The staying power of Trump
After some time spent in America’s flyover country, it is time to talk about Donald Trump, the former President now in trouble with the law in New York and Georgia who remains, despite this, a favorite of voters in what are considered “key” swing states in the next presidential election, according to New York Times polling.
Among these states is Michigan, where the polls say Trump leads sitting President Joe Biden by 49 percent to 43 percent. I’ve spent some time in Michigan, and I have a theory.
The theory is based on the premise that the best thing Trump has going for him is the shit storm so-called “progressives” launched after his surprise 2016 election, their refusal to put their anger at Trump behind them after his defeat in the chaotic 2020 presidential election, and the complicity of the media and the ruling class in refusing to sit down, shut up and let Trump disappear quietly into the sunset whether he wants to or not.
Instead, they’ve managed to continue promoting Trump as the bad boy, outlaw of American politics in a country where many have long-held affections for bad boys and outlaws.
As the philosopher Andrew Fiala has observed, “rebels and outlaws are icons of American culture. Criminals like Billy the Kid and Al Capone are favorite fixtures of Americana. Pop culture often portrays bad guys and gangsters as heroic figures who have no choice but to use violence to defend their sacred honor….
“The cult of the rebel implies that for good to be done, good guys have to go rogue and break the law. Instead of obedience and conformity, rebel culture values honor, pride and self-assertion. This is a bipartisan tendency. Leftists wear Che Guevara T-shirts, and right-wingers view the Jan. 6 rebels as patriotic heroes. Rebels on the left and the right think the establishment, the system, or ‘the swamp,’ is made up of biased bureaucrats who are venal and corrupt.”
For some, Trump is now that outlaw rebel of American politics.
How a narcissistic, spoiled, rich kid from New York whose interest in the Presidency appears to have sprung solely from a desire to become the country’s biggest celebrity rather than any sort of Licolnesque urge to better mankind evolved into the James Deans of U.S. polebrity is hard to say.
Trump was pretty much your normal businessman at the start of the ’90s, and then….
“Donald Trump’s real-estate empire was on the brink of crumbling under $3.4 billion in debt. His soon-to-be-ex-wife Ivana was demanding $10 million. Walking down Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, he saw a blind man with a paper cup and realized the beggar’s net worth was hundreds of millions more than his.
“Those trying times of the early 1990s would turn out to be Mr. Trump’s personal crucible.”
Ah, yes. Goodbye Donald Trump, the rather ordinary, boring businessman trying to be something more than that.
Hello, Donald Trump, the flamboyant, over-the-top, self promoter. The Donald Trump reborn in the style of the Great American P.T. Barnum. The Donald Trump who would within about a decade rise to become a big star as the boss in “The Apprentice,” one of those not-at-all-real reality shows that swept onto American television screens in the new millennium.
The unwashed masses
But there’s more to Trump’s appeal than just this bad-boy image, and the other part of his appeal appears to run much, much deeper into the deep chasm of the American cultural divide that the nation’s ruling elite and most of the mainstream media seems incapable of grasping.
There is a sense among some who comprise the country’s unwashed masses that all or nearly all of the nation’s politicians are corrupt and that the country’s sizeable government bureaucracy has become all too much like that of Tsarist Russia.
Trump’s 2016 pledge to “drain the swamp” of Washington, D.C. in the runup to his election appealed directly to these people.
“Trump said the proposals, some of which would have to be approved by Congress and others by the American public, would restore faith in what he repeatedly called a rigged system that rewards the wealthy and well-connected at the expense of the common man” is how USA Today described the pitch at the time.
Trump, of course, never managed to drain the swamp because it was full of well-educated alligators willing to organize to fight any efforts at drainage, something the mainstream media was happy to point out.
Neither source mentioned the assist the alligators got from the self same mainstream media, which has rarely found a non-military program on which federal funding should be reduced, or the ongoing and continuing fears of the bureaucrats that Trump might one day find some success in cutting some federal spending.
“If Trump Is Reelected, His Aides Are Planning to Purge the Civil Service,” Government Executive magazine warned last year. “Officials are looking to revive a controversial order issued in Trump’s waning days and have already identified 50,000 federal positions to target.”
Some – who knows how many – of Trump’s supporters are neither confused about Trump’s faults nor ignorant of them. To some, he is just another crook swimming in a pond full of self-serving political liars and crooks who feed off a bloated bureaucracy.
To them, all that is different is that Trump is the one crook who the establishment has ganged up on, which helps fuel a popular belief that maybe there is some reason to believe Trump could at least partially drain the swamp if he was returned to office.
And, if nothing else, it is – in this view – comforting to see the alligators at least worried.
