October 19, 2015
TREATING THEM LIKE THEY ARE HURTS US MORE THAN THEM
About halfway through the movie Patton, the general, played by George C. Scott, is driving his Seventh Army along the coast of Sicily toward Messina and mainland Italy. An infantry commander asks for another day to bring up more troops and reduce casualties. “General Truscott,” retorts Patton, “if your conscience won’t permit you to conduct the operation, I’ll find someone who can.”
Moments (of screen time) later, closer to the front, Patton encounters a colonel not yet fording a river. “Get that outfit cranked up,” shouts Patton, “or you’ll be out of a job.” He threatens another slow-to-advance colonel—“Put fire into this battalion or I’ll get somebody who can!”—and instantly makes good on his threat: “Major,” he shouts to another officer, “you’re now commanding officer. You’ve got four hours to break through that beachhead. If you don’t make it, I’ll fire you.”
If you can’t do it I’ll find someone who can. If you don’t break through, you’re fired. It’s a model of decisiveness and command. It’s what many want in a general—or in a president. It’s Donald Trump. And understanding that is an important part of the appeal of Trump’s presidential candidacy.
It’s tempting to attribute Trump’s appeal to irrationality or ignorance. How can his supporters not understand, for example, that undocumented immigrants are here because our economy depends on them and offers them jobs; that deporting 11 million people is at least impossibly expensive and likely just impossible; that the level of force and cruelty required even to attempt such a mass deportation would be comparable to the ethnic cleansing campaigns carried out by the Soviet Union, China, and the former Yugoslavia; and that for all his supposed business success, Trump has nowhere near the government or political experience even to daydream about running such a massive operation?
And how can they not understand that the kinds of challenges that presidents face, the national and international conflicts that face presidents, are orders of magnitude more complex and resistant to resolution than can be surmounted by threatening to fire subordinates or by the most immovable negotiator?
But that’s not what Trump supporters perceive. They see 11 million people who have broken the law and, far from being prosecuted, are allowed to remain in the country and upon whom some would confer legitimacy and even a path to citizenship. They see mainstream Republican leaders who would look away to avoid alienating Hispanic voters. And they see—finally–a leader unafraid to be outraged instead of understanding, who, instead of compromising with powerful adversaries, domestic and foreign, will negotiate them into submission, and who instead of being balked by obstacles will bulldoze them.
They’re wrong, deeply wrong, of course, about the nature of illegal immigration and the way decisions are made and implemented, these Trump true-believers. But they’re not crazy to hunger and thirst for decisive solutions to long-festering issues. They’re not irrational. And to suppose that they are, harms—not their opinion of themselves, not the cause they espouse, but the cause they oppose, the progressive cause.
For one thing, it only reinforces their resolve. As Jack Shafer of Politico told the Washington Post, “Establishment attacks on a demagogue only stiffen the loyalties of his subjects, proving to them that he is telling truth to power.”
For another, to dismiss concerns about issues like immigration and similar hot-button issues as the ravings of maniacs and ignoramuses may lead us to underestimate the importance of the disconnect between immigration policy and reality and to underestimate as well the urgency of resolving the issue. It may also lead us to underestimate people’s anger at government dysfunction and their hunger for government action.
So if Trump fails, as we all suppose he will, his supporters may attribute his defeat, not to his outlandish persona and nostrums, but to the resistance or indifference of an out-of-touch establishment. And the next demagogue may not advertise himself or herself so transparently.