The other day I was reading this article in The Washington Post, an opinion piece headlined “Don’t underestimate Trump.” It was written by a former Hillary Clinton campaign adviser. It opened with a remarkable anecdote about the Clinton campaign’s reaction to the leaked Access Hollywood tape where Trump bragged to Billy Bush in 2005 how he could get away with grabbing women by the genitals.
Hillary Clinton’s team knew exactly what to expect when the “grab ’em by the pussy” tape broke. Trump’s supporters and political surrogates would be outraged. Trump would cancel his media appearances and huddle with his team; meanwhile, the Trump camp would have strategy sessions, a lot of tough calls with donors and the Republican Party leadership, and finally there would be the ceremonial press conference where the candidate, his wife standing stoically behind him, would make a dramatic announcement accompanied by a contrite apology.
These professional people were convinced that national politics works according to a certain set of rules. Even if Trump had the balls to keep campaigning after this devastating bombshell, his backers would never continue to support such a damaged candidate. Equilibrium would be reached, water would find its level.
Trump pisses people off for an infinite number of reasons. His political plans, like the Muslim ban and the wall on the Mexican border. His Cabinet appointments. His voice. His vulgarity. His seeming cluelessness.
My Unified Field Theory of why a lot of people hate Trump is that they perceive him as embodying contempt for a value that they hold dear: professionalism.
Trump started out in his father’s business until his father lent him money to start his own business. He’s never had a boss. For many people, this explains a lot.
It’s undoubtedly true that it’s a serious adjustment to go from heading a company of which you’re the owner and undisputed Man In Charge, with your name plastered everywhere, to being an elected official and public servant.
Trump says offensive things. He’s been married three times, each time to a model. He cheated on his first 2 wives. He has associated himself with questionable and shady figures around the world. He wears a funny hairdo. He displays garish tastes. He hired his dopey kids to run his business, putting them in charge of more deserving people. He insults respected people and denigrates respected institutions. He intimidates people in his chain of command. He continues to do things that his enemies have tried to make off-limits for him (I’m thinking of his meetings with Lavrov in the White House). He spends every weekend at his property in Florida. He makes sure he gets more ice cream than his guests. This is just the stuff we know about, the stuff that was done in public or became public knowledge.
And yet Trump became rich and famous. He won the Republican nomination. He won the presidential election. He continues to enjoy strong support of 20-40% of the electorate that is considered his persuasion-resistant “floor.”
This is offensive to the professional class in a lot of ways. The professional class that lives by their resumes, their diplomas, their certifications, their recommendation letters, their carefully curated professional networks. It’s offensive to everyone who ever kissed an ass, feigned interest, developed an unpleasant hobby (I’m looking at you, middle-aged half-marathon runners) accepted an unwanted invitation, attended a boring event, canceled plans at the last minute, held their tongue, or endured any of the million other little humiliations required to get a job, keep a job, get a promotion or get a raise.
It goes against what professional people, and others who aspire to it, tell their kids. It’s what they want everyone to tell their kids. Professionalism is a useful value; the world would be a better place if everyone acted in a professional manner. It’s also a global, universal value: professionalism transcends borders, language, religion, gender, sexual orientation and all the other things that divide humanity.
Trump seems not only to reject professionalism; he seems to actually attack it out of some possibly self-destructive, narcissistic impulse. What else could make him get involved in professional wrestling?
At the time, Trump had two main businesses: his luxury real estate brand and his reality television show The Apprentice, in which he took extreme pains to portray himself as a powerful, serious businessman. Which of those two things would be enhanced by continuing to associate himself (it started in the ’80s) with World Wrestling Entertainment?
There are classes of people in American public life who are allowed (in varying degrees) to ignore the norms of professionalism: artists, actors, musicians, athletes on the high end; certain laborers and tradespeople on the low end. But most businesspeople, no matter how they start out, at some point fairly early after they find success they act as if they answer to someone: Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg started out as college dropouts but nowadays spend most of their time burnishing their public images as philanthropists and upright citizens.
What’s shocking and angering to a lot of people, from Hillary’s campaign team to journalists to a lot of the federal bureaucracy, is that Trump has exposed an inconvenient truth–that professionalism is not a universal American value. At some subconscious level we all knew this just by looking at the people around us, but I think most of us assumed that even the People of Wal-Mart value professionalism in the people they deal with on a day-to-day basis, want their kids to become professionals, want their politicians to be professionals.
Apparently not, though. And it shouldn’t be so surprising. A lot of American voters are burnouts, dropouts, broke, lonely, down on their luck, underemployed, borderline mentally ill, plain-old mentally ill, angry or disappointed. They envy and resent professionals. A world in which success and social status require a prestigious education, positive work history, nice friends, happy home life, clean criminal record and good credit score is a dystopia for them.
Which is something the Powers That Be should keep in mind when they think about why populism and anti-Establishment sentiment have taken hold throughout the West. A society that limits social advancement for people who have fucked up in life, or have just had a run of bad luck, is one that creates a growing underclass of fuckups who see upsetting the socioeconomic order as a positive thing for them. As long as those people can still vote, politicians hostile to the professional class will continue to find support.