by Sanford Schram edited by O Society October 4, 2019
Since Donald Trump declared victory in the early morning hours of November 9th, 2016 commentators incessantly bemoan the calamity befallen the U.S. And with good reason. As many people warned for months, Trump is unfit to be President and poses a real threat to the country’s ability to sustain its commitments to democracy.
The election tally itself is a cause for concern as Trump lost the popular vote by approximately 2.5 million (about 2 percent of the total) while winning a forecasted majority of the votes in the Electoral College. His is not a mandate. Further, exit polls indicate most people who voted think Trump is neither qualified to be President, nor trusted in office.
His behavior since then is less than reassuring: he consistently lies about matters large and small, demonstrates an irrational level of irritability about the most minor of personal slights, all the while conning his supporters by promising the rich tax cuts and infrastructure contracts, then going silent about his job creation plans for ordinary Americans (other than claiming he strong-armed Carrier from shipping 1,000 jobs to Mexico when in fact he basically rewarded them with contracts even as they shipped another 1,000 jobs away).
He in unprecedented and unconstitutional fashion stubbornly insists he is above the law when it comes to him and his children continuing to make business deals all over the globe even as they pose a conflict-of-interest for him as President. His time is mostly spent interviewing and announcing cabinets picks who amount to nothing less than a rogue’s gallery dominated by politically dangerous racists, misogynists, xenophobes, and also the super wealthy and Wall Street financiers, who he now embraces after running against them. All are hell-bent on radically dismantling the domestic and foreign policies of the outgoing Barack Obama, and in most cases, without so much as pretending to pose credible alternatives.
Trump himself would rather, it seems, stay on Twitter whipping up hysteria about voter fraud and flag burning and immigrants, while going back on the campaign trail so he can stage more of his beloved rallies, this time as part of a victory tour. His constant playing to the crowd to distract them from his retrograde appointments and harmful policy proposals is more consistent with an autocrat than a President who aspires to be the leader of the free world. The Trump Administration looks increasingly willing to shut down our constitutional system if need be in order to rule over the country as its pathologically stubborn leader insists.
Commentators increasingly note in recent days Trump’s victory challenges American democracy. It is not inevitable especially since the constitutional protections which kept it in place become increasingly fragile in recent years. Valerie Bunce and Mark Beissinger note with Trump’s win, the U.S. adds the third of the three critical conditions for when a democracy in crisis turns to authoritarianism as a political solution to its social and economic problems. These conditions are:
(1) public opinion turns to distrust the government’s ability to address the problems seen as responsible for the crisis;
(2) governmental institutions break down, failing to function at a rudimentary level of enacting public policy and enforcing the laws; and
(3) a strongman or party steps forward to announce he alone can solve the problem by taking swift and decisive action.
The high levels of distrust in the U.S. government are building for years. The chronic gridlock born of partisan polarization, which produces a policy stalemate is the ongoing result of the Republican Party’s refusal to recognize Barack Obama as a legitimate president. Trump’s explicit campaign statement he alone is strong enough to fix the problem puts the U.S. in line with others democracies with these three critical factors at work to overturn a democratic system and produce a turn to authoritarian rule. Comparative political analysis suggests we need to be concerned about what Trump is doing as President. The end of democracy in the U.S. may be at hand.
As distinctive a threat to U.S. democracy as he is, Trump is nonetheless a product of the larger forces which make his ascension to the Presidency possible. For years the Republican and Democratic parties undermine the pillars of democracy, increasingly pushed by right-wing ideologues, especially on hate radio and cable TV, while receiving increased funding from corporate billionaires, such as Robert Mercer and Charles and David Koch and Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerburg, who have their own agenda to free corporations from being held democratically accountable for their behavior when it comes to getting rid of jobs through outsourcing and automation, destroying our environment by speeding global warming, installing a surveillance-based economy, and more.
The Republican and Democratic parties work to undermine the remnants of democracy by suppressing the vote, flooding campaigns with the wealthy’s money, gerrymandering legislative and congressional seats, mounting massive disinformation campaigns, shutting down the government, paralyzing it in gridlock, and refusing to compromise on just about anything useful to the public.
Both parties defund schools, gut unions both public and private, and hollow out the welfare state. Then when election time rolls around, they amp up their efforts to prey upon people’s anxieties about racial diversity and identity politics, and their fears about foreign threats, especially terrorism and immigration, all while exploiting people’s growing economic precarity and environmental crisis in the face of a global economy.
Voters increasingly express urgency change has to come. Yet, ironically change comes in the form of support for demolition over whatever remains of a functioning government. It is as if the politicians hold democracy hostage until the people cede them control of the government, which the people did perhaps primarily out of desperation hoping any change would be better than none, thereby making Trump’s vacuous campaign appear marginally credible.
