Trump Fails The Priam Test
Donald Trump, Khizr Khan, Greek myths, and being a human.
Donald Trump is a hero.
At least, to millions of Americans he is. To millions of people — mostly white, mostly male, mostly working-class — Donald Trump is a hero. The people that took their jobs from them — Trump’s bringing them back. The people that took the country from them — Trump’s taking it back. The people that spat on them — Trump spits back, and spits right in their eyes.
If we view the race in purely martial terms, they’re right to view him as a hero. After all, a hero isn’t the person who is the nicest, the kindest, the gentlest. That’s a saint, and the Americans who feel left behind by America don’t want a saint. They want a hero. They want someone who will charge into battle for them and kick some pansy, negro, fag, Muslim, illegal, bitch, cuck ass. Not everybody’s comfortable putting it in such stark terms, of course. And even among the Trump faithful, it is sometimes useful to talk about what the hero is fighting for as well as against. He’s fighting for our jobs back, our place back, our country back. He’s fighting to Make America Great Again.
And, let’s be real. America really was greater in 1950 than it is today — for white men without college degrees, the core of Trump’s support. Middle-aged white men without a college degree are the only American demographic group whose life expectancy has declined over the past 15 years. In 1970, 25% of white children lived in neighborhoods with 10% poverty or more. By 2000, it was 40%. In 1979, there were 20 million manufacturing jobs — jobs with good wages, steady increases, union protections, and work that American culture had spent generations learning to dignify and respect as we did the farm work that preceded it. Since then, America has added over 90 million people. And there are 8 million fewer manufacturing jobs.
And it’s not just economics — white men used to be able to take their culture for granted, anywhere in America. The things they thought were normal were the things America thought was normal. But that’s changing. Now, celebrating the Black Panthers is welcome at the Super Bowl. But, say, giving Beyonce’s ass a little pinch would be decidedly unwelcome — and probably land you in jail, and earn you the scorn of millions upon millions of people. And let’s not even talk about America in the world. They grew up with America, the mighty country that defeated the evil Soviet Union, the America that saved the world from Hitler. And now they see America getting attacked by some brown folks halfway across the world, and it seems like they’re winning?
That’s why Trump was a hero — he was the guy who was going to turn back the tide, take back everything that had been stolen from his followers.
But of course, there are a great many of us who see things differently. At the Democratic National Convention, speaker after speaker made the case that Donald Trump was not the embodiment of America, but the antithesis of it. “We do not seek to be ruled!” said Obama, half cool professor and half Leonidas from 300. Uncle Joe kept telling us to shush and really think about if Donald Trump believed in the America we believe in. And no one made that case more forcefully than Khizr Khan. He held up the strongest symbols that America has: the Constitution, and the fallen soldier. What could be more patriotic? And he insisted, shouted, demanded that Donald Trump stood in opposition to both. In opposition to his son, who gave his life for his country. In opposition to the Constitution, which welcomed Mr. Khan’s son as one of America’s sons.
In response, Trump punched back. Because that’s what he does. But this attack was different. He wasn’t attacking the enemy — or at least, he wasn’t just attacking the enemy. Because on one hand, yes, the people who feel that America has been stolen from them, that her preeminence in the world has been shattered — they believe that Muslims have done the shattering. To that mindset, Muslim Americans are the enemy.
But Khizr Khan and Ghazala Khan could never be just the enemy to Trump’s voters. They will always also be Gold Star parents. Trump’s voters love the military. A huge part of the greatness they feel America has lost rests on the greatness of America’s military — America’s soldiers. The military represents power, and more than power, it represents the nobility of sacrifice for us. Trump may be the voice for millions of Americans. But those same Americans know that Humayan Khan gave more than his voice — he gave his body. He gave his life.
Beyond that, Trump’s voters know military families, probably a disproportionate number of them. Their communities are full of veterans. And their communities are missing many brave men and women who are either overseas at war, or were lost to those wars. So the Khan family could never just be enemy Muslims, even to Trump’s voters. Over and above any other identity, they are Gold Star parents. And beyond even that, they are grieving parents. Who can’t identify with grief?
And that’s how Donald Trump, hero to the white working class, failed the final, most important test of a hero — he failed to be human.
I call that test the Priam test. The ancient Greeks fighting the Trojans make a neat analogy to Trump voters. They too were in a strange combination of offense and defense. They too were “punching back.” They too felt something important to them had been stolen — and not even won in fair combat, but seduced away, taken under cover of night. And their hero was Achilles, the ultimate punch-back guy. The Trojans killed Achilles’ best friend — he chased the guy who killed him around the city and beat him to death.
But Achilles’ story doesn’t end with him kicking some guy’s ass. It ends with a moment between Achilles and that guy’s dad — Priam. Priam asks for his son’s body. And Achilles, who’s spent twenty-three chapters being proud and stubborn and punching back and fighting rivers and generally burning shit to the ground, has to be a human. He has to be nice to this guy. He has to recognize that over and above their fight, he and his enemy are also two grieving people.
That’s what Trump failed to do with the Khan family. He could not find it in himself to recognize grief and respond like a human. Not like a fighter, and not like a hero, but like a human.
That’s why this scandal is different than every other misstep and gaffe and error Donald Trump has made. Because beating up on politicians and nameless hordes of immigrants and faceless terrorists and even federal judges? For Trump’s base, that’s attacking the enemy. That’s being a hero, and like it or not, for a millions of Americans, Trump is the best hero they’ve got.
But Trump voters, like all of us, want their heroes to be human. Insulting grieving parents? That’s wrong. That’s off. There’s something inhuman about it, something that none of us want to identify with, something we can’t support.
Now of course we can argue about whether or not Donald Trump is a real hero. I’m a queer black guy who grew up upper-middle class, went to a fancy college, and got a cushy job in the media. Donald Trump is the opposite of a hero to me, and likewise, I’m the enemy to him and many of his supporters. Beyond that, he doesn’t seem like he’d be very good at governing, especially in a country where you have to compromise to get almost anything done. And he doesn’t seem to have a solid grasp on the situations he’d face as president — or, apparently, why America should avoid using nuclear weapons. Increasingly he’s looking like an incompetent old bully, not a hero, and certainly not the kind of guy anybody would want speaking for them.
But even if he were everything his supporters want him to be in their wildest dreams — he’d still be cruel. He’d still be the guy who couldn’t look two parents who lost their son in the eye and say, “I’m so sorry for your loss, thank you for your sacrifice.” He’d still be the guy who failed to be human, in front of the entire world. Even if he’s your hero, it’s hard to vote for a guy who can’t stop punching long enough to shake hands with grieving parents. It’s hard to vote for a guy who’s more concerned with being insulted than honoring a soldier who gave his life for the country Trump claims to want to make great. It’s hard to vote even for a great hero, if he can’t be a decent man.