It seems a tad surreal. Working class poor, Christian fundamentalists, all being drawn to Donald Trump as if he were a hero. Trump, who has lived a life of luxury without much regard to the workers, and whose values are anything but Christian, does not seem a likely choice to play this role. Yet somehow he inspires devotion from his fans, a devotion that seems to defy logic.
This isn’t normal. While many people voted for Trump simply because they couldn’t stand Hillary, or decided an outsider might be good, there is a cadre of Trump devotees that see themselves as part of a movement. They have faith in the leader, revel in his tweets, attack his opponents, and see themselves as part of a wave that will take back America.
In an airport last month I overheard a conversation. “Finally, this election brought some common sense back to America. Things are going to change, they’ll be better. It’s a great thing.” She was white, about sixty years old, and appeared well off. “Maybe,” said a young man in a military uniform, clearly not as enthused, “But if not, we’ll still get the job done.” She would have none of that, “Oh, it will get better, finally the country has regained it’s senses!”
Right there was the essence of Trumpism. A passionate belief that Trump has the power to make things different – better, alongside a belief that America is a mess, and the politicians have been unable to change things.
But while such a description could fit Sanders supporters as well, Trump draws a particular group – people who feel alienated by the cultural shifts of the last 20 years, and yearn for things to be “right” again.
This has an economic dimension. Once worker could earn enough to provide for a household, send the kids to college, and have one spouse (OK, the wife!) stay home, keep house and take care of the kids. Now often two incomes are required to keep afloat, and the good jobs aren’t there anymore, as factories have closed and the service industry resists unionizing or even hiring people full time with benefits. The demon is “globalization,” and the response is nationalist.
There is a social dimension. Gay marriage. Transgenders coming out in the open. Marijuana being legalized in state after state, while traditional Christians feel that they are being prejudiced against by politicians who ‘pander to Muslims’ and embrace ever more secular values. All the change – including having a black President named Barack Hussein Obama – makes America seem like a cesspool to them. What once was perverse is now normal, the old values of 60s sitcoms seem far away.
To each, Trump seems a savior. He’s defiance of politically correct communication shows that he is rejecting the social change. After all, people mock the handicapped all the time, there’s lots of Islamophobia out there, and homophobia is still rampant in much of the country. While the elites stutter in disbelief when Trump, say, mocks a disabled reporter, his followers love it. This guy doesn’t follow the rules of the liberal elite, he doesn’t believe in the America they somehow constructed. He’ll bring back “real America.”
The response to Trump, however, has often been just as myopic. Liberal elites, who delighted in the cosmopolitan sophistication of the hyper-rational Barack Obama, could not believe that someone like Trump could possibly be elected. He’s not only not PC, he’s offensive! He gets support from White Supremacists. He insults people constantly – anyone who dares criticize him becomes the victim of the next day’s 3:00 AM Twitter rant. Most recently it was Meryl Streep. He seems insecure, a con man, who will say whatever is in his interest, with no regard for the truth. How can people support him?
The thing is – that’s not the Trump that Trump supporters see. They see a strong man speaking boldly and defying the expectations of the liberal elite. They would chant that Mexico would pay for the wall, even though polls show most of his supporters don’t really believe Mexico will. It doesn’t matter – that’s part of the fun, being thoroughly disdainful of the elite, and shameless in defending even the most absurd claims. It drives those secular liberals bonkers, after all!
So what then is Trumpism? On the surface it does look a lot like fascism. Leader worship, a desire to restore the “true values” of a country, a hatred of intellectualism, and a sense that truth doesn’t really matter. It has the nationalism, emotion, and relativism associated with fascism. But while someone like Hitler had a political program (re-fight the first World War without making the mistakes that lost it) diligently followed, Trump seems to have no real political agenda. He is in it for the spectacle, the show, the attention.
In that, Trumpism is quintessentially American. It is Jerry Springer, the World Wrestling Federation, and Nascar. It appeals to emotion, but deep down it is more show than substance. Trump is no Hitler, he’s a Don King.
What does that mean for Trumpism? Trumpism will likely die. In campaign mode it works, but it is spectacle not substance. It is circuses, not bread. In the real world of policy, Trump will be forced to deal with reality, and his supporters will be disappointed that he can’t change the culture or fix economic woes with the magic of his personality.
Will he fail as a President? I think so. But perhaps he’ll rely on advisors, make real compromises, and actually be able to confront some fundamental problems that are entrenched in the political establishment. His believers think he’ll do that – I’m skeptical, but I have no choice but to hope that he rises to the task. One test is Obamacare. If he refuses to go along with just repeal, and demands something replace or reform it, that will be a good sign.
In foreign policy, sure – make nice with Russia. If that’s part of a less aggressive US stance, perhaps that can work. But at this point, it’s a crapshoot. We don’t know what Trump truly believes, or how he’ll govern. His insecure attacks on Meryl Streep cause alarm, but perhaps he won’t let his own demons guide his choices.
In any event, Trump reflects American culture at this point of time. People want spectacle, they are willing to deny reality if it is unpleasant, and a lot of people don’t like the demographic and cultural changes of the last decades.
But in a ying and yang sense, Barack Obama also reflects American culture. It is the embrace of cultural change and a desire to confront reality. The US is divided, and the transfer of power from Obama to Trump represents that. The future depends on the choices we make.