As I write this, the United States of America is preparing for a presidential election in November 2016. The candidates are Hillary Clinton for the Democrats and Donald Trump for the Republicans. American elections occur at a fixed time every four years, so at least that part of the election cycle is normal. However, what we have observed in the run up to this election, including the primaries, has been anything but normal.
Both parties have had to come to terms with insurgent candidates: Bernie Sanders for the Democrats and Donald Trump for the Republicans. Both of these insurgent candidacies are fueled by an electorate that correctly views the politicians, representing the status quo, as being hopelessly out of touch with them (the electorate) and in the sway of big money donors. Additionally, this electorate views the record of performance (or non-performance) of their politicians as a betrayal of their needs.
It is understandable that people are angry and are looking to blame the guilty and looking for answers to their suffering. The “suffering” I refer to is primarily economic. When good jobs are scarce and most of the new wealth in the economy is accumulating at the top of the feeding chain, there is a pervasive (and correct) belief that things have gone badly wrong.
So far so good, we have an angry electorate, with good reason to be angry. However this is where things “take a turn”. The “turn” is the candidacy of Donald J. Trump.
Trump provides a list of the guilty:
- Political corruption
- Media bias
He offers himself as savior since he is “really, really rich”. Furthermore, he identifies himself as an outsider and therefore not part of the status quo that has created the current mess. The unstated assumption here is that someone who has accumulated a lot of money, has the know-how to get things done and fix the problems that are worrying the public. This certainty is offered in spite of his complete ignorance of public administration and that he did not pull himself up by his own bootstraps since he is the son of a rich man who promoted his business and left him a large inheritance. These facts are apparently unimportant, since in the eyes of those who follow him, his lack of experience in public service, being rich (by whatever means) and his relentless self-promotion are all assets not liabilities.
It also seems to matter little to his followers that he is a demonstrated serial liar and is willing to flip flop on issues based on whatever seems to currently resonate with the public.
I should note here, that the current mass media has offered its incompetence to help further the candidacy of Donald Trump. There are two current models for most large media purveyors. They have chosen to be either completely biased (eg. Fox News) or completely feckless (eg. CNN).
The completely biased “news” organizations view all potential news through an ideological filter. In other words, they decide whether they are for or against someone based on their political stripe, not the content of their speech. Additionally all news stories are framed within this ideological bias. In short, their “guys” are always right and the other “guys” are always wrong.
The completely feckless news organizations offer a view from each “side” of the political spectrum, and apparently there are only two points of view. They often offer these views without any in depth research, analysis or critique. They have determined that two out-of-balance views (the two “sides”) offer the viewer an opportunity to make up their own mind. While this may seem “fair” on its surface, it fails to inform since no real information is being offered, only biased sound bites (i.e. opinions) from two opposing sides.
The news media has ceased to deliver on its most important function which is to provide ideas and information which can be reasonably analyzed and debated. The shift from ideas to drama has been the main driver of this behavior. This is most evident when reporters ask about feelings as in “How do you feel about …” rather than thoughts, as in “What do you think about…”.
In short, much of what is covered by mass media is a distraction from substantive news, and focuses on drama rather than information. Those who provide the maximum drama get the most coverage. This is a tenet Donald Trump understands only too well. I would say however that it is unlikely he is a “media genius”, it is more likely that his inherent combativeness, lack of tact and churlishness are just a perfect fit for the current news paradigm of “drama over information”.
The last element of this analysis is to understand how the followers of an authoritarian and elitist figure like Trump can come to believe that he is the solution to all of their country’s current ills and their economic plight. It certainly seems to be counter-intuitive on its surface, since it is unlikely that a bratty rich kid could have any empathy for those at the lower end of the economic spectrum.
The short answer is that it is the oldest trick in the book. It is called “bait-and-switch”. While this term is most often used in sleazy selling practices, it applies here as well. The switch is accomplished by playing on fears, pointing at the guilty (usually the most dis-empowered members of society) and then presenting oneself as the solution to the problems. This happens because no one does anything except in the belief that it will make them feel better. The Trump followers want to feel better and they are blameless for that. However, if those who are being manipulated don’t understand what drives their behavior (feeling better) they are ripe for the picking.
What is the real problem and who are the real culprits?
A recent event that has had the most negative impact on the lives of those at the lower end of the economic spectrum was the economic collapse that occurred at the end of 2008. Who were the culprits?
I will give you a hint: it wasn’t undocumented workers, it wasn’t minorities, it wasn’t Muslims, it wasn’t gays and it wasn’t even terrorists. Who does that leave?
The short answer is uncontrolled irrational greed exhibited by lending institutions and investment banks, with the collusion of rating agencies, and backstopped by investment insurance companies. To add insult to injury, it was the very people who were most injured by this financial melt-down who bailed out the perpetrators with their tax dollars.
Another negative longer term effect on the well-being of Americans has been the out-sourcing of labor facilitated by NAFTA and now to be expanded with the TPP. Donald Trump, in fairness, has correctly identified this, but his policy documents mention only China as a bad actor. What this fails to recognize is that the bad actors are not nations but multinational corporations who move their head offices to tax havens (eg. Apple) and out source their manufacturing to access cheap labor and production environments, and then have free access to American markets for their finished goods. This kind of betrayal, often perpetrated by American companies, has devastated the middle class.
As a footnote, most international trade agreements like the TPP are written (in secret) by agents of the very companies who have the most to gain by demolishing American labor.
The Trump solution is to increase military spending in spite of the fact that the current level of spending on the military outpaces the next 10 largest national militaries combined!
The Trump solution is to get tough on crime, even though violent crime has decreased for a decade. Most of the “get tough on crime” initiatives have been instituted to provide inmates for commercial prisons since they are a profit centers for large corporations that favor and support regressive legislation in congress. The prison population in America has become a new form of wage slavery, in which inmates work for less than a fifty cents an hour for large corporations while incarcerated. Many inmates actually leave prison owing money to the prison corporation since their “wages” don’t cover their billings for phone calls, toiletries, shoes etc.
The Trump solution is to build a wall to stop Mexicans from crossing the border. It is worth noting here that the vast majority of these undocumented workers come to work as laborers in agriculture, construction and residential services. The notion that they are net importers of crime and drugs is misleading at least, since crime rates among undocumented workers are lower than the national crime rates. It is also worth noting that drug traffickers know about airplanes.
Trump represents a neo-fascist movement fueled by the legitimate anger of the electorate who have had their anger redirected to the imagined perpetrators mentioned above while missing out on the real issues that have hurt them so badly. Since the appeal of an authoritarian like Trump is emotional, and hence irrational, it is difficult to offer facts over obvious lies and distortions, since the lies reinforce the feelings.
It would be nice to conclude that the antidote to the Trump candidacy is facts, but as noted above this may be too little too late, since the intended audience just isn’t listening.
It is more likely that we will see an emotionally loaded counter campaign from the Democrats that will offer images and sound bites over facts, since this is what is likely to be most effective.
The only long term solution for this kind of emotional manipulation, is an educated populace who can think for themselves, and knows how to gather and analyze the facts. This requires an educational system that values and supports critical thinking, and news organizations that offer real information and real analyses. As always, I hope for the best while cringing at the present status quo.