Westneat: Trump’s appeal exposes broad unwillingness to trust

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Danny Westneat is a columnist for the Seattle Times.

When I watched the first presidential debate, I kept thinking of that Gordon Gekko character in the 1980s movie “Wall Street.”

Donald Trump kept doing something I’ve never seen before from a politician at the state or national level. He argued that greed is not only good, it’s the ticket to our salvation.

When he was accused of wishing for a housing collapse in 2008, so he could make a fast buck off foreclosures, Trump didn’t demur. He said, “That’s called business.”

When he was accused of not paying any taxes years ago, he didn’t object — even though it turns out he had paid taxes for some of the years in question. Instead he boasted about it: “That makes me smart.”

When he was challenged for stiffing vendors and making prolific use of bankruptcy and other lawsuits to benefit his development company, he said: “I take advantage of the laws of the nation because I’m running a company. My obligation right now is to do well for myself, my family, my employees, for my companies. And that’s what I do.”

I don’t think I’ve ever heard a politician — or even a corporate raider — talk about such matters without at least giving some nod to civic responsibility or the greater good. Forget Gordon Gekko. Trump is straight out of an Ayn Rand novel.

Since late last year, I have been having an on-again, off-again conversation with some Donald Trump supporters, to try to understand the phenomenon that is his campaign. I admit I’m mystified by Trump’s appeal. So, periodically I prod them to explain. The email I sent out last week was centered on Trump’s debate statements (and before the New York Times revealed he likely went years without paying taxes).

“What did you think of Trump’s answer that he might pay no income tax?” I wrote. “And that he said paying nothing ‘makes me smart?’ ”

I got some replies disputing he’d said that or echoing his point that the money would probably be wasted. But the most interesting answer came from an IT worker in Seattle I have quoted before (he asks not to be identified because of the abuse he’d take from “liberals in the office”):

“I loved his tax answer, and I think Trump Nation also loves it,” he wrote. “It’s him saying he’s beating government at its own corrupt game … It shows he’s shrewd.”

Trump alluded to this himself in a post-debate interview he gave to Bill O’Reilly: “Tax is a big payment,” he objected when O’Reilly suggested that paying zero was not something a politician usually boasts about. “But I think a lot of people say that’s the kind of thinking that I want running this nation.”

Poor Mitt Romney. Four years ago he sheepishly revealed he paid 14 percent of his income in federal taxes. The conventional thinking then was this was too little for one so rich. Today, though, paying anything more than zero just means you’re an easy mark.

Crisis likely to persist

Have we really shifted so far that “Greed is good” is no longer a cautionary tale, but aspirational? And, more importantly, that we want it to be the organizing principle for the national government?

It’s pretty much the opposite of “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

This is not idle musing about some fringe movement. Trump has backing from nearly half the country.

Implicit in his campaign is more than just affection for ‘survival of the fittest,’ but also a sense that the whole government system is rigged. Maybe that’s why so many seem willing to excuse Trump for taking full advantage, even for dealing from the bottom of the deck. The system’s unfair, so it gets what it deserves.

The most alarming thing about Trump isn’t that he may become president (though that’s plenty alarming to me).

It’s this existential crisis we’re having. That seems certain to persist no matter what happens in next month’s election.