How Did We Allow Trump to Happen?
Yes, Trump lost the election. But he got 74 million votes: That means there is still work to do. There has been much analysis of Trump –his style, inelegance, crudity, and manipulation. But there has been considerably less analysis of the audience side of the relationship. What is it about our culture that allowed Trump to thrive and be elected in the first place?
I’m concerned about and threatened by the general intellectual (rather anti-intellectual) nature of our citizenry. Trump was a historical mistake, an anomaly, a monster from another planet, the trickster capable of fooling the creatures that grow in democracies.
Our democracy, and the Constitution that warrants it, is designed to manage and control differences. That’s what systems of control do. Political cultures are composed of differences and those differences can be exaggerated and out-of-control with asymmetrical power relations, or they can mollify differences. And the history of our democracy is one of expanding inclusion; that is, demagogues like Trump are held in check while the legitimate political class tries to understand the makeup of the electorate.
The citizenry of a democracy is supposed to hold primary agency and need to be prepared given effective educational and socializing systems. In a word, too many Americans (shall we say 74 million of them) were easily duped or at a minimum failing the cognitive requirements of sound political decision-making. I typically ask someone who voted for Trump what it was they were imagining. Given his history of corruption, fabrications, narcissism, and moral turpitude what justified a vote for Trump. Usually, and this is the case with the Christian right also, they recognize Trump’s character but do not care. How did we develop into a political culture that does not care about respect for others and generally moral behavior? There are three areas that must change in order to avoid future “Trumps.”
First, our polarization stretches us to opposite poles of opinion. The guardrails protecting us from extreme language and exaggerated points along with poor evidence-based reasoning have come tumbling down. People express themselves more extremely and make it impossible to find common intersections of agreement. Polarization is not the same as disagreement. The participants in our political culture must learn to disagree and maintain respect for an opponent that is an adversary and not an enemy.
Secondly, we have damaged one of our founding creeds which is pluralism. Our anxieties over cultural differences continue to deepen even in the face of calls for diversity in a society replete with messages about respect for differences. Structural discrimination is a continuing problem and will be dependent on civic practices of persuasion over coercion and toleration rather than resistance.
Finally, I have a gut feeling that our educational system is failing many students in the basic practices of democracy especially argumentation and decision-making. There should be a redoubled effort to return to teaching strategies of rhetorical practices and the benefits of evidence-based reasoning.
Teaching public life and the opportunities for an increased unity of public goals is a direct response to the threats of Donald Trump and will guarantee a citizenry prepared to resist the demagogic aspirations of some future Trump.