America's Toxic Political Culture and the Rebirth of Demagoguery
“Terrifying” and “acrimonious” might be the two best words that describe the 2016 election thus far. The mere possibility that the American people might actually elect someone as hateful and unhinged as Donald Trump is a ready source of fear and anxiety for decent human beings in general and for minority groups in particular. For Donald Trump's supporters, his rhetoric is not baseless; it’s an expression of the frustration they have been feeling for decades, as the world economy steadily began to leave them and their communities behind, and as demographic shifts result in an America that is less and less recognizable to them. (Read: America is becoming less white, and this is terrifying for Trump supporters.) However repugnant these viewpoints might be to (hopefully) most Americans, especially those on the left end of the political spectrum, the signature of a Trump supporter is that of an angry, fearful and most-often uninformed white male. The key part here is “uninformed,” as it is only in an exceedingly information-free environment that someone like Donald Trump could succeed. To be blunt, any support for someone like Donald Trump indicates that political dysfunction has finally metastasized into the electorate itself, and is indicative of a genuine crisis in American democracy. A crisis of rationality, a crisis of facts, and of the place of reality in politics. Most particularly, this is a crisis of a fact-free political culture.
For much of these past 25 years, it was possible for the American public to blame their elected officials for the problems plaguing our political apparatus: with an intransigent Congress, the endless politicization of tragedy, seemingly endless conflict in the Middle East, the incredibly divisive 2000 election, and the chronic scandals of President Bill Clinton, it is more than fair to say that Americans have seen no end of political dysfunction in that period. As for young Americans, all we have ever known is political dysfunction, not to mention a supremely unstable international political reality. While we elected people who went on to muck about or even do harm, there was solace in the fact that these politicians all presented the same familiar face, the face of generic friendliness combined with a down-to-earth, I’m-just-like-you facade.
We’ve since developed a trope of American politicians attempting to present themselves as paragons of virtue while engaging in ethically-questionable horse-trading behind the scenes. This a trope which has largely allowed us to absolve ourselves of responsibility as a voting public. If hypocrisy and empty campaigning is so rife in our system to the point that all politicians are cut from the same soiled cloth, then what were we to do? We assume that politicians are indifferent to the plight of their constituents, unless their election prospects begin to dim. With the advent of highly-Gerrymandered safe districts, even this does not seem to be much of an inducement to action. Many political leaders can rest assured that their reelection is all but certain. Politicians do not care, and cannot be made to care. Our political culture might be summarized as: “Why should we care when it won't make any difference anyway.”
Into this environment of unbridled cynicism and indifference enters Donald J. Trump. A brash, narcissistic bigot completely unwilling to abide by traditional politics seems to some to be the best prospect available in some time. While his poll numbers have begun to drop in the light of some particularly egregious outbursts, there is still a highly vocal minority which seems utterly unfazed. It should not be surprising that millions of Americans do not seem to care about Trump's frequent lies and obfuscations. After all, it is a consensus that American politicians are just not honest. A scary truth is that Donald Trump, no matter how repugnant, thoroughly resonates with Americans who feel threatened by changing demographics and a globalized economy. Trump isn't so much an indication that we have finally reached a fever pitch of political insanity, a point when no one seems to care about facts anymore, but a flashing neon sign with the words “THIS IS GOING TO SUCK.”
Truth and rationality normally provide inoculation against demagoguery in politics. Considering the primary tactic of a demagogue is to convince key portions of the population that only they can defend against the ills plague their society, a reality-check undermines their fearmongering. In the case of Trump, the list of supposed threats is long: Mexican immigrants, Muslims, ISIS, vague threats to “law and order”, and naturally the agenda of the leftist-elitist intelligentsia.
