I have written about Donald Trump, the buffoon campaigning for the Republican nominee as President of the United States, on multiple occasions. I have written about how he is uses nativist fears of the Other to scapegoat immigrants for societal ills they did not create. I’ve written about Trump’s breathtaking hypocrisy and lies. I’ve mentioned and linked to evidence of Trump’s racism and bankruptcies. I’ve even written about Trump’s possible narcissism and similarities to Henry VIII. Now, I am going to write about why Trump’s appeal to voters scares the living crap out of me.
There are a certain set of circumstances that serve as a growth medium for the rise of a Far Right populist demagogue like Trump. Three are obvious: 1) economic insecurity (or fear of it) for the majority, 2) people feel as though the government/politicians fail them and/or are corrupt, and 3) the threat of a foreign enemy. In those circumstances people are looking for economic security, to elect an uncorrupted “outsider”, and protection from harm. They are also looking for something almost all humans crave – opportunity and stability.
Right now, the hard surge toward unchecked, savage capitalism and deregulation since the 1980s has caused such terrible economic inequality and such a reduction of the middle class that America is teetering on the brink of a socioeconomic collapse. Half of all Americans are already living in poverty or near the poverty level, and more than 3/4 of Americans are barely scraping by. That means most people in this country are one small slip (a lost job, an illness, an accident) away from devastating economic hardship and homelessness. There is no safety net anymore; people can count on neither a social safety net by the government nor personal savings. Most people don’t have a way up or out. The opportunities for a good union job in manufacturing have disappeared thanks to rancid trade agreements and the opportunities for economic advancement after college has disappeared into cubicles and shrinking salaries. People are, justifiably, afraid of the future and their place in it.
There are cures for the disease of inequality, but those treatments are complex and based on economic infrastructure and a progressive tax on the wealthy. People don’t want complex. They don’t want to know nothing is free. They don’t want to know about the root basis for systemic economic inequality. They want clear, simple, “common-sense” answers, not the multifaceted and often-counter-intuitive realities of facts.
More than anything else, what a right wing populist offers is simplification.
Instead of discussing the variables that need to change the populist gives the voter a easy target for blame. He (or she) assures the people getting cut off at the knees that the Other is to blame, not the systemic inequalities that once served most of the white middle class and now serve only the top echelon of the patriarchal hegemony. The very concept of a patriarchal hegemony is weird and fluid and hard to explain. It is so much easier to blame Those People for the problems Americans face. The threat to security and stability is subsequently defined as immigrants, Muslims, and “lazy welfare cheats” rather than the entire socioeconomic framework. Moreover, “pure” capitalism has been narratively tied to “good” and democracy, so an attack on Wall Street is easily redefined as a commie assault on freedom, God, and the Bald Eagle. Muslims, immigrants, and the “urban” (i.e. black) poor are already scary because they represent difference, and thus they feel like a natural cause of unease. That’s why Trump supporters create memes like this:
Trumps flaws are hidden behind the joy of his message – there is a simple answer it involves hurting people who are different from “me” on a fundamental level. This doesn’t mean that people who support Trump are de factor stupid or uneducated; the siren song of simplification transcends intelligence and appeals to people regardless of how smart they are otherwise. Furthermore, Americans are not alone in their lust for easy xenophobic solutions; people in Europe are also falling for oversimplified hate rhetoric hook, line, and sinker. “That’s the bad guy” is so much more satisfying to hear than “It’s complicated.”
What scares me about this is that these populist right wing yahoos often ride this message clear to the top, and once they are there they can do profound damage. Now, and Trump is probably no worse that Berlusconi, or Abbot, or Cameron, or any other far right jackanapes to have emerged from the subconscious mire of a fearful electorate. However, no worse is not the same thing as “fine”. Berlusconi, Abbot, and Cameron have done (or are still doing) incredible harm to their countries. Even a best case scenario Trump as POTUS is bad.
A worst case scenario of Trump is terrifying.
What happens when a right wing populist is a little more than his adoring followers were expecting? You get Adolf Hitler, who took his people-in-that-religion-are-a-danger-to-us message and ran it all the way into a Holocaust. Hitler started out as just another cult-of-personality far right populist.
In the early 1930s, the mood in Germany was grim. The worldwide economic depression had hit the country especially hard, and millions of people were out of work. Still fresh in the minds of many was Germany’s humiliating defeat fifteen years earlier during World War I, and Germans lacked confidence in their weak government, known as the Weimar Republic. These conditions provided the chance for the rise of a new leader, Adolf Hitler, and his party, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, or Nazi party for short.
Hitler promise a “strong” Germany again. Hitler explained away all Germany’s problems by blaming them on the Others, especially and particularly the Jews. His followers were so devout, and so fanatically attached to his xenophobic and anti-Semitic message that he didn’t even need that many supporters to gain power; the Nazi’s never got more than 1/3 of the votes in Germany but the desire of the mainstream politicians to pander to Hitler’s large block of voters inspired them to make him Chancellor. Once near power, Hitler was in a position to seize more of it, and had made himself absolute ruler of Germany before the 2/3 of German’s who abhorred him could grasp what was happening. Soon, the Nazi’s controlled almost everything and could kill anyone who stood up to them or opposed them.
Don’t think Trump could be THAT bad? Well, neither do I. Then again, I cannot fathom how Hitler got away with what he did either, so I am clearly not capable of understanding evil on that kind of scale. Nonetheless, seeing Trump’s supporters pledge to support him no matter what and raising their arms in salute turns my knees to water with fear.
Having been through this once before within the living memory of millions of their citizens, most Germans are freaked out by Trump too.
Oh, and for the record … Mexicans are more likely to be leaving the US than entering it, Muslim violence in the Middle East is based on colonialism and globalization, not Islam, and the people “living off the government” are not the largest beneficiaries of tax dollars; that would be corporations and the military contractors.
Too bad that isn’t a nice, pithy, meme-making information sound-bite. It’s too complicated I guess.