Billionaire Donald Trump has been leading his fellow contenders for the Republican presidential nomination in polls for more than two months. Why is he so popular? To many, Trump is best known for his insults: fellow GOP contender Carly Fiorina is ugly; Sen. John McCain, who was held prisoner for five years during the Vietnam War, is no hero because he was captured; and Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly is a bimbo having her period.
Outrage ensued following these insults, but so did Trump’s rise in the polls. What opponents see as intemperate insults, supporters see as needed straight talk. In this regard, Trump has a lot in common with Gov. Paul LePage, who built his political career on being blunt and unpolished. He’s just like us and tells it like it is, his supporters say.
Beyond the insults, however, is a more insidious blame game that especially singles out immigrants and the poor. Concerned about disease outbreaks? Crack down on immigrants who entered the country illegally. Your taxes too high? That lazy welfare cheat refuses to get a job and is spending your tax dollars on steak and beer — and he owns a snowmobile.
It doesn’t matter if any of these assertions are true. They make us feel better because they shift the blame. We are not responsible for our problems or deficiencies. They are someone else’s fault. The governor said so.
By legitimizing our fears and biases, politicians like LePage and Trump give voice to what many are feeling but are afraid to voice.
“The speaker gets to say what others wish they could say,” writing and language guru Roy Peter Clark said in a recent commentary for the Poynter Institute. “If the common person says it, there are consequences. When the champion utters the words, he is not just immune, he is rewarded.”
LePage’s insults began to get serious notice shortly after he took office in January 2011 when the NAACP criticized him for not attending their annual Martin Luther King ceremony. The group, he said, could “ kiss my butt.”
In 2013, the governor said a state senator was “the first one to give it to the people without providing Vaseline.” He added: “People like Troy Jackson, they ought to go back into the woods and cut trees and let someone with a brain come down here and do some good work.”
After each insult, opponents expressed outrage, but supporters essentially said “you tell ’em, governor.” LePage joked about his “street talk” during his re-election bid last year, insulting his own ethnicity. “Even a Frenchman can be taught to cool down,” he said during a debate last fall.
The problem with an elected official being insulter-in-chief, however, is that he often has to work with those he insults. Trump and LePage also have a propensity to tell people what to do, often coupled with an insult — do what I say or you are corrupt, have no brain or are in the way.
Because of this, LePage has lost support among a number of Republican lawmakers and leaders. In his intemperate way, he issued 64 line-item vetoes of the state budget this spring. They were overturned handily in a matter of hours. He then vetoed the entire budget. The Legislature also overturned that veto.
Insulting opponents may make an elected official and his supporters feel better, but it doesn’t build the kind of trust and cooperation that is needed to govern effectively.
So what to do? Clark warns that appealing to reason and decorum are futile. “The insult’s appeal is less to the brain and more to the solar plexus. That is what the political opponents of Donald Trump — and to some extent the press — fail to understand. You cannot defeat an aggressive insulter with decorum or policy wonkery.”
He suggests finding someone who is a better insulter. The late author and social critic Christopher Hitchens wrote of Trump: “Donald Trump — a ludicrous figure, but at least he’s lived it up a bit in the real world, and at least he’s worked out how to cover 90 percent of his skull with 30 percent of his hair.”
Funny, yes. Helpful in ending government gridlock and building consensus for needed policy changes? Probably not.