Donald Trump has built his legacy around mistrust. He categorically rejects and demonizes “the other,” and methodically ensures his listeners that he is the one to be trusted. The “other” can be business-as-usual politicians, entire foreign nations, Mexican immigrants, Muslims, both political parties, Rosie O’Donell, and especially the mainstream media. A simple response to Mr. Trump’s demonization is to say that he is factually incorrect: that Americans have nothing to fear; that the anger of his supporters is contrived rather than substantive.
However, I think we need to give serious consideration to some ways in which Mr. Trump is right. We must consider that half of our country found him more compelling that the candidate the Democrats had to offer. Many are rejoicing at his presidency; feeling hope for our future that they haven’t felt for many years. (I read one Facebook comment of a woman boasting that she introduced President Trump to her children as Jesus’ helper). I find it improbable that all of this enthusiasm stems from xenophobia and racism. I am here setting out to explore ways that Trump and his followers are onto something.
First, Mr. Trump is right to cast doubt on our faith in the mainstream media. Of course there are better and worse sources of news, and our president is not famous for nuance. But he’s right that the most popular and profitable sources are bad. FOXNews, CNN, and MSNBC are variations on the same theme: they troll for scandals to compete for advertiser’s dollars. During campaign season, you could rely upon CNN and MSNBC to provide non-stop coverage of Trump most recent scandals, and FOXNews for the same treatment of Mrs. Clinton’s. At points the channels seem to attempt even-handedness. But if you think that companies’ chief aim is to inform their viewers, look at the nature and the sheer number of advertisements that appear on their TV channels and websites. (A quick peak at all three sites just today showed an “Emily Bares All” link from FOXNews.com, a “Last Minute Cruise Deals are Right Here” link on CNN.com, and “1 Worst Carb After 50” from MSNBC.com). Clearly, these stations’ are after quantity of viewers rather than a well-informed viewership.
Next, Trump is right that the left-wing media is unfair to him and his supporters. Having myself concluded that Mr. Trump is unfit to lead a country, it’s a little hard for me to admit I think he has a case here, too. The problem is that the media’s dislike for the president leads to a mis-characterization of Trump Republicans. We hear that hate crimes are up since Trump’s election and can see from social media comments that racists seem to have become emboldened. But what of the rest of Trumps’s supporters? It seems that the mainstream media would rather paint Trump's followers as simple-minded bigots than confront their real-life problems. Let’s get into some of these problems.
For all Americans, there is reason to be concerned. Life as we knew it before World War II is past. For a couple generations now, we have been dependent on big corporations and big government to meet our needs. Having historically relied upon land, family, and neighbor, we now depend upon strangers up and down a dizzyingly complex supply chain. The industrial and agricultural revolutions have made life easier in some ways, but have served to displace and dis-employ. Our blue-collar populace went from poor but independent farmers, to middle class but dependent factory workers, to dependent non-workers. If I were in that position, and someone hearkened back to a brighter time in our history, I would listen.
Aside from taking our food production and factory jobs elsewhere, globalization has also brought the world’s problems into our living rooms. It is natural to feel overwhelmed by problems we cannot solve: ISIS, Syrian refugees, exploding sweatshops, Ebola. And there is more than one logical reaction to problems outside of our control. We can try to play a part in fixing those problems . This approach may lead to an even more overwhelmed feeling as our noblest local efforts are futile in attacking global problems. Or we can retreat. We can look homeward, concerning ourselves with the problems in our own families and towns. If I were overwhelmed by the constant barrage of world-wide problems, and at the same time couldn’t find meaningful work to support my own family, the claim of “America First” would feel like a welcome relief. Finally, someone with real power who’s talking in plain language about what matters to me.
The sentiment that Washington is working against rather than for Trump’s supporters is also understood. Politicians are out of touch with the realities of ordinary Americans. The Affordable Care Act is costing individuals too much. Corruption does abound.
So in comes Trump. His message is that all of the fears and misgivings people have are for good reason. He works to fuel those fears and misgivings; his supporters turn the misgivings into conspiracies (as in Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March are funded by Hamas). In establishing his mistrust-based movement, Trump doesn’t rely upon the media to mediate his message. He controls it himself. The message is himself. The answer to closing factories? Trump. The answer to a world community that has become too large? Trump. The answer to the soggy political swamp in Washington? Trump.
Of course, he's wrong. He is not the answer. He is a master manipulator who is getting what he wants from “ordinary Americans,” and casting the rest of us aside as non-trustworthy “losers.” His followers are mostly good folks, but they have misnamed their enemies and misplaced their trust. The problems we all face are resultant from the twin forces of capitalism and globalization, causing all us to rely upon the twin crutches of large companies and government aid. To think that our answer to these problems is found in a real estate investor/reality star-turned politician is foolhardy. But those of us who readily accuse Trump and his followers of a simplistic fear of otherness may be wise to consider whether others we fear have a point.