by Will Cohen
Although there are, as many commentators have observed, social and economic factors at play, a perhaps more significant key to understanding the popularity of Donald Trump’s campaign is its sheer transgressive quality. In this sense I would suggest that Trump’s campaign is a phenomenon entirely in keeping with an essential dynamic of our cultural fabric.
Not every flouting of established norms is a transgression in the proper, theological sense of being a sin; it depends why it is being flouted, and what the norm is. Prophets and fools for Christ went against the social grain, deliberately flouting religious pieties. Christ himself challenged the status quo in ways the pious often found deeply offensive. But in those cases, saying or doing offensive things was obviously different, not only because the offenders did so in obedience to God, but because in their context, being offensive and outrageous was not, as it has come to be in contemporary America, already pretty much the thing to do anyway. For us, crossing the line is a firmly entrenched cultural norm of its own.
Ever since the mixed blessing of the Sexual Revolution, one of the more obvious ways our insatiable collective appetite for crossing lines once considered taboo has been fed is through ever more uncensored material in print and electronic media. It isn’t the actual amount of skin that’s bared that is at issue. As C.S. Lewis once observed, one can wear almost nothing in indigenous Polynesian culture without being provocative at all. But in our context, it’s all about being provocatively transgressive, from Janet Jackson’s exhibitionist moment at Super Bowl XXXVIII’s halftime show to the high jinks of Miley Cyrus. At one time this kind of defiance of boundaries perceived to be stodgy was mainly a characteristic of the cultural Left, but with corporate America’s more and more complete co-opting of titillation for its profitability, many on the political right, with strong business ties, find advantage in the moral decadence traditional conservatives once decried.
Donald Trump, unlike conservative populists of recent memory like Pat Buchanan, does not so much as pay lip service to traditional values; Trump is not a social conservative at all. (This is almost certainly an important reason why Muslim Americans have not been identified by Trump as potential allies, as they have been by other conservatives). The campaign website for Donald Trump –as of December 29th – contains not a word about his views on abortion or other contested social issues of the day, as websites of other candidates do, from Ted Cruz to Carly Fiorina to Jeb Bush. Trump has not suggested that our society is too materialistic, has not called for a revival of traditional moral norms of any kind. Trump’s beef, if anything, with the high priests of the cultural Left is with what he takes to be their excessive moralism, all the various politically correct orthodoxies of our day. Yet he attacks these not from any other kind of moral ground (which in at least some cases could be done) but for the sheer transgressive pleasure of the sport.
Trump’s discovery, like that of every adolescent classroom cut-up, that his popularity rises (thus far, at least) with every further line he crosses, eggs him on to new and greater outrages, to the fascination of millions of Americans. Precisely what the nature is of any given line he crosses is less important than his fearlessness in crossing it. If there were a discernible set of principles by which Trump felt compelled to offend, to push the envelope, then the transgressive act per se might not be considered the defining feature of his candidacy. But there is no such set of principles. Trump has said that Muslims should be banned from entering the United States, has insulted the looks of the Republican candidate Carly Fiorina, has made a vulgar allusion to the bodily functions of Hilary Clinton, has suggested an African-American protester should have been roughed up, has sung the praises of the ruthlessly authoritarian Putin, etc. None of these statements has much to do with any of the others when it comes to policy or principle; none recommends Trump as a candidate with particular knowledge, skill, or intelligence. What they all have in common is that we had never thought we would hear anyone running for public office say such things. Trump is therefore a riveting spectacle. As one ardent Trump supporter put it, “He says what I’m thinking.”
Trump is admired by so many because of a perception that he is uncensored, according to a characteristically American way of associating being uncensored with being “authentic”. I’m suggesting that this association typifies something found across the political spectrum. Uncensored images of sex or its promise are lauded, when they are, precisely for being authentic — they honestly “show what we’re thinking”, in daring defiance of all the old-school moral police. It’s much the same with uncensored statements, racist or misogynist or otherwise, that “say what we’re thinking” in defiance of the kind of progressive thought police that conservatives complain would seek to have our campuses and our politics in intellectual lock-down. It is true, of course, that being in a straightjacket, whether Victorian or “PC”, is problematic, but to burst its seams, for the sheer thrill of it and without being under obedience to the Spirit of gentleness, goodness, meekness, and temperance, can only lead us to be compulsively driven to transgress more and more boundaries, under the delusion that we are most authentic when we are most free from constraints — however uncharitable and undisciplined, however hateful and even outright sick, it may make us. Trump taps right into this delusion of freedom and authenticity through his ever more shocking forms of defiance. Even his fantastic narcissism, his routine of speaking of himself as smart and strong and others (besides Putin) as idiots and weak, has a shock value not unlike the rest of his over-the-top or below-the-belt statements.
There are other ways that Americans’ transgressive appetite has fed itself in recent times – nor are Donald Trump’s scintillatingly unbelievable shenanigans the only food that can continue to feed it. But there would be no Donald Trump today, with the poll numbers he enjoys, had this expanding appetite of ours not preceded him.
Will Cohen is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Scranton.