The Straw Man Grows a Brain… Sort Of
For a long time, during what one might call the Golden Age of Political Correctness (loosely, from the mid two thousands up until the recent presidential primaries), the latent racism of certain voting blocks of the American electorate remained hidden. The hiding was not very effective, but it was at least obfuscated behind fascist-libertarian ideologies and jargon adopted by news media. Black protestors were called “thugs.” Muslims were obliquely referred to as “extremists.” Latin Americans fleeing violence from their home countries were “illegals.” It didn’t take a rhetorician to recognize what these terms attempted to do — to paint broad populations of people with singular brushes dripping with stereotypes — but it was impossible to confront the purveyors of these expressions. They were always enshrouded in a layer of plausible deniability. It happened all around the country: a teenage girl rolls her eyes at her father’s dinner table editorial (we are all that teenage girl); an office worker laughs uncomfortably at his boss’s remarks about hard work, perseverance, and “the blacks.” Stop trying to make me look racist, they would explain. This isn’t about race, you San Francisco Liberal. (San Francisco is, in hate-speak, a veiled reference to that city’s embracing of LGBT communities.) They’d holler, Stop twisting my words! Straw man! Straw man! Straw man!
Well, the straw man has grown a brain. Or at least the capacity for speech.
Donald Trump exploded onto the scene when he announced his candidacy for President of the United States in June of 2015. At the time, very few news outlets — or bloggers or, indeed, citizens — took him seriously. Most regarded the campaign as a publicity stunt, primarily aimed at generating chatter for Trump’s sordid business “empire.” He started drawing crowds, and still nobody took him seriously. His megalomania took hold; if there’s anything Joe American loves, it’s a winner, even a self-proclaimed one. He started spewing absurdities. American Muslims celebrated 9/11 by the thousands, he claimed, a propos of nothing. I like people who weren’t captured, he said of Arizona Sen. John McCain, who had spent a significant amount of time in a Hanoi POW camp. He accused Megyn Kelly of prissiness, explaining that it was probably due to “blood coming out of her whatever.” People ignored him — for a while — recognizing the nature of the circus act he performed, unsure of whether his was the role of clown or ringleader.
Then Trump’s crowds and his poll numbers surged. His Twitter presence gained thousands of followers. No doubt some of these were from morbidly curious liberals, their fingers teetering expectantly over keyboards, looking for eminently refutable quotes in order to make eminently quotable refutations. The majority of his rabid fans truly believe in Trump. They do not necessarily believe in his policies — indeed, his platform appears to be cobbled together from discarded plywood and one-liners picked up off barn floors from the Sarah Palin speeches — but in the license that he represents. With Trump and his incendiary speech came a new benchmark of crazy; suddenly rhetoric that just months earlier sounded aggressively outlandish now seemed . . . quite reasonable. Oh shit, we can say Mexicans are rapists now? Yeah, suck it Liberal Media! We’re back, motherfuckers.
Trump does not possess the rhetorical nuance for allusion. His inner filter is as effective as the tainted liver of a lifelong alcoholic. And because he’s old and white, he wears his prejudice on the Chinese-made sleeve of his Trump® suit. One can almost imagine the churning of his brain — or the anemic groaning — as words flit through, unmoderated, unmolested, and spew forth out of his mouth. His face, at times, resembles a CAT scan of a person’s cranium in the moments before sexual climax — alternating between menacing grimace and dementia-riddled grin.
So now, when confronted with the exasperating accusation of stop trying to play the race card, the reasonable human must no longer point at a straw man. The straw man has come alive! He is an orange Troll — proud and over-the-top in that profoundly unapologetic way often lionized by White American culture. When Trump claims that African-Americans are responsible for the overwhelming majority of murdered white people in the U.S., it is no longer sufficient, as one of his many supporters, to claim that his words are being misconstrued. Neither the content nor the spirit of the statement should be contended. (This is not to say that his supporters will not try — they are the most nimble of mental gymnasts, twisting turns of phrase like contortionists — or, when they fail to justify their xenophobia, hide away behind a curtain of dismissal.) But for most reasonably human beings, regardless of their ideological coordinates on the political plane, it becomes obvious that something is not right when Trump — a man who is most likely a pair of insolent six year olds stacked vertically and hidden beneath an ill-fitted suit — garners as much positive attention as he does.
There is another metaphor that appears when thinking of The Donald. In addition to being a personified man of straw, Trump is a peddler of fear. His rhetoric is blustery but baseless, with his promises of making China play nice, or making Mexico pay for the wall, or standing up to Putin. He is a scarecrow. There is a peculiarity to this metaphor though, for it is the crows, his followers, who seek to place him in the Oval Office. They are awful, jittery, eager, flighty creatures. They bicker with each other, peck ruthlessly at perceived invaders, and they caw, caw, caw incessantly. The problem, of course, is that the majority of us do not scare as easily as these frightened birds, but crows do not recognize that we are not all as jumpy as they are. Installing Donald Trump in the White House would be exactly as effective as installing an actual scarecrow.
(Aside: I recognize that crows are actually very smart creatures. Apologies to all the crows out there who might hold grudges. Please don’t peck out my eyes.)
He is almost the scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz. Except he does not seek a brain. A brain would be an impediment to the particular flavor of fear he peddles. Instead, he seeks a giant megaphone and more straw to stuff in his pants.
We should thank you, Mr. Trump. We rational humans have been honing our arguing abilities for so long without a clear opponent, and so we’ve been forced to resort to erecting straw men who might be blown over with the slightest of breezes. We built them ridiculous, because ridicule is a fun sport. We built them delusional, because delusion is what we imagine in all of our opponents. We built them ugly, deeply unpleasant, without an ounce of sympathy. And then you appeared! Our White Knight. Our scarecrow with a comb-over. Our brittle megalomaniac. You are a pressure gauge of perverted American ideals — a super-reactive litmus test for insanity. Everywhere you go, you reveal the depth of the disease; wherever you step to a podium, there appears a grand sea of waving white hands and aggressive thumbs ups. You shake hands with these fervent folks, but one might just as easily imagine a primal, ritualistic beating of chests and symphonies of coordinated war cries.
“Who’s gonna pay for the wall?”
Indeed, you beautiful man of straw.