So now we have a decidedly unconventional President-elect. Donald J. Trump, despite having held no public office of any kind, despite being buffeted by one controversy after another concerning his behavior, ethics and civic duties, despite his offering no discernible policy positions except vowing to tear up agreements and regulations, and despite spending a bewildering amount of time before crowds blathering about his poll numbers, has defied the odds and defeated heavily favored Hillary Clinton to become our 45th president. Bravo.
How did this happen?
Of course, in this immediate aftermath, theories abound. Maybe, just maybe, some consensus understanding will emerge down the road. But for now, we have many explanations – the Democrats running an unpopular, dynastic candidate; the smears against that candidate; blatant and latent misogyny; African Americans’ lack of enthusiasm for the Democratic choice; a tainted primary process sidelining the popular and populist Senator Bernie Sanders; “hidden” Trump votes; Russian meddling; the historic challenge candidates face when following a president from their own party; FBI Director James Comey’s ominous insinuations about further email disclosures (which were pulled, after damage was done, shortly before the election).
All of the above theories, and at least as many others, have kernels of truth. But I am putting my money on two rationales.
First – Trump tapped into the strongest strain of outsider enthusiasm to bubble up in a long time. By tapping into the justifiable anger of working-class, mostly white voters across the nation’s industrial midsection, and making vague promises about bringing back outsourced jobs, Trump was able to add Rust Belt states –Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania and – who expected this?! – Wisconsin – to the usual collection of reliably red states. These voters have legitimate grievances against modern economic realities of globalization and the failure of this country to properly prepare displaced workers for success in other realms. They wanted to deliver a message, a punch in the nose, to the established system and its keepers, and deliver they did. Putting aside the fact that trusting in a self-dealing, big-talking charlatan like Trump is a dubious strategy, one thing is clear – they rejected the establishment candidate, Clinton, and here we are.
Second (and more significant in my mind) – Americans have been the subjects of a 35-year experiment in the denigration of expertise and facts. This is a long-term Republican enterprise – that much is well documented. Despite the fact that so many Republican leaders, appalled by Trump’s bullying, bragging about sexual assault, and racist rhetoric, either pulled their support or went silent on their standard bearer, the party must take credit/blame for this cause of his triumph. How can I say this? Let’s review.
Since the 1980s, the Republican Party, with varying degrees of success, has promoted blatant untruths to such a shocking degree that many of us have an increasing difficulty telling the truth from the spin, lies and bullshit. Here are just a few examples. This is by no means an exhaustive list.
- Trickle-down economics – big tax cuts for the wealthy – will benefit everyone
- The government is the problem
- Al Gore bragged that he invented the Internet
- The estate tax is really the “death tax” and could strike anyone wishing to bequeath small estates
- George W. Bush is a genuine, horse-lovin’, brush-cuttin’ rancher – just the kind of down-home cowboy y’all would love to have a beer with
- John Kerry was not a decorated Vietnam war hero
- Evolution is “only a theory” and should compete in the classrooms with “intelligent design”
- Global warming is – you name it – not happening, beneficial, no big deal, caused by nature, a liberal conspiracy, a Chinese hoax
- Saddam Hussein’s Iraq has weapons of mass destruction
- Taking out Saddam will be a quick operation, followed by Iraqis embracing our imposed “democracy”
- Obama is coming for your guns
- Obama was born in Kenya
- Obama is Muslim
- Hillary Clinton is coming for your guns (that’s right, a repeat greatest hit!)
That’s enough of that for now. After we have been fed this kind of nonsense, through loud, corporate-sponsored bullhorns all these many years, is it any wonder that people have a blurred understanding of the difference between facts and spin? After years of mainstream media’s constant use of false equivalence – where facts are often given equal weight with opinion – is it any wonder that some of us grasp an opinion and hold it as fact, contrary evidence be damned? And is it any wonder that a fact-free candidate like Trump – offering hungry, genuinely disaffected citizens enticing promises and baseless attacks and conspiracy theories – can garner enough support to prevail?
To shed some more light on how we have come to this point, I offer three books.
First is Charles P. Pierce’s Idiot America. Pierce offers three great premises governing our modern, fact-challenged America.
- Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings or otherwise “moves units”
- Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough
- Fact is that which enough people believe; truth is determined by how fervently they believe it
The second is Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason. Her style is more earnest than Pierce’s, and she emphasizes different causes, but she also decries the steady devaluation of expertise, and the consequences for American society.
The third book’s title speaks for itself – Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit. In this short book, the author posits a difference between outright lying and speech that is delivered without regard to whether its content is true or false. Here’s a short interview with the author. I challenge you not to crack a smile at the Monty-Python-esque style of the interview. But had he called his book “The Bullying Bullshitter,” he might have been describing our President-elect, God help us!
The people have spoken. A bullying, misogynistic, self-dealing con man with absolutely no government experience will take over as the chief executive of the most powerful country in the world in January. The implications are enormous, as he will preside over a unified government – a hopelessly gerrymandered House of Representatives and a narrowly Republican Senate. If President Trump follows through on his promise to stock the Supreme Court with Scalia-like justices, the country will be solidly conservative and increasingly theocratic for a generation to come.
In the short run, I must note that Republicans may have finally achieved something in the making since the reign of House Majority Leader Tom Delay. People may have scoffed when Delay bragged about building a permanent Republican majority, but it sure looks like it may have arrived. The irony is that it has arrived on the back of a faux-populist party wrecker who has repulsed many in the Republican leadership, including the fence-riding Paul Ryan. The difficulty that Trump’s handlers had keeping him focused during debate season, and preventing him from launching into attacks and nonsensical Twitter wars, will be only a prelude, I fear, to a dangerous, erratic and risk-fraught presidency.
In the long run, I can’t avoid feeling that our great experiment in democracy in this great country may finally have run its course. From this vantage point, it is hard to see a way back to meaningful two-party, or a path to a more productive and inclusive multi-party system. The only way to arrive there, it seems to me, is a proper emphasis on education.
Failure to invest sufficiently in public education, and the tendency of theocratic-leaning school boards in certain red states to mingle faith with fact, are making the challenge to rebuild a well-informed, educated public more daunting than ever.
Our nation’s founders knew that you can’t have democracy without education. Here is a short collection of quotes from Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin supporting that assertion.
With our public so deeply divided, and so willing to accept empty promises and simplistic solutions to complex problems, I wonder how we can rebuild our democracy from its current broken, corporate-ruled state. That challenge grew all the steeper with the election results of November 7, 2016.