Trump: Playing To Victimhood
The nice folks at The New Republic have an excellent article about why Donald Trump is something to really worry about:
Now that Donald Trump appears on the verge of launching a presidential campaign, it is worth reflecting on the meaning of this low moment in American political history. Trump is a clown and a buffoon, and the odds of him winning even one Republican caucus or primary appear slim. But there is no denying that Trump has managed to tap into something genuinely worrisome in American politics. Democrats may be tempted to take pleasure in the fact that Trump will likely push the GOP presidential field to the right, and thereby help Obama in 2012. But this would be sheer myopia, and any delight over Trump’s arrival on the political scene is entirely misplaced. The Trump ascendancy calls not for glee, but for serious concern about the state of our country.
It’s true that the media erred in awarding Trump such a large spotlight—did all the cable news networks really have to cover his press conference on Wednesday?—but, at this point, the Trump phenomenon does not seem to be a mere media creation. His popularity (he currently leads in several polls) can no longer be denied. So what is Trump’s appeal? Why do his message and vulgar personality resonate with such a significant percentage of Americans? Trump’s embrace of birtherism has been the most widely discussed aspect of his rise. But this only scratches the surface of the Trump phenomenon.
What Trump actually stands for is an exaggerated sense of victimhood. This is the theme that unites his personal style with the political views he has thus far expressed. Are you tired of being pushed around? Are you tired of our country being pushed around? Trump’s political acuity lies in his ability to take these grievances and turn them into politics. His foreign policy views in essence consist of a pledge to bully other nations. China is “decimating our country.” OPEC is imperiling the economy. And ungrateful Libyans and Iraqis are trying to build a society from oil that is rightfully ours. (“We won the war. We take over the oil fields. We use the oil.”) When Bill O’Reilly, in an interview with Trump, seemed taken aback by the idea that we could simply force OPEC or China to do our bidding, Trump appeared surprised that anyone could view international relations as anything more than a contest of machismo. “The messenger is the key,” Trump told O’Reilly. “If you have the right messenger and they know how to deliver the message … you’re going to scare them, absolutely.”
Trump’s thinly veiled accusation that President Obama benefited from affirmative action when he applied to college derives from the same theme. This time the victims aren’t Americans as a whole, they are white Americans; but the message—of anger, resentment, and victimhood—is identical.
America is currently engaged in three wars. The country faces major economic challenges. Global warming is continuing apace. There is no chance any of these issues can be solved by yelling at foreign countries, or stirring up anger at Iraqis or Libyans or minority applicants to elite colleges. Donald Trump has appointed himself spokesman for some of the nastiest impulses in American politics, and he seems to have a following. The sooner the Republican mainstream rejects him, the better. And we liberals should be cheering them along as they do.
As a political scientist, I can tell you that there are several dynamic variants of nationalism. The healing, positive kind is that of Ronald Reagan - “Morning in America.” This message says that the country is strong and move on by pursuing its own strengths. There’s the Winston Churchill variant of nationalism that is powerful during wartime, declaring that self-affirmation and resiliance will result in triumph. Both variants show themselves in left-wing leaders as well, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt employed nationalism dramatically during World War II.
Then there is what Trump is selling. This is the George Wallace and Theodore Bilbo variety. It sells to a group that sees itself as being targeted and bullied. It’s a juvenile impulse and there is little thought to it at all. It shows up throughout the world, wherever there are groups that have either been victimized or think they’ve been victimized - from the Black Muslims in the U.S. to the far right in Israel to Arab Nationalists. It’s really unhealthy but provides easy relief - the cigarettes of political ideology.
Even if Donald Trump were to not get the Republican nomination, let alone the presidency, he’ll leave a stain that won’t be easily washed out. Strom Thurmond in 1946 and George Wallace in 1968 (and during several other runs) pulled this sort of protectionist, pseudo socialist (in the form of national socialism that advocates taking of resources and spreading it among our people and us alone, whoever that may be) material before.
This bile rears its head in times like we’re facing now. Epic social change, deep economic recession and the growing shrinkage of the United States as a superpower all create an audience for people who aren’t ready for that change of scenery. Trump is running on a reactionary advocacy of returning to all the things that America was before the change of the last few years came in - a white dominated, economically supreme superpower. Geopolitics are such that a President Trump could never deliver on the latter but, as president or even just as a candidate, he could shred the country’s fragile race relations.