If you’re like me, you were baffled at first by Donald Trump’s success in his presidential bid, but I think it get it now: he’s a bully in a room full of nerds.
I don’t think anyone would argue that Trump isn’t a bully; the question is why it’s working in the political sphere. In that regard, we have the system itself to blame or, more specifically, the introduction of television into politics. That’s when our democratic process shifted from being a forum focused on issues and ideas to being a theater for a battle of personalities. It explains why people like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ronald Regan and Al Franken can leap over the political vetting process into office. We want to feel like we know someone, can trust them or even like them.
More than that, we want to align ourselves with the pack leader, the alpha, the winner. This drive to associate with the dominant person is more fundamental to our nature than our alliance with a certain set of ideals, which is far more complex and abstract. And at the risk of sounding intellectually elite in some way, this explains in some ways why he appeals to people in general with a lower level of formal education. Aside from being less formally intellectually trained, Trump’s supporters also identify with a higher-pressure living environment in which resources are more scarce and it is the status quo to have to struggle and fight for what you have.
Then along comes the ultimate alpha male (at least one who portrays himself effectively as such) who convinces enough people that he identifies with their disaffection with the nerd-elite who has what they want. And he promises to tear them down.
If you think about the political sphere, it’s the ultimate in nerd playgrounds. On a basic psychological level, it stands to reason that it would appeal to nerds too: those among us who were pushed around and overlooked at younger ages then found an environment as adults in which the tools they possess equate to influence and power. At last, we nerds get our due!
That is, at least, until the bullies decide they want that too. Then what do we do?
Most nerds never outgrew being nerds. Rather, they outgrew a climate in which their peers found it acceptable to act like they did on the playground. We learned as we got older, to play nice, or at least to be more subtle about our bullying. Now we call it harassment, assault, defamation of character or the like. But inside many of us there lies a nerd, fearful of being found out. And just like in our childhood, bullies can sense a nerd’s fear like blood in the water.
The difference with Trump is that he’s not afraid to exploit that fear.
You could see the fear – and yes, it was wide-eyed terror – Jeb Bush exhibited when Trump pushed him around, literally calling him names and assaulting his character on television. It took a cadre of advisors to tell him how to fight back, but ultimately it was too late. He was painted as weak, ineffectual, low-energy. Translated: a weakling. Then Trump set his sights on Ted Cruz, who since has struggled to maintain an edge over the bolder, fast-thinking Marco Rubio. Rubio fights back, listens to trendy music and exudes confidence. As such, Trump generally sidesteps as many direct attacks on him.
Cruz, on the other hand, is a bona fide nerd by all metrics. When asked about his taste in music, he responded that he calls his wife and sings, “Oh, my darlin’, oh, my darlin’, oh, my darlin’, Heidi-tine…”
Many people have felt ignored, manipulated, used or pushed around by “The System,” whatever they identify that as being. For some, it’s the immigration system (meaning Mexicans), while for others, the concern is more international (meaning Muslims). If not these, it’s the banking and finance sector (rich people, which Trump is ironically) or politics in general (Trump has portrayed himself as the ultimate outsider, despite having met with and financially supported scores of political leaders on either side of the aisle for decades). So more than someone who understands political negotiation, foreign policy or government, they want someone who will push back against it all.
In short, they want a bully who is on their side.
In reality, Donald Trump is on no one’s side but his own. And as the perennial bully, he thinks very little about the future or about the destruction he leaves in his wake. His good fortune was running in a year when those dominating the field tend to be weaklings, also-rans and candidates whose very names are associated with the legacies whose systems of privilege and power have exploited the weak and marginalized (or at least have been blamed for as much) for too long.
What would Trump do if he was elected President? He hasn’t thought that far ahead. As a bully, his primary focus always hinges on the next potential victory. His oxygen comes from winning. Even established political regulars are beginning to fall in line behind him, namely because it’s safer to stand in his shadow than to be found out as just another nerd who would wither in his glare.
This is why he can talk openly about being able to walk out into Times Square and shoot someone in broad daylight without losing voters, or why he can switch parties, flip-flop on critical political issues and suggest he’d date his daughter if they weren’t related. To his backers, winning is more important just like it is to him. It’s the same reason we give such lenience to athletes we admire. As long as they win, they can do more or less whatever they want.
And woe to the skinny-necked nerd who dares to call him out. You’re next, and you’d better be ready for a fight.