Blow: Trumpism extols its folk hero

Blow: Trumpism extols its folk hero

April 9th, 2019 by Charles M. Blow in Opinion Times Commentary

President Donald Trump speaks at the Republican Jewish Coalition's annual leadership meeting in Las Vegas last Saturday. (Al Drago/The New York Times)

Photo by AL DRAGO

My mother is a devout Democrat, but also one of the most socially conservative people I know. This is typical of our home state of Louisiana among black citizens — they can be as conservative as any Republican, but are also completely convinced, by dint of history and experience, that the Republican Party not only abides racists, it courts them, and therefore they would die rather than vote red.

My mother abhorred the showy, deeming it vulgar, so every single article of clothing in her closet was white, black, brown or navy blue. Red? Yellow? Green? God forbid.

And she was unshakable in her sense of moral rectitude, viewing sins like lying, gambling and philandering as absolute corruptions of character.

And yet, through my time growing up there and going to college there, she took a devilish pride in enthusiastically supporting and voting for the four-term Democratic governor, Edwin Edwards, a cocksure, gambling womanizer who would end up in federal prison in 2002 for bribery and extortion.

On the surface, it doesn't make sense that my mother, who thought herself a moralist, would find a champion in a flaunting immoralist, but she did as did many other Louisiana voters. And I believe this was possible because Edwards achieved something that few politicians achieve: He transcended the political, and on some level even the rules of workaday world, and entered the astral league of folk heroes.

The rules don't apply to the folk hero. People don't measure them by the same tape. Behavior that people would never condone in their personal lives, they relish in the folk hero.

I believe that the great miscalculation people make in trying to understand Donald Trump and the cultlike devotion of the people who follow him is that they continue to apply the standard rules of analysis. I believe that, like Edwards, Trump ascended to folk hero status among the people who like him, and so his lying, corruption, sexism and grift not only do no damage, they add to his legend.

The folk hero, whether real or imaginary, often fights the establishment, often in devious, destructive and even deadly ways, and those outside that establishment cheer as the folk hero brings the beast to its knees.

The only vulnerability the folk hero has is an exposed betrayal of the folk.

Edwards once joked on the eve of one of his elections, "The only way I can lose this election is if I'm caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy." He won, of course. This is not wholly unlike Trump joking — bragging? — that "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and wouldn't lose any voters, OK?" He won, of course.

I think it is a mistake to believe that Trump's supporters don't see his lying or corruption. They do. But, to them, it is all part of the show and the lore. They have personal relationships and work relationships like the rest of us, and those relationships depend on honesty and virtue. They, like my mother did, are allowing in him something that they would not allow in themselves.

And, when you survey the constellation of folk heroes, you see that many have been criminals. Bonnie and Clyde. John Dillinger. The Sundance Kid.

This elastic morality around the folk hero appears to be a global human inclination. El Chapo, who, as CNN pointed out, "Claimed in 2014 that he has killed 2,000-3,000 people," was a folk hero in Mexico.

Like Edwards and Bonnie and Clyde and El Chapo, Trump's Br'er Rabbit-like ability to avert the best attempt by authorities to hold him accountable, at least for a while, only increases the chorus of applause.

Anti-Trump forces must stop operating as if they are doing battle with a liar; they are doing battle with what his supporters have fashioned into a legend. How does one fight a fiction, a fantasy? That's the question. Its answer is the path to America's salvation.

The New York Times

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