The big story in American politics is the meteoric rise of Donald Trump as a serious political candidate. His mix of reality television shamelessness, nationalistic messaging, and narcissistic boastfulness would normally doom a candidate. Not Trump. The more outrageous he becomes, the more his popularity grows.
Trump defies ideological pigeonholing because he lacks coherent messaging that reflects conservative or liberal principles. He's his own man, a populist, and like populists before him--George Wallace, William Jennings Bryan, and Ross Perot--Trump's rise is occurring during a time of great social and economic unrest.
What distinguishes Donald Trump from other populists is his unabashed crassness. The social trends allowing for such a boorish candidate to emerge as a front runner in America today is the result of a paradigm shift in Western culture that began in the 20th century. Before then, a belief in Christianity and a universal God organized society, providing a moral and social code to live by and a bulwark against tragic events that defied human explanation.
As time passed, huge advances in mankind's scientific understanding of the world began to undermine the belief in God because so many things could now be explained without reference to God. Doubts about God's existence accelerated when people began questioning how a personal and loving God could allow the massive carnage of two world wars. Beginning in Europe, where the two wars were fought, then moving to the United States, Western society secularized.
As the Judaeo-Christian doctrines holding America together waned, the beliefs that held American society together lost their influence. Conspicuous consumption replaced thrift and decorum. Psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers replaced clergy as spiritual life counselors. Politeness and civility as a means of regulating social interaction eroded. Self help books emphasized self-improvement rather than character development, self esteem rather than self-control. Painting no longer focused on the richness of humanity--of people living in humanity with nature and one another -- filled with human portraits portraying rich interior lives. Modern art freed itself from the world of humanity, eventually even freeing itself from visual reality. In books and film the anti-hero was born, whose obligation was more to himself than his fellow man.
Donald Trump is the extreme embodiment of these changing cultural trends. Trump defines himself by the wealth he has amassed. He evaluates people by their ability to dominate rather than by their character. Character means very little to Trump, which is why he can without moral qualms, be honored by Vladimir Putin's flattery and praise Putin as a respected leader. Trump's entire world is divided into winners and losers rather than decent and indecent. Since character doesn't matter, winning takes on a Machiavellian tone where lying, cheating, and manipulating are perfectly acceptable strategies to succeed.
Donald Trump's over the top rhetoric falls outside the acceptable bounds of political leaders' discourse. Sadly, he is within the bounds of what Americans perceive politicians to actually be like. Most Americans view politicians as part of the cultural trend of mainstream society, untrustworthy and mostly out for themselves.
Trump is seen as refreshing and candid because he is willing to voice what people believe other politicians are thinking but are too afraid to actually say. Trump's grittiness and politically incorrect rhetoric make him the ideal candidate for our times, the quintessential anti-hero. The outsider who upends the rules and creates a new order. The traditional noble, heroic politician, sacrificing for the good of many, seems boring and out of step in today's world. Trump the anti-hero fascinates and excites, bringing his followers closer to him because his flaws and realness are on display.
Like all good populists, Trump's rhetoric addresses people's worst fears, in this case economic uncertainty and the very real threat of terrorism. Relying on his image as a winner and his anti-hero status, Trump assures voters that he has all the answers for our nation's economic woes, the grit and toughness to deal with ISIS, the guts and wiliness to take on the likes of Vladimir Putin.
A key to understanding Trump's appeal is his campaign slogan, he'll make America great again. This phrase is a vague enough commitment that Republicans can project their own wishes for themselves and America onto the phrase, the same way Democrats did with Barack Obama's campaign slogan of hope and change.
The majority of Trump supporters are older, working class Republicans, and for them making America great again represents a by gone era when the values that made America economically strong and morally great were dominant features of society. These traditional American values are etched on our coinage -- Liberty, In God we Trust, and E Pluribus Unum,
Today our nation's working class continues to be pounded by economic and social trends beyond their control. Globalization and technological advances have lowered their wages and reduced the numbers of jobs available to them. Secularism supplanted a faith based society, individual freedoms deteriorated with the growth of government, and cultural diversity replaced the melting pot.
These marginalized Americans see Donald Trump as a successful business man with the skills necessary to grow our economy, and as a hard nosed negotiator that will bring back manufacturing jobs to the homeland from nations like China. His followers also believe Trump's tough stance on deporting illegal immigrants and building the border wall, will reverse the trend towards cultural diversity. No doubt his base will remain loyal because he brings solutions to their existential crisis. Whether Trump can expand beyond this base of supporters and secure the nomination is an open question. If history is a guide, populists rarely do. But the anti-hero populist has no historical precedent, so he may well beat the odds.
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