Some who profess to not like Trump even a little privately confess to support him in line with thoughts appearing to parallel that old proverb that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Yes, there are without doubt some “deplorables” in the Trump camp as failed Democrat Presidential candidate Hilary Clinton classed many of Trump’s supporters after backing away from her ranting to a partisan crowd that “you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic – you name it.”
That you “you name it” was an especially big catchall for every progressive prejudice against anyone who doesn’t wholly and totally agree with the progressive agenda – progressivism being a well-intentioned, fundamentalist political religion rooted in a utopian view of socialism that dates back to the late 1800s.
More than 74 million Americans voted for Trump in 2020. By Clinton’s original, 2016 statement, this would make more than 37 million Americans racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic or “you name it.”
Admittedly, on a purely technical level, Clinton was probably understating the numbers given her inclusion of xenophobia – the “fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign” – on her list of faults.
A lot of Americans fear or hate “anything that is strange or foreign” to them, and these Americans include a lot of Clinton supporters and others in that progressive camp. According to Politico, “Progressives hate Elon Musk.”
Why? Apparenlty because of Musk’s strange belief in freedom of speech that made him willing to allow Trump back on Twitter after the keepers of all “truth” kicked Trump off, and Musk’s great wealth.
Wealth on the scale of Musk, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Mark Zuckerberg and others in the small gang of American billionaires is strange and foreign to most of us, and it can be pretty easy to dislike, if not hate, the really rich in general.
But mainly, at least according to Politico reporter Calder McHugh, it’s that freedom of speech thing that fuels the Musk haters.
“‘Especially in the Covid era, ” McHugh writes, “liberals have argued that we should trust the wisdom of credentialed experts. Musk does not seem to trust these experts, and he often uses his large platform on Twitter (where he has 86 million followers at last count) to regularly question them.”
The very idea that only certified intelligentsia are to be trusted is anathema to any number of other Americans, many of whom are likely closer to liberal than they would care to believe given the constant misuse of that word in these times.
“Liberal” and “progressive” are not synonyms as McHugh, like so many other journalists these days, presents them in his report. The Economist magazine well defined the former on the magazine’s demisemiseptcentennial anniversary in 2018:
“We were created 175 years ago to campaign for liberalism – not the leftish ‘progressivism of American university campuses or the rightish ‘ultraliberalism’ conjured up by the French commentariat, but a universal commitment to individual dignity, open markets,
limited government and a faith in human progress brought about by debate and reform.”
Progressives were never much about “faith in human progress,” debate (although they appeared more open to that in previous decades than now), or limited government.
The Alaska section of the party’s 1912 platform is especially revealing in the latter regard though many of today’s Progressives are sure to balk at it, having gone almost wholly to the opposite extreme of where the party was more than 100 years ago. This is where it was then:
“The coal and other natural resources of Alaska should be opened to development at once. They are owned by the people of the United States, and are safe from monopoly, waste or destruction only while so owned.
“We demand that they shall neither be sold nor given away, except under the Homestead Law, but while held in Government ownership shall be opened to use promptly upon liberal terms requiring immediate development.
“Thus the benefit of cheap fuel will accrue to the Government of the United States and to the people of Alaska and the Pacific Coast; the settlement of extensive agricultural lands will be hastened; the extermination of the salmon will be prevented and the just and wise development of Alaskan resources will take the place of private extortion or monopoly.
“We demand also that extortion or monopoly in transportation shall be prevented by the prompt acquisition, construction or improvement by the Government of such railroads, harbor and other facilities for transportation as the welfare of the people may demand.”
This sort of support for state capitalism, something the Chinese communists have taken to unprecedented levels, is all well and good but overlooks the big, inherent problem in government development of resources: If the government is doing the development, who is doing the monitoring to ensure such development is environmentally sound?
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), which sprang from much the same ground as the American Progressive Party, was once the poster child for this progressive-envisioned government control of industrial progress no matter the means, and the USSR was once embraced by some of the American intelligentsia for being so.
“… There was a time when the whole industrial structure of Russia was so disorganized from the World War, the blockade and civil war, that the government practically took over the management of the cooperatives. (even of this period it is important to know that the latter jealously safeguarded in legal form their autonomy by formally voting, as if they were their own independent decisions, the measures forced upon them by the government.),” John Dewey wrote in The New Republic in 1928. “This state of affairs no longer exists: on the contrary, the free and democratically conducted cooperative movment has assumed a new vitality – subject, of course to control of prices by the State.”
There is no need here to go into the human rights abuses the Soviet intelligentsia imposed on the Russian people before the USSR collapsed in 1992. Most everyone is familiar with the history of the Gulag and of the millions of Russians and Eastern Europeans killed by the Soviets.
That couldn’t happen here, or at least it couldn’t happen here any time in the foreseeable future. At least hopefully not.
It takes demagoguery time to establish within a society the belief that it is the way to get the best and most important things done most efficiently. This is why putting government ever more in control is a slippery slope as resource development of the Progressive nature in Russia well illustrates.
