though McCain during the 2000 primaries did make me sit down and really look at his plank-by-plank platform. I long for that.  Still, if Romney had been elected in 2012, or McCain in 2008, or Dole in 1996, I wouldn’t have responded to their presidencies in any way like I’ve responded to Donald Trump’s. When Bush was reelected in 2004 and elected in 2000, and when his father was elected in 1988, and Reagan in 1984, I had voted against them but accepted the outcomes with disappointment and only disappointment. November 2016 was nothing like that. I felt personally betrayed. I felt that the norms of decency had either been overturned or revealed to have never existed. Even when Clinton’s polls dropped three points after the release of the Comey letter in the last days of October, it still never seriously occurred to me that Donald Trump—a man who to me represented misogyny, bigotry, narcissism, and greed—could be elected. Clearly, I was wrong. But I maintain that it is not possible for anyone to have voted for Donald Trump if they understand Donald Trump to be the person I understand him to be.

And maybe I’m wrong about that too.  Maybe my impressions of him from the 80s and 90s and early 2000s unfairly biased and blinded me to his real character on the campaign trail. Maybe I have an idealized, antiquated notion of proper politics and my disappointment isn’t against Trump’s divisive style but the political arena that makes it effective. Maybe most or all white men who rise to power are at least latently prejudiced and abusive, and Trump has merely revealed that fact. Maybe it’s okay to use mistruths when it’s for a cause you and your followers deeply believe in. It’s also possible that my dislike for Donald Trump is really motivated by political preference, and that if a Democrat with the same traits had risen to power I would have accepted his shortcomings and supported his agenda. I hope not. But I fear it is possible. It’s also one of the things I most dislike about Donald Trump. He’s motivated a lot of good people to embrace a lot of very bad things.

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