The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.
We awaken every day to news that makes our heads swivel. Can this be true? We turn to a favorite news source to explain why what seems like a high school prank is being played in the highest offices of our democracy. It is surreal. The wealthiest and most admired nation in modern history is so divided that we Americans dare not discuss politics with a neighbor for fear of inciting anger. How did we arrive at this place? I have some thoughts.
The central discovery of the 2016 election is the existence of millions of Americans who are seething with anger, the victims of the innovations and economic trade policies the professional class have developed over the last three decades.
They are the flip side of America’s success. Small towns built to serve coal miners and their families still exist, but like the “undead” in Game of Thrones, residents are voiceless and unnoticed until a leader arises to bring their anger to life on the battlefield.
They join forces with the unemployed factory workers of Michigan and Pennsylvania — and Russian trolls — to defeat the establishment by electing a freshly-baked billionaire populist, the illegitimate son of the Republican Party, Donald Trump.
Trump is the predictable product of a system corrupted by money, mountains of it, endorsed by a conservative Supreme Court that has decided that dollars equal speech. The result has been to reshape our parties to serve special interests. Cynics might say it was always so, but not really. I have seen 10 presidents file through the nation’s capital, worked under four, and watched with dismay as the corruption slipped ever more deeply into our governance. Even the best of them — Johnson, Carter, Reagan and Obama — were condemned to begging for alms.
As robots replaced workers on assembly lines, campaign consulting became one of America’s growth industries. Ingenious methods were invented to manipulate voters on social media. Foreign governments found few walls to scale as they invaded the 2016 presidential election campaign free-for-all and put their thumbs on the result. While Germany, with strong unions, retrained workers for the information age, special interests broke our unions and we moved on.
Americans are optimists at the core, and the very same voters in Midwestern States who handed Trump his narrow margin of victory, first voted for the message of hope preached by Obama. But after cleaning up the financial and military disasters willed him by Democratic and Republican predecessors, and facing a right-wing controlled Senate determined to bring him down, the first African American president had few political resources left to take on the challenges of the working class. After eight years of dashed hopes, workers found humor in Trump’s china-breaking antics, and heard their own anger in his barroom language. He gave them a voice.
What amazes his critics is Trump’s apparent hold on this constituency while undercutting almost every governmental policy that would lift them. While his tax and social policies serve the 1% who own 40% of American wealth, and against the 80% who own just 7%, many fear abandoning him for loss of a voice. And another thing: Trump knows better than any president in my time that Americans love a show, and he produces, directs and stars in the best drama in town. In a media age, he exploits every new development to his advantage. Cable television is his slave; Twitter his sword. He is the King of Corn, and as long as he is not perceived to endanger their lives, many find him our greatest daily amusement.
The problem is that power and amusement is the stuff of kings, not elected leaders. And as we have witnessed, representative government cannot function without compromise. Trump is the first president in memory to actively divide Americans, to challenge basic truth, to encourage physical violence against opponents, and to openly flaunt the law. Like the fascist leaders of the 20th century, he has built a solid political base from the voiceless left behind and the willfully ignorant who benefit financially. We would best recall the words of the great philosopher George Santayana who counsels that, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
I am betting on America. I believe the enduring values of our fine people and institutions, and that we will overcome the challenges to our country. But the task will be a daunting one.