“During 70 years of communist rule, the former Soviet Union inflicted widespread environmental damage throughout Russia and the Soviet Republics in its quest for military and economic power,” the RAND think tank reported after the USSR fell. “Now that the USSR is gone, the newly independent states are forced to deal with this legacy of destruction in an effort to rebuild their economies.”
There were many elements to how and why that happened, but the main one involved Soviet efforts to match the technological progress of the U.S. in a global battle for power. Unable to harness market competition to advance its technological aims, the leaders of the Soviet-style, Tsarist-modeled bureaucracy that replaced the Tsarist bureaucracy decided to sacrifice the environment to try to remain competitive with the U.S.
The U.S. bureaucracy
Thankfully, the U.S. bureaucracy at this time – despite the perceptions of many conservatives – does not appear to have reached Tsarist levels.
Perceptions are not reality, and the reality is, according to the data-tracking website Statistia, that government jobs have really not grown at all on a per capita basis in the country over the past 40 years.
Only it’s not this simple either because sometimes the simple realities are about as real as reality TV, which isn’t real at all. The U.S. government circa 2023 contracts out a lot of its business, and the contractors, though they are working for the government, aren’t counted as government employees.
And then there is the matter of government intervention in other areas – such as health care – that leads to government rules intended to help people, or not, depending on your point of view. And implementation and enforcement of these rules requires the expenditure of public funds.
Thus the best indicator of government investment in and influence on everyday life in these unUnited States might be written in the percentage of the Gross Domestic Product tied to government spending.
According to the International Monetary Fund, that percentage hit 45.3 percent in 2020, thus for the first time squeaking past the percentage of public spending in the country’s GDP during World War II. But then the pandemic, a war of sorts, can be blamed for this.
The percentage has since fallen back to 42.36 percent, but the trend lines here might be more telling than these numbers. The upward creep in public spending as part of the country’s GDP has been pretty steady since the late President Lydon Johnson’s launch of “The Great Society” in the mid-1960s.
Prior to that, except for the war years, federal spending never topped 20 percent, although it came close during the Korean Conflict in the 1950s.
By the 1990s, however, as government increasingly tried to “help” Americans, government spending pushed near 40 percent of the GDP. It dropped back into the 30s under the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, but then started upward again.
What is a right percentage can be debated at length. There are those who make an argument government spending is still too low. Part of the reason government is so inefficient, or seems so to many who try to deal with it, they argue, is that government offices are understaffed.
Things would work better if there were even more government employees, they believe, and they point to the fact there countries that spend far more on public services.
In France, government spending comprises 59.05 percent of GDP, according to the IMF, in Italy 55.45 percent and in Spain 50.6 percent. For comparison, Canada is at 46 percent and Norway at 48.19 percent, which is lightly more than the U.S., while Japan, 42.52 percent, and Australia, 42.32 percent, are near equal the U.S.’s 42.36 percent in 2021.
China – America’s greatest existential threat in the global economic struggle – spends way less at 32.71 percent. Its reported public spending as a percentage of GDP is back where the U.S. was in the late 1970s and 1980s despite China paying for a national police force to maintain a dictatorial rule over its people.
The numbers thus make it clear that there is much room for debate about what constitutes too much spending on government and what constitutes too little. As with most things political, the issue has a lot more gray than black or white.
Sadly, however, there is little room for gray in times of war. War is a black-and-white business no matter whether it is being waged with guns and bombs or with the words and the less violent actions of “social warriors.”
In war, there is our side, and there is the enemy. And in the American culture war of these times, the progressive “social warriors” are every bit as much engaged in attacking an “enemy” as the Trumpsters, maybe even more so.
Lest anyone forgot, a beaten Clinton was the only unsuccessful president in recent times who refused to gracefully concede defeat. Instead she announced she was joining the “resistance” as if the Nazis had invaded and occupied the country.
America’s social wars have only gotten hotter since with a bunch of progressives pushing for laws to make us all love each other while overlooking the reality that the foundation of democracy is not love, but tolerance. Many families can’t even hold the love thing together.
Humans are inherently prejudiced creatures. We’re nearly all among the deplorables in our vehement dislike of something or some things. Prejudice is us; it is always going to be us; and everyone needs to accept that we need to live with that and tolerate it right up to the point it harms others.
Unfortunately, Americans on the right and Americans on the left have steadily moved so far away from this idea that they now sometimes can’t even bring themselves to talk to each other.
So we now have one of the nation’s two major parties embracing the senile, intolerant and self-serving old man presently inhabiting the Whitehouse because he represents their side in the culture war, and the other party still saddled with an intolerant, bombastic, self-serving and ill-mannered because the media keeps him in the spotlight.
It’s American politics meets reality TV.