Let me lay out the fundamentals of my reaction in stages.
First, Franck is clear about the distinction between figuring out what Trump "really" believes and investigating what his appeal is among voters. That is clearly appropriate and too few commentators do that, so that's helpful
Second, Franck focuses on fear and economic hardship as key motivators for a lot of voters, White voters in particular, and he emphasizes the economic components of Trump's message that appear to be resonating with working-class and middle-class voters. Also helpful.
But there are some missteps in Franck's essay that are serious and, I would argue, dangerous. Those missteps have to do with two issues (1) race, and (2) what it means to deal with a charismatic sociopath.
First, on race.
Franck sets up a dichotomy -- are people "really" responding to Trump's racism, or are they instead "really" responding to the part of his message that purports to advance economic populism? I think this is a dangerous mistake.
This is not a dichotomy. It is a symbiotic pair of dynamics, mutually reinforcing. In fact, it's what legal scholar Janet Halley has called a chiasmus, a literary device in which the author has two messages that operate in counterpoint with each other, with one message taking the dominant position when it is the most useful and the other taking the ascendant when the weaknesses of the first message become apparent, but then fading into the background again when the power of the first message is needed. That way, the weaknesses of both messages are hidden and the two form a more powerful harmony than would exist with either in isolation.
Trump is wrapping a purported message of economic populism in racist language, inviting his audience into expressions of "legitimate" grievance about wage inequality and unemployment through the gateway of White Supremacy. This is a reiteration of centuries of racial / economic exploitation where poor White people are urged to sign onto a populist message that allows them to feel superior to people of color and therefore less bad about their inferior economic status.
The reason that message works is because a lot of people are, in fact, White Supremacists in their hearts. They have been taught that expressing such views is socially unacceptable, and they genuinely do not want to think of themselves as "racists". But they do think that all those lazy Blacks / illegal Mexicans / terrorist Muslims are inferior, and being invited to believe that those "others" are also the reasons for their economic woes is very attractive, reinforcing their White Supremacist beliefs while allowing them to avoid the label "racist".
When Franck quotes one commentator saying, "These people are not racist, not any more than anyone else is" (or whatever), he contributes to this problem. They are racist. And so are a lot of people -- perhaps not "everyone else", but the racism is structural and endemic and something that we constantly need to fight to make visible and to dislodge. This counterpoint with an economic populist message -- once again, an old tactic -- does the opposite, embedding the White Supremacy and making it invisible and plausibly deniable.
Second, on dealing with a sociopath.
Normal human beings have a conscience. We have a sense of moral regard for our fellow human beings. That means that we usually lead our lives restraining our behavior in various ways. We concern ourselves with questions of ethics, we ask ourselves whether our actions are harming others or incurring their disfavor because we care about not harming others and not incurring disfavor. We seek connection in a way that acknowledges the humanity of others, and that means restraining our impulses in a multitude of ways.
That is a central part of what it means to be a normal, well-functioning adult. But it is also limiting and frustrating at time. Almost all of us, I dare say, entertain fantasies on a regular basis that we could cast off those restraints. For most of us, the fantasy is not that we can hurt and exploit other people, but simply that we can lead our lives without ever feeling like we have to restrain our urges and impulses. The idea of living that way feels liberating.
When we see another person who seems to be free from the restraints that govern normal adults -- who can seemingly do or say anything without self-editing and "get away with it" -- it looks exciting and powerful. Suddenly, our small, day-to-day, largely unacknowledged fantasies of living without the necessary restraints of adult life seem attainable, possible, real, embodied in an actual human being.
That is the power of the highly charismatic sociopath.
A sociopath is a human being who does not have a conscience -- does not have that ingrained regard for the moral status of other human beings and the attendant ingrained need to restraint behavior in various ways. Some sociopaths are sadists. They usually wind up in jail for murder. But there are many other types. For most sociopaths, the two primary drivers in life are to satisfy whatever their emotional needs are and to manipulate other people in order to feel powerful. Sociopaths view normal human beings as chumps, always worrying about this nonsense called "ethics" and always restraining themselves when they could be exploiting the other chumps around them.
A smart, highly charismatic sociopath is perhaps the most dangerous personality type there is, because the power of the personality comes across as charm and femininity / masculinity, rather than (for example) dangerous sadism. A smart, highly charismatic sociopath can make you feel like the sun is shining just on you. They have this ability to focus attention on a person that is utterly disarming. It is the powerful gaze of the avaricious predator that makes its prey feel special and entranced.
A lot of what I am seeing in the public's response to Trump -- in addition to the counterpoint between White Supremacy and economic populism -- is a response to a smart, highly charismatic sociopath. People resonate to Trump's outrageous behavior not primarily because they have a deep commitment to the misogyny or the racism that he exhibits (though that may well be true in many cases), but because they see him acting in a completely unrestrained fashion and getting away with it -- indeed, having people give him huge affirmation for doing so -- and seeing that spectacle touches on some of their deepest and most unacknowledged fantasies. People who resonate with Trump have daydreamed about being able to be as unrestrained and uninhibited as they see Trump being, but they never thought it was possible to do that and also be a successful adult. In Trump, they see that fantasy realized, and they want to make themselves a part of it.
For some of them, the misogyny and the racism is just a secondary detail, perhaps even one that they find distasteful but that they are willing to accept as part of the deal in order to satisfy the long-held desire to feel unrestrained by adult limitations. For others, the misogyny and racism are mutually reinforcing, because they have also wanted to indulge those particular ideas but have felt unable to do so openly because of social disapprobation. In both cases, they want to feel the way that they imagine that Trump feels when he behaves this way -- like grown-up infants who can give full expression to the impulses of their minds and their bodies while also enjoying the trappings of a successful adult life.
That is what I see going on. And it scares the daylights out of me.
The one saving grace, and it is a partial grace, is Trump's own limitations. He is a desperately emotionally and sexually broken man. He is a slave to his own needs, and I think he is actually quite subject to manipulation through those needs. And he does not appear to have any actual ideological beliefs, other than the satisfaction of his emotional and sexual impulses. If he had a core ideology to go with his charismatic sociopathy and his bottomless personal needs, then he would be Hitler. I mean, no joke, that's what Hitler was, and Trump is 2/3 of that.
I think there is some reason to hope that the lack of a genuine driving ideology will blunt the impact of this current phenomenon somewhat. But it will not simply disappear all by itself. There is a lot that is real there -- real White Supremacy and misogyny, and a real complex of emotional responses from his audience that Trump knows how to inflame and manipulate.
I think that the Franck essay captures some small parts of that overall dynamic, and it's a useful contribution in that respect, but I think it also fails utterly to understand the interlocking pieces, and in the process it helps to empower some of those other dynamics by making them less visible.