Much ink and numerous digital bits has been expended, across the political spectrum, in attempting to explain the political phenomenon known as Donald Trump. Unfortunately, standard mainstream explanations miss the mark.
Initially pundits and casual observers condescendingly packaged Trump as a personality-driven phenomenon and as an entertaining media spectacle with stylistic roots in The Apprentice — his highly successful reality T.V. program. In other words, while Trump was valued as a marquee billionaire, he was framed as a politically inconsequential entertainer. Where have we heard this story before? Be that as it may, the Trump story-line changed as he piggybacked on grassroots discontent by strategically manipulating the media, stroking anti-immigrant resentment, challenging the republican political establishment as self-serving and ridged, calling for an economic revitalization of the degraded American Dream, and trumpeting the need for reinvigorating U.S. military strength, purpose, and presence. In effect, in this new light, Trump was reinterpreted by mainstream commentators as a rouge outlier and disrupter of core political values and practices that long-defined the political landscape. In brief, Trump was viewed more as an unpleasant interloper and usurper of accepted political conventions, than as an authoritarian threat to the common good.
The notion of Trump as frivolous entertainment or as a novel political aberration says more about the bankrupt analytical weakness of current political discourse, then it does about the meteoric rise of a right-wing populist demagogue. Both story-lines – entertainer and/or political aberration – come up embarrassingly short when grappling with Trump’s emergence, place, and meaning within the arch of U.S. political history. Such one-dimensional forms of historical amnesia sanitizes exclusionary eruptions that periodically mark the U.S. polity, and underplays the political-economic framework that structures who wins and who loses. In brief, historical simplification undermines a much needed sense of where we are and how we got there. Not knowing the where and the how muddles our grasp of the political economy, distorts political perceptions, and deflects the possibility of purposeful and meaningful remediation.
The U.S. political and historical landscape has episodically sprouted fear mongering intolerant demagogues. Fear exploiting political personalities have strategically manipulated – in distinct ways – the social anxieties associated with the “outsider” or what academics call the “other.” The “invention” of the “other” – be they African-American disrupters, immigrant outsiders, socialist/communist infiltrators, or adherents to the Muslim faith, aka generic terrorists – historically operated as convenient punching bags, during moments of crisis, by whipping–up social fears and political anxieties supporting exclusionary right-wing political agendas. Controversial and complex social and political issues are crudely simplified by creating one-dimensional strawmen that are easily demonized.
A close reading of U.S. history brings to light how exclusionary and nativist grassroots political movements highlight shallow forms of shrill anti-intellectualism and ethnic and racial intolerance that masquerades as a traditional/authentic “everyman can-do” kind of optimism that builds upon a simplistic version of nostalgic American exceptionalism.
In today’s polarized political landscape, which fuels Trump’s mission to “make America great again,” the politics of exclusionary nostalgia is a response to downward economic mobility, a generalized sense of national crisis, and loss of legitimacy in political cartels favoring corporate oligarchs over struggling workers. In this respect, the Trumpian politics of nostalgia is a tactical appeal to deep feelings of social and economic anxiety, loss of certainty in the American Dream, and a tarnished sense of Manifest Destiny. Exploitation of these raw psychic and economic fissures panders to a strain of grassroots politics that highlights fear over hope, exclusion over inclusion, and resentment over compassion.
Trumpianism is not a political anomaly. To the contrary, Trump’s appeal is an offshoot of a distinct authoritarian and anti-democratic thread in American politics. In effect, Trump represents a dark anti-democratic “strongman” lineage that sporadically erupts as a counter narrative to a conventional set of liberal political assumptions that highlight individual rights and humane concerns. In this regard, Trump stands firmly on the shoulders of right-wing political demagogues such as: Father Charles Coughlin the 1930s depression era crypto fascist radio personality who stridently attacked New Deal liberal activism; Senator Joseph McCarthy the fear-mongering 1950s Cold War warrior who engaged in character assassination, and used the “big-lie” for crass ideological and self-serving political purposes; and Governor George Wallace who appealed to deep-seated racial fears to undermine the social justice advances made by the Civil Rights movement.
At the end of the day, the mainstream commentary on Donald Trump – with its willful disregard for history and its political shallowness – converts authoritarian rhetoric and a corrosive political agenda into just another interesting and amusing political horserace. Which bring to mind the famous quip by George Bernard Shaw: “We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.” Let’s hope he was wrong.
Arturo Ignacio Sánchez, Ph.D. is chairperson of the Newest New Yorkers Committee of Queens Community Board 3. He has taught courses on immigration, entrepreneurship, and globalization at Barnard College, City University of New York, Columbia University, Cornell University, and New York University.