It’s easy to make jokes about Donald Trump. He’s a caricature, spouting the toxic opinions expect to find buried in YouTube, spoken by a man who seems like he escaped from a bad 80’s Wall Street Sitcom.
Unfortunately, Donald Trump is not a joke; he’s currently one of the strongest voices in the Republican primary. In fact, if he has his way, Donald Trump could be the next president of the United States.
We don’t really like thinking about that. Well, unless you like Trump. I’m sure that Donald Trump’s supporters think about him becoming president a lot, just as I think about what my preferred candidate would do if they won the Whitehouse. But Trump? It’s so tempting to write him off as a joke, someone to tolerate until he fades back into obscurity. After all, it’s not as if anyone takes him seriously, right?
But, people are taking him seriously, and it’s not just nameless commentators online. He fills stadiums with supporters, including fellow alumni from my university and other evangelical schools. People rally around him, even as he says things that, if someone else were to say them, would be unacceptable.
Donald Trump supporters aren’t foreign to me, they’re not unrecognizable. They’re faces I saw every day at school, people I spoke to, worked, and studied with.
Donald Trump isn’t terrifying for what he says, he’s terrifying because he has so much support.
Outliers Are The Exception That Make The Rule
I went to Indiana Wesleyan University (IWU), a conservative Christian university in the Midwest. Our student handbook outlined what the college defined as “acceptable” behavior. We had to agree to avoid pre-marital sex and smoking on campus, but we also had to agree to not dance, or drink, at all, while we attended the school. This included holidays, summer break, and weddings. We had a strict dress code, and we couldn’t watch an R rated movie unless it was on the “approved” list.
I don’t mention this to discuss how crazy some of my schooling was. To borrow a phrase from my girlfriend, I did live the movie Footloose. Instead, I mention the crazy rules I agreed to highlight the fact that I went to a very conservative school, one where most of the campus identified as conservative, and the largest organization at my school was the College GOP.
But even in the heart of the Midwest, at one of the most conservative Christian schools in the country, you had outliers. I was one of them, as a founding member of our campus libertarian party, as well as a few brave students who tried forming a college democrat’s party. But outliers can come from within a party as well, and at IWU, that outlier was “Pete.”
Pockets Full of Walnuts
Pete isn’t his real name. I lost touch with him soon after graduation, and I don’t know how much he changed, or didn’t change since then. Calling him out for something he wrote more than a decade ago won’t really accomplish anything, and I think that our culture is a little too addicted to the “gotcha” of public shaming as it is, and I’ll try to avoid contributing to it whenever possible. If you went to IWU from 2003-2008 you know whom I’m talking about, for everyone else, he’s Pete.
I first learned about Pete when he wrote a letter to the editor about a recent change to our chapel dress code on campus. Like many conservative Christian schools, we had mandatory chapel three times a week. Our school had a campus-wide dress code, but for chapel, they expected students to dress with a higher standard in mind. In 2006, they updated their dress code to allow men to wear shorts.
Pete didn’t like this change, and he felt that the old requirement of khaki or dress slacks was more than appropriate, so he wrote a letter to the editor. Unfortunately, my school’s campus archive won’t go back far enough for me to quote him exactly, but in this initial letter Pete asked why men would want to wear cargo short, insisting that the only reason he could think of was that we wished to keep walnuts shoved in the pockets.
It was outlandish, ridiculous, and well received. Most students didn’t agree with his opinion, but they found the letter amusing and for the better part of a week, you couldn’t grab a drink at the campus coffee shop without someone making a joke about having walnuts in their pockets. A large number of students, myself included, thought that maybe Pete wrote the letter as a piece of Satire, because no one really thought that way, right?
In the weeks that followed, Pete wrote a series of articles commenting on what he saw as a troubling trend of liberalism on campus, from changes to student policy to the formation of campus Democrats and Libertarians. In one letter, he called out the campus “Acting On Aids” group as encouraging sinful behavior.
