This short book of mine, some 60,000 words, is based on posts published here, on Salon, ePluribus Media, and the Academe blog over the past 18 months. There are 25 chapters (from 24 posts) along with an introduction and a conclusion. You can order a paperback version here, or Kindle here.
Also used extensively was my book The Cult of Individualism: A History of an Enduring American Myth, a book that, I think, helps explain the popularity of Trump that proved enough to thrust him into the White House. Anyone really interested in understanding the cultural forces behind Trump’s rise might find the book interesting.
Here is the start of the Introduction to the new book:
Donald Trump, the 45th President of the United States, is also an entertainer and a promoter of the first rank—and he will rule that way:
He will give us showmanship and cheap drama, put-downs and promises—the stagecraft of the world’s most powerful narcissist. And meanwhile, the nation will be governed by oil oligarchs, climate change deniers and Goldman Sachs tycoons brought in to do the real work.
So says Timothy Egan, writing for The New York Times on December 16, 2016 in an op-ed entitled “The Narcotic of Trump.”
He’s right: The nation is about to be buried in a landslide of economic and political change sweeping away the American status quo, one started by the technocrats and kleptocrats of an elite that has been slowly accumulating control of all aspects of the country’s landscape—an accumulation suddenly accelerating.
Trump is also right when he says he won in a landslide. Thing is, it was not the electoral victory he claims. The landslide started right before November 8, 2016, not through the election that day but through the machinations of the people who have fallen in behind him and who will control his administration—even if they can’t control him. They don’t even want to; he doesn’t really matter that much.
What matters is the victory and absolute control of the government.
In response, all of us Americans need to learn that Trump, himself, is just a distraction.
We the people in the United States and in the news media still pay attention to Trump as a personality, forgetting that he will not likely be involved in the day-to-day running of the government. That has never been his intention, and it is probably beyond his ability. After all, he is a performer, not an administrator.
Yet it’s hard to drag our eyes away.
If there is any historical comparison to Trump, it is not Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini, though his name is often coupled with theirs, but P. T. Barnum, also a showman, businessman, ‘author’ and politician. One of Barnum’s most famous aphorisms, “The bigger the humbug, the better people will like it,” could easily apply to this later demagogue who actually claimed, several weeks before the 2016 election, that he would ‘drain the swamp’ of Washington, DC.
Instead, as we have seen, he has filled it with a cabinet of personal worth above $14 billion, setting the stage for a greater swamp of corruption than we’ve experienced since the administration of Warren Harding. According to Newt Gingrich, interviewed on NPR’s Morning Edition on December 21, 2016, Trump “now says it [draining the swamp] was cute, but he doesn’t want to use it anymore.” An empty promise; humbug.
Trump’s speech before the Republican National Convention in July contained the repeated phrase, “I am your voice.” This, from a man who has never in his life consorted with the types of people who elected him.
“I am your voice.”
However, there’s a great deal more than humbug to the Trump phenomenon. As Neal Gabler wrote for Moyers & Company on November 10, 2016 (“Farewell, America”):
If there is a single sentence that characterizes the election, it is this: “He says the things I’m thinking.” That may be what is so terrifying. Who knew that so many tens of millions of white Americans were thinking unconscionable things about their fellow Americans? Who knew that tens of millions of white men felt so emasculated by women and challenged by minorities? Who knew that after years of seeming progress on race and gender, tens of millions of white Americans lived in seething resentment, waiting for a demagogue to arrive who would legitimize their worst selves and channel them into political power? Perhaps we had been living in a fool’s paradise. Now we aren’t.
Gabler is right, at first, but his “who knew” list simply shows the parochialism of the ‘blue state’ America he inhabits. Many of us did know, and also knew from the start that it is not quite as simple as Gabler makes out. The issues behind Trump’s success are complicated and have deep roots in the history and psyche of the United States.
Trump’s voters are nothing new—and neither is he.
