Trump: The Symptom and the Disease
I’d like to acknowledge up front that this post isn’t going to make anyone happy. I’m going to offer you an alternative narrative to the ones you’re hearing and passionately embracing. I just hope you’ll hear me out.
I want to call your attention to two thematic, quasi-ideological streams that I believe have led us to where we are and that I believe, if we can tease them apart, will give us better insight into where to go next, how to aim our energies, how to frame our messages.
The first is just a pretty brief history. Since the WWII, in which the US played a monumental role in standing against totalitarianism, America has engaged in a lot of foreign adventurism that hasn’t gone well for it. While one can debate the pros and cons or the wisdom of engagement in Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq I, Afghanistan, Iraq II, Libya, and now Syria, it needs to be acknowledged that none of them have resulted in resounding successes. This takes a toll on a country’s purse and its pride. Economically the US, at one point the manufacturing and technological behemoth, has slowly seen its dominance in those fields eroded over the past 60 years too. This has even more deeply and materially affected millions of Americans who have depended on these industries for their livelihood.
No one leader or political party can be blamed for this very slow decline in world prestige since WWII. Militarily, it often had to do with goals that were and still are unattainable by military means. Economically it has to do with the fact that massive countries like China and India started from so far behind, but the sheer bulk of their populations and the need to feed themselves, was going to mean they would catch up. They were always going to try to demand their piece of a global economic pie. Politicians who kept promising a return to better times, to earlier successes have always been popular. And voters have consistently resisted the hard pill of reality: the past is another country, and you can’t go back to it. You can only move forward and forge something worse, or better. When we choose the cosy allure of nostalgia, we are always going to be in for disappointment. Politicians have all, to one extent or another, offered this undeliverable panacea because it gets them votes. But the trick only works because voters consistently prefer to be told lies that comfort them. It is a profound truth that we get the leaders we deserve. And very few of them are really leaders as opposed to sellers of illusions. We need to individually find the internal courage to refuse the lure of rosy promises to return to the past. It doesn’t happen. It has never happened.
Slowly it has emerged that the all that reliably makes money IS money, not goods, not natural resources, not labor, not creativity. We have allowed this. The idea that the ‘market’ is a natural system, a creature best not interfered with or inhibited, is fairly new, but almost universally embraced. But the market IS a man-made cultural creation. It evolved as a social construct to enable the trade of goods, energy, etc. between people. The market is FOR us, not DESPITE us. From the very first market gathering, it has been recognized that without the imposition of certain rules, limitations, customs of practice, a market could easily become something that served the few and disadvantaged the many. The western decision to allow money – in the raw – to be the most reliable source of profit has not been a natural evolution. It has resulted from the way the rules have been imposed. And it is making life progressively more miserable for the vast majority of people. We can change that. We can establish that making money from money is unprofitable by taxing those profits at a higher rate than other forms of enterprise. And we need to consider doing this, globally.
We also need to acknowledge what consumerism has done to our way of thinking about the world around us. All of us have been acclimatized to see ourselves as consumers of goods, services, experiences, even realities. When we took that way of thinking out of the supermarket and the mall, and began using it to evaluate and interact with other parts of life, things have gotten uglier. Just think about how John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” would have gone down in the last election. Today, that demand rings as laughable, absurd. There was a fundamental difference in more than just the vision that Trump and Clinton were offering, but in how they were presenting it. Clinton took the position of asking people to participate, to engage in making something – it was fundamentally abstract “Stronger Together” . Trump took a sales view: here is what I’m going to make happen. Here is what I’m going to promise you. Implicit is (I’m Going To) “Make America Great Again”. It’s the difference between ‘Lets make a pizza together’ and ‘I’m going to bring you a pizza’. It’s not very surprising that a population so immersed in a consumerist, transactional mindset would pick home delivery.
Darker is what voters decided to overlook to have their future delivered to their doorstep. While people who insist that all Trump voters are not racists or misogynists may be right, the vast majority wanted the home delivery MORE than they were offended by the racism and the misogyny. They were all willing to accept the racism and misogyny in order to get the things they wanted. Trump voters who are now so deeply offended at being called racists or misogynists seem unable or unwilling to put themselves, even for a moment, into the shoes of those minorities who are appalled by this ability of the majority population to overlook their denigration.
Trump’s very loud and repetitive social rhetoric is all many women, racial, ethnic and social minorities can hear of what Trump has said. If you’re a Muslim, you are going to hear ‘I am going to ban all Muslims immigrants and register all the ones in the country’ first and last. For them, it is an existential threat statement. The fact that Trump went on to promise to repeal NAFTA doesn’t get through. The response is similar for many Hispanics. White people who voted for Trump may have heard those existential threat statements, but since those threats didn’t affect them, they ignored them or minimized their significance and fixated on the promises of how Trump might make their life better. They simply didn’t care that it might make it worse for others.
The US has always experienced a tension between individualism and community. But the founders of the country, while wanting to ensure the rights of the individual, were very aware and concerned that they needed to forge a workable community. At its noblest, America has expended vast wealth and lives fighting for the rights of others, because leaders in those times believe that the erosion of human rights were important (even when the rights under threat weren’t their own), because they understood that an abandonment of the rights of others destabilized America’s own claim to moral superiority.
I hate having to resort to ad hitlerium rhetoric, but this case is so fitting to it, I must indulge. It’s very important for Americans to understand that it wasn’t active members of the National Socialist Party in Germany that enabled the rise of Hitler or the event of the Holocaust; it was the many millions more educated, good Germans suffering under economic depression who chose to consciously overlook or ignore the loud racist rhetoric, in order to embrace the promise of Making Germany Great Again. No one who knows even a little about history can ignore the parallel.
So this bargain even the nicest, most peaceful Trump voters have made comes at a cost. The cost is being reminded what they overlooked to get what they wanted.