Pete didn’t keep his opinions limited to paper. I remember in one of my classes where he stood up and asked the professor why the USA didn’t just “carpet bomb” the Middle East and be done with it, and I heard similar stories from other students who shared classes with him
When he spoke up in person, we didn’t really know how to respond. Professors would say whatever they could to get him to sit down, and we’d continue with the lesson. The idea of such an extreme ideology, even on our conservative campus, was one that people didn’t really know how to deal with, so we just tried to ignore it.
Ignoring what makes you uncomfortable is natural, particularly in an environment what most people have (or at the very least claim to have) a similar worldview. In Evangelical/Fundamentalist Christian culture, there’s also a strong sense of “us vs them,” encouraging you to accept words and actions from someone that you’d find unacceptable if they didn’t share your faith.
When you’re that sort of insulated culture, you see the “world,” which is anyone not like you, as an oppressive, secular majority who wants to destroy your culture. You have this instinctual urge to protect those like you, your fellowship, at all costs, even if they’re doing something wrong. You’ll find justifications or ways to minimize an issue. After all, if you attack one of your own, you’re helping outsiders tear your community apart.
This isn’t something unique to evangelicals. Look at any community that has a clearly defined ideology, whether it’s religious, political, or cultural, and you’ll find something similar. It’s a tendency exploited by people within the community, allowing them to continue saying something, or doing something, far longer than they should have. It’s easy to point out the sins of outsiders. It’s harder if it’s someone you consider family.
On paper, things were a little easier. Students wrote into the campus journal, questioning his apparent unwillingness to consider different viewpoints. A growing number of my peers found his letters troubling, but we still laughed about having pockets full of walnuts.
Pete didn’t find our critiques amusing.
This is a photograph of one of Pete’s last letters in our school newspaper. I have a copy of it because I was so surprised when I read it that I took a picture of it so I could send it to my friends who weren’t on campus.
No one was laughing anymore. The president of the College Libertarians responded with his own letter, challenging Pete to a live debate. Pete accepted and the debate drew one of the largest crowds of any event hosted by the student government organization.
Pete’s rhetoric didn’t stand up in the debate. He had his talking points, but when someone responded to them, challenged them face to face, he didn’t know how to respond. He was a broken record of bluster.
After his performance in the debate, either he stopped writing letters to the editor or they stopped publishing them. Pete stopped being a topic of daily conversation, deflating until his positions became a punchline, and we just referred to him as the “walnut” guy.
A Broken Record Of Bluster
After watching Donald Trump in the first presidential debate, and hearing the things he says on stage get increasingly extreme, I thought about Pete for the first time in a few years.
I dug through my photos until I found that old clipping and the similarity in the anger resonated with me. I searched for Pete and found that he’s a lawyer now, but before he passed the bar, my Alma Mater hired him as a political science adjunct professor.
My school had someone who advocated nuking the Middle East teaching political science. I don’t know if he still held those views. Maybe his opinions changed. I know mine have. Nevertheless, there are thousands, if not millions of people who would still nod their head in agreement to the arguments he made in “The Reckoning.”
That’s why I can’t make fun of Trump. Because, at the end of the day, the things he says really don’t matter. He can be as racist, sexist, and xenophobic as he wants to be. The true danger of Trump is that he found an audience.
He routinely fills stadiums, where he can blithely joke about shooting a man in the middle of Manhattan, or use “pussy” to insult one of his rivals. He can imply that a female reporter who’s critical of him is just a “bimbo,” and his loudest response is one of laughter.
People who disagree with him, me included, wrote him off as a clown. We thought that there was no way he could find an audience, and that he would soon fade back to the world of Reality TV.
Now it’s 2016, and Trump isn’t going away, his support is growing. On Facebook, I saw some of the same names that initially supported Pete talking positively about Trump, trying to justify his crazier statements. I see my friends who made jokes about walnuts sharing memes of Trump and laughing about how “ridiculous” he is.
As American’s, we see our fellow citizens saying horrible things about others, things we know we’d never accept if someone said them about us. This is our reckoning. Will we take care of this issue on our own, getting our own house in order? Or, will our cultural blinders help Trump’s hatred fester until our community becomes one that no one should be proud of?