Donald Trump, at first glance, appears to be a better punchline than he is a candidate. Not a day goes by when someone doesn’t quip to me about his or her plans to move to Canada or New Zealand if he is elected. Websites are having a field day with his hair. (“#trumpyourcat” is a particular favorite.) Comedians and impressionists love him. He’s a laff riot. And then he goes and wins the New Hampshire primary. There’s nothing funny about that.
It is certainly an indictment of America’s electoral system that a candidate who has spewed racism can win an election for village dog catcher much less a primary to represent one of our two political parties in the contest for the presidency. In that indictment, there is plenty of blame to go around. The media have legitimized Trump by taking him seriously and effectively handing over their studios and microphones to him on his terms. They joke with him in bantering interviews and yet fail to really dig into his past, his bankruptcies, his dubious business partners, his record of over-promising and under-delivering to those who had placed their trust — and their cash — with him.
Plenty of blame lies with Trump, who has consistently chosen to take the low road on the campaign trail unless an even lower one was available to him. By attacking Mexicans and Muslims and cherished American values, he has stirred up hatred and fear whenever he thought it would play to his advantage. He has promised to violate our Constitution and once again ridiculed our values with his assertion that he would do something “much worse” than waterboarding terrorists. He is repulsive. But he has also demonstrated enough smarts that we can know this kind of vileness is a choice. He believes it is working for him…because it is.
And it’s for this reason, that far worse than Trump are those who are choosing to vote for him. They argue that he is an alternative to the status quo and that alone is sufficient justification for giving such a man a better chance at becoming president with each of their votes. They buy into his proposed false choice between the corruption and dysfunction of Washington and “anything else.” They ignore his utter lack of qualifications. They sidestep his twisted and repugnant character or lack thereof. They are more to blame than the candidate. Any idiot can declare he wants to be president of the United States; it takes a real special kind of disregard for facts, national interests, our children’s future, and America’s standing in the world to actually vote for such an idiot.
Although again, there is plenty of blame to go around. Republican commentators and candidates who for decades have denigrated government, have embraced the neo-Orwellian nonsense that all government is bad and all markets are good, and who have then chosen to support dysfunction over cooperation that might inadvertently benefit their opponents have sent a message these voters have received: Your vote, your government doesn’t matter. The markets and “family values” will take care of things…though that’s never been the case in all of human history. Though, as Foreign Policy contributor Rula Jebreal recently pointed out at the opening of the New York Live Arts Idea Festival in New York City, there is an apparent contradiction in the “values” being espoused by some GOP presidential candidates who are quick to deny a woman’s right to choose so as to “protect the life of the unborn,” but nonetheless unflinchingly embrace the carpet-bombing of the Middle East, which is sure to claim untold numbers of innocents.
But as bad as Trump and his enablers in the media or among GOP leadership are, they are not the most worrisome thing about the real estate mogul’s ascendancy. Trump will win other primaries. He may even be the GOP candidate for president –although that still seems an unlikely outcome to me as establishment forces coalesce around an ever-smaller field of viable options. But he is unlikely to win the presidency. His negatives are too high. He has enough support to win pluralities within the GOP but the vast majority of Americans would never vote for him. He will lose in the end and he will crawl back into the reality television swamp from which he oozed months ago.
His supporters, however, will remain. As will their anger. They will be a force in American politics for years as the changing demographics and economic models of this country and the likelihood of continuing dysfunction in Washington will continue to feed the anxiety that triggers their bitterness, irrationality, and irresponsibility. They are not the Tea Party with its libertarian message founded on an economic rationale and at least tenuous philosophical rationale. They are Sarah Palin voters gone even further off the tracks. They are the bad seeds of an American version of Europe’s dangerous nationalist parties — France’s National Front, Italy’s Northern League, the U.K.’s UKIP, or Hungary’s Jobbik. (What’s more, they crave an authoritarian boss to set things right, as recent articles and polls have indicated.)
And while Trump may soon depart the campaign trail in search of whatever life forms he must next consume to satisfy his titanic narcissism, he will leave behind a cadre of Americans — a solid core of whom are white, male, and not particularly well-educated — who harbor the notion that the world was once a better place for them and that those days are permanently over. (The world was never a particularly kind place to these alienated working and middle class voters or their forebears, even if they were white and male. They are nostalgic for a time that didn’t really exist. Because class issues always left their antecedents feeling disenfranchised, out of the club, angry at the establishment. But things seem worse now as we live at the tipping point when by a a few decades’ time minority populations will outnumber the former majority and where economic growth no longer seems to be creating the kind of jobs that once were the bread and butter of the middle class — notably those in our atrophying manufacturing sector — and the richest keep getting richer and leaving everyone else farther and farther behind.)
We can laugh at Trump. But we cannot and must not laugh at what is fueling his candidacy. Parties that evolve from feelings of disaffection and alienation like those in Europe today and in the past are capable of horrors as they have so often proven. For that reason no American should see the recent Trump victory as anything less than a call to arms to stop the further degradation of U.S. democracy by thugs. We must recognize that if we don’t hear the concerns that are fueling the rise of this group, if we don’t see and challenge the missteps by media elites and pundits who have enabled the legitimization of their views, then we are inviting the rise of forces that are a greater threat to our country — and its values — than any of the terrorists or foreign bogeymen that have dominated the conversations in our presidential debates to date.