by Daniel Bayer
Like most sane Americans, I’ve been watching Donald Trump’s increasing electoral success in recent weeks with a mix of apocalyptic dread and morbid fascination. We tend to take the stability of our large institutions, such as our national government and political parties, for granted; revolutions and upheaval are things that happen somewhere else, not here. But as Trump’s campaign progressed from xenophobic Hispanic-bashing to a surreal debate exchange about the size of his reproductive organ, with each step matched by an exponential increase in his support among Republican voters, it becomes hard to deny that something very different is going on here, that a shared national sense of how things are done in this country is unraveling at a speed few of us could have predicted just a year ago — well, unpredictable if you lived in the bubble that apparently surrounds our political leadership.
As I read the stories about Trump’s supporters, I feel an uneasy sense of familiarity. The kind of people who would flock to his quasi-authoritarian “movement” are not strangers to me. I’ve worked alongside them in restaurants and factories, lived among them in the small town where I came of age, sat across the table from them at family gatherings and encounter them on my social media feed. I’ve listened to them rant about Obama’s “socialism,” complain about how the working man just can’t make it these days and generally express a growing sense of anger at their own dwindling standards of living and declining cultural dominance. I’ve even memorialized them at times in my songwriting, articles and blog posts; the best advice for a writer is to write about what you know, after all. They are, almost without exception, white.
At the very least, Trump’s populism exposes a longstanding con played upon working- and middle-class whites by conservatives in general and the Republican Party in particular. In return for their acquiescence on a “free trade” philosophy that undermined both the upwardly mobile “American way of life” and the various government policies and programs that helped maintain it, conservatives promised to protect white Christians from minorities, the LGBT community, atheists, empowered women and pretty much anyone who didn’t fit their rather limited definition of what a “real American” should be. Trump upended this bait-and-switch by adding rage over job outsourcing and stagnant wages to the usual Republican rhetoric about terrorist threats and “welfare queens.” But what finally caused the decades-old “racial-religious security over financial security” trade-off to break down?
The short, Weimar Republic answer would be humiliation over failed military adventures abroad and economic stagnation at home. In this scenario Trump is merely Hitler 2.0, with a bad combover replacing a silly moustache, and the Republican Party is merely the victim of the proverbial one straw too many on the camel’s back. But the long explanation is that it’s rooted in more uniquely American misunderstandings of hard work, wealth and success, the kind that leads people to decry “socialism” while collecting their Social Security disability checks, or to vilify “freeloaders” while accepting food stamps. Brought up to believe that success is the result of their own hard work, they fail to see the collectivism that sustains them in their everyday lives, or they transfer their resentment of their own dependency onto convenient scapegoats pointed out by helpful demagogues like Trump.
Even if Trump fails to get the nomination or win the general election, the forces behind his success aren’t going away. Will the Republican Party potentates tell themselves: “Whew, that was a close one. In the future, let’s drop the scapegoating and race-baiting?” Or will they simply revert to the more genteel, pre-Trump style of white resentment politics? If I was a betting man, I’d place money on the latter. Until our politics and culture reflect a more realistic view of how capitalist economics actually work, we’ll continue to look on with dread and fascination, awaiting the rise of another Trump.
Daniel Bayer is a musician and writer who lives in Greensboro.