This is Part I of a two part series; Part II will be published next Wednesday.
Literally seven out of every ten politics stories published in the mainstream media this year have centered upon the improbable campaign for president of Donald Trump. The media have pretty much covered the gamut – from Trump’s shocking rhetoric, to his unorthodox campaign finance strategies, to Trump’s strong appeal among a certain cross-section of the electorate. By almost all accounts, Trump’s rise has defied the odds and is leaving the political prognosticators and prediction markets increasingly irrelevant.
But few have really discussed the rise of Donald Trump from a moral perspective. What is it about the state of the spirit of the American people that gives rise to a political anomaly like Trump?
There are a host of factors, but among them are concern about America’s decline, economic despair from a decade of recession, and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism as a credible challenge to Western hegemony.
The origins of this moral dilemma facing Americans actually goes back to President George Bush. Bush outlined a vision for American foreign policy oriented in opposition to what he termed an ‘axis of evil.’ The term, which Bush coined during his State of The Union Address in in 2002, was to describe nations that supported terrorism seeking to obtain weapons of mass destruction (or were threatening to use them).
The Axis, consisting of Iran, Iraq and North Korea, took on an almost mystical quality in the philosophy and terminology of George Bush. If these nations were inherently evil, then America, in opposing them, was a force for good in the world. More critically, the fact that America is an inherently good country, that is ‘exceptional,’ justifies America’s own military actions around the world.
With that moral framework in place, Bush announced an invasion of Iraq. And at first, the story seemed to fall neatly into place. Within days of the invasion, we were told the mission had been accomplished. Baghdad had fallen to the US Army, and Saddam was on the run. From there on it was to be merely a mop up operation.
The ensuing five years was to not only disprove the idea of a quick and easy victory for the good guys, but also challenged America’s idea of itself as a force for good in a world in which things were no longer so black and white. Amid the fog of war, an impalpable greyness settled over America’s moral standing.
Civilian casualties in Iraq reached staggering proportions; news of torture, waterboarding and CIA black sites disturbed our sense of righteousness. A theory of ‘extraordinary rendition’ was enacted to skirt the Geneva Conventions, and the use of contractors to carry out the dirty work was to provide a semblance of distance from the practice of torture. Legal memos seeking to justify the use of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ emanated from the Bush White House with ex-post facto dispatch.
The real question of whether one can justify invading a country that has not attacked us or our allies, but harbors terrorists, was fraught with moral ambiguities. Guantanamo Bay happened. Targeted assassination of U.S. citizens on foreign soil was a moral frontier no one had even contemplated before the adventure began.
By the time the Bush Presidency ended, America was suffering from a case of terrible morale. In the eyes of many observers, the Iraq war seemed not only to be a failure – it had totally backfired. Rather than contain the evil of terrorism, the destruction of the Iraqi state seemed to result in terrorism spreading like a plague throughout the region. No one wanted to stand by the results. Even its chief architects fell upon themselves and the blame game began in earnest.
And into the vacuum snuck a total newcomer to the American political scene, Barack Obama. He had been one of the very few elected who opposed the Iraq war as a matter of moral objection, although unlike other politicians, he did not have to face the dilemma of voting for it. By the time he arrived in the Senate as a freshman, he could smugly pontificate about what he might have done had he been in the position to choose.
Both Obama elections became more about a repudiation of the Bush doctrine than an embrace of a new theory of American power. Immediately after his election, and before withdrawing a single troop from Iraq or Afghanistan (and with war very much raging in both places), the Nobel Prize committee crowned Obama with a premature investiture that wedded him formally to the idea of ending the American military presence in the Middle East. Of course he had campaigned on ending the wars – for America’s benefit; but he was enlisted by the world as its leader before he even settled into office. Obama also went on a victory lap of his own through the Middle East, where he talked before large crowds about the dawning of a new day of democracy in those lands.
But already the seeds of doubt had begun to fester at home. Many saw Obama’s ‘apology tour,’ not so much as a repudiation of the Bush doctrine, but a repudiation of American exceptionalism. And for many, the strain of the war combined with the election to the highest office of a brown man with a Muslim-sounding name, would prove a little too much to bear.
