[The book can be purchased here.]
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. Still, I recognize, with Amanda Marcotte (“Conservatism Turned Toxic: Donald Trump’s Fanbase Has No Actual Ideology, Just a Nihilistic Hatred of Liberals,” Salon, December 23, 2016) that:
Trump’s election is the culmination of decades of right-wing media teaching its audience that liberals are subhuman scum, and that hating liberals—whatever their stereotype of a “liberal” looks like—is far more important that minor concerns like preventing war or economic destruction.
As the Forsetti writer details it:
The honest truths that rural, Christian, white Americans don’t want to accept and until they do nothing is going to change, are:
Their economic situation is largely the result of voting for supply-side economic policies….
Immigrants haven’t taken their jobs….
Immigrants are not responsible for companies moving their plants overseas….
No one is coming for their guns….
Gay people getting married is not a threat to their freedom…
Women having access to birth control doesn’t affect their life either….
Blacks are not “lazy moochers living off their hard earned tax dollars”….
They get a tremendous amount of help from the government they complain does nothing for them….
They get the largest share of Food Stamps, Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security.
They complain about globalization but line up like everyone else to get the latest Apple product….
They use illicit drugs as much as any other group….
They are quick to judge minorities for being “welfare moochers” but don’t think twice about cashing their welfare check every month.
They complain about coastal liberals, but the taxes from California and New York are what covers their farm subsidies….
There are plenty of contradictions in any cultural vision. Certainly, as ‘Forsetti’ points out, there are plenty in the American culture now led by Trump. Pointing them out, while sometimes useful, won’t make any of us understand that culture any better. More important is exploring just why these traits have come into being.
Even more important than that is understanding that the above isn’t the whole picture. Take, for example, the coal miners of West Virginia, whose lands and bodies have been exploited for generations for cheap energy and profits. As former miner Nick Mullins writes in “How America Failed My Family of Coal Miners” (The Daily Beast, December 16, 2016):
The nation owes a great debt to the people of Appalachia. It is a price tag that includes the entirety of the industrial revolution and our present-day technological revolution. The least that can be done, as people who benefit from the sacrifices that have been made, is to educate ourselves and see to it that corporations, the wealthy individuals who run them, and the politicians who have built their careers assisting their affluent friends pay their fair shares and ease the suffering of those who have given so much.
Mullins isn’t asking for charity. He simply wants promises fulfilled. The mining communities have long been exploited by companies who own the politicians and much more, companies that conveniently use bankruptcy laws (for example) to avoid healthcare and retirement obligations while the owners walk away with huge returns. Both political parties have been responsible for this; it should be of no surprise that West Virginia turned to that putative outsider, Trump. The elites of both parties, after all, have ignored them.
Of course, it is not just the coal miners or the people of Appalachia who are suffering in ways the mainstream media and the people of the coastal culture don’t even notice. There is a growing drug problem across the heartland of the United States. Why? Not simply because of availability but because people see little hope for the future. As Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter with Kansas?, said in an interview with Glenn Thrush for Politico on December 18, 2016 (“‘Everything Feels Relatively Existential Now’”), “Small towns, all over America, boarded up, the businesses are all gone, the kids leave as soon as they can, the family farms are dying.” That leaves little for now—or to look forward to.
Is it any wonder that people are angry? That they look for someone to blame? That they turn to anyone who might be a savior, no matter how flawed?
This small book is based partly on passages from The Cult of Individualism, my book based on the development of the ‘red state’ culture out of the Borderer culture of my own ancestry. The Borderers originated in the Scottish Lowlands, many of them (including members of my own family) coming to the American colonies via Ulster Plantation in Ireland, where they had gone a generation or two earlier. Unwelcomed by the older colonials, they headed west and then south through the Shenandoah Valley, soon populating the entire western frontier down to Georgia.
This book is also based on essays I wrote during the course of the 2016 primaries and the general election campaign. Though I have updated them and modified each one in light of later events, I present them here in order of publication.
Though the focus is on the name “Trump,” the real heart of the book is the people who support him. Though I disagree with them absolutely about him, many of them are my relatives or my friends. That they’ve fallen for a man who I see as a charlatan angers me greatly, but there’s nothing I can do about that aside from trying to understand the backgrounds to their points of view.
At the same time, I am angered by the lack of understanding of the impetus behind Trump support on the parts of many of my friends and family who live in determinedly blue states. They are right in many particulars: Trump, for instance, appeals to racist tendencies in American whites in a way no American politician has done since Strom Thurmond. They are right to point out that he learned a great deal from Senator Joseph McCarthy’s right-hand man, Roy Cohn and represents a demagogic tradition highlighted, in the 1930s, by the despicable anti-Semite Father Charles Coughlin. They are right, too, that it is almost impossible to tell what Trump’s actual beliefs are, they having been all over the political map.
What they’ve been wrong in is brushing aside the pent-up anger inside many Americans, particularly white Americans, that has been building over the past half century and that finally found its outlet in Trump. Among the many reasons for this anger are, of course, the stagnant economic position of so many Americans for so long, but it also comes from what many, especially in red states, see as a favoritism toward anyone besides the white Americans who, as they see it, built this country. They are also angered by a vision of politicians as people more interested in feathering their own nests than in serving the people who elected them.
Ultimately, the blame for Trump’s election falls on all of us, blue state or red. Short-sighted and poorly considered policies have eroded the American body politic these past fifty years, making it more difficult than it has been since the Civil War to even make a pretense of unanimity. Among our politicians, no one has had the moral high ground here; no one has considered the needs of all in formulating public policy. Our politicians “triangulate” toward the next victory, none but the fifty-percent-plus-one mattering.
That leaves out a huge portion of the American population.
All of us, no matter whose side we were on, are going to suffer the consequences.
In looking back over these essays, almost all originally published before the election (updated, as I said, to reflect that reality of subsequent events), I am somewhat surprised how seriously I took the Trump candidacy. In my heart, from the moment I saw his ‘thumbs up’ on the escalator ride the day he announced his candidacy, I knew he could win. Logic, the pundits and the polls occasionally convinced me otherwise, but I always had a strong suspicion that Trump would prevail.
He did, of course.
Now we all have to deal with the consequences.