Maureen Dowd, The New York Times’ resident editorial wit, wrote recently that Donald Trump slipped into the presidency “through a tear in the space-continuum.”
Sure feels that way. If only it were that simple.
I have two contradictory sentiments about Trump. The first is that a failed casino magnate and real estate shark, a serial bankrupt who finally had to go to Russian oligarchs for capital and a wannabe celebrity who was the butt of jokes on the Johnny Carson show three decades ago, was the last person who could ever be elected president of the United States.
The second sentiment is that Donald Trump is the nightmare our failed political system has been generating for us for a very long time, and that we cannot see him merely as an aberration of the system but as, in some ways, its culmination.
Under either sentiment, let us give Trump his props. He has dreamt of the ultimate power America affords for a very long time. Now, no one seeks power simply from the desire to do good. There is a lot of ego involved in ambition. What is unique in Trump’s case is that there is nothing but ego in it. He has no knowledge of or interest in the principles of democratic society, and such minimal awareness as he has of it is simply as an instrument of or obstacle to his will. He has no conception of policy as in any way separate from personal interest. He does not want to accomplish anything but the daily gratification of ego, which entails the effective destruction of everything in its way, whether persons or institutions. This isn’t usually a winning formula for governance, but Trump isn’t interested in governing. He prefers, rather, a perpetual atmosphere of crisis that focuses attention solely on himself, and which he gleefully describes as chaos.
That such a person should actually attain power in a mature republic would be inconceivable, if it hadn’t actually happened. The question is how.
The answer lies in what has become of America in the past 50 years. The New Deal had produced, for the first time, a consensus for social justice, and in the heady postwar years of American prosperity, it had seemed possible to afford it. With the stagflation of the 1970s and the backlash to the civil rights movement, however, a retreat from this goal began, and the elites that had never ceased to dominate the economy worked steadily and deliberately to undo the new middle class created under Franklin Delano Roosevelt and to put minorities back in their place. This was accomplished by scuttling corporate taxation and shifting the burden of government onto the middle class, promoting economic welfarism for the rich through givebacks and writeoffs, and giving free rein to market consolidation through monopolies. At the same time, government itself, increasingly the sole brake on a system that relentlessly concentrated wealth upward, came under attack as an enemy of free enterprise. Consumer demand, artificially primed by cheap credit, unleashed a new boom and bust cycle that culminated in the crash of 2008, which wiped out some $80 trillion in worldwide assets, including home equity and pension funds.
Over five decades, not only was the momentum of the New Deal reversed and its gains undone, but corporate-financed think tanks rewrote the national narrative, replacing communal values with the creation of a new social hero, the “entrepreneur,” whose defining virtue was personal success at any and all cost. Meanwhile, the shock economy of globalization and technology created a new world of job insecurity and income erosion. Those who had witnessed the last cycle of progressivism in the 1960s waited vainly for its revival. With unions decimated, academia co-opted and liberals, fragmented by identity politics, turned increasingly against each other, the commons no longer had a voice.
The national political parties were critical to this process. The Republicans reverted fully to their traditional role as the party of Wall Street, their ranks swollen by cynical appeals to the white working class and Evangelicals. The Democrats, never far from the plutocrats who funded a financialized electoral system, fell in line with the new dispensation. And both parties protected their joint monopoly by stifling any third party initiative.
By 2016, both parties had lost credibility as the decline of the American standard of living continued unabated, with suicide rates rising, life expectancy falling, infrastructure collapsing and the young crippled by debt. Two political insurgents then made their bid, both septuagenarians with strange hair but otherwise as far from each other as possible. Bernie Sanders, a political independent and a self-professed socialist, ran a crowd-funded campaign that no one thought possible but which energized Democratic voters as no one had done since Robert Kennedy. However, the party bosses managed to fend him off. Donald Trump ran a seat-of-the-pants, wildly anti-establishment campaign that was all but the antithesis of a Republican candidacy, and he captured the presidency for precisely that reason: he was not one of them, the condescending political elite that had so often promised and so often betrayed. The foulness and crudity that appalled so many was, for others, a rude authenticity, and, at a deeper level, a channel for suppressed rage. No one voting for Trump knew what he stood for (which was nothing, other than the bare offer of himself), and few had any but the vaguest suspicion of what he would actually do if elected. That, however, was the very secret of his appeal, as the man unencumbered even by yesterday’s self, who would take a sledgehammer to business as usual. Where things fell was a matter of indifference, as long as they fell. The 2016 presidential election was, for the sufficient minority that voted for Trump, finally about nihilism, and nihilism was about despair.
Of course, most Americans didn’t vote for Trump. And not all Americans were in despair, although a great many more are today after a year and half of him. But the majority of the country was ready for systemic change, even if it was divided — and confused — about what that change should be. Only one candidate offered it, even if in the vaguest and most contradictory terms.
“Change” is a word we’d heard before, when in 2008 Barack Obama offered us something called “change you can believe in.” As it turned out, there was no more substance to that phrase than in most political slogans, and what it delivered was, essentially, only more of the same. As Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out, Obama’s legacy was eight wasted years that left only a deeper disgust than the one that had propelled him to office, and when Hillary Clinton promised us four to eight more of the same, she was telling us as plainly as she could who not to vote for.
Donald Trump was the worst person who could possibly have been elected president of the United States. Now we know that he was not only possible, but in a certain sense inevitable.