There’s an old Saturday Night Live skit in which a family is sitting around the dinner table for “leftovers” night. The father drinks out of a milk carton and recoils in disgust, because the milk has gone sour. Not believing him, the mother grabs the carton and drinks some herself. She too grimaces at the taste, but that doesn’t stop each and every member of the family from taking a swig to verify for themselves that the milk has indeed gone bad.
This is Donald Trump’s appeal in a nutshell: He is the carton of sour milk seemingly everyone in America must try before agreeing that it does in fact stink to high heaven.
It’s not The Donald’s fault. Human beings are naturally drawn to things that disgust them. Circus freak shows, hot-dog-eating contests, slasher movies, Marilyn Manson concerts, serial killers, cigarettes, lutefisk—all are beloved by some faction of the populace. There is a switch in the human brain, it seems, that can turn disgust into desire, in the same way that pain can, under some circumstances, be intensely pleasurable.
The corpse flower is a giant plant that blooms only once every ten years or so. When it does, it emits a smell that everyone agrees is putrid, like road kill rotting in the sun. And yet, wherever corpse flowers bloom—in greenhouses and botanical gardens around the world—people line up by the hundreds for the opportunity to stand near the flower and get a whiff, even though they know the stench is going to make their nose hairs curl.
Donald Trump has the same counterintuitive appeal. You’ve seen the debates, heard him spout the crazy, read all the nasty things he’s said, and been amazed by his ignorance of just about every aspect of the job for which he is running. It’s unbelievable. But how bad can it really be? Let’s attend one of his rallies to find out!
This analysis of course assumes that Trump’s supporters are revolted by him on some level, which may not be the case. The stinkier the cheese is, the more some people like it. And that is why Donald Trump confounds everyone politically left of Vlad the Impaler. They don’t like Trump’s stinky cheesiness, and don’t understand why anyone else would, either. What they fail to account for is the human capacity to convince themselves that gross, offensive things are actually delicious, attractive, and desirable. The food world is full of so-called “delicacies” that would make most people puke. (Next time you’re in Micronesia, try a little Fruit Bat Soup.) And now, with Donald Trump, the political world has a candidate who is vile and grotesque to some, but savory and marvelous to others.
After all, one man’s rotten milk is another man’s brie.
There will be no “try it you’ll like it” transformations among voters in the coming months; either you like this crap or you don’t. Nevertheless, every media outlet in America is currently in the process of passing around the sour carton of milk that is Donald Trump to decide if it’s gone bad. It was bad all along, of course, but until now everyone in America hadn’t gotten a true taste of Trump. A certain amount of sampling was necessary for a consensus to emerge: Yep, it stinks.
The same thing is happening with Ted Cruz, of course. If Donald Trump doesn’t win the GOP presidential nomination, and Cruz is the only viable alternative—well, that’s an outcome that many find even less palatable than Trump.
To understand how something like this could happen, we must once again recognize how tolerant human beings can be of things that are, on their face, repulsive. In Greenland, the Inuit people love a dish called kiviaq, which is made by sealing hundreds of tiny auk birds (the whole thing, feathers and all) inside a sealskin bag, rubbing the bag with seal fat, and leaving it under a pile of rocks to rot for 18 months. Over time, the birds turn into a kind of fermented sludge, which the Inuit people consume as a meal of celebration. They do this outside, though, because a freshly opened batch of kiviaq can stench up a house for months.
If Donald Trump is sour milk, Ted Cruz is kiviaq.
The natural reaction to a Cruz run for presidency should be involuntary wretching, followed by a day or two of shivers and sweat. But of course there are always people who will claim to their death bed that kiviaq the best thing they’ve ever tasted. All the rest of us can do is shake our heads and, when it’s offered to us, say, “No, thanks. I'd rather vote for Hillary."