The US elite abandoned the American dream – Trump is the terrifying result
Peter Finch, en el papel de «Howard Beale», en el film «Network» (1976).
By the end of this week, we should know whether an infantile narcissist will be the Republican nominee for president of the United States. Donald Trump, who has never held elected office, who has claimed that he will build a wall along a 2,000-mile national border, and who urges American military forces to commit war crimes, seems to be motoring to the candidacy.
There was a point, only a historical moment ago, when the Republicans seemed to have as exciting a field of talented, fresh political faces among their prospective candidates as had been seen in a generation. By contrast to the apparently certain Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton – who was encumbered by unsavoury personal baggage, as well as the weight of disillusion with the Obama administration – the Republicans had an array of people with stimulating messages, interestingly different biographies and a healthy mix of ethnicity and class. Where the Democrats would be offering a tired, not very likeable, overly familiar face, the Republicans had some new stars who looked plausibly like the future.
Then there was Trump – a foul-mouthed know-nothing trying to bully and bluster his way to national ascendancy. His only message was the inchoate rage of that iconic Howard Beale character in the film Network, who found a sure-fire way to increase his news show ratings by inciting the public to rage and self-pity. And, heaven help us, it worked.
(La famosa escena «Mad as Hell», de «Network»):
Even if it is too late to stop this terrifying steamroller, it is very important to understand why it happened. Otherwise the mistakes that may be made in interpreting the phenomenon could be as dangerous as the thing itself.
Confusingly, the cause of Trump’s rise is both bigger and smaller, more and less significant, than it seems. It may be a reflection of genuine popular anger and frustration but that mood is not caused by some unique, unprecedented crisis among working and lower middle-class Americans.
The dissatisfaction with economic and social conditions in which many voters find themselves stuck is not unheard of in the American historical experience. It’s not even new to the present generation: the contraction of US industry that produced the rust belt and the decline in secure prosperity have been ongoing for at least 30 years. If there is really a sudden uncontainable fury sweeping the population, it is not accounted for by something strange and unfamiliar.
Of course, longstanding exasperation can suddenly snap and rise up with unexpected force. But it is more plausible to see Trump not as the longed-for messiah who dares to voice legitimate mass unease but as an opportunist rabble-rouser who is simply exploiting the various discontents and disappointments that any free society is bound to harbour. Like Howard Beale screaming “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more”, Trump has capitalised on the potential volatility of crowds. And, like many demagogues before him, he specifically exploits hatred and fear of the outsider – Mexican “rapists and drug dealers” flooding over the border, and foreign Muslims whom he will ban from the country (presumably even if they are the Egyptian and Jordanian ambassadors to the UN). Anger, of course, begets anger: a counter-demonstration that turned violent forced him to cancel a rally this weekend.
But if it isn’t a set of brand new economic deprivations that produces this wave of Trump mania, what then? There is an argument that Obama’s ignominious foreign policy, having undermined America’s influence and leadership in the world, may be directly responsible for the success of the “make America great again” theme. This would be plausible if it weren’t for the fact that Trump openly presents himself as an isolationist who was opposed to the foreign interventions of the Bush doctrine, and who believes that the greatness of America is all about the folks at home – who are still overwhelmingly resistant to seeing more body bags return from the Middle East.
- On success:
- «Everything in life is luck»
- On his hair:
- «I actually don’t have a bad hairline. When you think about it, it’s not bad. I mean, I get a lot of credit for comb-overs. But it’s not really a comb-over»
- On Katie Hopkins:
- «Thank you to respected columnist Katie Hopkins of Daily Mail.com for her powerful writing on the UK’s Muslim problems»
- On Barack Obama:
- «The president is probably the least transparent president in the history of the country»
- On parenting:
- «Not teaching your kids about money is like not caring whether they eat»
- On the US:
- «The country is going to hell, we have people who don’t know what they’re doing in Washington»
- On getting elected:
- «We will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with winning»
- On his hard life:
- «My whole life really has been a ‘no’ and I fought through it… It has not been easy for me… My father gave me a small loan of $1 million»
- On Mexicans:
- «When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best… They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people”
- On Muslims (after the San Bernardino shooting):
- «[I am] calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on»
- On his private parts:
- «He [Rubio] referred to my hands – ‘if they’re small, something else must be small.’ I guarantee you there’s no problem. I guarantee.»
Far from defying Putin’s aggression, he praises him as a “strong leader”, and the threat he identifies from China is not its growing military presence but its cheap exports, on which he wants to slap a tariff. President Obama may now be worried about his legacy in global terms (which is why he wants to blame everything that went wrong on David Cameron), but the US electorate is pretty happy that he withdrew from the world. In fact, Marco Rubio – the standout talent of these candidates – has almost certainly suffered because of his support for the Bush brand of American interventionism.
So if it isn’t economic hardship because that’s not new, and it isn’t the collapse of US foreign influence because most Americans aren’t bothered much by that – what is it that fuels this mass voters’ revolt? What, as Mr Trump would say, is going on?
There are two things worth mentioning, one of them big and cosmic, the other quite small and technical. The smaller one is to do with party management: after the electoral debacle that a Trump candidacy will bring, the Republicans will have to emulate the Democratic party’s system in which the grown‑up party leadership has much more control over the nomination through a system of super-delegates (congressmen, senators, party elders and governors) who are not tied by primary votes. It will become appallingly clear that the party must settle its internecine difficulties and get a grip.
The big, more interesting thing sometimes comes under the inadequate heading of “political correctness” but is actually far greater than any quibbles about inappropriate words. There was a time within living memory when national pride and patriotism were the stuff of everyday life in the US. Now, while American school pupils may still pledge allegiance to the flag, the innocent (or naive, depending on your point of view) love of country is no longer instilled in the children of every generation as it once was. This might not have been a bad thing – particularly from a jaundiced European perspective – had it not involved a downgrading of the invaluable education in the democratic process and institutions that went with it.
There was a time when Americans were taught with considerable rigour about how their government worked, and the sacred principles of their Constitution. It started with a primary school mantra: the government has three branches – the legislature makes the law, the executive enforces the law and the judiciary interprets the law. By the end of high school, it was proper civics, which involved full-blown participation in a political project of your choice – registering voters, lobbying for a Bill, working on a candidate’s campaign.
Alongside this, there was the study of the great documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution (“We the people…”), the Gettysburg Address (“government of the people, by the people, for the people”). All of this was seen as initiation into what you were told unreservedly was the greatest country on earth, created and sustained by the will of its own population. With knowledge came a sense of responsibility.
Well, that isn’t entirely gone. But it is countered relentlessly by what many Trump supporters would see as an urban intellectual elite – and particularly an educational establishment – that is obsessed with national guilt: over slavery, and then segregation, and the treatment of native Americans, and the various excesses of American militarism. However justified that self-criticism, it has tipped over into self-loathing and left a furious electorate feeling that this is no longer the country they called their own.