Peter St. Onge

What I got wrong about Donald Trump

Donald Trump speaks to supporters Tuesday in Florida.
Donald Trump speaks to supporters Tuesday in Florida. AP

A few years back, newspapers began moving away from allowing readers to make anonymous remarks at the end of online articles and columns.

There was a lot of stench coming from those comments sections, including the fake names people gave themselves when signing on. (I did have a favorite of those names, though. I found it one day on an education article I hadn’t written: “StOngeisanidiot.”)

To fight this, a lot of media – including the Charlotte Observer – switched to requiring commenters to register using their Facebook ID. The reasoning was simple: If you made readers put their name and face on their thoughts, you’d surely get a lot less bottom-feeding at the bottom of those articles.

The change worked some, but it was a bit like scraping the mold to find a layer of grime underneath. There still was plenty of nastiness in the new format. As it turns out, people don’t mind being ugly even when you pull their masks off.

This is a good time to talk about my Donald Trump prediction.

Back in July, when Trump first surged to the top of polls in North Carolina, I confidently told readers to relax. “Donald Trump isn’t going to win the Republican primary here,” I typed. I said it again later last year, then one more time, with a little less conviction, last month.

Trump won North Carolina on Tuesday, beating Ted Cruz by about 4 percentage points.

I was wrong.

Why? A couple of reasons, at least. Like a lot of people, I thought Trump’s lead would vanish as GOP candidates dropped out and their support went to his opponents. That almost happened, but too many Republicans were still running on Tuesday, and the non-Trump vote stayed splintered.

I also was wrong about Trump’s numbers. He finished at 40 percent in North Carolina, which is about where he’s landed in most states. That’s lower than the numbers Hillary Clinton is getting on the Democratic side, but it’s more than most people, including me, imagined Trump earning this late.

A lot of smart people have smart theories about that support. Most of them circle around the notion that voters are expressing how disenfranchised they feel and how angry they are at the Washington “establishment.”

But there have been plenty of past elections in which voters were angry at the establishment, and there have been plenty of candidates who’ve tried to drill into that anger. None of them hit a gusher the way Trump has.

Here’s a guess at one reason: Until now, none of those candidates was allowed to speak the language Trump uses. It’s what people used to grumble behind closed doors, then later behind anonymous keyboards. Now, it’s the language that litters the roadside of Facebook and Twitter, where everybody knows your name.

That’s not to say that all Trump supporters are as crude as their candidate. Yes, racists and bigots have found a home in his campaign, and his base loves to crow about his political incorrectness. But some of his supporters are people who just want change, and they’re willing to tolerate some ugliness to get it.

And why not? That ugliness is already strewn through much of our public communication. Donald Trump is just the next logical step. He’s the first real candidate of the Twitter age. He may be the first Comments Section President.

Or maybe not. Trump hasn’t won the support of even half his party in primaries, and enough people – both Democrat and Republican – seem ready to shake their heads at him in November. America still has something to say this election about intolerance and racism, about decency and civility. I hope we say the right thing. I think we will.

I’m just not predicting it.

Peter: @saintorange; pstonge@charlotteobserver.com

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