A Perfect Storm : The Rise of Donald Trump Part One

Donald Trump’s apparent electoral victory two weeks ago stunned both supporters and opponents, as the preponderance of pundits and analysts assumed that even the much maligned, frustratingly incremental, uncharismatic, scandal-dogged Hillary Clinton couldn’t lose the election to an anti-science, narcissistic, vengeful, vulgar, greedy billionaire with a penchant for fomenting hate for immigrants, Muslims, and people of color, even if he offered a phony message of hopeful populism.  I, by contrast, was somewhat more skeptical of the polling numbers, as errors in likely voter modeling or the influence of the social desirability phenomenon could easily push results over the margin of error. Nonetheless, I shared the shock and frankly the fear as swing state after state fell to a candidate I’d considered to be more of a carnival attraction than a serious statesperson. How could this happen, what does it mean, and what can we do? These are critical questions both his supporters and opponents need be asking; reasonable answers may not be the knee jerk ones. We begin with investigating the context in which a person such as Trump could be elected, deferring the second and third questions for subsequent articles.  This post also defers deeper, more detailed discussions on a host of important issues so that we may cover more of the highlights.

Despite Clinton carrying the lead in the popular vote by perhaps two million, a little less than half of those who voted, a substantial fraction, seem to believe Trump can actually improve their lives. Peppered amongst scattershot claims he’s made on the campaign trail, he correctly depicted so-called free trade agreements such as NAFTA and the TPP as destructive; he correctly observed the plight of American workers through deindustrialization; he correctly derided the governing elite as nepotistic, disingenuous, petty, and heretofore incapable of meeting the needs of the working class in a populist appeal. The Democratic leadership faltered easily, ignoring highly suggestive evidence that Clinton simply didn’t cut it against the Republican contenders and more seriously marginalizing a populist candidate in Bernie Sanders who represented one of the largest grassroots movements in history; his favorability and electability, along with his fervent young supporters, were ridiculed early on by party insiders, yet many analysts and strategists concede an easy victory for him against Trump. Sanders offered genuine populism and helped energize a new generation of young voters with promises of universal healthcare and tuition-free college, proposals the American media condemn as fantasy and pie-in-the-sky, despite many proofs-of-concept in other western democracies.

Many of the grievances of the white working class, perhaps Trump’s biggest constituency, are legitimate yet have been long ignored by both political parties. Predating this election is a decades-long decline in income mobility and the standard of living; the postwar boom generated historically unprecedented wealth and security for working class people, precipitating a true middle class and birthing the so-called American dream. Anecdotally, my grandfather, descendant of poor farmers in Indiana, managed a decent job in a purchasing supply company in the late 1940s with no more than a high school diploma; he could buy a house, cars, and send his children to college. This simply isn’t the case now, and American workers know it. Fueled by scornful elitism from the ruling class and an utter lack of articulate response to their genuine cries for help, they’ve abandoned trust in fundamental public institutions such as schools, governments, and the media, not all of which is unjustified.  Analysts in 1994 predicted that NAFTA would perpetuate the offshoring of manufacturing jobs largely begun in the 1970s with the financialization of the economy. The media’s concentration into just a few multinational companies corresponds with little airing of the problems plaguing middle America.  Even Clinton herself snubbed Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables.”  A vacuum generally won’t remain as such for long: Trump and many who preceded him have offered easy explanations for their woes; these answers are crazy, but coherent, fanning flames of hatred and further mobilizing a lightly-sleeping, subsurface deeply nativist ultra-nationalist sector of the population extant since the founding and forever awaiting a deliverer who can save white America. Part of my family fits the bill, I’m sorry to say; I’m all too familiar with the rhetoric and the mindset.

In short, he’s stated explicitly, or sometimes intimated, that illegal immigrants imperil our families and steal our jobs, that Obama is a non-citizen illegitimate president sympathetic to Islamic terrorists, that people of color are destroying their own communities and stealing elections, and that he can bring back the good old days when our economy was driven more by honest industry and production than corrupt financial institutions. Indeed, Trump’s ascent has emboldened this nativist sector, paralleling a cascade of hate-crime related incidents across the country according to the Southern Law Poverty Center. Hate and white supremacy groups brag that Trump is their guy, and though most people who support Trump for his promised populism probably aren’t among them, they’ve nonetheless tolerated his hate speech in the hopes that this populism is genuine. As a result, the baseless allegations of voter fraud against people of color which are deeply rooted in historical efforts at disenfranchisement incited violence at the polls and voter intimidation of poor minorities. The historical record should be clear on many of Trump’s wild claims; voting fraud is almost impossible to execute successfully, and Trump’s repeated utterances of having evidence simply must be intentional falsehoods, a handy trick any politician or sleazy salesman can brandish quickly. Obama’s citizenship is simply public record; his record on atrocities and crackdown on whistleblowers should easily demonstrate no support for Islamic terrorists or alleged sympathizers.  Illegal immigration, largely a feature of deleterious effects of our disastrous free trade policy, interventionism, and climate change on Central and South America, is nothing more than a wedge issue cravenly designed to fan flames of hatred among workers whose share of mutual interests dwarf those with the masters.

Media coverage also appears to have played a role in Trump’s ascent, as the months leading into the primary season and campaign featured heavy, disproportionate coverage by major American news outlets of the spectacle that is Trump; one measure indicates that the empty podium awaiting Trump’s arrival received more airtime than did all of Sanders’ rallies during the summer and fall of 2015.  Similar patterns emerge among other media giants.  Les Moonves, CEO of CBS, bragged at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media, and Telecom Conference in San Francisco early this year that though disproportionate coverage of Trump “may not be good for America, […] it’s damn good for CBS, that’s all I got to say.” Trump’s showmanship, bellicosity, and willingness to say on air the unthinkable seem to have generated heavy ratings, moving us perilously closer to virtually substance-free political debates and campaigning.

In short, a perfect storm of economic uncertainty, remarkably unfavorable opposition, a fundamental, immoral failure of the political class to meet the needs of the citizenry, and a sharp decline in the public trust has led to the rise of a fascist-lite kleptocrat celebrated by hate groups, anti-science zealots, and Christian supremacists for his selection of a myopic fundamentalist running mate, cabinet choices whose competencies for their respective jobs-to-be are inversely proportionate to their bottom lines, and profound disdain for immigrants and climate science.  Our next article will focus on what these critical choices mean.

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