Those who have been reading this blog for a long time are well aware of my stance on most populist movements and my concern over the dual trends of toxic populism and political polarization. Since I’ve been watching populist sentiment for some time, I am therefore not wholly surprised that Donald Trump has become the Republican front-runner. I have followed the rise of Trump with alarm (and cynical non-surprise, quite honestly), and I believe that a Trump presidency would be utterly disastrous to the nation.
However, there is a selfish part of me that is feeling extremely smug about the Trump phenomenon, I freely admit. Two years ago I said that if it was “elitist” to believe that people in charge of policymaking should know what they’re talking about and respect the system that works, then I’ll wear the scarlet “E” with pride. I felt like a voice crying in the wilderness by actively defending a system of governance that was being called “archaic” by social media activists of the right and left, and derided as corrupt both by grassroots activists and popular media such as the Netflix show House of Cards.
I’m not going to pick on entertainment, because it is an artistic expression, but the types of entertainment that are popular at a given moment obviously can reveal the zeitgeist of the culture at that moment. And it has been clear to me, at least, that we have indeed been in an “anti-establishment” stage for several years, on both sides. Those aforementioned grassroots activists were (are) angry because they believed themselves to be shut out of the process due to a bias in favor of “special interests” and against “the people,” but in reality they were mostly shut out because they were unwilling to compromise their views to get anything done. And that goes for both sides, though admittedly more so for the political right.
Finally, some mainstream media outlets are saying what I’ve been crying for years.
There are others, but the point is clear. Media outlets are finally starting to get it.
Typically, some players have failed to see exactly what is driving Trump’s candidacy (and, to a lesser extent, that of Bernie Sanders, although he is not a dangerous candidate and I consider it unfair for him to be compared to Trump). The multiculturalist left has decided that the culprit behind Trump is systemic racism of lower-class whites. The economic left has decided that Trump and Sanders, in different ways, are speaking to voters who have been left behind by globalism and big money. (The right wing seems to be collectively shaking its head over shots of hard liquor.) I think these issues may be contributors, but I think the real appeal of Trump actually is his “political outsider” shtick.
Of course, Trump has been involved in politics as a big-money insider for years. But somehow this man has turned that to his advantage. “Yes, I know all about how the process works, and it really is corrupt and these people really are evil and bought out by people like me,” is the subtext of his message. “Everything you believe about it is correct. And I’m sick of it too, and now I’m going to work on your behalf.” It’s just like House of Cards’ appeal, I think: a seeming confirmation of what people want to believe about “the system.” Except instead of being a piece of popular entertainment, Trump is actually running for the highest office in the land.
For decades, the right wing has pushed a populist message that “insiders” with political experience are somehow inherently corrupt, and that “regular people” are exemplars of homespun virtue and purity. Indeed, this anti-intellectual message has been extended well past politicians. This “expert = evil” message has been applied by the hard right to science, academia, and national media, among others. In my post in which I endorsed Hillary Clinton, I pointed this out. Do keep in mind that I wrote the following in April of 2015, well before Trump ascended to the top of the GOP polls:
I have come to see the value of expertise in any skilled profession. Being a “regular Joe outsider” with no experience in policy or governing is not an intrinsic virtue, and we are seeing that play out in Washington and in state governments now, with a crop of new representatives who ran on a “Main Street” populist campaign platform that presented experience as equivalent to “corruption” or “being part of the problem.” They have strong opinions, but they don’t understand how things get done and don’t care to learn, because they are the virtuous non-politicians (who now hold political office) and they know best. This is why we have gridlock in Congress and an increase in stupid, blatantly unconstitutional bills introduced in state legislatures. It’s a destructive, anti-intellectual mindset. Character and skill (at a profession that isn’t inherently immoral) are completely distinct and unrelated qualities, and people need to start seeing expertise and “insider” status as a good thing again.
Anyone who has been ripped off by a local business or had bad dealings with a neighbor can see the fallacy. Some people are all right and some are prone to corruption, and it is something that can rear its ugly head in literally any context. But because many “regular people” simply don’t know any politicians, policymakers, or experts in general, they can readily dehumanize them.
Trump has ascended to be the front-runner for the Republican Party nomination because for thirty years, GOP-aligned media outlets (talk radio, Internet) have cultivated this “folk wisdom” about the purity and goodness of those who disrespect the political process and the inherent evil of those who want to work within it. He is impervious to the attacks of the Republican establishment because they are coming from the Republican establishment. Everything an establishment figure says against him affirms his message that “the system” is out to screw the regular guy over.
The Republicans have cultivated this anti-intellectualism for years, and they are powerless to stop it now. Even if they manage, somehow, to stop Trump himself, it will at this point probably be by the quintessential “crooked insider” shenanigan of denying him the party nomination in a brokered convention. That would only fuel the firestorm even more.
The Democratic nominee can stop Trump, of course, and quell “Trumpism” for a while. This is especially true if Trump actually ends up fracturing the race into a three-person contest, which he very well might. If Trump gets a clean nomination (by earning a majority of delegates), there are quite a few mainstream Republican figures who say that they would vote for Hillary Clinton simply to repudiate Trump. A resounding vote seemingly in favor of “the system” (and she represents it in spades) and against Trump’s anti-intellectual populism might shut it down for a while. This is what I hope happens, a new respect given to “the process” after having to face, collectively, what destroying “the process” actually looks like. But the GOP cultivated this for a long time, and it will take a long time for it to truly cease to be a political force.