As if to compound the insult to American power represented by the world’s vociferous rejection of the Bush doctrine, the U.S. found itself in 2008 facing the biggest economic disaster since the great recession. The collapse was so stark, so sudden, and so unavoidable that several of America’s largest and most venerable financial institutions collapsed overnight. The recession in America also caused a global recession, as liquidity dried up, debts got called in, and entire nations went bankrupt.
This blow to Americans’ confidence would provide fertile ground for doubt, resentment and rebellion. It quickly became apparent that the economic status quo that existed before the war and the recession was giving way to a ‘new normal.’ That new normal saw a country limping along, experiencing, very slow economic growth amidst massive economic dislocation. The Federal Reserve used every trick at its disposal to ward off total catastrophe. It was successful in its aim, although the resulting ‘Franken-economy’ it created began to resemble a monster that moved and walked, but was somehow strangely also dead.
To wit; even though employment ‘recovered,’ labor force participation dropped to a thirty year low. People came back to jobs that payed less, offered fewer benefits and demanded more of their labor. The American worker was hailed by economists for her increasing productivity – although to most workers it just seemed like pay cut. Never had industrial performance and the state of the labor market seemed less congruent; and this strained an unspoken assumption about the trickle-down benefits of capitalism.
The twin monsters of insulted national pride and injured economic prospects began to foment a visceral, growing resentment to the economic and political establishment that first found expression in the Tea Party (on the right) and the Occupy Wall Street movement (on the political left). Both movements were essentially defeated – the former was coopted by the Republican Party, and the latter was crushed by the police (at the bidding of ‘liberal’ elected officials).
The pressing unanswered question of why Wall Street got bailed out while Main Street floundered was never successfully answered either by a Republican Congress or a Democratic White House. The mid-term elections of 2011 promised to bring about major changes as a Tea Party insurgency came to power in congress. However, the insurgency did not prove strong enough to enact its agenda – slashing government debt and spending on entitlements, and reducing regulatory burdens on small businesses.
Not able to advance its’ own agenda, The Republican Congress settled for a role as a spoiler caucus, mainly concerned with preventing the Obama Administration from putting its’ own proposals forward. Over the past six years, the Congress has done practically nothing in the way of helping the American people out of the mess they are in. The lack of commitment to a national project for reconstruction seemed strange in a country that had just demanded such brave sacrifice from its warriors.
The political impasse stymied American progress, and extended the economic recession beyond its reasonable shelf life. Amidst the doldrums of economic and political stagnation, Donald Trump’s bold rhetoric, a stark departure from the normal fare, seemed to be a strong wind. It didn’t really matter whether that wind was blowing America forwards or backwards – towards a safe harbor or further out to sea. At least, for the first time in six years, there seemed to be some movement. When one is stuck in the same place for what seems like an eternity, even going backwards can seem like making progress.
Along came Trump, testing the political frontiers, boldly going where no politician of either party dared go before. Donald Trump was not a polished politician, and proved not to be afraid to voice what many people were thinking, even if the rhetoric was somewhat impolitic at times. He railed against illegal immigration because of its’ dilutive effects on American labor – but couched the debate in ethnic terms that the man on the street could easily digest. Trump complained about a lopsided trade arrangement with China that over the past thirty years has seen American manufacturing all but vanish – but couched it in ‘us vs. them’ terms that were easily made into media sound-bites.
It is clear that Donald Trump is a masterful salesman, especially when he is selling himself. He tells the buyer what she wants to hear, and promises he’s the only one who can deliver. He engages in what some might call tawdry rhetorical wars with his critics and political adversaries. It has all made for great theater. Trump might not be right on all the issues, but he sure is entertaining.
But perhaps Trump’s greatest asset – and the factor that has accounted most for his rise in the polls – is Trump’s ability to externalize America’s faults. It is not so much that he is attempting to restore the idea of American exceptionalism to prominence. No, his mission is much simpler. He merely seeks to place the blame on someone else. The reason why we’re not doing well folks, is because the Chinese are beating us; or it’s the Mexicans; or it’s the Muslims. Get rid of all those people, and we’ll be back in the saddle.
This is a message that holds deep appeal for many people who are faced with personal challenges they have not yet figured out how to overcome. In Trump’s moral philosophy – if that is what it can be called – it is in our stars and not ourselves that we are knaves.