Andy Schmookler: Why voters think that Trump’s act is honest

Andy Schmookler

According to a recent CBS poll, voters see Donald Trump as different from his opponents in the presidential race because he is candid. He says what he thinks, and he means what he says.

But in two obvious ways, Trump is anything but candid.

First, much of what he’s saying now is the opposite of what he was saying not long ago.

Trump has taken a very hard-line position on immigration. Yet only two years ago, he was telling advocates for immigrants, “You’ve convinced me.” He has reversed himself similarly on Hillary Clinton’s performance as Secretary of State. She has gone from doing a “good job”  to being the “worst Secretary of State in the history of the United States.” Likewise, he’s switched his position on issues like abortion and guns.

This is opportunism, not candor. This is saying whatever serves his immediate purposes.

The second reason for doubting Trump’s candor is that he often says things that he must know are false, or that anyone qualified to be president would know are false.

He has repeatedly declared that as president he would impose a “tax” (a tariff, actually) on goods imported from Mexico. A president can’t do that. The Constitution doesn’t allow it.

And Trump accuses the Mexican government of “sending” immigrants. What’s his evidence? He doesn’t say. Because there is none.

He characterizes the Mexicans in our midst as criminals, even though the data show their crime rate is lower than that of our native-born population. He tells us that the Hispanics “love” him; polls show the opposite.

Is someone candid who knowingly speaks falsely?

So what does it mean that this man is seen as authentic?

A voter who describes Trump as candid is really saying, “Trump is giving voice to feelings I’d express if I let myself speak freely.”

And what are those feelings? Trump is unlike any other figure we’ve ever seen in the presidential arena in how freely and powerfully he expresses

  • Hostility toward “the other” – especially people different from the traditional white majority. (White supremacists have expressed their appreciation at Trump’s bold rhetoric about the brown people crossing our borders).
  • A lack of compassion for the vulnerable. (He sneers at “losers.”)
  • Unbridled egotism, as manifested in extraordinary boasting. (Have we ever heard a candidate tell us — in so many ways  — how great he is?)
  • Contempt for others in the arena with him. (Ask Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham, and Megyn Kelly.)

What emerges is a picture of an aggressive Me (both Trump as an individual, and the image of the nation that he proposes to lead) and a thirst for conflict.

There is a reason why people keep some passions under wraps — because they are ugly and dangerous.

But these are the very passions that have been encouraged by the Republican Party for a generation.

What differentiates Trump from the rest of the GOP crowd is not the underlying posture. As has been observed many times, Trump is in general (though not total) alignment with the Republican field on policy.

But what the GOP as a whole has conveyed through “dog whistle” codes, Donald Trump is expressing audibly and publicly.

That’s what makes him seem “candid” in comparison.

And that — his making visible the ugly set of passions that have been cultivated in a large segment of the American population — is also what makes him dangerous.

He’s a danger to the Republican Party because he’s making it obvious how the party has been cultivating the worst passions in its followers. But Donald Trump is a still greater danger to the nation if he should gain the power of the presidency.

Andy Schmookler’s new book is “What We’re Up Against: The Destructive Force at Work in Our World – and How We Can Defeat It.”