An Explanation of Trump’s Appeal And a similar case

by | Jan 28, 2016 | Habits of Mind, Politics

An Explanation of Trump’s Appeal

A similar case

Trump recently commented that his followers would continue to support him even if he openly shot someone in the street. He spoke with some pride but also, I thought, with just a little wonder. There is no telling just what Trump has been thinking throughout this political season; but I suspect he has been surprised, as everyone else has been, by the loyalty and commitment of his supporters. On many occasions Trump has behaved badly. He has not just violated “political correctness;” he has been out and out rude. He has defamed Mexicans, Asians, Blacks and even women. He has been openly contemptuous of certain people who are often treated with diffidence. These include, war heroes, cripples, and poor people. He has insulted all of his rivals.

More interesting, he has described no concrete proposals he might advance if he became President—except for building a wall between Mexico and Texas, a suggestion that even his followers do not take seriously. And yet they are prepared to vote for him.

I am reminded of something a patient said to me many years ago.

It was 1968. The patient I have in mind was twenty, and he was suffering from what would now be called Bipolar Disease, but which was then called Manic-Depressive Illness. His moods swung from severe depression to periods of excitement. During these manic episodes he would behave extravagantly and inappropriately, tossing dollar bills in the air and accosting women. He crashed his motorcycle one such time and was then given a bigger motorcycle by his father– which he crashed almost at once– only to be given the biggest motorcycle then manufactured—which he shortly afterwards destroyed in a traffic accident. I tried, unsuccessfully for a time, to control these episodes with drugs.

One day he found himself walking along a street in front of Columbia University, although he was not a student there. He joined a bunch of young men who were students and who were milling about and complaining about some connection they thought the university had with the Vietnam War. Suddenly, he became angry. Although he had no opinion about the Vietnam War, and he knew nothing at all about any involvement Columbia might have had with it, he started yelling slogans about taking over the university. He screamed something about conspiracies. Finally, he yelled out a command to take over the Dean’s office. He charged onto the campus with a mob behind him.

The ensuing riots that extended over a number of days presaged a number of other college protests about the Vietnam War. By that time my patient had been extricated from the Columbia campus by the police. Since he was obviously ill, he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital and was not charged with any crime.

A few weeks later he was discharged from the hospital asymptomatic. At such times such patients may not show any evidence of their illness. He was calm, but seemed abstracted to me. Finally, he told me what was bothering him. (The following remark is as I remember it from a distance of 48 years.):

“I know I was mixed up. I was saying crazy things. But why did those guys listen to me? Didn’t they know I was crazy?”

No, of course not. Saying crazy things doesn’t make people think you’re crazy. A better question, though, is why did these strangers pay attention and, perhaps like other mobs, suddenly decide to commit some inexplicable act, including breaking the law. This is what I think:

I think that if a person speaks very definitely (loudly) about what he “knows” is the truth, people will believe him. Especially in difficult times, it is comforting to listen to someone who is sure of himself and plans on ACTION. Such a person comes across as strong. It does not matter much if the plan for action is sensible—or, in the case of Trump—vague and undefined.

By the way, I often recommend to someone going on a job interview, that he pretend to be absolutely sure of himself, whatever he may actually feel. Someone who seems to believe in himself becomes very credible to other people. (c) Fredric Neuman Author of “The Wicked Son.”

P.S. After writing this post, I suddenly remembered that I, myself, had once been in a position of “leadership” similar to the examples I mention above.

It was 1952, and I was a sophomore at Princeton University. During my freshman year and, I think, all the previous years dating back to the Civil War, our rooms were entered into every day by a “janitor” who made our beds. (This was back in the good old days.) Not appreciating the fevered pitch of change that was to characterize the fifties, (There was a poll taken in my senior year asking if Princeton should accept women at some point in the future) I thought, along with my classmates, that the custom of janitors would last forever. But without explanation, in my sophomore year, we were told that janitors were to be no more. A riot ensued.

Since all the classes were affected, the crowd on the campus was large when I joined it. It was being supervised by the proctors, the university police.

“We want janitors,” everyone chanted, for about ten minutes. Then, “We want proctors for janitors!” After an additional quarter hour: “We want janitors for proctors!” Then finally, inevitably, “We want sex!” Eventually the outcry subsided, and the crowd milled about having nothing else to say.

Into this relative calm, I yelled, “Push over the P.J. and B.!”

The P.J. and B. was a small shuttle train that went back and forth to Princeton Junction from Princeton proper. It sat on top of a high embankment, and I had always wondered while riding it whether a strong gust of wind could destroy it.

Everyone thought this was a terrific idea. Somewhat appalled, I followed (led?) the crowd down to the station, where everyone leaned against this inoffensive little train. I remember laughing and wondering what the next suggestion would be–“Let’s drain Carnegie Lake” perhaps. But no, it seemed these guys were intent on actually pushing the train down the embankment where I thought it would rest forever like some kind of monument, like the cannon partially buried in the ground behind Nassau Hall. The train began to teeter back and forth. I did the sensible thing: I ran away.

I sometimes wonder whether Donald Trump, having stirred things up wonderfully will do the same. But I’m afraid not.