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Chris Honoré: The NBC-Esquire 'rage survey'

I’ve heard political pundits comment, absent any real explanation other than mild astonishment, that Americans seem angry. This analysis, amounting to a mere soundbite, often follows on the heels of an enthusiastic Trump speech/rally in which he offers few (if any) policy proposals. Instead he launches into a free-association riff, replete with ad hominem attacks directed against his fellow Republican primary candidates or, recently, the Clintons.

In essence, what these political commentators are responding to is not Trump’s cookie-cutter rants; rather, they are remarking on those thousands of Americans who show up seemingly to bask in what could be described as Trump’s rage, his rolling diatribe against America’s “stupid” Washington leadership while praising the leadership of Vladimir Putin.

What is going on? Who are these people holding up the Trump signs, many wearing “Make America Great Again” hats, roughing up a lone protester, while Trump gestures toward the media, cameras rolling, explaining how much he hates “these people,” knowing full well that if they packed up their gear and left him alone he would protest, admonishing them for failing to do their jobs. He basks in the attention and turns toward the television lights like a flower turning toward the sun.

But back to the audience. Their mood is what puzzles, so NBC News and Esquire magazine, in a survey of 3,000 Americans, which they informally called the “rage survey,” attempted to drill down beyond the word “anger.” Here are some of their findings regarding the “rage” now clearly simmering in the electorate.

Half say they are angrier now than they were a year ago. A plurality say they get angry at least once a day over something they read or hear in the news. Many believe they are living in a less powerful America. And simply working hard no longer means you will get ahead. Almost half of middle class white respondents ($50,000 – $74,999), are the angriest and, according to the data, believe that immigrants are a “burden to our country,” taking away jobs and housing and health care.

But here is, at least in my opinion, the essence of the “rage survey”: Americans (again it’s white Americans more so than blacks or Hispanics, though that seems decidedly counterintuitive) say that life hasn’t turned out the way they had hoped and, for them, the “American Dream” has died. To extrapolate a bit from this statement, it’s not uncommon to hear or read that polls indicate the country is “headed in the wrong direction.”

This feeling is not just confined to those white Republicans supporting Trump but, according to the survey, is bipartisan, a fact that might explain not only Trump’s surge in the polls but the surprising and enthusiastic response to the candidacy of Bernie Sanders.

Of course, the rhetoric coming from Sanders is in stark contrast to that coming from Trump. And it is the language of Trump that should be most disconcerting to anyone listening. Words matter. And his are chilling. What seems so obvious, at least to this writer, is that he is a demagogue in the making and history tells us that we’ve seen his like before (George Wallace, Joe McCarthy).

Trump has tapped into the darkest instincts of our nation — call it rage, anger, or resentment — and hears only a rising tide of cheering approbation as he nurtures our fears of “the other” (Mexicans/illegals or Muslims/radical Islamic terrorists).

Trump is not interested in what may be causing America’s rising tide of angst and anger. He is not interested in “the American Dream” becoming unattainable. He is only interested in stoking the fires of disenfranchisement and presenting himself as having the answers to America’s vague discontent. He has an uncanny sense of his audience and can affect an “us-and-them” manner that is breezy while suddenly mirroring the anger that he knows is out there.

Meanwhile he reiterates that his Republican primary challengers are “weak,” “low-energy” and “losers,” while he is really, really, really smart and rich. He can fix stuff. China? Iran? No problem. They’ll do a deal. Our military? Way bigger. Giant border wall? Done. All those listening have to do is believe in The Donald. Policies? That’ll come later. Much later.

Chris Honoré lives in Ashland.