Trump changed all that. We shouldn't forget that Trump is largely responsible for the 'birther' controversy that surrounded President Obama's first three years in office, almost single-handedly keeping the rumors and innuendos circulating in the mainstream for as long as they did. And regardless of how anyone attempts to defend such accusations or suspicions, there is no reason, other than pure, unapologetic racism, that Obama would have been publicly portrayed with such intense suspicion, to such a degree that he would be asked to pass a citizenship test that no previous president had been asked to pass.
Moreover, while politicians of both stripes have long trafficked in various shades of dishonesty, Trump - in the 'reality television' ethos that has made him famous - is the first to my recollection to operate under the strategy of direct and explicit deception. When he isn't saying things that are explicitly and demonstrably false (such as that Hillary Clinton was responsible for the 'birther' scandal, that he was initially opposed to the invasion of Iraq, that he was best friends with Vladimir Putin, or that he had received a letter from the NFL), he's a master at making claims that unmistakably convey his points, but with just enough plausible deniability that when challenged, he can accuse his questioner of misconstruing his words, (thereby furthering among his loyal fans the suspicion that the media is not to be trusted, and only the Donald's 'no nonsense', 'tell it like it is' talk is trustworthy). Newt Gingrich said it best during an RNC interview, "liberals have a whole set of statistics that theoretically may be right, but it's not where human beings are." Just as Trump's explicitly racist speak is the logical outcome of years of dog-whistle racism and Islamophobia, his 'truth is what I say it is' ethos is the logical terminus of a long-worsening 'postmodern' outlook on the media, the view that all media is essentially editorializing, and hence, there really are no facts of the matter, and no single opinion on current affairs is any more or less 'true' than any other. Trump embodies this principle completely, and when he said that he could literally stand on 5th Avenue and shoot someone without losing support, I think he was right. Case(s) in point...
Trump famously launched his campaign on a platform promise to abruptly deport 11 million undocumented immigrants and build a wall to keep others from coming in. In that speech he equated most Mexican immigrants with rapists, drug dealers, and criminals... (who can forget the 'some, I assume, are good people' caveat?) He also accused the Mexican government of conspiring to deliberately send into America their most hardened criminals. Since then, he has mocked a disabled reporter, accused a respected female reporter of asking unfair questions on the basis of her menstrual cycle, falsely claimed that thousands of Muslims in New Jersey publicly celebrated the 9/11 attacks, derided the physical appearances of two female opponents, claimed that John McCain was not a war hero because he had been captured, promised to cover the attorney fees of any supporters who would assault African American protesters at his rallies, suggested that President Obama might be in alliance with ISIS, called on a foreign power to hack the email of his political rival, twice said things that can be construed as wishing assassination on his political rival, attacked a Gold Star family on the basis of their Islamic religion, proposed a religious test on people attempting to enter the country, accused a federal judge of being incapable of objectivity because he was Mexican-American, and said that an Islamic judge would be unlikely to be objective as well. I'm sure that there are more such statements; this is just off the top of my head. And as Trump continued to wallop his competition on the Republican side, I regretted more and more that I did not write my intended op-ed piece. That regret has grown as Trump has steadily gained on Hillary in the polls.
Make no mistake, we ought to be very afraid of a Trump presidency, for he has demonstrated numerous times tendencies that can only be described as dictatorial and megalomaniacal. Let's not forget that he has promised to exert greater control over the media. Or that he has promised to make the childhood instilling of patriotism central to his presidency, (which seems to assume a definition of patriotism that excludes any critical stance toward the dark underbelly of American life, past and present). Or that, where Obama ran on the value of 'us,' and on the promise to work with both parties in Congress, Trump's entire campaign is predicated on a vision of America as a post-apocalyptic hellscape, riddled with crime, violence, and corruption, a la Carpenter's Escape from New York, the ills of which only he, Donald Trump, can fix; on the assumption that Congress cannot be trusted, and what is needed is a strong, single figure. This, friends, is the very definition of dictatorship, a word that Trump has affectionately used to describe his own approach to business, (and we should not forget that he is explicitly touting his business skills as his qualifications for the office of the Presidency).
What I like about Domenech's article is the fact that it holds equally responsible the democratic party in Trump's rise. This is something that few - on the right or on the left - address. The accusations that Trump embodies the logical terminus of two decades of Republican politics is commonplace, even on the right at present. But to persist with these accusations without at the same time shining a light on the degree to which the democrats have been complicit, is to merely perpetuate the very problem that gave rise to Trump in the first place. The anger to which Trump appeals - the anger of white Americans - is very real. One need only look at statistics pertaining to suicide, alcoholism, and drug use, for confirmation. And the sources of that anger - unemployment, income stagnation, government distrust - are equally real. One very important reason that dog-whistle racism resonates with some is that it provides an explanation for a despair and an anger that are as authentic as they are paralyzing. As Nietzsche noted over a century ago, ressentiment always demands a cause; the subtextual politics of race-baiting serves for some this causally explanatory role (however misplaced and dangerous it may be). But the anger itself is real, it is deep, and it is not without justification. And it is absurd to lay the blame for this wholly at the feet of the Republican party.
