POLITICAL PROGRESS AND DONALD TRUMP
When I was young on the farm we just didn’t know any Democrats. We didn’t know any Catholics either. Then my slightly older girl cousin married a Catholic, and a union member. We assumed he was a Democrat. So we knew one. He was, and is, just fine! The extended family had several farms close to each other. Our social life was pretty much confined to Sunday family dinners. The new groom must have sometimes felt isolated and in fact a bit bored with the rather repetitive conversations at those family dinners. It was the world we knew.
There certainly appears to have been a great deal of progress since then. Differences in people are more accepted (a man could walk into a bar wearing a dress and not be attacked). As a society we most certainly seem to accept differences in religion and in race more easily than we did back then. The social establishment formally encourages integration. The media with their multiracial commercials certainly encourage acceptance. The very young are often not even aware of the damage that religious and racial divisions caused in the past.
Yet, for most people, how different really is their everyday life from what we experienced on the farm? They still at the home level are meeting and interacting primarily with people like themselves. It is a thinker! A great deal of that untested acceptance may amount to an illusion. Still, it’s more progress than we are making politically. Politically we seem more divided than ever. Politically, mutual acceptance seems to be moving in reverse. For too many, people of other political persuasions are viewed as the enemy. That anger has been intensified by the candidacy of Donald Trump.
Many will first react by blaming Donald Trump. But, Trump is more a result than he is a cause. Thirty years before Trump decided he was a Republican (so that he could run for office), the economy began to split. Technology, particularly the technology of computing, created a new class of very bright people seemingly capable of creating huge stock market fortunes out of thin air (to watch some television commercials, work seems to be well-educated, well dressed young people standing in groups staring at large banks of computer screens). Those people, as all innovative people have tended to do, cluster. The new prosperity is concentrated along the coasts and in some large interior cities.
For much of the rest of the country progress has not been so great. In more rural areas what we really have is the effluvia left behind by the decline of mining and/or small farm agriculture and the small towns those mines or farms supported. People now are less able to find well-compensated work while their expectations have increased. In the 1950’s, before a large number of people could see the outside world on television, people in the nation’s backwaters often didn’t realize how limited their world was. Now with television, the internet, and endlessly available electronic entertainment, those people are constantly exposed to a richer world than their own and they can feel unfairly treated. It happens that the areas most left behind also spend the least on education. People really are trapped. They have been left behind.
Donald Trump never expected to win in 2016. He did want to run (it would improve his brand). He loved to land in his big plane and hold rallies. The truth was that he didn’t know a great deal about the government that he was campaigning to lead. That limited the kinds of things he could say to vague generalities. He could whip up the crowd with talk of “a great big beautiful wall.” He could lead the crowds chanting “lock her up”. That also meant that he had to avoid the more prosperous, better educated, audiences, who would not respond to the only kinds of things he could talk about.
So, many people who felt they had been wronged, who felt disrespected and left behind, almost by accident, found a political figure they could respond to. They had seen Donald Trump on television. He was famous. He was entertaining. He invited them to be mad. Those people (who were often not Republicans at all) together with many loyal Republicans who felt driven to vote for any Republican on the ballot, elected Donald Trump. Trump has really never ended his campaign (he still loves to go out and hold rallies). The result is that the split between the more prosperous and those who feel left behind has become more serious. It was there all the time, waiting. Donald Trump, because he had to have an uncritical audience, gave a voice to those left behind.
That part of the Republican “base” following Trump’s lead is now in competition with more traditional business oriented interests for control of the old Republican Party. Ordinary Republican voters can just stand by and hope for the best. The votes of both groups elected Donald Trump but, ironically, he seems to be in the process of leaving them both behind. He has done little for the people who came to his rallies. Business interests got their big tax cut so there is little more he can do for them. Trump has never been really a serious Republican. His is really a party of one! After a struggle during his first year in office he has removed the advisors who tried to guide him, to make him govern as a conventional Republican. Donald Trump is declaring his independence. He is free at last, as he says, to be guided by his gut. The political battles continue.
Back in that earlier era on the farm there were certainly real problems with religion and race that we, growing up simply had no awareness of. With race and with religion we seem to have made genuine progress. Not so with our political system. For many voters anger seems to override reason. The Republicans are locked in a kind of political civil war while Donald Trump insists on governing alone. Both Republicans and Democrats struggle to find new ways to deal with frustrated, and increasingly detached voters. So much freed anger makes their task all the more difficult.