“[Donald Trump] thrashed his way to the summit [of the Republican party],” writes George Packer in this week’s New Yorker, “by understanding what many intelligent people utterly failed to see: the decline of American institutions and mores… made the candidacy of a celebrity proto-fascist… not just possible but in some ways inevitable.” Many intelligent people may have failed to see this, but many more others didn’t; it’s been obvious for decades that rising inequality was stirring resentment in the Republican heartland, and that a party that aims to leverage the votes of a large number of people in support of policies that are of no benefit to those people is inherently unstable.
What they didn’t see coming was that the voice of those left behind by hypercapitalism might emerge from the chest of a hypercapitalist. That’s the strangest thing about Trumpism: that Donald Trump has become the champion of those Americans — largely, as Packer points out, the white working class — whose penury and resentment is directly attributable to the actions of men like Donald Trump.
Because the thing is, Donald Trump has no personal need to “make America great again”; if you’re Donald Trump, America is pretty great already! Like George W. Bush, he’s the not-especially-talented scion of a family that has maneuvered itself into a position where its members basically can’t fail, no matter how hard they try (and while both Bush and Trump really did do their best to make a bollocks of pretty much everything, one of them ended up as President and the other is on the brink of doing so). Bush, at least, had the sense not to try to mess with the system that elevated him; his presidency was an unashamed exercise in repaying the people who got him there, and those whose interests his occupation of the White House served to advance.
Clearly, such people are a small minority; the Republican party has largely existed over the last 40 years or so by performing a balancing act, with policies that serve to benefit the 1% on one side, and on the other, rhetoric that aims to convince enough of the remaining 99% that such policies are somehow in their best interest to garner enough votes to be able to enact those policies. By and large, it’s worked, which means that the megarich have no great need to change America — and they certainly don’t need to kick up the sort of stink that raises the ire of those whose votes they rely on. The system, after all, is fragile; if the people at the bottom whose votes you need recognize they’ve been had, then you might find yourself in trouble.
Donald Trump has become the champion of those Americans… whose penury and resentment is directly attributable to the actions of men like Donald Trump.
Historically, when a cosy system that benefits a minority is torn down — and history is full of such examples — it’s not done by that minority, because of course it isn’t. This makes Donald Trump both a historical anomaly and a source of rich political irony: America’s privileged minority has bred a man with such a sense of entitlement that he’s willing to blow the whole thing up just to get what he wants. Trump wants power because he is The Donald and The Donald has always gotten whatever he’s wanted. (Even if the Presidency isn’t actually what he wants at all — for what it’s worth, I agree with those who suggest that he never expected his campaign to go this far, that it probably started off as a giant publicity stunt, and that now it’s become a monster that Trump’s own ego won’t allow him to put back in its cage.)
The irony here, though, is largely inflicted on Trump’s supporters. That America’s angry white minority might eventually become angry enough to try to mobilize in order to gain power isn’t exactly news, especially since, well before Trump, the GOP has been playing with fire in trying to stoke that minority’s anger for its own benefit. The thing that no-one foresaw is that the avatar of the ideologies that Trump is stirring up might come from the class that created the conditions for those ideologies to flourish. Trump’s supporters don’t want to make America “great” again either; they want to make America a place where someone else apart from them is the underclass. Why on earth they think a man whose millions are sourced directly from the use of capital to create more capital — by definition, the complete opposite of those from a class whose capital is created by their labor — is unclear.
Or, maybe it’s not. If you’re a Trump supporter, you’ve been told for years to drag yourself up by your bootstraps, that anyone who supports such radical ideas as government-funded healthcare is basically a communist, etc. If you’ve believed that all your life, it’s a pretty bitter pill to swallow when you realize that the people who have been spouting that rhetoric don’t care about you in the slightest. If it’s a choice between that and a charismatic man who continues to sell you the idea that somehow this is all someone else’s fault — immigrants, feminists, whoever — history shows that it’s far more comforting to believe that person than the person who’s telling you it’s all bullshit…
…even if that person is Donald Trump. If Trump does become President — and god help us all if he does — I think history will judge him as a rube, a man who was too stupid or blind to understand the forces he was unleashing. That, of course, is of scant consolation to the rest of us, who’ll have to live through whatever disaster of a society he creates.