As an anthropologist who has studied the human condition for more than 35 years, I've learned that there is a thin line that separates humor from horror, tolerance from bigotry, and order from chaos. If you don't pay careful attention to the social forces that shape your world, it is very easy to suddenly find yourself in a space in which humor has been transformed into horror, tolerance has been exchanged for bigotry and order has changed into chaos.
In America we find ourselves teetering on that thin line. Donald Trump, a real estate billionaire and the reality television star of The Apprentice is one step from the Presidency of the United States. Having meandered our way onto a profound social, political, economic and climatic precipice, we may soon find ourselves slipping into a fetid, chaotic and all-encompassing social swamp.
How did we get to this point?
When it comes to the rise of Mr. Trump, there is no shortage of knee-jerk commentary, emotional hand wringing, and over-the-top bloviating. Writers have decried Mr. Trump's ignorance of the US Constitution, his obliviousness to the social and cultural complexities of foreign and domestic policy, his penchant for linking politics to conspiracy theories that make President Obama a Muslim born in Kenya and Rafael Cruz, Senator Ted Cruz's father, a co-conspirator in President Kennedy's assassination. Let's add to that ample evidence of Mr. Trump's sexism, his homophobia, his insensitivities to the physically challenged, his racism and his Islamophobia. In a world of Trick or Trump all Muslims become dyed-in-the-wool terrorists and Mexicans are feared as killers and rapists. In a world of Trick or Trump filthy, infectious others must be swept away like garbage. In that world, we must purge America of the immigrant scourge. Ban Muslims from entering the US. Build a wall to keep Mexicans on their side of the border and have the Mexican government pay for it. Keep the zombies out!
How has Mr. Trump managed to ride the wave of this know-nothing rhetoric to become the presumptive presidential nominee of the GOP? For me, there are four elements--some obvious, some less obvious--that have produced Trick or Trump in America.
1. The Impact of Income Inequality: Once the foundation of our economy, the middle class is shrinking. People are fed up with a political system that Wall Street and special interests control, resulting in policies that have increased income inequality.
"They don't care about us and now we don't care about them."
"They" are corrupt politicians who say one thing and do another--all in the interest of enriching themselves. Millions of Mr. Trump's supporters like the fact that he is not a career politician.
"He tells it like is," they like to say, especially when he talks about how bad trade deals have resulted in the loss of millions of good American jobs. Mr. Trump connects with this hurting population of working class and lower-middle class Americans.
2.The Power of Celebrity Culture: In a previous blog, I suggested that Mr. Trump owes much of his success to the ubiquity of celebrity culture in America. Our society worships at the temples, among many others, of Brad Pitt, Angelia Jolie, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. Mr. Trump understands the allure of celebrity in contemporary culture and knows how to put on a show--his political rallies are organized to manipulate the myth of celebrity to create messages that extend his political reach. In contemporary American society you cannot underestimate the political power of celebrity culture..
3.Business is the answer: In the wake of more than a generation of Reaganomics, many Americans believe that the key to any kind of success can be found through no-nonsense business models. Private is good. Public is bad. These days many public officials believe that you can apply business models to solve any and all social problems--poverty, heath disparities, and unemployment. In America business models are now used to shape both private and public higher education. From my vantage as a educator in the classroom, these models do not fit higher education. As a consequence they are eroding the intellectual quality of university life, transforming our institutions into trade schools that process people rather than train young minds for critical thought. For his part, Mr. Trump describes himself as the ultimate business success--he is rich, lives rich, and has investments all over the world. He knows how to make deals. He knows how to get things done. He is competent and says our elected public officials are incompetent. He says he will make America great again.
Any superficial analysis of the claim that business models are panaceas for our social and economic ills quickly reveals that these assertions are bogus. In Trick or Trump social life, a society in which artfully constructed myths create false realities, the world is turned upside down. It doesn't matter that Mr. Trump's business record is uneven--to be charitable--or that his Mexican border wall will never be built, let alone paid for by the Mexican Government. In a Trick or Trump world people want to believe in fantasy; it makes them feel better--so much so that millions of citizens have voted for Mr. Trump. Having no antidotes for the mythic poisons that Mr. Trump has willingly spread, his GOP rivals have fallen by the wayside and The Donald is now the presumptive GOP nominee for President of the United States.
4.Educational Failure: The rhetoric of Mr.Trump can only take hold in a society that is ill informed, a society in which a sizeable percentage of the population lacks the tools that enable them to separate fiction from fact and fantasy from reality. Last year students at Texas Tech University produced a video in which they asked their fellow students if they could name the Vice-President of the United States. Most of them didn't know that Joe Biden has been our Vice-President for more than seven years. When asked to provide details about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, however, they quickly provided detailed and nuanced answers. Our college students, who are the core of our social future, usually don't read too much and are sometimes ignorant about the whys and wherefores of current events. And yet, they too, are subject to the allure of celebrity. Given our celebrity-focused orientation to the world, is it any wonder that millions of Americans support the candidacy a person who skillfully suggests that Mexicans are rapists, that President Obama is a foreign born Muslim and that Raphael Cruz was a co-conspirator in the assassination of John F Kennedy?
Xenophobia, misogyny, Islamophobia, crude behavior, walled borders, and The Art of the Deal will not magically restore what 45 years of failed social and economic policies have produced in America: expanded economic inequality, the spread of racism, the ongoing presence of dysfunctional government, and the life-threatening specter of climate change.
In these troubled times, we need nothing less than an education revolution in which we learn again to respect the search for the truth, in which scholars, freed from the shackles of business-modeled universities, help our young people to train themselves to seek knowledge. So trained they will be able to separate fact from fiction and reality from fantasy. So trained they will be able to not only find a good paying job, but also embark on a path toward wisdom.
If we fail to invest significantly in our educational institutions, if we fail to respect the pursuit of knowledge, we ensure the ascendancy of people like Mr. Trump. We also sentence our children and grandchildren to the misery of the social swamp.
The choice is ours to make. Will we choose to condemn ourselves to the chaos of a Trick or Trump world?