Donald Trump is just the hired help.
A canary in a coalmine, the reality-show star is a measure of our civic health. Trump has held up a mirror, and his polling finds a slice of the electorate angry about our politics and responsive to a candidate who lacks substance but asserts that our problems can be easily solved, especially if the root of them is that aliens are threatening us.
Trump’s supporters do not constitute a yuuge slice of the electorate. Polls give him as much as 30 percent of first-place votes for the party nomination among identified Republicans, and identified Republicans amount to no more than a quarter of voters (according to the Pew Research Center). That’s about 7 percent. But he’s taking up a far greater share of the oxygen in this pre-primary phase of our elongated election process. Why?
First, he’s a traffic accident. Unpredictable, fascinating, provocative, revolting. “Did you hear what Trump said today?” Second, his pronouncements, other than the most personal and/or outrageous (from his insults of John McCain and others, to his call for banning Muslims), are not far from the center of gravity in the GOP primaries. To the extent he has policy proposals, most are in line with his chief competitors’. Third, his intimations that he would mount an independent campaign if he lost the GOP nomination pose an irresistible will-he-or-won’t-he drama for the media, leading to the question of how many voters would follow him.
My question concerns what about The Donald captivates our political culture, to the point than even I feel compelled to write about him. I don’t care what he says; I’m focused on his audience. If his draw as GOP nominee were equal to that of Barry Goldwater (who faced a popular incumbent and a nation still traumatized by the Kennedy assassination), that would be 48 million voters. Whatever the number, Trump is voicing fears of Other, contending that if we wall off those who threaten us – our identity, our culture, our jobs – we can keep what we have.
In an economy in which good-paying jobs and careers have been disappearing for 40 years, Trump’s wall makes more sense than what the parties are selling. Traditional Republican theory is that private investment enlarges the pie; traditional Democratic theory is that government’s leavening hand creates the conditions for a bigger pie. But the parties’ emotional fights are over a handful of social issues and how much to tax the rich, and their promises of pie aren’t working out. You don’t have to be a Trump supporter to worry that you may not make it to the finish line without becoming destitute, or that your kids won’t make it to the middle class. (My 24-year-old child’s stable job earns him the same wage I did as a temp 30 years ago.)
President Obama, trying to calm our jitters three days after a seemingly foreign-inspired mass murder, closed his Oval Office address by framing the debate around “keeping our country safe.” “Safe” is a post-9/11 word. Cold War leaders didn’t talk about “safety.” They talked about defending freedom. The president tried to tie the two together. “Let’s not forget that freedom is more powerful than fear; that we have always met challenges – whether war or depression, natural disasters or terrorist attacks – by coming together around our common ideals as one nation, as one people.”
Obama’s close died in the media’s commentary. We’re not buying oneness, and for many fear is beating freedom – except for the freedom to own a private arsenal. ISIS-tinged San Bernardino and anti-abortion-inspired Colorado Springs are self-inflicted wounds, both made possible by a political culture that sanctions the private ownership of weapons designed for mass murder. And so the cycle continues: fear chasing out reason, followed by vitriol, as we enter our annual season of hope. More like the winter of our discontent.