I have to admit I do not fully understand the Trump phenomenon. I spend a lot of time in GOP circles -- not in Washington, but around the country at small gatherings of party activists, mostly in the West. The attendees tend to be older, and overwhelmingly white, though there are usually one or two blacks, Asians or Hispanics at the gatherings, and the attendees talk a lot about what they can do to attract younger and minority members. Most are small-business people or retired, and many of them are women who have raised their families and now devote substantial time to volunteer activities with their churches, civic groups and the GOP. They are polite, well informed and friendly -- but they are mad as heck about what has happened over the last seven years.
Bringing up Trump's name elicits one of two diametrically different responses: horror or admiration. Those who respond with the former tend to be the most business savvy. They have run their own companies or worked in large organizations. They understand the economy and how government operates and most of them consider Trump a showman whose product is Donald Trump. They also know that he's a political chameleon and that he insults groups the party must appeal to if it is to win the White House: women, Hispanics and Asians.
Those who admire Trump, on the surface at least, don't seem all that different from those who abhor him. The difference is they are angrier, and many of them seem to want to blame immigrants for everything that has gone wrong lately. Trump feeds right into this. They remember how they used to mow lawns, work construction or pick peaches in the summer when they were in school; now their grandkids don't, as one woman told me, "because an 'illegal' comes in and will work for less." They feel like they have been pushed aside. They worry about crime. They don't like the cultural changes that have taken place, from gay marriage to "push '1' for English" at the ATM (or even the ATM itself for that matter; they'd rather speak to a person).
I've encountered only one or two Trump supporters who are belligerent or rude -- but when I ask his supporters whether his style doesn't offend them, the answer is always, "He says what others are afraid to." Which brings me back to the issue of respect. How can a man whose stock and trade is insults expect others to treat him with respect?
The list of Trump's insults since he began his quest for the nomination would take up far more space than I am allotted for this column. Utter a criticism of Trump and he'll shoot back with a gratuitous attack on your intelligence, character or looks, and possibly all three. And in the process he will tell you how smart he is, how successful, how rich and how good-looking. Most analysts attribute this to Trump's outsized ego, but I think it is something else. There is something deeply insecure about Donald Trump, and what he preys on in his appeals to voters is their own insecurity.
Donald Trump isn't an optimist trying to lead us to a better future. He feeds on bitterness and fears about how others have made us weak and vulnerable. He doesn't offer solutions so much as blame. He builds himself up only by tearing others down.
Real winners don't have to do that. They demonstrate their intelligence by coming up with thoughtful things to say, by relying on evidence not assertions, by showing breadth of knowledge rather than repeating the same mantra about being a tough dealmaker no matter what the question. They don't have to talk about others as "weak," "stupid" or "losers." They describe how they might tackle a problem with enough specificity to be credible. If they criticize their opponents, they do it by focusing on their opponents' records and then offering a different approach.
If Donald Trump wants respect, he needs to show some as well. Americans don't like bullies. And we're used to succeeding by working harder, not by pointing fingers at others.