How can conservative, Christian, values voters back a thrice-married, philandering, candidate for the presidency, who trails a record of stiffed creditors, broken promises, and ruthless practices behind him?
Maybe because communities that feel themselves besieged tend not to look for moral exemplars—instead, they seek out champions.
Saturday night’s report in the New York Times that Donald Trump apparently claimed a $916 million loss on his 1995 tax returns, and may have used it to avoid paying federal income taxes for up to 18 years, is the latest in a long string of revelations that might have doomed any previous Republican nominee. Yet Trump has repeatedly rebounded from these disclosures. That must surely be, at least in part, a testament to the power of partisanship in this increasingly divided age. But that is hardly a sufficient explanation.
“I know our complex tax laws better than anyone who has ever run for president,” Trump tweeted in response, “and am the only one who can fix them.”
That echoes the pitch he made in his acceptance speech at the Cleveland convention:
I have joined the political arena so that the powerful can no longer beat up on people that cannot defend themselves. Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it. I have seen firsthand how the system is rigged against our citizens.
Ascendant political coalitions can afford to impose litmus tests on their candidates. They look for politicians who not only endorse their favored positions, but embody them. But coalitions that believe the moral consensus is cracking, that see their values under attack, and fear their own eclipse may turn away from candidates whose own lives exemplify a moral vision that the broader society no longer endorses. Instead, they seek out figures who seem strong enough, tough enough, ruthless enough to roll back social change, or at least to hold it at bay. They look for a champion.