Presidential election seasons usually bring us the almost endless round of solemn promises, ringing endorsements, platitude-filled speeches delivered with gravitas, presented as though the whole thing is a novel experience.
This year, we are presented a new level of drama/entertainment, in the form of our Republican nominee. The party of Lincoln has offered Donald Trump as the next leader of the free world. If this were merely another reality TV show, perhaps we would be talking about ratings. But this is reality, so despite the warning signs that the water may be hazardous to your health, let’s dive in.
Trump regularly parades arrogance, narcissism, misogyny and sheer malevolence, as though they are virtues. The insults and invective that come from the Trump campaign are being gleefully parsed almost hourly by the media, providing him free publicity, and some of the public an invitation to participate, or some to recoil in horror.
Rather than focus on the rhetoric, it strikes me as far more interesting and perhaps useful to examine Trump’s attraction.
Trump’s supporting argument consists of two parallel thrusts. First, America is in the midst of some very rapid social changes. It’s becoming commonplace to hear about the shifting demographics that threaten to numerically overwhelm the white population. There’s the feeling from those of European extraction that they are besieged by people who don’t share their ‘values’. Second, there is a technological revolution in manufacturing processes, and a shift of manufacturing jobs to service or health care. In an economy that has seen labor-intensive manufacturing collapse, the middle class has declined. Trump asserts that he alone has the antidote to this malaise. He can reverse these trends and “make America great again”.
Trump’s message resonates in this fertile ground. Stoking the fires of indignation for these unwelcome changes, the imagined culprits are many: Mexicans, Chinese, Muslims, international trade, overzealous government regulation, onerous business taxes. This is leading to a public rise of hate and violent rhetoric towards immigrants and political opponents such as we have never seen in our lifetime. But we cannot dismiss out of hand the genuine anxiety his loyal followers feel. It’s pointless to cast blame on people who are convinced that they built this great nation, only to watch helplessly as its ideals are corrupted and its vitality sapped, by newcomers. In fact, we have heard these kinds of sentiments throughout American History.
In 1753, Ben Franklin, alarmed at the influx of “stupid” German immigrants, predicted dire consequences for the Anglo-Saxon purity of America. These “swarthy complexioned” interlopers would “never adopt our Language or Customs” or blend in properly with those of fair-skinned English extraction. This is all the more ironic since Trump’s German grandfather, Frederick Drumpf, left Kallstadt, in the Rhineland, for the United States in 1885. Luckily for him, Franklin was long dead by then.
Successive waves of immigrants have arrived since Franklin’s day, only to be greeted with hostility. Each time, the unwelcome guests were perceived to be overrunning the country, bringing crime, poor work habits and strange food. The level of hatred generated during some of these painful periods of adjustment would make Trump and his surrogates sound bland and inoffensive. In each case, the newcomers hung on, since they had little to return to, and in each case they were folded into the American fabric.
So, is it simple anxiety that is at play here, gripping those who are ill-informed of the cycles of American history? Are Trump supporters simply anguished over the uncertain future of American prosperity and cohesiveness? Tolerance for differences of opinion should not blind us to some undeniable truths – there are some genuinely racist, misogynist folks in the crowds at those rallies. Many are doing quite well in their lives, and yet continue to foment the hatred which Trump’s words inspire. Perhaps the most enduring disappointment from this entire experience has been the role of the Republican Party. They could have called out the clearly abusive, dysfunctional personality that their rank and file selected, put aside self-interest, and taken the moral high ground. While this would have splintered the party in the short run, it would at least have provided some assurance for the American people that, while their political system had its flaws, those holding the levers of power cleaved to some standards of conduct. Instead, like enablers for an alcoholic, they keep mixing the drinks and handing them around.
Yet, as Americans, it would be helpful to keep in mind that those who have despaired, over the precarious moments that we have suffered historically, have consistently underestimated our resilience. We have survived wars, both foreign and civil, drought, social upheaval, economic catastrophe, and political crises. In almost every case we have emerged, miraculously, with renewed energy and confidence. Few countries in history have had the luxury, by circumstance or choice, of controlling their own destiny to the same degree – America is blessed in this regard. Surely we can survive Trump.