Monday, March 07, 2016

Trump and Our Darker Side

Donald Trump’s meteoric rise as the Republican nominee for the highest office in the land continues to stun, baffle and frustrate many Americans. Who could have anticipated that a crude and clueless bully with a reckless disregard for truth and reason would be where he is now?

It’s more complicated than that, of course. Ignoring Trump’s appeal to his acolytes, that also include some of the very people he considers pariahs, only serves to boost his candidacy. What needs to be understood is why Trump is winning and what collective raw nerve he has touched that reflects on us as individuals and as a nation.

Trump supporters assert that Americans are fed up with the status quo and with career politicians whose milquetoast ways are no match for today’s tough challenges. They want someone who tells it like it is and whose kick-ass attitude is proof enough that he has the guts to back up his words with action, with the military might of the United States if necessary. They are looking for a candidate who will close America’s borders to undesirable hordes and remove the afflictions of the working stiffs, particularly white working stiffs, with financial wizardry. Trump, to them, is the fearless cowboy to today’s toadies, the Rambo to the confused ‘to be or not to be’ appeasers.

But how to separate myth from reality, or can it be done at all? Consider a few of Trump’s policy proposals.

On defeating ISIS: Since ISIS and Syrian dictator Bashar Assad are mortal enemies, why not let ISIS finish off Assad and then go in and take out ISIS? If that doesn’t pan out, let Russia get rid of ISIS. “What the hell do we care?”

In other words, if Trump’s hero Vladimir Putin can deliver the goods, why worry about ISIS at all?

On keeping America safe from barbarians, that is, Mexicans (‘criminals and rapists’) and Muslims (each a potential terrorist): Build a 1,200-mile wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and ensure that the Mexican government foots the $10 billion bill. Ban Muslims from entering America and open a registry for those already in so they can be tracked. Round up all undocumented immigrants and deport them. "If I win,” said Trump during a campaign rally in New Hampshire, “they (the Syrian refugees the U.S. may accept after rigorous vetting) are going back."

On boosting the economy: Given that 44% of Americans say the economy is their number one concern, Trump modestly declared in his speech for candidacy for the president in June last year that “I will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created.” Although short on details, Trump’s proposals include massive tariffs on China and Mexico so that jobs from these and other countries will return to America, keeping the minimum wage fixed at $7.25 per hour, getting Wall Street professionals to run the economy and, of course, repealing Obamacare.

According to former treasury secretary Larry Summers, Trump’s proposals are likely to “introduce great uncertainty at home and abroad. The resulting increase in risk premiums might well be enough to tip a fragile US economy into recession.”

Trump’s ideas to ‘Make America Great Again’ just don’t add up, be it in foreign policy, in keeping Americans safe, or in creating well-paying jobs for Americans who need them the most.

So what accounts for his victories in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Virginia, Vermont, Louisiana, Kentucky, and in undoubtedly more states to come?

When we feel besieged, playing to our worst fears work, and often work spectacularly well. This is the phenomenon we are observing as Trump continues to triumph in state after state. Although this is particularly true for mostly middle-class white Republicans, who have seen their fortunes decline as African-Americans and Hispanics have made gains at what would appear to be at their expense, it is a part of human nature, and Trump is exploiting it for all it is worth.

Many Americans are also in awe of wealth. They see in Trump a fabulously successful businessman and are given to vicariously enjoying his private jet and soaring towers, his name emblazoned in gold across his holdings, a brand almost as well-known (at least to them) as Apple and Google. This weakness for wealth is far more common than we think. It doesn’t matter that Trump got a huge head-start by inheriting millions from his father, or that he had filed his businesses for bankruptcy four times since 1991. ‘All that glitters is not gold’ may be true for others, but to those who worship wealth, Trump is both glitter and gold. And that’s reason enough to vote for him.

If there is a silver lining to Donald Trump’s run for president, it is that he has revealed our darker sides to ourselves, our propensity for overlooking the fatal flaws of the wealthy, (like the careless people in The Great Gatsby ‘who smash things up and then retreat back into their money or their vast carelessness’), our tendency to confuse demagogues with saviors, and our misplaced confidence in people who can seduce us with false hopes. Only by confronting these weaknesses in our character can we ever hope to defeat them.

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