Looking for Hope in the Age of Trump

If it’s hard to predict the future, it’s even harder to predict how that future will be remembered. The unexpected has an annoying tendency to crop up. Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the top of the Republican Party was certainly unexpected; will history remember it as a watershed moment? Or will it turn out to be a footnote between The War on Terror, The Great Recession, and whatever comes next? It’s hard to tell, but if there is a chapter on Donald Trump, you can be sure that Super Tuesday 2016 will be in bold letters.

Since the return of regularly scheduled programming at The Fog of Policy in January, I’ve found myself writing more about the political horserace than I expected. Frankly, more than I want to. The race this year has turned out to be, at least on the GOP side, particularly illuminating, but entirely unedifying. We have reached the lowest level of political appeal – Marco Rubio, long considered a sharp, clever, and ambitious face for the future of the party, resorted in recent weeks to making jokes about Mr. Trump’s short fingers: “you know what they say about men with small hands.”

The spectacle has been utterly embarrassing, but there have been honest questions about whether it should also be genuinely frightening. The leading Republican candidate champions war crimes while his main alternative for most of the contest, Ted Cruz, threatens to make the desert sands glow from the sheer ferocity of American bombings. It has come to this: supposedly serious people have tried to find solace in the naked absurdity of what Mr. Trump is saying, reasoning that at the very least he couldn’t possibly sincerely mean it. Thus, in a contest for the most powerful office in the world, the thought that what the winner might do is a total mystery has become the optimistic telling.

One can do little more – as one does at such times – than quote William Yeats:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Yeah, it would appear so.

If you’re looking for a light at the end of the tunnel, I don’t have good news for you. After Tuesday, Donald Trump is the prohibitive frontrunner for the Republican nomination. The guy in second place is Ted Cruz. The long shot alternative to avoiding Mr. Trump coming away with his party’s nomination is a brokered convention that would leave the party reeling.

Donald Trump seems to be the honest-to-goodness choice of the Republican electorate – whether or not he means what he’s saying, his voters like it. The Donald is reshaping the political landscape.

Original Photo (c) Gage Skidmore

Original Photo (c) Gage Skidmore

I was thinking about the impact of his candidacy last night, and remembered an article I had come across a few years ago. The authors had shown – or at any rate, believed that they had shown – that there was a relationship between when a radio station was founded near textile communities and when those communities experienced worker strikes. I won’t get into the details of the study (Roscigno and Danaher, 2001, Media and Mobilization: The Case of Radio and Southern Textile Worker Insurgency, 1929 to 1934), but one of the interesting puzzles that emerged out of the conversation we had in class was this: what might be the mechanism through which radio programming creates action?

There were two competing theories. The first is that the radio programming stoked grievances – in effect, that it got the workers all bothered about conditions that they hadn’t really been thinking too much about. I think that this is what a lot of people on the left hope might be true about Donald Trump, and what for years they have believed about conservative talk radio and Fox News: that they’re nothing but rabble rousers and that if they would just shut up, everything could settle down a bit.

Maybe, but I don’t think so.

A competing explanation is that the workers in the study were already in touch with how they felt about their working conditions, but that the arrival of sympathetic radio programming signaled to them that they were not alone. It changed their calculus of what was possible, and perceiving an opportunity to act, they did.

That would be a more sobering account of what Donald Trump is doing, not that he’s injecting something new into the conversation and bringing people over to his way of thinking (if there even is such a thing), but rather that he’s helping his followers discover that there are others who think as they do. (The main contrast between the two explanations, I think, comes down to this: how pliable do you think people are?)

This isn’t a new phenomenon. The phrase ‘silent majority’ was invented precisely to reference this sort of process. ‘Workers of the world, unite!’ was a different slogan with the same message – the promise of victory through untapped strength.

Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number-
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you
Ye are many-they are few.

So, here we are. Donald Trump is going to help Americans take their country back and make it great again. (Bernie promises something similar, with a different ‘they’ and a different ‘great’ in mind, but the same appeal to the idea that political power will hold at bay the forces arrayed against ‘us’.)

It looks pretty ugly, but despair isn’t very helpful. So here’s what hope looks like on this side of the keyboard. I’m taking a step back, and trying to take in the whole American project. The country is going through deep transformations: culturally, demographically, economically. Some of us were hopeful that it would go more smoothly than this. Apparently, it won’t. That sucks.

But in the end, I think Trump really is exposing an underbelly of political anger, vitriol, and disaffection that predates him. It needs to be dealt with. Middle of the road politicians and policy wonks have a model of how the country could work in the future, and that model might very well be correct. Some argue that that model is helping the country work better now. But the democratic process doesn’t just require you to be right, it requires you to convince your fellow citizens of your vision.

For too long, there has been an empty echo where our substantive conversations about America’s problems should have been. Mr. Trump, Mr. Cruz, and Mr. Sanders are filling that void. Eventually, somebody was bound to.

If the self-appointed grownups and serious thinkers are unhappy with the conversation, then they need to roll their sleeves up and engage with the issues that are bothering voters. Whoever the eventual nominee of either party is, and whoever ultimately wins the White House, that’s not going to change.

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

Want to help The Fog of Policy grow? Then take a minute and share this piece! Or let me know what you think in the comments section.

Have a question or suggestion for a new piece? Submit it through the Feedback form – and don’t forget to subscribe on the homepage to get posts and features automatically sent to your inbox.

Leave a Reply