In a previous blog post I made the case that Donald Trump is basically a megalomaniacal con-man who is exploiting the real hurts of average people to promote his brand, which is himself. He has no a real plan to redeem the country, or even run it with reasonable competence. His ideas are not merely unworkable (“We’ll build a wall and make Mexico pay for it!”), they are actually dangerous.
The sad truth, however, is that Trump is in no way the cause of the division this country is experiencing at the moment. He’s merely using it to his advantage. Our division into mutually antagonistic ideological camps has been going on for decades.
There has always been social and political tension and contention in this country. This is inevitable in a society made up of many different groups holding a variety of beliefs. The Founding Fathers actually recognized that faction was inevitable and took it into account when formulating the Constitution. Americans have long had a genius for weaving contentious groups together into a, if not completely harmonious, then at least reasonably unified consensus.
Sometimes, however, this consensus breaks down. The most obvious example, of course, is the Civil War. Americans in the middle of the Nineteenth Century found themselves unable to continue to paper over the chasm between free state and slave state, between an agrarian South focused on social hierarchy and chattel labor and an industrializing North focused on an open society with free labor. All attempts at compromise failed and Americans divided themselves into antagonistic camps which, in the end, could find no way to resolve their disagreements other than by force of arms. The war quite literally destroyed the old Union and birthed a new political order, a new United States. If that new society was any more just and free than the old, the price paid for it was undeniably high.
We live in another era of partisan division. Many have remarked on how people are living more and more in “ideological silos”, in which they interact only with people who largely agree with them. The Pew Research Center has done statistical analyses of this fact that are worth reading. One of the interesting aspects of these analyses is the finding that those who are more political involved tend to have the most consistently liberal or conservative ideologies. As these studies put it, centrists largely “…remain on the edges of the political playing field….”
The reasons for this bifurcation are numerous and go back decades– the upheaval of the Sixties, the rise of a vocal and uncompromising conservatism, the culture wars of the Eighties and Nineties, the advent of largely conservative media that has been less interested in journalistic fairness than in demonizing those who hold contrarian opinions (although liberals are hardly innocent of this sort of thing), the contested presidential election in 2000, 9-11, the Iraq war, and the growing threat of terrorism. People have a profound sense that their government is more and more the creature of plutocrats and money-men. On top of all of this, the nation is going through demographic and social changes which leave some people feeling alienated from their own country– the United States is well on its way to no longer being majority white, nor normatively heterosexual, nor largely Christian (I personally doubt we were ever really that Christian as a society, but that’s another post).
We are increasingly a nation divided against itself. We have lost much of our sense of common purpose and identity as Americans– or rather, we spend a great deal of time telling ourselves that people who think differently from us or who look different are not real Americans. This partisan division has been reflected in the operation of our government, or perhaps rather, its non-operation. In recent years ‘legislative action’ has too often consisted of using the mechanism of government to deny your opponents legitimacy and anything resembling policy success. When you see this sort of thing becoming common, it is a sure sign that the established mechanisms of governance have begun to break down, and that new mechanisms and a new consensus need to be created.
Unfortunately, at the moment no one seems to have a clear understanding of how to achieve this new consensus. At the same time, many people seem to want to restore the America they think they’ve lost, or to bring in someone who will take positive action– whether or not it’s constitutional– to ‘protect’ us. Hence, Trump.
The essential point is that, even if Trump loses this election, the forces he is exploiting– or that, in another sense, brought him into being– will still be seething with resentment and misplaced rage, doubtless looking for the next man on a white horse. This is almost unprecedented in our history. The only analogous situation I can immediately call to mind is Huey Long in the Thirties, who was another demagogue who exploited populist discontent. There was a reason Franklin Delano Roosevelt considered Long one of the most dangerous people in the country.
Personally, I have no ready remedy in mind to heal this rift and soothe the minds and hearts of those who are looking for– let’s not mince words– a dictator. The rhetoric has become too heated, the divisions too deep for an easy solution. Possibly all we need to tip us over the edge into some sort of authoritarianism is for some latter-day John Brown— domestic or foreign– to do something appalling (a terrorist nuke on America soil would do the job, if an example is needed) and the American people might just select a Trump-figure to lead them. We are in dangerous waters.
The only thing I know for sure that we must do is speak the truth, protect the rights of everyone– even if they wear a hijab or have Mexican grandparents– and vote as if the future of the Republic is on the line.
Because it is.