Trump’s rise signals a full-blown political crisis

American primitive (La Brea diorama), by Susan Barsy
We are living through the 2016 presidential election.  Someday, perhaps next year, perhaps decades from now, we will try to recall just what it was like.  What was it like, when Donald Trump, in his bid for the presidency, claimed the Republican nomination and precipitated widespread political turmoil?

This is an experiential question, historical yet subjective; it’s not a question of fact, social science, or policy.  Therefore we will each be entitled to our own truths, however aberrant or incompatible.

Meanwhile, the very multiplicity of our views, which will never agree, adds to the confusion of what we are experiencing, the uncertainty of how it will all end.  Where is the nation heading?  What will happen to its party system?  Whose judgments and actions will prove to have been most insightful and right, a question whose importance will grow retrospectively, furnishing a yardstick for identifying who in our generation is most discerning, most trustworthy.

Watching and listening to a Trump-obsessed nation and being part of that nation ourselves, nets some insight into past political upheavals, particularly rise of Hitler in early 20th-century Germany.  The abiding mystery of Nazism is how the German people could have empowered someone so aggressive and hateful.  How could they have been so mistaken as to repose trust in someone so utterly inhuman, so indifferent to world order and prevailing norms?  From the perspective of August 2016, it’s more understandable how masses of citizens could end up giving too much power to a dangerous leader.

Something similarly unpredictable is happening in American politics, something for which we all bear responsibility, yet we aren’t completely sure what it is or how bad it will be.  And we don’t agree on what we should do.

Three conditions are combining in the United States, creating widespread and practically leaderless confusion.  Together, they amount to a dangerous political crisis, threatening a constitutional government we normally think of as stable and strong.  A disillusioned electorate cognizant of its powerlessness and vulnerability, a weak unresponsive leadership class, and the appearance of an unknown but charismatic ‘political savior’: there you have the recipe for political catastrophe.

All three elements—the frustrated expectations of American citizens, an outmoded and out-of-touch political establishment, and Trump’s charismatic authority—must be addressed to move beyond this dangerous political crisis.  Unfortunately, a rotten political system is difficult to replace or reform overnight.  Our parties are filled with self-seeking prima donnas.  Creatures of party, they’ve lost touch with the people.  They farm out the task of deciding what they believe in, relying on experts to formulate their positions.  Collectively, in their quest for personal power, the leaders of both political parties are failing the people of the United States.

Anti-Trump forces comfort themselves with the notion that, if only Hillary Clinton will win, the United States will ‘be okay.’  Thank goodness the people who are demanding change at any price are not quite a voting majority!  This theme organizes much political discourse.  The experts, who deliver so much in the way of political anesthesia, tamp down our anxiety with a never-ending stream of surveys and polls.  Meanwhile, Trump, with his stark directness, soldiers on defiantly, feeding his electrifying certainties to millions of mesmerized followers.  Trump and the popular discontent he energizes will remain a threat until his opponents unite and respond to the people’s needs by forging an appropriate yet superior ideology of change.

Image: A diorama showing
the inimical relation between two extinct species
at the La Brea Tar Pits Museum in Los Angeles.
Author photo.

4 responses

  1. Thoughtful post. For my money, the most economical explanation for Trump in particular is the increasing extremism and intransigence of the right wing of the Republican party, to which its leadership has catered, encouraged, and covered for. The most disquieting aspects of Trump’s appeals are themes many of the GOP’s presidential candidates have used. Trump, one might say, is the logical consequence of the GOPs growing right wing. He is not saying anything previous candidates have said and which many MCs have said. More moderate Republicans have failed to call non-sense.

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    • I view Trump as espousing a philosophy that is altogether quite different than either the moderate or conservative wings, so much so that if he were to win his election would dramatically recast what the party is understood to stand for. His anti-globalism and opposition to free trade and its extension, his open denunciation of China, and his indulgent attitudes toward Russia, coupled with his personal indifference to the agenda of religious conservatives, set him off from the familiar factions previously struggling for the ‘soul’ of the Republican party.
      If Trump hadn’t run, we still would be seeing the GOP losing ground because its leading figures can’t agree with one another about what they stand for. It’s been shocking to see their abdication of leadership. How many are ‘politicians without party’ now?

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  2. A very well written and insightful post. I too am very worried about how Trump has galvanized such a huge following. Your three “conditions” make a lot of sense. . . . Well, for now it seems that almost all the recent polls show Hillary with a solid lead in ALL the battleground states. If only the election could be held tomorrow. Eighty plus days is eons when elections are held. . . . By the by, I have only encountered one person who will vote Trump. I live in metropolitan Chicago too.

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    • In the normal scheme of things, other Republicans might have co-opted Trump, but his positions are too at odds with what the GOP has traditionally stood for. The only silver lining here is that he has exposed the untenability of the Republican party. Still, living through this makes me realize how slow and scary it is when major political parties go pouf. It can take a long time for them to disappear once they have begun to decline. What matters is not whether the Republican Party disappears but what ideology emerges to take its place.

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