Democrats had their strongholds on the coasts, but not in between, where, crucially, the Party wasn’t successful in speaking effectively to the middle and working-class white voters who increasingly sense the country left them behind as it changes demographically, culturally, and economically. The Democratic Party is desperate to stay competitive, especially in the fight for campaign contributions. Hence, the Democrats became a pale shadow of the Republican Party and a real employee of Wall Street bankers and financiers at the expense of Main Street, who is the regular public.
As a result, a growing segment of the white electorate feels increasingly ignored and even dismissed by the Party who previously (post-Great Depression) had a reputation for standing up for workers and the “little man.” Whites become more vulnerable to racist appeals about Mexicans immigrants, Muslims refugees, African-American citizens and the resentment focuses on Obama as the first nonwhite President in the history of the country.
For years Trump tries to find a constituency to satisfy his pathologically narcissistic desire to win the Presidency. He, along with others, identifies our current situation as a political opening and, perhaps more openly than anyone who successfully ran for the Presidency, he is willing to pander to and exploit the most racist and extremist white hate groups for his own gain. First with his insistence Obama is an illegitimate President not born in the U.S. “Kenyan Muslim,” and then with his campaign theme he alone can, in classic fascistic fashion, “Make America Great Again.”
Lastly, there is the need to recognize Trump’s surge is associated with a broad global, reactionary movement against global economic changes as witnessed by the rise of nativistic, anti-immigrant parties across Europe. Trump is the most prominent and successful of these leaders who gain votes in parliamentary elections across Europe and win the Brexit referendum in England.
This essay might read as a fictional melodrama; however, today most Americans read it as an uncontroversial statement of our current political reality. How could such an outrageous story become a matter of fact? More to the point, how could we allow this to happen here?
There is blood on many hands, Republicans, Democrats, bankers, war merchants, and ordinary people alike. But it is a mistake to heap too much blame on people who oppose Trump. A key piece of the puzzle is the politically controversial topic of the Trump supporters themselves. This is where the focus needs to be right now and where the reckoning must begin.
During the campaign, Hillary Clinton highlights the issue of who supports Trump. Most controversially, she tells contributors at a New York City fundraiser half of Trump’s supporters are a “basket of deplorables.”
She is roundly criticized, in many instances for committing a only a political gaffe — i.e., when a politician thoughtlessly states the truth about something they should mention only circumspectly or not at all. Racial resentment grew during the Obama years, mainly because a black man was President, yet also for other reasons related to demographic, cultural, and economic change going on over the last four decades.
Trump’s pandering emboldens racists to be more open about their hatred. Yet many Trump supporters are offended by Clinton’s suggestion half of his constituency belong in the basket of deplorables (sic deplorable is an adjective). Clinton’s gaffe should be a reminder the truth is not always a popular thing to say politically, or perhaps we should say, not always the politically correct thing to say.
Yet, no matter how sensitive it is as a topic for public discussion, there is a real need to talk about Trump supporters and call them out now as enablers a veritable crisis for our liberal democracy. Some Trump supporters do not belong in the basket of deplorables and simply voted for Trump because he was the Republican nominee or because he said he would appoint pro-life justices and protect gun rights or be good for business.
But people are mistaken to think our ideological commitments absolve us of responsibility for a Trump presidency. We enable a pathologically dangerous presidency to come into being, one which abrogates the Constitution and tramples basic rights on a variety of issues: immigration, voting, access to health care, job protections, protection of the environment, torture of enemy combatants and journalists, foreign adventurism, and a whole host of other issues.
Trump voters made a pact with the devil, a Faustian Bargain, and exercise Willful Ignorance about who Trump is, what he is doing, and what he can and will do, just to insist on change (even if it now seems obvious the change, especially in the economic realm, will not be to the public benefit). Ignorants and racists are undoubtedly a key part of Trump’s consistency; willfully ignorant voters are critical to enable Trump’s threat to democracy possible. Their anger and frustration makes autocratic rule all the more probable.
How could it be people are willing to go so far? This is the question we need to be answering now, and I suspect we will be preoccupied with this question for a long time to come. Part of the answer is deep frustration with our existing political parties and establishment. Yet part of it is just plain willful ignorance.
Trump distinctively attracted “low-information” white voters, when previously these voters seemed to split their support more evenly between the Democratic and Republican candidates. Many people who vote for Trump do not know much about what he as President would or could do. They do know they are mad and Trump stands as a symbol for their anger. Such low-information voters are likely to make decisions not on logical or fact-based reasoning, but rather on feelings and emotions, manipulated as they are by Trump’s pandering. These voters are much more likely to feel high anxiety about Mexican immigrants, Muslim refugees, African-American citizens, prominent homosexuality, female authority figures, and especially Barack Obama as President.
So there are some diverse elements to Trump’s overwhelmingly white constituency. Some people are willfully ignorant and still others belong in a basket of deplorables. Yes, these people were put in there through both political parties’ abuse and neglect, their emotions manipulated and marketed. This kind of constituency is not in anyway capable of resisting Trump’s repeated attempts to rule however he wishes.
(header image: Bart Simpson Sells His Soul For $5)