There has always been a stream of rhetoric that depends on passion, indignation, emotion. This is the secret answer that the reporters and columnists keep searching for when they ask: “Why do Trump’s faithful stay with him?” It’s not that those folks are enraged and desperate, which many of them are, but that they admire and believe in this acceptance of emotion and even violence as more “truthful” and therefore more valid than logic or data, which have to be taught. That’s why some think Trump won last night’s “debate.”
This is also the key to formal academic and presumably government distaste for emotion, the reason it has been pushed out and denied for centuries — until recently it has been coming back in through understanding of how the body works. It is this persistent 30% to 40% whose allegiance is to arousal by confrontation who vote for Trump. To them Biden is irrelevant, not intense enough to notice.
When I was at animal control we constantly dealt with people who sponsored dog fights and cock fights. They are very hard to suppress. Human cage fights are popular in Great Falls now and boxing has always attracted a crowd, sometimes including sophisticated people. A few years ago the Great Falls Tribune published an exposé of men in Cut Bank who were organizing fights between bare-knuckled boys in back alleys for the purpose of betting. Some people live for the hockey nights in Canada that break out into a brawl.
When I was with Bob Scriver in the Sixties, we bought a bronze by an “Animalier” named Antoine Barye. It was a jaguar killing an alligator, beautifully cast and patined, of a genre very popular at the time it was made. Various assortments of top predators were locked in mortal combat. Or an antelope is taken by a lion. These were tabletop bronzes in all the nice houses, much like the depictions of conflict between “Indians” and cavalry that are still popular.
If you google for video fights between animals, you’ll see a lot of them. Some are staged on purpose and others were “wild” and considered a privilege to record for viewing.
There’s something in mammals that loves not just violence but conflict, a form of relationship that is pre-human. In Shakespeare’s time it was bulls versus dogs or bears versus dogs. Of course, we all know about the gladiators in Rome fighting each other and lions. We pretend distaste but only among a certain class of people. Others glory in “Braveheart” or the various “.007 “ tortures.
What was happening in Cleveland last night was not a debate but a pit fight. Or at least that’s what Trump thought he was doing. As Mandy Patinkin put it, the event was “bestial.” Not on Biden’s side but on Trump’s.
We pay well to watch rodeo bull-riding in which a human is matched against a bull with the odds on the side of the bull and the human in possibly mortal danger. We consider it bravery to get on the animal aggravated by a flank strap with bells. A rodeo bull requires a team to manage it, feed it, and so on. Trump admires bulls. Blind, enraged, unstable power people are the same. They can be useful to those willing to corral them. Trump sees himself as an overwhelming bull. He does not feel he’s managed.
An opponent for a bull, the equivalent of a bull fighter but in a debate, could take a lesson from the Spanish context: the cape and the sword. The cape to taunt and deceive the animal’s charges and the sword finally slipped between its ribs to end the conflict. It might be possible to interpret the mildness of the moderator as a version of giving Trump enough rope to hang himself, flirting the cape ever faster to see if he would blow up completely. Give the people something to see.
Long ago, when I was doing public relations for animal control, I was taught that if a question was something I couldn’t or didn’t want to answer, I should simply answer a different question even if it were not asked. That’s one technique. Kellyanne Conway was a skilled user. If you’ve watched any nice female PBS interviewer ask questions of a suited Trumpist or bleached publicist on the WH lawn, you’ve already seen the technique of talking-over, repeating, evading the topic, being indignant at the very subject. Even Nancy Pelosi does it.
If you google “emotional confrontation” you will find a host of advice about how to avoid conflict — nothing about its skillful use to unify people which exists. Ministers have a saying about sermons: “Argument weak here — pound the pulpit.” Several denominations depend on the passionate assertion of what is meant to be true, particularly what an elitist might consider vulgar and low-class, like the fiery declarations of outraged preachers.
This failure to recognize passion but then to suppress arousal has crippled our thought, prompted us to evade and deny. The “boys” do not see us as “proud” but as weak. How do we counter that without becoming monsters? The same handicap intrudes to keep the “cool” people from recognizing the depth of pain and loss in others. In fact, not really believing that “others” are humanly vulnerable. Just pitiable.
Trump is accused of being a sadist, enjoying pain in others. This seems obvious. He is also a pornographer of violence enjoying the elimination of others, which is different from ever being in a fight, having to withstand damage to himself. And he is a fantasist who believes that smearing fake tan on his face and spraying down an epic comb-over looks like anything except what it is. Merely being booed in a ball game makes him flee weeping.
He cannot be contained by rebukes or refuted with evidence or guided by rules. He has exceeded even the passionate rhetoric of fundamentalist preachers or tirades in public places by self-appointed prophets. He doesn’t understand the artful technique of building up to a point, but operates at full-speed right through and will probably go on to incoherent and violent excess as soon as the vestiges of onlookers are gone. It’s a comfort to know he is constantly guarded.
Now I’m going to spend some time thinking of how to “handle” such a person until he can be sent down the chute to the corral. But what about the circle of bull-shitters around him? We can’t go back to the suppression and denial of pretending they aren’t there.