Like most Americans, Howard Gardner has been following the engrossing and controversial 2016 presidential primary season in the United States. In the blog post below, Gardner comments on what he believes can help explain the appeal of Donald Trump for so many voters. Using the lens of the virtues of truth, beauty, and goodness, Trump is not true or good, but he does create experiences that his supporters find beautiful.
Like many other observers—indeed, like almost everyone I know!—I’ve been trying to account for the phenomenon of Donald Trump’s popularity. By popularity, I don’t just mean the number of votes he is likely to muster. While personally I cannot abide watching him, individuals whom I respect and even love can’t seem to get enough of him. How to account for this attraction, unprecedented in my experience? After ruminating for some time, I think I’ve found the answer—and it lurks in my own work, as an educator, on the purposes of education.
For some time, I’ve argued that the purpose of education is to nurture the appreciation of the true, the beautiful, and the good. Nothing very original here; in fact, the motto of my high school was “Verum, Pulchrum, Bonum.” On no account does Trump qualify as a truth-teller or truth seeker. He leads every measure of “pants-on-fire”—the schoolyard taunt of one who never provides evidence for his outlandish claims, who does not care whether his statements are true.
As for goodness, Trump also falls well short. A good worker should be ethical in all facets of her profession; a good citizen should take into account the welfare of all in his community. From all that has been reported, Trump receives low scores on both counts. As to whether Trump is a good person—a good friend, a good neighbor, a good husband and father—I’ll claim “not enough data.”
Which leaves the judgment of beauty. One achievement (positive or negative) of recent times is that we no longer accept canonical definitions of what is beautiful; many scholars do not even sanction use of the word “beautiful.” After all, we value the artwork of Willem DeKooning (or street art) or the music of Arnold Schoenberg (or hip-hop or rap). Having pondered the evolution of taste—in art, music, literature, nature, food—I’ve come up with a quite different perspective. As I define it, a beautiful experience fits three criteria: it is initially interesting; it is memorable in form; and it invites and encourages re-visiting and re-experiencing.
Could this concept explain The Appeal of The Donald? I think it does.
To begin, even I would concede that Trump is interesting—he captures attention. He does so with his distinctive hair, his overly rotund physique, and his raspy voice.
As for memorable form, again Trump passes the test. We don’t just remember the content of his message. We remember the way that he presents, interacts with his audience, holds up his hands, comments and ripostes off the cuff, and struts and frets on stage.
Which brings me to the last criterion—the impulse to revisit. Here is where the world sharply divides. Many people, including me, find Trump repulsive; we don’t want to ever see or hear him again. This characterization applies to many awe-ful events: we may notice them, we may find them memorable, but few of us want to revisit the concomitant pain, suffering, and destruction. No Holocaust photos or movies, please.
But with respect to individuals of my acquaintance, quite a few cannot get enough of Trump. Something, anything, or many things about his presentation are sufficiently attractive, compelling, and indeed awe-some that these persons find themselves returning again and again to the places where his image and his message can be found. And while some who are attracted to his persona would die before they would vote for him, many cherish these “beautiful experiences” so much that they hope to repeat them over four or even eight years.
To quote another Latin phrase, “De gustibus non disputandum” (“One cannot quarrel with taste”). It is possible, however, to outgrow one’s taste—as we do with so many food and movies that we once savored—and to cultivate a more sophisticated one. I wish that we had on the political stage more individuals whose attractiveness is accompanied by a more constructive set of messages.