The democratic party has steadily sidled up more and more to the interests of wealthy elites, promising prosperity while embracing policies that have slowly but steadily eviscerated the middle class. It was a democratic president who gutted the welfare system, claiming that 'the era of big government is over.' This same democratic president signed NAFTA into law, which resulted in the exportation of American jobs, which greatly helped 'the economy' but paralyzed laborers. He also signed into law the legislation that would enable the predatory lending that would ultimately cripple the global economy, costing the homes, jobs, and security of countless thousands of American workers. It was a democratic president who oversaw the recovery from that collapse, during which the American economy reached hitherto unattained heights in terms of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, but during which working-class wages remained virtually immobile. The 'recovery' applied only to the upper echelons of America's elites. That same democratic president is currently pushing strongly for the TPP - which smacks too much of NAFTA for many to sound appealing - while promising that this trade deal will be different. Finally, it is immeasurably significant that this president's signature legislation, the one that goes by his name in the public sphere - the health care reform sought for decades by democrats, is essentially indistinguishable from the healthcare bill proposed by Republicans in 1993 as the alternative to Clinton's health care proposal. It speaks volumes that the most 'progressive' health care reform that democrats were capable of enacting - with a democratic president, a majority in the House, and a supermajority in the Senate - was initially drafted by The Heritage Foundation - a piece of legislation that forced thousands of citizens into the private health insurance market while doing nothing to control health care costs. It is also noteworthy that the congressional democrats overseeing the committee for this reform received massive donations from the health insurance industry. It is no accident that 'Harry and Louise', the famous 'average folks' who opposed in commercials the health care reforms of Bill and Hillary, returned to the airwaves in 2009 to support the Obama reform.
Meanwhile, the coastal, liberal elites have long looked down their noses at the average person in middle or southern America as backwards, unintelligent religious zealots from a bygone era. One need only see the treatment in the popular media or entertainment of Americans from the Midwest or from the south for confirmation. Bill Maher can get an easy laugh from his audience by ridiculing the inhabitants of Mississippi, or by callously saying that most Americans are stupid. Television programs like Duck Dynasty and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo exist to put on display and capitalize on the most persistent stereotypes of southern Americans, for the entertainment of liberal elites. And Hillary's 'basket of deplorables' comment speaks to this disdain as well. Little wonder that these derided Americans are the very same folks who currently look to Trump as they would to a semi-Messianic figure, as the one who can finally make everything OK again. Or that they so appreciate Trump's declaration of love for the 'poorly educated,' (a declaration mocked by those liberal elites). It's noteworthy that many who now support Trump most enthusiastically are some of the same folks who once enthusiastically supported Barack Obama. The 2008 Obama phenomenon was not based upon a drastic leftward shift in American politics, but upon the fact that Obama seemed to many to be different from the politicians to whom they were accustomed. Folks saw in Obama a transformational figure who transcended the pettiness of American politics, who promised to usher in a new era of hope and prosperity, and most importantly, who seemed to believe in the promises he was making. But through the past eight years folks have seen more and more of that hope crumble, as wages have continued to stagnate, Congress has continued to deadlock and defer responsibility, and the industrial jobs that once fostered the strong American middle class have failed to return. More and more wealth going to the most elite of the elite, fewer good-paying jobs for unskilled laborers, more debt, and more finger-pointing by the political elites responsible. If anything, the political climate in the US has actually worsened under Obama, and thus, for many, Obama has turned out to be a disappointment.
My hope is the following. I sincerely hope that Trump loses. The thought of being an American in an America that elects a Donald Trump is horrifying. But I also hope that the fervor of the Trump phenomenon will compel politicians across the gamut to reevaluate their current commitments. Even if Trump does not win, if the American political system continues to enact legislation that is designed to bolster the wealth of the wealthiest, at the expense of the middle class; if it continues to cast blame, to shamelessly pursue political power by any means necessary, to support the limitless influx of money into the political system, to send American (lower and middle class) soldiers to kill and to die in senseless wars, to sow enmity and distrust among its citizens for each other and for their leaders... Trump will be only the beginning.
It reminds me of a conversation I once had with my mom. I was a child, learning for the first time about the horrors of Nazi Germany, and about the rise of fascism in Europe in the early 20th century generally. And my mom said to me, "It really makes you wonder how an entire population of people can be persuaded to embrace a dictator." I confess, I've never understood first-hand the answer to that question until now. This is how, friends. Two and a half millennia ago, Plato saw clearly the degradation to dictatorship in the Republic. When the 'for the people' of democracy becomes merely a bad joke, when citizens rightly perceive that their government is more concerned with fattening their own pockets by fattening the pockets of the wealthy than it is about the problems of the middle or lower classes of society, when the future seems colored with nothing but the gray hue of despair, people reach a point of desperation where they're potentially willing to try anything, even if it means pinning all their hopes on a narcissistic, authoritarian bigot. As Trump himself said in his appeal to African American voters, "What do you have to lose?"
A Trump loss in November will not be sufficient to reverse the course. Without a serious and long-overdue self-reevaluation on the part of the American polity, Trump will merely be the first; and I shudder to think of what could come next that would be more extreme and more scary than Trump.
Three cheers for fascism.