“Who’s driving?” is actually a very scary question.
The New Republic recently ran a first-person account of a Trump rally, written by a creative writing professor who attended out of curiosity. His report on the event–what he heard from attendees and from those hawking paraphernalia–was deeply disturbing, and gave rise to a “chicken and egg” question: Did The Donald create the angry, mean-spirited crowd at that rally? Or did their seething hostility to the various “others” who are his targets create an opening for Trump or someone like him?
This campaign, whose success has long been attributed to the forgotten working and middle classes, the so-called Silent Majority, has been, and always will be, an unholy alliance between the Hateful and the Privileged, the former always on a never-ending search for new venues for their poison and the latter enjoying, for the first time since Reagan’s ’80s, an opportunity to get out and step on some necks in public.
I considered the odd pairing and its implications as I left the lot and turned onto Coliseum Boulevard. Trump can be defeated, and most likely he will be, but elections cannot cure this disease. It’s always been here and perhaps it always will be. Trump’s narcissistic quest to “Make America Great Again” has only drawn the insects to the surface, and there’s plenty of room to wonder whether he’s driving the movement or if it’s driving him.
It is sobering and very depressing to realize that a substantial percentage of Americans reject what really does make America great: our willingness to treat our neighbors as valued fellow-citizens, whether or not they look, pray or love the same way we do. Diversity, inclusion, civic equality….those are the aspects of American culture that most of us (or so I hope) value and embrace.
Of course, America’s commitment to inclusion and equality has always been as fragile as it is laudable.
If you click through and read Professor Sexton’s article–fittingly titled “American Horror Story”–you enter an America very different from the “can do” nation that has long taken pride in welcoming “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” The people cheering for Trump aren’t welcoming huddled masses, and they aren’t looking for solutions to America’s problems; they are looking for someone to blame for whatever has gone wrong in their lives.
Trump’s supporters are attracted to his nativism and bluster, his ability to reassure them that whatever “it” is, it isn’t their fault. His appeal lies in his ability to focus their discontents and direct their animosities outward: toward Mexicans or Muslims or women or immigrants. His supporters find his utter ignorance reassuring–there’s no need to know all that mumbo-jumbo about policy and the Constitution and how government works. Just know how to wheel and deal and screw the other guy.
If the nature of his appeal is obvious, the number of voters who will respond to that appeal is not. Less obvious still is an answer to the question posed by the shaken professor who attended the rally: is Trump a cause or an effect? Is he driving this current “know nothing” eruption, or has an increase in nativism and resentment created Trumpism?
And most worrisome of all: how widespread is the Trumpian conviction that making America “great” requires making Americans white and Christian?