The Triumph of An Accidental Ideology
Trump won the election because, for a crucial plurality of the American electorate, incoherence felt like truth and coherence sounded like lying.
Whatever separated them ideologically, his opponents had one thing in common — they could all complete a sentence. A few of them could actually marshal an argument. And most of them had briefing books and binders and rehearsed answers for practically everything. They were all capable of making sense — none more so than Hillary Clinton. And none was called a liar more than she was.
I frankly thought that America had learned its lesson after twice voting into office a disastrously unintelligent President in the form of George W. Bush. I thought Barack Obama signaled more than one breakthrough; the second one being the electorate’s understanding that it is a good thing for the Commander-in-Chief to be way smarter than the rest of us. Obama’s gift, of course, was to articulate his intellect in a way that never felt inauthentic. Clinton, like Gore, never quite threaded that needle.
Trump discovered early on that his style of expression — short bursts of uninformed sound-bytes — was exactly the way millions of Americans thought and spoke themselves. And when he started winning primaries, he realized this connection worked on a large scale — that he wasn’t just reading the room, but reading the country.
His incoherence also worked because it no doubt reflects how so many Americans feel about their modern lives — fragmented and unglued. Globalization, the internet, breakneck technological advances, terrorism, and rapid social change have collectively overwhelmed them, especially the over-50 set. Fewer and fewer are the good jobs that used to anchor their sense of continuity, (particularly that of the men), furnishing them with a lens through which to understand their lives — the identity of being a good provider. Now that the terra firma of their expectations of a better future has turned to quicksand, the branch they are holding onto has become a flagpole flying the Stars and Stripes; a country where Trump promises that accidents of birth can once again feel like personal accomplishments.
After 73 months of consecutive job growth, I felt it was a misdiagnosis to prioritize economic discontent as the main driver of voter enthusiasm for Trump. Even when he talked about hemorrhaging jobs due to bad trade deals, his emphasis was always on grievance –the injustice of our leaders letting other nations get one over on us. Similarly, what started as an appeal to patriotism here (“Make America Great Again”), easily morphed into calls for action against whomever was supposedly holding the country back. In this case, the role of scapegoat has largely fallen on immigrants “taking advantage” of our “generosity.” How convenient that they generally have darker skins in a country where “I’m not a racist” is the most ubiquitous lie white people regularly tell themselves.
Trump has no idea how to govern, so just throws another rally to see what drives the applause-o-meter highest. There’s no “her” to lock up, and everyone knows Obamacare isn’t really replaceable with anything the GOP has come up with. But claiming that unvetted refugees are pouring over the defenseless border in record numbers is still working like a charm. The xenophobic fervor he still hears at the rallies had everything to with the impulsiveness with which he issued an executive order clearly not ready for prime time.
We have to be vigilant on so many fronts, but on this one above all. When memos are circulating calling for a deportation force, we should understand this as a trial balloon for a definitive shift toward authoritarian militarism. It’s not even necessary to deport the 11 million undocumented — which is a logistical impossibility in any case. But forcibly and very visibly deporting just 10,000 unlucky migrants will create enough protest that “order” will need to be “restored.” That can be done without even firing a tear gas canister — they can simply pull back on enforcement and declare the problem solved. Those of us who have taken to the streets will feel we’ve won, while Trump’s new applause line to his base will be: “I promised to get rid of the bad guys, and I did.”
But as the dust settles, look for what is left behind; a new “inter-agency task force” made up of the most loyal and rabid members of ICE and Homeland Security. In other words, the core of what will become our very own StormTrumpers, ready to spring into action when the first terrorist incident occurs on American soil.
That’s when all of those who started to waver about having voted for Trump will suddenly fall back in line. That’s when fear can usher fascism through the door.