140-Character Catharsis: The Secret Appeal Of Trump's Rust Belt Strategy

Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump meets with Cuban-American community leaders at Trump National Doral golf cl
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump meets with Cuban-American community leaders at Trump National Doral golf club in Miami, Florida, U.S. October 25, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

We know the metathesis by now. The argument that economic frustration, plus elite coastal neglect of fly-over agony, drove Trump's win is now as oxidized as those hulking, ferrous-patinated factories in Youngstown, Ohio.

But I am convinced that Trump's Twitter rants - their explosive and unmediated primal fury - tap into a deeper wellspring than just economic anxiety.

His in-the-moment, consequence-free, grandly unedited Twitter style is a potent fantasy for working-class people who have to step cautiously through the daily discouragements of their lives. (Middle-managers live in a similar chamber of limits.)

These are people who lack agency. Who are resigned to a bite-your-tongue-and-take-crap relationship with their world; a battery of daily demeanments. These come from a brew of horrendous bosses; credit-stealing and slothful coworkers; disconnected and oblivious senior management; overbearing in-laws; demanding children; idiot foremen; and non-responsive insurance company bureaucrats (who themselves have no agency.)

Enter Trump. Every time he responds to a big attack or a micro-slight, however undisciplined and dramatically over-aggrieved it might be, the cathartic joy meter lights up like the Christmas tree in the lobby of Trump Tower.

Good for you, Donald. You don't take any sh*t. If I were a billionaire neither would I.

George Orwell, as usual, makes the point with fierce clarity in "The Road to Wigan Pier."

"This business of petty inconvenience and indignity, of being kept waiting about, of having to do everything at other people's convenience, is inherent in working-class life. A thousand influences constantly press a working man down into a passive role. He does not act, he is acted upon. He feels himself the slave of mysterious authority and has a firm conviction that 'they' will never allow him to do this, that, and the other."

Fueled by this hopeless passivity, the psychological power of Trump on Twitter gains brute force. The content doesn't matter; the fury animating the content does.

By contrast, the tweets of other politicians are reflections of institutional power. Fred Barnes, executive editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, writes: "President Obama also tweets, but his read like they were written by a cautious staffer and edited by a committee."

Trump's instant aggressions - whether encountered directly or as amplified by the media - ameliorate existential working-class stress, making it evanescently bearable. It matters not that someone in his position - presidential candidate and now president-elect - shouldn't behave like this. On the contrary; the projective qualities make it all the more joyful. We've never had a politician in recent memory whose tantrumic performances are both vicarious and aspirational.

There is a body of psychological work that links workplace stress to a lack of control. The American Psychological Association puts it like this:

"A feeling of powerlessness is a universal cause of job stress... millions been shifted to unfamiliar tasks and wonder how much longer they will be employed. Adding to the pressures are new bosses, computer surveillance of production, fewer health and retirement benefits, and the feeling they have to work longer and harder just to maintain their current economic status."

So it's not hard for these stressed souls to fantasize about their own unconsciously constructed Twitter rants:

  • "Dumbass Jenkins told me that I'm getting cut back to 20 hours a week. IS HE KIDDING? That idiot should cut himself to zero. OUTRAGEOUS BETRAYAL."

  • "I don't see one friggin' commercial where someone comes home from work dirty and needs a shower. Not everyone works in a tech start-up. MAINSTREAM MEDIA NOT GETTING AMERICAN VALUES."
  • "They promoted Butt-LICKER Worthington over me because he kisses ass. He does crap work. DISHONEST SYSTEM. If there were some REAL jobs in this sh*tass town, I'd quit tomorrow."
  • "My kid just got diagnosed with dyslexia, needs expensive help, and they're raising my co-pay. Insurance company won't respond. Painful. HOPELESS."
  • These fictive tweets aren't about minorities or immigration. They are about class and hurt and what the poet Phillip Levine described as the "gradual decay of dignity" in his "An Abandoned Factory, Detroit." How astounding and grand to have someone channeling this rage for you, in their own tweets? So the connective -and collective - resonance of what Trump writes, rises above their authenticity, hyperbole and billionaire source.

    Trump's tweets are also implicit rejections of our "watch what you say" culture, which much of the working-class sees as running counter to the American tradition of speak-your-mindedness. There's some Huck Finn in all of us, whose valedictory close to the book echoes today: "I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can't stand it. I been there before."

    Even Obama has an issue with institutionalized caution and campus sivilizing, saying in a town hall:

    "I've heard some college campuses where they don't want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative or they don't want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African-Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women. I gotta tell you, I don't agree with that either. I don't agree that when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view."

    The id response to the deference Obama rejects is Trump's blast-furnace Twitter defiance. There is no precedent for this, like we have repeatedly been told about the rest of this bizzaro-world we now inhabit.

    Of course, Twitter is the natural medium of the id, which Freud described as a place of "chaos, a cauldron full of seeing excitation." That's the undrained swamp that Trump exposes through his Twitter rants, and it's that insatiable impulse which ignites the neural circuits in the minds of his followers.

    And not just his followers, in fact. Even people who dislike Trump, loathe him in fact, are unconsciously drawn to his vast, almost Whitman-like role as the center of his own universe, and ours. Take a look at the surprisingly anticipatory opening of "Song of Myself" - down to the uncannily adumbrated mid-sentence capitalization:

    I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
    And what I assume you shall assume,

    The ultimate irony - and reassurance - though, is that if the roles were reversed, most of Trump's supporters, the people enjoying the viscerality of his Tweets, would actually act respectfully and within social norms. They would not abuse their pulpit and sink to bullying and coarseness. I am confident that Trump's supporters, for the most part - like most people - would respond to power with non-Trumpian restraint.

    Cynics see Twitter as a "Lord of the Flies" cautionary tale, a polemical novel which teaches high-school students that civilization is a fragile veneer.

    But for a real-world study of how people rise to their better angels when they have power over others, let me point you to Rebecca Solnit's wonderful "A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster." She argues that despite what Hollywood directors and civil defense agencies tell us, we don't see chaos and looting in disasters, but rather "spontaneous altruism, self-organization and mutual aid, with neighbors and strangers calmly rescuing, feeding and housing each other."

    It's an uplifting thought at any time. Not the least of all, this one.