Another of the spiritual predecessors to Trump, Louisiana Governor and then Senator Huey Long, could legitimately claim, at least, to be the voice of the people he represented—people who were, in fact, the grandparents and great-grandparents of many Trump supporters. Long, at least, grew up in a poor, rural community and really understood the lives lived outside of elite bubbles of the Coasts and could legitimately claim to be providing them a voice. Trump, whose father was extremely rich, has spent his entire life among the wealthy of New York and Florida. He’s a dyed-in-the-wool member of the East Coast establishment even if he is a little more colorful than most.
The first I ever heard of Trump was some thirty or thirty-five years ago. He had been overheard bragging about what it had cost him to “buy” a senator. $50,000 was the amount. He was probably lying. Even then, I soon learned, lying was his stock-in-trade. That, and his penchant for (and skill at) self-promotion are the only things that made him stand out from the rich-boy crowd.
Even his father knew about his lying. A friend of mine, a man now in his nineties, used to run a Brooklyn fuel-oil business. Once, having worked out a supply deal with the Trump organization for a couple of its Brooklyn complexes, he and his salesman met for final handshakes with Trump’s father, Fred. “If you have any trouble, come directly to me or to Robert,” said the senior Trump, mentioning Donald’s younger brother, “but not Donald.”
“Why not Donald?” asked the salesman as the real-estate mogul was turning away.
Trump paused but did not turn back toward them. “Because Donald has trouble with the truth,” he said. He left the room without another word.
Trump was always rich, always the privileged, always the coddled one. He knows nothing of struggle or fear for survival, or worry that his child will not have enough food for the day—let alone a good education or a sustaining job. He knows nothing about doing something you hate day after day, just to sustain yourself and your loved ones. He never has had to fix everything around the house himself, doing so simply because there’s no money for hiring a professional. He has no knowledge of the lives of the vast majority of Americans.
One cannot speak for those one does not know.
Be that as it may, to understand the Trump phenomenon, we certainly should not concentrate solely on the man. After all, the people who voted for him are what make him possible—they, and the elite manipulators who ‘seen their chance and took it.’ His voters see in him something that his opponents cannot even imagine. Though it may be wishful thinking and something of a projection, it is real to them—and they are a strong presence in American society and politics, strong enough to have upended politics-as-usual in the country for this charlatan they view as a savior.
In my 2013 book The Cult of Individualism: A History of an Enduring American Myth, I describe the United States as a country dominated by two cultures within its white majority, one descended from Calvinist theology and morality and the other from Enlightenment thinking. Though the country was founded on Enlightenment principles, the Calvinist strain never faded—today, we call it ‘fundamentalist.’ It dominates much of white America and the broader culture around it was largely responsible for Trump’s election.
A blogger who calls herself/himself “Forsetti” (from a Norse god of justice) and who publishes on a site called Forsetti’s Justice has made an important point about Trump’s America in a post, “On Rural America: Understanding Isn’t The Problem,” published on November 14, 2016, saying that it will never do for the rest of America to try to understand the rural-based culture of a large part of white America—for its members don’t even understand themselves.
The Forsetti author makes a number of good points about the ‘red state’ culture she/he comes out of (the one I come out of, too). Perhaps, we who bridge the two cultures are the only ones able to even approach an understanding of the ‘red state’ culture in a comprehensive way that neither insiders nor outsiders can. Even for us, however, talking to relatives and friends ‘back home’ will never bridge the gap between the Calvinist and Enlightenment cultures. The rupture is too old and runs too deep. Also:
The problem is rural America doesn’t understand itself and will NEVER listen to anyone outside their bubble. It doesn’t matter how “understanding” you are, how well you listen, what language you use… if you are viewed as an outsider, your views are automatically discounted. I’ve had hundreds of discussions with rural white Americans and whenever I present them any information that contradicts their entrenched beliefs, no matter how sound, how unquestionable, how obvious, they WILL NOT even entertain the possibility it might be true. Their refusal is a result of the nature of their fundamentalist belief system and the fact I’m the enemy because I’m an educated liberal. At some point during the discussion, “That’s your education talking,” will be said, derogatorily, as a general dismissal of everything I said.
Change is going to have to come from within. Recognizing this, I am not addressing friends and relatives who are among Trump’s supporters, though I do respect and love them.