March 8, 2016

The Trump Phenomenon: Living Through Interesting Political Times

Donald Trump art

The rise of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, his popularity among voters, the degree to which establishment Republicans are concerned about him, and the overall implications of his candidacy for both the Republican party and U.S. politics as a whole have been generating considerable buzz. Nearly every form of politically-oriented media has addressed these issues again and again. Some appear to regard the Trump phenomenon as a passing fad; others see it as the approach of Armageddon. I think we can agree that these certainly are some interesting political times.

With the amount of attention the Trump phenomenon has been receiving for the last few months, I recognize that at least two things are undeniable. First, there is no chance of me coming up with anything you haven't already read, seen, and heard countless times. Second, you have probably reached the limits of your attention span for reading, seeing, and hearing about it. With the sort of media saturation we've had, such fatigue is perfectly understandable.

Why then, do I even bother? This is not only a fair question but it is one for which I don't have much of an answer. I still somehow manage to find the subject interesting, and I have found that writing about it helps me figure out what I think about it. That is, I am not writing about Trump because I have terribly strong opinions on him or the meaning of his candidacy but because I am still trying to figure out what I think about it.

I think it is fair to say that the candidacy of Mr. Trump has impacted the political process. While we can only speculate on what the Republican presidential debates would have been like if he had never entered the race, it seems fairly obvious that they would have been less likely to have the circus atmosphere they have had. In watching the most recent one, I couldn't help thinking that this is the sort of thing I might expect to see from a once-great society in serious decline. It was embarrassing.

We have certainly had outbreaks of the crazies during Republican debates in previous years. Anybody remember a stage of several candidates raising their hands to indicate that they did not believe in evolution? And yes, we've had some brief moments of crazy during previous Democratic debates too. But we haven't seen anything quite like what we are seeing currently, and I suspect that we have Trump to thank for that for the most part.

I caught an episode of The Rachel Maddow Show the other night. After watching it regularly for a couple years, I haven't watched it in some time. While I often enjoyed her interviews, I found her manner to be grating and came to recognize that much of what I was watching was propaganda. Still, I was curious about her take on Trump. I had hoped that she might have some insight into the reasons for Trump's popularity among voters. I still think that there is much we should be learning from the Trump phenomenon, and I am interested in learning what I can.

Unfortunately, it was immediately clear that Maddow's take on Trump had gone off the deep end long ago and I was just late to the pool. She went on and on about the "violence" at Trump rallies, interspersing clips from recent Trump rallies with clips from Alabama Gov. George Wallace's presidential campaign in the late 1960s. She referred to "brown shirts," the Klan, and neo-Nazi skinheads repeatedly. Frankly, I do not see this sort of drivel as any less odious than much of what I have seen on the more inflammatory offerings of Fox "News." The tendency to compare whichever political candidate one does not like to Hitler has grown tiring.

Watching Maddow's show did help me realize that I am looking for two things with regard to the lessons of the Trump phenomenon. First, I want to understand those who support him and why. I want to know more about the source and nature of their anger. I am not interested in stoking fears of them, shaming them, or demonizing them. They are my neighbors, and I'd much rather work to understand the nature of their grievances.

Second, I'd like to learn more about how (or if) the Trump phenomenon is likely to affect the future of U.S. politics. Are we moving toward the American Idol-ization of politics or toward something more along the lines of Idiocracy? It certainly feels like we have turned a corner and that changes could be on the horizon. Maybe Mr. Trump is just a fluke, but I find this unlikely. And so, I am interested in the question of what implications the Trump phenomenon has for future campaigns, debates, and the like. In any case, it does seem that we are living through some interesting political times.