This post is part three of a three-part series detailing a series of events and circumstances that unfolded over the last 15 years, ultimately culminating in the election of the populist Donald J. Trump to the office of President of the United States. Each of these posts could be a novel, so many issues are mentioned without truly being dissected in the depth they may deserve. Equally, each event discussed has a historical significance and context that one could spend weeks exploring. These posts focus on the actions in recent history (the last 15 years) that resulted in a lack of confidence in the federal government, a lack of certainty regarding the security of individuals and families, and actively strive to explain, at least in part, why the call of populism proved effective in the 2016 American election.
Pt. 3: The Reflection
2001 saw a nation face an ideological foe and be dealt unimaginable loss. The United States has rarely felt more vulnerable, nor less secure than in the months that followed September 11th. Gun ownership rates rose. Uncertainty reigned. The best and worst of America were shown: as blood donations skyrocketed, so did hate crimes on individuals perceived to be of Middle Eastern descent. The American government’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003 respectively, were fuelled by a desire to take action against tyranny. The “War on Terrorism” formally began on October 7th, but the sense of being at war came at 9:03am on September 11th when a Boeing 767 crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Centre. The wars that followed cost over 4400 American lives, an approximate $5T USD, and left a domestic deficit of $458B USD. That burden will be felt by generations to come.
2007 and 2008 once again marked the end of an era, when the bubble surrounding the subprime home mortgage industry popped and the “Great Recession” almost swept a country under the waves. As blue collar workers and homeowners watched, powerless, bankers and politicians acted to stop the bleeding and plunge the country into four years of financial turmoil. The economy eventually recovered, but was changed – increased regulations, a changed political climate and a reduction in the use of labour in manufacturing left Middle America feeling the impacts of a shifting world underneath their feet.
Growing inequality and a lack of conceptual understanding surround the rate of change that would occur post-Recession fuelled resentment and the notion that the federal government did not, in fact, represent the best interests of the people. Post 9/11 concerns regarding physical security, financial uncertainty due to high rates of home foreclosures and job loss (with lower than expected rebounds in American Midwestern regions) and a lack of attention paid to those who appeared to have the greatest degree of suffering, the blue collar working class, drove home the principle that the newly elected Federal government’s role was not one that matched the interests of the people ,and that active steps should be taken to fix a system that actively disenfranchised entire swathes of the nation. Or, in lieu of fixing it, stall or dismantle an ability to make change to prevent further mcatastrophe.
America’s history is not one of bowing to perceptions of tyranny. Anti-establishment sentiment rose from the ashes of libertarian candidate Ron Paul’s campaign in the 2008 Republican primary elections. The movement, branding itself the “Tea Party”, was a mix of libertarian, conservative and evangelical ideologies, and identified as a far-right branch of the Republican party, whose small government message was identified with. The name was appropriate – members opposed increased taxation and regulation, in whatever form, as they felt they were being governed without appropriate representation. The movements first major success saw the narrative of the 2010 Congressional midterm elections dominated by Republican gains in the house, the senate, state houses, state senates and governorships. The enthusiasm behind the movement was evident, as Republican voter turnout far exceeded that of Democratic supporters.
Examples of regulatory burden, such as the national health care bill passed by Democrats, were demonized, and supporting legislators were branded as traitorous. Rhetoric shifted focus from reducing regulatory oversight to attacking specific examples of “government overreach” by those in power – namely, members of the national Democratic party and President Barack Obama’s administration. In media and opposition messaging, high ranking officials within the party began to be used as scapegoats and lightening rods to represent the message at large – An example: the implementation of a national health care system, complex and comprehensive in it’s coverage, was colloquially branded Obamacare. Attacking examples of overreach became popular with supporters and media groups, as it allied itself with the core messaging of the movement: those in power do not represent your interests.
Following an inevitable path, demonization of policies lead to the demonization of politicians. President Obama became the figurehead for criticism. Disagreement with the Tea Party Movement’s tactics or prose began to be associated internally with disagreement about the guiding principle behind the movement. Battle lines were drawn between declared voting blocs. Supporters of one party viewed supporters of the other as delusional, as if they simply could not understand the reality they lived in. Ultimately, this was true – economic growth, unemployment and anxiety levels were lower overall in largely urban and democratic areas. Neither side of the political spectrum could fully see the perspective of the other, as their daily struggles were vastly different. A downturn in manufacturing did not affect a graphic designer in San Francisco the same way it did a blue collar worker in Elkhart.
In an environment where lines of communication between parties became about singular points of contention, where both parties felt the other failed to represent their interests, and where Americans felt threatened by perceived tyranny, it becomes easy to trace the rise of a demagogue. A true political outsider who embodied the mandate that was so desired, Donald Trump’s ascension (or rather descent down an escalator) was reflective of what he represented. His actions were viewed as no worse than those that were likely taken by high ranking Democrats. The famous line “I could shoot someone in the middle of the street and I wouldn’t lose any votes” was no reflection of love for the man, but of hatred for the system that had kept Middle America underfoot for years. He represented change – and ultimately, that is what was wanted above all else.
Donald John Trump will be the 45th President of the United States of America not because he is beloved, but because insecurity and vulnerability drove Middle America to seek change. A world where terrorism lurks, opportunity is snuffed and financial meltdowns are likely to occur at any second, the image painted by the New York City native throughout his campaign, is one that fits in the narrative developed since the inauguration of Barack Obama. The fear and insecurity felt by the American Heartland, beginning with the erosion of confidence in 2001 and further degradation in 2008, lead them to seek what they felt was representative of their needs and desires. But the winds shifted and a campaign of substance became one of rhetoric, of malice. Within that maelstrom, a man rose to claim power who embodied not what was wanted, but simply was not what was so opposed: government. It was not nationalism or populism that drove voters, but a distrust of those in power and a desire to see a system upended.
If the elected government had previously not appropriately represented the interests of half of a nation, perhaps it is best they were ousted. But there is little guarantee that the incoming administration will offer what is desperately sought. Only time will tell if the demagogue has the capacity to shoulder the burden of the common man after all.