Trumpism is above all, a narrative. It is a story about how America came to be in the existential danger it currently finds itself, and about the hero who will lead it out of darkness and back to power and safety.
Leaving aside the truth of the Trumpian narrative, for now, let’s examine the story as it is presented (you can hear it read aloud, below):
“Once upon a time, America was strong.
It was strong because it had factories, more armies than anyone and everyone knew their place. Daddies worked at the factories and the really smart daddies owned the factories. Mommies were pretty and compliant and didn’t mind the daddies being in charge because everyone who was willing to work hard was happy.
But all that changed when some people started complaining. They complained that America was too strong, and a bully to smaller, weaker nations. They started letting in foreign people who didn’t love America the way we do. These foreigners broke the law and made the cities dangerous. They stole jobs from daddies and did terrible things to mommies. The countries these foreigners came from stole our factories, and daddies couldn’t get work, at all.
The President then might even have been a foreigner himself. He had a foreign sounding name, after all. But anyway, he was weak, and wouldn’t get rid of the foreigners, or stand up to the countries that were stealing our factories.
Finally, the real Americans had enough. They rejected the weak President and his helpers and elected Donald J. Trump by millions and millions of votes. Donald Trump believes in the real America, and he knows how to make it happen because he used his intelligence and negotiating ability to make billions and billions of dollars. He stood up to the foreigners and built a big, beautiful wall to keep them out. He stood up to the countries that were stealing from us and made them stop. He brought the factories back because he is a billionaire and knows how to bring factories back. Most importantly, by being inspiring and always insisting on the best, he inspired Americans to believe in themselves again. Truly, President Trumplestiltskin is to millions of real Americans, the one who will “Make America Great Again!” He will spin gold from our straw, he will save the country, and he asked nothing for himself in return.
The End… or, Back To Reality:
Obvious racism and sexism permeate every part of this malignant fairy tale. And every part of this narrative is provably false. There was no time in American history when economic opportunity was equally accessible to all Americans.
Immigrants, legal and otherwise do not steal jobs from other Americans, and no one opened a door to a great rush of immigration. In fact, illegal immigration is in decline, and the crime rate is at near historic lows. Factories are closing primarily because of the rise of automation. Many jobs are lost to vulture capitalism – the practice of buying a business in trouble and then stripping its assets to pay stockholders, or to corporate owners moving them offshore to take advantage of abysmally low wages and working conditions in developing countries – not because foreign countries are unfairly “stealing” them.
Donald Trump didn’t win the election by “millions of votes,” though he continues to make that claim. He has no experience with, or demonstrated ability to “bring factories back” (or coal mining) because he has no experience or record of success with anything but real estate speculation. He isn’t “inspiring,” he has approval ratings substantially lower than those of any President in at this point in his term back to 1953.
But it simply doesn’t matter what the truth is. This story is fervently believed by millions of Americans.
Why? Why do these millions believe that America is on the verge of collapse, when all the data – the stock market, the unemployment rate, the crime rate and every other indicator suggests otherwise? It is because all this happy data is meaningless to someone who has lost their job, their home, their community and their hope. They inflate their personal tragedy to encompass the nation as a whole. When you are thrown down to the bottom of the well, it matters little if it’s a sunny day on the surface.
The working class in America has been hammered for at least forty years. Their economic mobility, their share of the profits from rising productivity and their job security have been declining or stagnating, their children are finding no room on the economic ladder, they are seeing their middle-aged die from suicide, their young dying from opioid overdoses. Their life expectancy has actually declined, while that of the wealthy has increased substantially.
While it may be “morning in America” for the investor class, it’s the Hour of the Wolf for the worker. And our government has done almost nothing to help them.
When they complained of their pain, they were told to take the money they don’t have, and time they don’t have, and “re-educate” themselves for the new, less secure, less profitable (for them) global market. They were told to “check their privilege,” and to accept “incremental change.” A person who believes that they, and their family, are drowning in a sea of economic disruption and social change does not want an “incremental” solution. They want help, and if they don’t get it, they want revenge.
They got angry. And when people get angry and desperate, they want to believe in something – anything. They are not ready to carefully parse and logically consider. They want answers. And Trump, and Trumpism were ready to give them answers that appealed to their fears and their beliefs.
The result of both the left and right sides of the ruling establishment’s inability to deal with the pain and dislocation of millions of Americans was a wave of populist fury that swept aside the GOP establishment.
They did this for one reason – to “shake things up.” Aside from symbolic, ineffective gestures like the Big Beautiful Wall, and a “Muslim ban,” and a blizzard of contradictory talking points – balancing the budget while increasing defense spending and leaving popular entitlements untouched and cutting taxes; abolishing the ACA while providing health care for everyone. There was no true, coherent policy agenda associated with the rise of Trumpism.
The agenda was simply to disrupt; to punish the ruling class for its contempt and neglect.
The results of putting a cabal of ideologues and amateurs in charge of the most powerful and complex governmental machinery in the history of the world have been predictably horrific. A catalog of the blunders, embarrassments and pratfalls of the Trump “Administration” is beyond the scope of this essay, even in the short time they have been in power. But that simply doesn’t matter to those who support Trumpism, or to those who are in charge of the movement. They were sent to “shake things up,” and to punish complacency. Chaos will do that as effectively as competence.
The problem, of course, is that a complicated political system cannot be run, or even maintained by tweet, sound bite and demagoguery. Disruption is no substitute for action, and skill and experience are required to solve complex problems.
Trumpism has no real answers, only slogans and scapegoats to apply to the pain of those that put them in power. In the end, than anger will only grow, and become less focused, less convinced that our system, or our traditions of representative constitutional government and the rule of law can help them. From this despair, all things, no matter how unthinkable four years ago, are possible, no matter how ill-considered or dangerous.
To understand Trumpism isn’t difficult because Trumpism itself isn’t complex. It can’t be complicated, since it is designed to appeal to minds desperate for easy, direct answers. And it has many historical predecessors that rely on the same strategies and appeals that it relies upon to provoke fervent loyalty and willing suspension of disbelief.
Rather than prove Godwin’s Law right once again, I will leave it as an exercise for the reader to think about what has happened historically to Republics that fall to authoritarian, nativist, populist movements. But consider this: