America has a problem, and it goes by the name of Donald J. Trump. It masquerades as a brash anti-establishment businessman from New York, but that is merely a surface act. It was born in the halls and offices of Washington, D.C., raised on the couches of the Koch brothers, and refined at the dinner tables of Sheldon Adelson and Paul Singer. It is not a single dangerous man running in a single crucial election, though many people would prefer to believe it is. Rather, it is a deep systemic flaw by which millions of Americans have come to feel written off by their representative government, left behind by a wave of economic development that brought fierce growth to some regions and total stagnation to others, and wronged by the constitutional mechanisms that they thought were in place to protect them from such a situation.
Into this perfect storm of economic disappointment, political disapproval, and intervention of big money has stepped Trump himself, the figurehead of the movement and the nightmare of the establishment. He leads the Republican primary race by miles, offering disillusioned Americans exactly what they think they want. This is, of course, a classic political maneuver, and Trump is a classic sly politician—weaving a brazen web of economic illusions, refreshingly frank speech, and populist propaganda.
Trump’s policies sound ideal to the agitated working-class voter, despite the fact that they are based on dated economic assumptions barely reflective of reality. He has catered to a harsh nativism that many assumed died with the last century, or at least was buried so deep under layers of political correctness and educated decency that it would never again be such a relevant political enterprise. He caught the establishment by surprise.
As a result of this, questions surrounding the Trump campaign thus far have mainly asked, with a certain amount of incredulity, “How is he winning?” The question that should be asked, instead, is “Why is he winning?”
The job of political pundits, party elites, and media figures should no longer be Trump-bashing—instead, they must begin the grand project of Trump-understanding. There is a large section of the population demanding the change he stands for, and they cannot, rather, they should not, be ignored.
Not to shy away from reality—Trump is an utterly unqualified candidate whose fantastical economic policies, infantile approach to foreign relations, reactionary xenophobia, and vulgar mannerisms would do unequivocal harm to America if he were to be elected president—but the time for turning disdainfully to Trump supporters and asking them how they can possibly bring themselves to vote for him, a common reaction to his success by his ground-level opposition, is long past. The time for loudly deeming him a morally unacceptable candidate and bemoaning the state of the American political conscience is also over.
It is time, instead, to recognize the fact that Trump has won broadly across the country, especially within the white working class, the demographic backbone of the Republican Party for the last half-century. The size of Trump’s support base has swelled to a degree that can no longer be dismissed as politically irrelevant, morally misled, or intellectually inferior. Perhaps, in certain circles of righteous indignation, the latter two designations will still be tossed around, but the first is empirically undeniable.
Trump’s supporters deserve answers. This is in no way a suggestion that we even consider barring Muslims from the United States, building a wall on the southern border, attempting to close the trade deficit, or shredding the Iran nuclear deal. It is, however, a suggestion that we evaluate the political and economic circumstances that are weighing so heavily on the working class that it has turned away from the establishment and toward a candidate as wildly unorthodox and internationally toxic as Trump.
For a start, the establishment can begin by recognizing that the Republican Party has become disproportionately representative of its elites. An enormous portion of Trump’s allure is that he is an outsider, supposedly beholden to no donors, lobbyists, or political precedents. In line with this, his supporters clamor for policies that seem to, on the surface, increase the economic well-being of the entire income spectrum, not just the donor class. Trump’s proposed methods for achieving this may be entirely impractical, but they may not be unjustified in their intent. In addition to this, and on a more general, idealistic level, Trump’s supporters want to be able to elect representatives accountable for everyone’s well-being, not just the well-being of the most generous campaign contributors. To Trump’s supporters, America has failed as a true republic, slipping instead into something of a moneyed oligarchy, and there they may not be wrong.
To be clear, a Trump presidency would be a disaster for America, a country that, despite the suggestion of phrases like “Make America Great Again,” is an unmatched military and economic power, and the designated leader of the free world. But the political sentiment that makes his presidency even somewhat plausible will not just disappear with his defeat in a national election. It will resurface over and over in elections, from the local level up, until it is remedied.
Change needs to come from the top, with the admission of Republican leaders that their party is out of touch with the interests of its voters. They need a comprehensive strategy for reestablishing trust with their base. If they play the situation with adequate sincerity and appropriate action, they may be able to salvage their party without handing over power to Trump, and they may even find that the crude nativism of this election is only a trendy appendage to the economic disillusionment of his supporters.
Trump does not just need to be defeated in this election. Rather, he is the personification of a deep political malaise in America that needs to be understood and fixed.
Featured Image by Nam Y. Huh / AP Photo