A cursory understanding of the facts reveals that these anxieties are based on nothing but a fear of the present and future, and wistful nostalgia for the past. His supporters do not seem to care about the truth or falsity of Trump's statements, and who could blame them? American politics has been steeped in dishonesty for so long that many voters have lost the ability to compare apples to oranges and figure out which is more rotten. A recent national poll found that twice as many voters consider Trump to be the more honest candidate when compared to Clinton. This is surprising, given Trump’s deplorable score on truth according to PolitiFact. Trump is the natural consequence of a political culture which has placed such a low emphasis on truth for so long. In a very real sense, truth and accuracy have no place in American politics any longer. There is no meaning in American politics. If that seems a little nihilistic, then perhaps that is appropriate. Trump's depiction of American and the world is that of a brutal, red-in-tooth-and-claw hellscape where “regular Americans” have been disrespected and sabotaged by their elitist leaders.
Trump's success in the Republican primary was the source of much confusion among pundits and general citizens. There was first the increasingly desperate denial, followed by equally desperate questions as to how it happened. Really, this turn of events should not have been surprising. In truth, we chose Donald Trump. While only Republican primary voters bear direct responsibility for the selection and elevation of Donald Trump, it is our political culture which led to his viability as a candidate. Even a basic dedication to the truth and a belief in its importance would have spelled the end of his campaign almost immediately; only when truth has no value can a serial and flagrant liar achieve anything approaching success.
Other factors, of course, also played into his success, principally the indifference of political elites to the plight of communities left bereft of economic opportunity in the wake of a globalized world, and the unresolved racial anxieties which have played this country since its inception. At the same time, all those factors can also be traced back to our broken political culture. Without a dedication to honesty and fair-dealing, Republicans could distract their constituents from the growing economic and social chaos in their communities by pointing fingers—at excessive government regulation, at invasive immigrants, and unfair business practices on the part of foreign competitors (the Japanese in the 80s, then increasingly China, as Trump is fond of saying). As for racial tensions, one would hope that an honest accounting of the facts (such as emphasizing that, indisputably, the criminal justice system and police disproportionately target African Americans) would marginalize those making dog whistle arguments which rely upon the implicit assumption that racial problems have nothing to do with white supremacy and everything to do with the refusal of minority communities to fix themselves. Of course, these are the same talking points which Trump has adopted, but instead of using them as a bulwark against voter dissatisfaction, he was turned them into the basis of mass-scale outrage, and fuel for his campaign. Again, this strategy would not be possible were it not for a deep indifference to this little thing called “reality.”
Despite feelings of powerlessness and despair, we, as American voters, cannot be coerced. Instead of picking the lesser of the two evils offered to us by a broken party system, we can reject any evil at all, refusing to vote in elections as a form of protest, depriving politicians of the legitimacy they need to rule. Instead of settling for sponsored content and biased fluff pieces, we can only give our money to news outlets which make uncovering truth and accuracy a part of their mission statement. (Yes, we ought to consider the horrifying possibility of paying for the news again.) We can engage in political debates with our fellow citizens predicated upon reason and facts, rather than raw emotion and vitriol. Whatever means we use, our responsibility as voters in an allegedly free, democratic society is to insist upon the fair accounting of facts, truth from our politicians, and genuine investigative reporting from our news media.
Right now we are asleep at the wheel and careening towards a cliff. Trump isn’t the first major demagogic candidate the United States has ever seen, but the rotten political culture we have today is fertile ground for him and his ilk. It is comforting to imagine that, after this election, we will never see someone like him again. That is unfortunately wishful thinking. The orange-skinned, toupee-wearing genie will not go back into the bottle unless we, as citizens of a democracy and the ultimate masters of our political system, actually resolve to begin acting as such again.
TL;DR: Donald Trump's electoral success is not a fluke, but a manifestation of America's toxic political culture. This political culture has fostered an environment of cynicism and dishonesty which has and will continue to undermine American democracy, and it is up to the American public to work to counter it. Failure to do so will have dire consequences in the future.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of other Arbitror contributors or Abitror as a whole.
Photo: “SOOC.,” originally taken by Knar Bedian for Flickr with a CC BY-SA 2.0 Liscence. Link: https://www.flickr.com/photos/hyekab25/5054568206/