What to Make of Trump

When I was a bachur learning in Eretz Yisrael, a friend told me about a shiur he had been attending and urged me to come along. I took his advice and started going to a weekly Chovos Halevavos shiur given by Harav Don Segal, shlita. The content of the shiur was not confined to what was on the page; the Mashgiach touched on many issues of the day and imparted life lessons to the small group that took part.

One of the things he told us, and which remained ingrained in my consciousness ever since, was about the famous Gemara at the end of Sotah that describes how things will be in the generations before Moshiach’s arrival. One of the things the Gemara says is that “chutzpah yasgeh — brazenness will increase.” Rav Segal pointed out that, in our times, when brazenness is indeed rampant, we must also understand that we are to use this spirit of brazenness to serve Hashem.

In a world which regards us and our practices more and more as abnormal and outdated, we need to tap into the spirit of brazenness and continue doing what we do despite what the world thinks.

I find myself thinking of this more and more in recent days. Following the presidential race, and especially the Republican side, I wonder mainly two things about the Trump phenomenon. First, what are we to make of it? But more importantly, what can we learn from it?

The entire exercise of running for president or any other elected position is somewhat of an oxymoron. Here are people campaigning for the highest position in our country’s government, each claiming that he — and only he — is eminently and uniquely qualified to serve in that position. And how do they go about getting themselves into that position? By convincing the so-called regular people to support them in their pursuit. Each candidate assures the “regular people” that they agree with them (and not with the “intellectual elite”), and that they would more or less do the job any other voter would do if said voter were to sit in the Oval Office. This would be quite funny if it weren’t so sad, and gives new meaning to the quip that the position is one that ought to disqualify anyone silly enough to want to run for it.

But the rise of Trump, and his new and different approach to this race, has changed things. He has all but thrown that approach out the window. And it seems to be (somewhat) working for him.

People have grown tired of politicians who deceive them, telling them one thing when they run, and another when they “govern.” Years of being lied to and abused by the political class have led many fed-up voters into the arms of a man who basically says outright he will abuse them (with his stated policy positions on trade and Kelo v. City of New London). But he appeals to the frustration of white, blue-collar workers and promises that he’ll fix things for them by “making America great again.” They, in turn, are happy to finally have someone who will fix things for them, and who, as an extra “benefit,” is different from the others in that he isn’t duplicitous about how he will abuse them.

Trump doesn’t ask people to like him. For that matter, he doesn’t really ask people to support him. While others are reaching out and trying to change minds, Trump is not. Just last week he held an event in Vermont with staff at the door turning away people who weren’t declared supporters — even those who are undecided! “I’m taking care of my people,” he said in a statement, “not people who don’t want to vote for me or are undecided. They are loyal to me and I am loyal to them.”

His appeal is just that. It’s also the appeal that socialism has when it becomes a movement. As British philosopher and leading conservative intellectual Roger Scruton writes about his father’s identifying as a socialist: “He believed in socialism, not as an economic doctrine, but as a restoration to the common people of the land that was theirs.” This is exactly what Trump appeals to. And it is also just like the socialist movement in that “the fictions were far more persuasive than the facts, and more persuasive than both was the longing to be caught up in a mass movement of solidarity, with the promise of emancipation at the end. [The] grievances were real and well founded. But [the] solutions were dreams.”

But what can we learn from Trump? Perhaps we should come away with a new appreciation for his brazenness and an understanding of exactly how brazen we have to be in order to remain true to our mesorah in this day and age. If we see Trump polling as high as he does by saying seemingly outlandish things and not apologizing for them, maybe we need to realize that we don’t have to be concerned if we seem outlandish — and we definitely don’t need to apologize for it, either.