Trying to Figure Out the Trump Phenomenon (Part 2)
(VANCOUVER ISLAND) Since there is a dearth of firm policy statements coming from the Trump camp we have to look at the general tone and atmosphere of his campaign. Even his supporters will acknowledge that Trump has lowered the level of discourse and public debate; the Trump campaign has coarsened and degraded the way in which politics and democratic functions are carried out. His followers have justified his and their own hateful rhetoric by suggesting that they are courageously refusing to submit to “political correctness”. His and their vulgar and bigoted language is gleefully deployed and political correctness is condemned as too restricting. The political correctness they reject is, of course, nothing more than socially acceptable ways of behaving, and communicating respectfully and without causing undue offense. But Trump’s rejection of respectful communication and behaviour gives his followers licence to speak hatred and to act violently. In fact, Trump has explicitly encouraged violence against his detractors, and his people have enthusiastically rejoiced in the freedom they have been given to behave like a mob and to express their racism in ways that were unacceptable just a little over a year ago.
Trump is an authoritarian. He also seems to be unaware of the responsibilities and limitations on the power of the office he seeks. He speaks as though he expects to be elected to be an all-powerful national leader with the authority of a Roman Emperor. Remarkably, he does this while simultaneously lambasting President Obama for using his authority to employ executive orders. Also remarkably, he condemns Obama’s use of that authority as dictatorial when, in fact, Obama has employed that authority far less frequently than his Republican predecessors.
So, what exactly is it that Trump supporters see in him as being valuable or desirable in someone who is asking to be made the most powerful man in the world? The most common answer to that kind of question is that he is a great businessman and that expertise will serve the country well should he be elected. There are a few problems with that reasoning, however, when one looks at it a little more carefully.
In the first place, Trump is losing support every day as the reality of his business acumen is being exposed as largely imaginary. Trump has an enormous list of business failures on his resume. From Trump Steaks to Trump Vodka; from failed real estate projects to bankrupt casinos; and frauds like Trump University, Donald Trump has an abysmal record as a business giant. A number of financial analysts have stated that, had Trump simply put his inherited millions in a mutual fund with an average return, he would be better off than he is as a result of his business adventures. Whether that is accurate is hard to determine since Trump, the first candidate in over 40 years to do so, has refused to release his tax returns. He knows that keeping his returns secret is hurting him; that means he knows that releasing them would hurt him even more. It is likely that public scrutiny of his tax returns would put the final nail in the coffin of Donald Trump’s self-created mythology of being a philanthropist and vastly wealthy.
The second problem is that the notion that business experience is a critical credential for a presidential candidate is simply wrong. Not one of the great presidents was a particularly successful businessman. Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Kennedy, Reagan; none of them relied on their reputations or experience as business successes to govern. In fact, governing and managing a corporation require utterly different skill sets, as the two institutions are completely different in structure, in purpose, and in benchmarks of success. A president of the US needs to govern with the rights, needs, desires, and even lives of all Americans in mind. A corporate president needs to increase the corporation’s profits for the benefit of the shareholders. If it works as part of a broader profit-making strategy, a CEO may downsize, dismantle, or even bankrupt a corporation; Trump claims to be an expert at that sort of thing. That kind of strategy would be catastrophic for a country. A CEO has virtually unlimited authority. A US president is an executive who manages according to the laws passed by congress and with the approval of the Supreme Court; despite Trump’s poor understanding of the constitution, a president is not a dictator.
So what is it that his followers see in Donald Trump? The best way to figure that out is to look at the demographics of his base. Trump’s most solid and unwavering support is comprised of poorly educated white men. That demographic is the most alienated and dissatisfied identifiable group in the country. In the lifetime of the baby boomers among them, they have seen themselves diminished as the most influential and politically courted segment of the electorate. Having become a minority as the result of the diversification of the US population, as the result of increasing numbers of Americans seeking and earning college educations, and as the result of women taking a greater part in politics, they miss the good old days when all politicians tailored their campaigns and policies to appeal to them. They feel abandoned. They have seen their real income and their job prospects take a hit. They have been reduced from solidly middle class to poor white trash at the same time as they see more minorities succeeding. They are angry.
Donald Trump has come along and told them that he’ll make America great again. He hasn’t told them what he’ll do to accomplish that other than to take actions against the minorities that his base fear and loath. When he goes into his tough guy shtick, they feel empowered. When he crosses the invisible line between straight talk and outright bigotry, they feel that he’s one of them because he has said out loud those things that they have always felt constrained to suppress. He has given racists permission to repeat outrageously hateful racist statements as being too honest to submit to “political correctness”. Being a vocal hatemonger has, with Trump’s ascendancy, become seen by some as courageous, rather than as the craven sniping it really is.
By knowing almost nothing about foreign or domestic policy, macroeconomics, constitutional law, geopolitics, or anything else that have always been critical areas of expertise for an American president, and by steadfastly refusing to take the trouble of boning up on those subjects, Trump has helped his supporters identify with him. They are delighted to see a candidate who dismisses expertise, knowledge, and critical thinking as nothing but elitist egghead rhetoric. Trump loves a conspiracy theory; in that, he also identifies with his base who get their news from Trump’s favourite supermarket tabloids. They respect him for buying into their own favourite crackpot beliefs. Trump, after all, has never backed down from the birtherism he spearheaded; he cannot retreat from claiming Hillary Trump is a criminal, despite her having been investigated for virtually her entire 25 years in public life without having come up with anything.
Trump is identified with because, apart from his claim to be a billionaire, he is like them: thin skinned, childish in his insulting and abusive language, both in speeches and in his obsessive use of Twitter to blurt out inanities. The Trump people are self-righteous and angry because they feel that the world has left them behind; they take it as a personal insult when a politician like their president speaks of the importance of education in achieving success in the 21st Century. Trump cozies up to them and validates their fear, their anger, their alienation. He doesn’t mind lying consistently and he couldn’t care less that his lies are exposed every single day, because when he is routinely called a liar, his people just put it down to liberal attacks on their guy.
Trump plans to be swept into the presidency on a wave of ignorance, violent rhetoric, bigotry, and fear and loathing. He is pushing all the right buttons to appeal to those who have those qualities in their hearts and are ecstatic at the opportunity to see them brought out into the daylight. But there is a finite number of Americans who are willing to go down that road; thoughtful Republicans are jumping ship and finally saying, “Trump does not speak for me!”
Having tried to look at Trump and his followers objectively and give them the benefit of the doubt; having tried to walk in their shoes and understand where they’re coming from, I have to say that I arrive at the same place I was before that exercise. Trump is neither Republican nor Democrat and he doesn’t represent either party’s core values. He represents all the worst in America and he will lose badly in the general election the November.