Let’s forget for a second that this is an election year and that, with every day that goes by, real-life public discourse more closely resembles the comments section of a Seattle Times editorial. How would you describe a man who slags an entire ethnic population as “rapists,” cites a woman’s menstrual cycle as proof she can’t remain objective, and publicly smears a man with whom he is competing for a job by making veiled references to his wife’s mental health? (Before you answer, fight the urge to lower yourself to his level.)
Ladies and gentlemen, this is the 2016 presidential campaign, also known as the Donald Trump Traveling Carnival of Vanity, Bigotry, and Spray Tan. After months of childish insults and Twitter clapback it rolls through town on May 24 for the Washington Republican primary, and if you expect this bastion of progressive values to buck the national trend by not handing the state’s 44 delegates to a man who bragged about the size of his penis on national television, well, you haven’t been paying attention. “Trump will win in a cake walk,” says University of Washington political science professor Christopher Parker. “You may be surprised by that, but I’m not.”
To understand how that’s possible, you have to first examine Trump’s unique brand of politics. The bravado, the belittling, the preening—it all smacks of school yard bullying. And while there’s no doubt within the political and social science spheres that Trump exhibits behavior consistent with what we’d traditionally consider a bully, they’re actually symptoms of social trends much more sinister and base.
“Narcissism is on the rise in this country over the last decade,” says Julie Longua Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of New England. If that’s true—and selfie-stick sales seem to bear it out—it stands to reason that it would influence the political process. But narcissism goes beyond self-love: “When narcissists are threatened, they engage in what we call outgroup derogation,” Longua Peterson explains. In other words, they lash out at those with whom they don’t identify. “So, once criticized, Trump tries to make the source of that criticism seem less legitimate.”
Perhaps a more disturbing explanation, though, is the rise of authoritarianism, or a gut-level loyalty to the existing social order. A black president, a shift in American demographics that will one day soon make whites a minority, and expanding civil rights for the LGBTQ community all threaten a worldview that many have clung to for decades. And Trump, whether or not he believes in what he preaches, is seizing on the resultant pushback. “One way to think of bullying is as a very assertive attempt to impose authority and maintain the social order,” says Brian Duff, a political science professor and colleague of Longua Peterson’s at UNE. “The powerful kid in the school picks on the little punks to remind them of their place.”
The notion that Washington state could be immune to those phenomena falls apart without looking back too far in our history. As proof, former secretary of state and current chair of the Mainstream Republicans of Washington Sam Reed points to the popularity of recent political hopeful Clint Didier. In 2014 the former pro football player and unabashed Tea Party member challenged comparatively moderate Republican Dan Newhouse for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and garnered 49 percent of the vote. “He was like Trump, very much a bull in the china shop,” Reed says. “That’s indicative of the fact that there’s some frustration over what’s going on in Congress.”
In fact, we have our own rogues’ gallery of bellicose politicians who found a way into office despite being, by progressive measures, unelectable. In the ’70s and ’80s it was Ellen Craswell, a state senator who referred to gays as “sodomites” and hired God to head her (failed) campaign for governor. While serving as governor from 1977 to 1981, Dixy Lee Ray sparred openly with the press corps, naming the pigs on her farm after some of its members. And colleagues of current state senator Pam Roach have called out her abusive temperament, going so far as to suggest she sign up for anger management classes.
Obviously local pols like those are the exception and not the rule. But their success suggests that under the right circumstances anything can go here. And whether it’s authoritarianism, narcissism, or something even more unseemly that’s fueling Trump’s popularity, he’s tapped into a vein of social unrest that could influence political discourse for the foreseeable future. And it has the potential to be “yuge.”