Watching the Trump phenomenon has been one of the most unpleasant experiences in recent years. I’ve been watching the steady descent of American cultural institutions, followed by its educational institutions followed by its political institutions since the end of the Cold War. I suppose that war gave us meaning and spurred us to find the best we could be as a society. We don’t seem to handle peace and prosperity as well. Almost immediately the spectre of greed took over. The virtue and vice that best defines America is its pragmatic willingness to ignore unwritten or unenforced rules.
It’s what has made artists like John Cage, and Jackson Pollack, Gertrude Stein and Martha Graham happen. It’s what’s made jazz and rock and roll happen. It’s what’s made computers and the Internet and smart phones and lunar landings happen. It’s how generations of people have been able to come here and transcend the position of their birth.
But it’s also how an oligarchy has replaced what had been a somewhat egalitarian workplace and government. It’s how loopholes in the rules of legislative bodies have been systematically exploited to the elimination of parliamentary governance. Its how basic education in civics and citizen involvement in government that were once the envy of the world have been replaced with breathtaking ignorance, apathy, and misplaced anger.
Donald Trump is one of the most unappealing human beings I have ever encountered. I just can’t think of anything that’s likeable about him. He’s ugly, mean, greedy, tacky, nasty, lecherous, dishonest, sexist, racist; I could go on as anyone could. He’s a brat who inherited wealth yet soaks all he comes in contact with, rich and poor, including any governments he encounters.
Is he the personification of the ugly American? What America represents to the rest of the world?
Trump has simply done what he has done in the past, which is to look at a situation and say, “why hasn’t anyone tried that,” meaning the tackiest, most morally bankrupt, exploitative, yet possible thing imaginable. The thing that everyone else would balk at.
In this case, Trump has watched other republicans over the years use fear, dogwhistles, etc. in more or less subtle (in hindsight) ways to get people scared enough to vote for them, while still maintaining a veneer of civility (again in hindsight), or commitment to preserving the vestiges of democratic institutions. He has said, well, if fear works, why bother with anything else. Why not go all the way? I don’t think he believes there is a core to anything and that others before him have just been to chicken to do what needs to be done to “win”, which is, as far as I can tell, his somewhat neitzschean goal, if he has one. I guess the genius of Trump is to realize that there’s no there there. He’s hacked a system he has no commitment to or belief in because he has no beliefs.
What’s been most disturbing is watching the weak, ineffective, tardy reaction from the many segments of society that don’t want Trump. From the noseholding embrace of republicans, both religious and idolatrous, to the somewhat detached “professionalism” of the press, to the smug incredulity and ineffectuality of the intelligentsia who have been unable/unwilling to jeopardize their connections to privilege.
Lincoln is said to have written or spoken “God must love the common people—he made so many of them.” It’s true that most people are not that smart. Still fewer are courageous, or willing to do the right thing when most people are doing the wrong thing. Successful societies (like 20th century America and post World War II western Europe) have worked through this problem by:
1. educating the dumb people
2. limiting the powerful people, and
3. listening to the smart people.
4. making sure all people have their basic needs met, which include the need be needed
America has gradually moved away from these four principles since the end of the cold war, making fertile environment for demagoguery.
Demagogues are as aware of these principles as anyone. They simply have different goals, usually stemming from narcissism or being puppets of some shadowy group. They know that the easiest way to control the greatest number of people (who are of limited intellect and courage) is through already existing or trumped up fear and hatred.
The question is how we got here. The left has ignored the economic plight of the non-rich in favor of the “social issues”, i.e. the wedge issues fed to them by the right, both alienating the non-rich and enabling their exploitation by the rich. The right has pushed the boundaries of fear/hate/dog whistles to the point where a Trump could somehow win their nomination.
I guess this is why I put a lot of blame on the smart/courageous people. They were ascendant and spoke truth the powerful people for a long time. They also fought for the dumb people somewhat courageously, (getting them education, ways to contribute, and their basic needs). They stopped doing these two things at some point and all hell has broke loose. Come on smart/courageous people! And if you are a dumb person or a powerful person, it’s not that hard to become a smart/courageous person.