Donald Trump is surging in New Hampshire polls. Okay America, what is it that you want? I don’t think Trump has any real chance of gaining the Republican nomination, but that doesn’t mean his candidacy and early poll performance is irrelevant. In a different time, someone like that might never have entered the fray, much less been taken at all seriously. But this is now, not then. The ugliness that Trump spews tokens what has happened to the GOP but also, as the seasoned journalist Howard Fineman recently suggested in the Huffington Post, to America. The only difference is that The Donald says things out loud that others only think or have found a way to convey in more “correct” language codes. Of course, when he disses the heroism of John McCain, the other presidential wannabes express outrage. How quickly and conveniently they forget their collective delight when John Kerry, another war hero, was maliciously swift boated in 2004. Trump insults immigrants and draws heat, but Republican members of the House and Senate push what are in effect anti-immigrant bills. Trump’s mass-market persona was born on reality TV, the kind millions watch more religiously than they go to church. His presidential campaign is just its latest iteration, this one staged without network sponsorship. But, not to worry, the media are along for the ride, milking every last drop of controversy for their own financial benefit.
There is a sad irony in all of this. At a time of blatant income inequality, many of the 99% still seem to adore the Trumps of this world, never connecting them with their own economic decline. But perhaps more importantly, we should look at the allure of his loose tongue as another expression of citizen disillusionment. He is his own tea party and not surprisingly has gained some traction among its fellow travelers. If Bernie Sanders and even Hillary Clinton are tapping into Democratic populism, it’s because across the land, right and left, there is a sense that something has gone terribly wrong with the American dream. The dysfunction of Congress, the continuing VA ineptness, or the tyranny of big money and lobbyists drives most of us to despair and even cynicism. Add to that a parade of high profile officeholder corruption cases being prosecuted and conversely the fact that the executive level bankers and manipulators who nearly took our economy down — they are making more money than ever — have gone scot free. Taken together, the public trust has been badly undermined. Candidates tell us in almost every election cycle that our best days still lie ahead, but we have come see those claimants as the proverbial “criers of wolf” in reverse.
Confidence — consumer and every other kind — is low, especially with regard to governments and institutions. The economy is vastly better on paper, but the majority of people, regardless of how they have faired, feel untouched by it. In 2001 we were given a new century "Pearl Harbor" shock, this time on the “homeland”. Fourteen years later, much spilled blood, incalculable trauma among battle survivors and trillions of dollars spent, the world seems less stable, less safe than ever. If bin Laden’s band was a threat, ISIS seems geometrically more so. Sunni and Shia are locked in mortal combat, but what concerns some (myself included) is that ultimately we could have a revival of the age-old Muslim-Christian conflict, hints of which can be seen in tensions across Europe, even in progressive countries like Denmark. Cries of “death to the United States” probably should be taken as a placeholder for what more accurately is “death to the West” or "to non-Muslims".
While some of his comments seem calculated, Trump often appears to speak before he thinks. He is only interested in the moment when the cameras are rolling or an audience is at hand. He has no real plans but promises outcomes without even hinting at how they will be achieved. He is boastful, exaggerating his successes, his popularity and, most certainly, his net worth. What’s so unnerving is that, in doing so, he reflects our collective way: limited attention span, a focus on the short term, a lack of (and sometimes disdain for) deep thinking and, yes, a boasting — “the greatest country on earth”. We see this reflected in our financial markets with their fickle devotion to quarterly results, in our need for instant gratification, and in our public policy and governance where continuing resolutions or very short term funding for essential programs increasingly rule the day. Any kind of introspection or, horror of horrors, self-criticism is seen as un-American, always symbolized to me in those silly flag buttons that both Obama and Biden still seem compelled to wear on their lapels.
In short, it is not only that Donald Trump is so bad, but also that in some disturbing ways he is us. Absolutely not, you’ll say (and I want to say), but he is the epitome of “only in America”. Not your America, not mine? We wish. It is the America of I, of me, of selfies. It’s the place of “I’m okay” so I assume you’re okay and, even if not, it’s not really of my concern or business. It is the America of blogs and self-proclaimed pundits (this one included) — Frank Rich rightly calls us bloviators. Exercising, and often abusing, our right of free expression, we say what we want with no real responsibility to verify, much less to do. I try hard to think before I write, to add substantiation links to claims, but carry no responsibility of delivering on policies that I might suggest or support. It’s the world of Twitter, where we often tweet before we think, not to mention say outlandish things within the required shorthand characters. You get the point.
When things seem at their worst, some of us like to employ the cliché, “we get the best government money can buy”. That rings especially true in the post Citizens United world, but like most clichés, it misses the real point. Most of us are not buyers. We are just plain old voters or, maddingly, non-voters. Yes advertising can influence opinion (probably less that those who make their living from it would suggest) and turnout can be impacted by money spent on the ground. But ultimately we get the government, certainly the president, whom we (or the majority) have elected. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama reflected us at a moment in time. Donald Trump’s current poll standing, the “surge” may reflect name recognition and deft marketing of the moment more than anything else. It’s unlikely to stand the test of time. But the idea that “he is us” shouldn’t be quickly dismissed. It’s something about which we all should be concerned.