Republican consultant, Frank Luntz, gathered a focus group of 29 past and present Donald Trump supporters in Virginia a few days ago and, among other things, asked them to come up with a phrase that characterizes Barack Obama.
These were some of the responses:
pathetic, jellyfish marshmallow, naive, lost, out of touch, clueless, ineffective, elitist, doesn’t respect American values, anti-American, un-American, zero leadership, out of his depth…
Luntz responded to the group: “Anti-American, un-American… Barack Obama? Seriously?”
For these Trump supporters there was no question.
In no doubt about their own identity as Americans and that Obama lacks an American character, their gravitation towards Trump seems to derive mostly from their perception that the billionaire stands out as authentically American:
he gives the image he’s not going to put up with any crap… his personality is so large… he’s entertaining… he looks presidential and he acts presidential… he’s a leader… I’m voting for the person… we’re tired of weak candidates [like John McCain and Mitt Romney]
Luntz probed further: “[Trump] used the word ‘shit’ [when saying he would ‘bomb the shit out of ISIS’]; that’s presidential?”
The group responded with a loud “yes,” fists waving and applause.
It matters less what Trump says than how he says it. He talks tough and he’s impolite and that makes him an American and makes him trustworthy among those who share this view of the American spirit.
If the general election ends up being a contest between Trump and Hillary Clinton, no doubt a significant portion of Trump’s support will come not only from his perceived Americanness but also from the notion that ruling the U.S. is a job for a man.
The fact that presidential campaigns are largely personality contests has been true for decades. In that respect, Trump has done nothing to reshape American politics.
Luntz concludes, seeming to confirm that this is very much a reflection of contrasting perceptions of personality: “I don’t believe there would be a Trump candidacy if there wasn’t an Obama presidency.”
If that’s true, it would be easy to infer that it meant that white America wasn’t ready for a black president, and to some degree that must be the case, but the criticisms thrown at Obama clearly express distaste and contempt for the way he carries himself.
Following the death of Benedict Anderson on Sunday — Anderson was an expert on Indonesia and the origins of nationalism — Christopher Dickey, noting the influence Indonesian culture played in Obama’s personal development, wrote:
As Edward L. Fox pointed out in a delightful essay a couple of years ago, the no-drama character of the American president is best understood as behavior learned when he was a boy, from the time he was 6 until he was 10, going to elementary school on the island of Java in Indonesia.
When Obama was being mocked by the other kids because of his dark skin, his mother encouraged him to adopt the kind of bearing and conduct associated with Javanese kings and the word halus, a regal sort of imperturbability. To this day, there are little tells, like the way Obama points with this thumb on top of his hand, rather than with his forefinger, which was considered very impolite; or the way he sometimes stands with his eyes down in a debate, not a broken man, but one containing his emotion.
In Anderson’s 1990 essay “The Idea of Power in Javanese Culture,” he wrote that halus is “the quality of not being disturbed… Smoothness of spirit means self-control, smoothness of appearance means beauty and elegance, smoothness of behavior means politeness and sensitivity. Conversely, the antithetical quality of being kasar means lack of control, irregularity, disharmony, ugliness, coarseness, and impurity.”
Which also sounds like a description of Donald Trump — the ugly American.
For Americans who despise Trump, the challenge he poses goes beyond the dangerous effects of his demagoguery, but towards the disquieting recognition that he may indeed be more typically American than a large portion of his critics.