Although he probably won't get the GOP nomination, Donald Trump is influencing American politics in a substantial way. The Republican campaign in 2016 will partially be a product, in both style and ideology, of what Trump has wrought. What is the basis of his popularity?
The key component is the matchup between our changing civilization and Trump's discourse. In the second decade of the 21st century, America is experiencing enormous social shifts. These include: the legalization of gay marriage and acceptance of a wider range of sexuality, women taking a wider role in society (including now, the military), historic numbers of immigrants from third world countries, holding the police to account for possibly the first time in American history, and above all the impending reduction of white Americans to minority status.
The group most put out by this is white males, no longer having a given and high position, unspoken but universally recognized. A potent symbol of despair, and the most powerful evidence of their deeply-rooted fears, is the unexpected, dramatic increase in suicide among this cohort of our population. As a Salon article noted, "the mortality rate for middle-aged whites with no more than a high school education actually increased by 22.3 percent between 1999 and 2013. This increase correlates closely with educational levels: Over this same time, the mortality rate of middle-aged whites with at least a BA degree fell by 24 percent, which is consistent with the rate of decline in mortality in the rest of the population, both in the United States and in other developed nations."
Trump, drawing on instinct rather than erudition, understands these trends better than anyone else on the right, and has responded in a way that makes him a formidable force. A recent New York Times article by Thomas Edsall argued that, "Trump appeals to the anger, discontent and sense of entrapment that plague contemporary voters...." The piece also quotes Greta Van Susteren, that, "For less well-educated white men, the last eight years have been humiliating. They have been emasculated by economic factors, unable to earn what they need -- the jobs they want they perceive going to immigrants." Trump then "offers a chance to have his sense of manhood restored. He conveys enormous confidence. Voting for Trump feels empowering...." Another Times article, analyzing Trump's use of language, concluded, "While many candidates appeal to the passions and patriotism of their crowds, Mr. Trump appears unrivalled in his ability to forge bonds with a sizeable segment of Americans over anxieties about a changing nation, economic insecurities, ferocious enemies and emboldened minorities...." Thus, of all his issues the one that scores heaviest with his supporters is attacks on illegal aliens. This encapsulates their foremost fears: decline and loss of status, the rise of a non-white presence, strangers in our midst.
There is precedence for this. The 1920 U.S. Census reported that a majority of Americans now lived in cities, rather than in small towns and rural districts Millions took this news very hard, that same sense that they were losing dominance, and lashed out at foreign influences: immigrants from Ireland and Southern and Eastern Europe, Catholics and Jews, city dwellers.
Yet today, who, above all, is the foremost symbol of all these changes, denoting the rise of a new America every time his foreign-sounding name is uttered? Barack Obama, of course. In an earlier piece, I argued that the profound antagonism to the president stemmed, not just from his race, but from what he symbolized. "Above all, Barack Obama, as president of the United States, represents a changing America", a more inclusive America with no single, acknowledged majority caste, but clusters of groups--racial, sexual, ethnic--interacting with each other, often gloriously, sometimes with anger.
And what was Trump's first big issue, long before the presidential season started? Birtherism, the claim that Barack Obama, harbinger of a new land, is in fact, not really an American. To this day, Trump is still playing with this idea. In a speech before the Republican Jewish coalition, he slyly implied this claim again, asking why the president doesn't refer to "radical Islamic terrorism": "He refuses to use the term. There's something going on with him that we don't know about." Years ago, Trump understood deeply the issues roiling one part of white America, spoke to this group, expressed their fears and lambasted their enemies.
Donald Trump is many things, highly improvisational and hence all over the political landscape in his stated views. But the core of his appeal is a ridiculous fear of the one America replacing another: his slogan "Make America Great Again" means discard the new and restore the old. This never happens: we are an amalgam of past, present, and aspirations. Always were, always will be.
Trump represents the last spasm of a group foolishly and needlessly on the defensive, and he expresses this in the nastiest of ways. As in past such episodes, we will move past this, but the ride won't be pleasant.