The Trump Thing

In response to a friend’s Facebook posting about a photo of candidate Trump’s family of great white hunters with their big-game safari trophies, I added a few thoughts (expanded here) about what this Trump thing means, if we even know what it means.—PM

Where are we headed? Or have we arrived? Even if Republican Donald Trump loses in November, what has he revealed about the citizens? In his case, 13 million Republican primary-election voters proved that they don’t have any use for career politicians. Will those voters be consistent and reject GOP incumbents down through the ballot in November? Is this a “Throw the Bums Out” election for real? You hear that now and then, but it rarely happens. Is this one of those years? I can’t tell yet.

Thirteen million for Trump in the primaries. Remember that there are nearly 320 million people in the U.S. The Trump campaign, and the Senator Bernie Sanders campaign to an extent, exposed the deep fault lines in the civic culture. In general, there are two different views of what kind of country we should be. I’m not saying that Trump or former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton embodies these views perfectly in theory or practice, but they match up with the types. One holds that we are all in this together as we try to make a life and earn a living, with government used as a tool used to manage public activities and to support fairness, opportunity, and a decent quality of life. Public schools, state highways, food inspectors, courts and police, legal rights—all are expressions of self-government for activities and policies that are best managed in common. The other position favors every person for him- or herself, with some exceptions, in a society of minimal public regulations that assigns most social needs to private charity. People on both sides accept that national security and defense have to be managed as public responsibilities. I have friends and relatives who are Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. And I know people who just opt out. Each of them exists on the continuum of his or her political type on a scale of Mostly Agree to Mostly Disagree. It’s a complex mosaic of thought.

Opinion surveys since the end of the primary election season have shown a nation split roughly in half when it comes to political preference, with Democrat Hillary Clinton until now leading slightly when there are two choices. A few polls post-GOP nominating convention show Trump has pulled out front. No matter which person wins in November, the electorate will be deeply divided. Some Democrats are ecstatic that President Obama is registering at 51 or 52 percent in favorability polls. Good for him and them, but it’s distressing to see the bar so low for a celebration. I’m not happy about the approval rating near the end of his second term. He enjoyed a hopeful 67 percent approval rating the week of his inauguration in January 2009.

How do we put our Humpty Dumpty nation back together? In the distant past, one may have asked for an epic poem to re-bind the people. That sounds quaint today. What could work now? Some kind of soaring statement on film? A time-stopping music album that makes us re-think? A play? Is “Hamilton” that play and we don’t know it yet because it is too early? Can we get on the same page, at least 70 percent of us so there is a clear consensus? How rare has that been?

The society is extensively fragmented. And yet. And yet, for example, this past weekend tens of millions of people attended museum exhibits, youth athletic events, pro sports games, outdoor concerts, farmers markets, seaside celebrations, speedways, community meals, church and temple services, county fairs, and more in relative harmony, sitting and standing together in mixed crowds, sharing experiences that are exhilarating or quietly inspiring. Pursuing happiness—that very American activity. It’s not all “fear and loathing” with nothing else out there. All this is true, but running through and around the greater gatherings are mean, nasty tendencies and actions that are rocking the society’s foundation.

And what if Trump wins? Is he the extravagant debt collector representing people who believe they have been cheated and screwed by the power brokers in the country? Is he going to balance the fairness books? He is an improbable figure if that’s what it is, given his profile as a super-wealthy celebrity with a repulsive personality. Don’t forget that he was the leading “Birther,” questioning the citizenship of President Obama for a couple of years. That can’t be dismissed as a fad he took up or a phase he went through. He did real damage, stoking racial resentment. If elected will he unleash something poisonous that will be hard to put back in the cave? Or is he simply the new manager being brought in to clean up a mess, to straighten out the company. “You’re fired, you’re fired, you’re fired.” The dance he’s doing with Russia’s strongman Putin would be disqualifying in an ordinary election year.

I sense the anxiety meter registering higher in the more urgent and heated opinion essays by the anti-Trump crowd being shared on the web. It almost doesn’t matter that he is running as a Republican. It’s the convenient uniform shirt that he put on to get in the contest. He’s running against the totality of a national political culture that he attacks as corrupt but which he is trying to picture how he would manage. He knocked down 16 standard political pins on the way to the GOP nomination. They didn’t have a chance against his assault. He got himself right with the electoral moment: Change vs. More of the Same. He has a knack for reading trends. He’s got one pin to go when he looks down the alley.

For his supporters he’s an all-purpose placeholder, meant to oppose everything they, too, despise and standing for a way of life that they want. And Hillary Clinton’s team has to make the case that the federal government is not so broken that it can’t be brought back in service of the 99 percent—no matter what the data and facts show about what is going right even if not as helpful for everyone (economy up, crime down). There are plenty of things to fix. Too often, however, the good news gets lost in the pile of catastrophes, especially in recent years. Former President Bill Clinton said about those who are 100 percent sure of their proposed solutions that “Strong and wrong will beat right and weak most of the time.” And there’s a limit to what any President can do in a civic structure that separates powers. Once the consensus breaks down, it’s almost impossible to get out of the stuck position. 

The bill is coming due for decades of political malpractice by both sides on the national level. I believe the national Republicans deserve most of the blame, but I’m only one voter. A lot of people see it the other way. There’s still time to avoid a public disaster. This week’s Democratic convention was a good start on a unified effort to keep Trump out of the White House. It’s not because he is a Republican. It’s because he is Donald Trump. He has a dangerous view of what America should be and is not prepared to be President. We need a serious person in that job. Trump is too much of a risk for angry voters to use him to send a message. Find another way to send that message if you believe that America is on the wrong track.