Left behind in a fast moving, ever changing world, many white working class Americans got pissed. Globalization and technological change hit hard into the lifestyle expectations of these blue-collar workers. Came the festering of discontent. It was an opportunity for a demagogue to arise.
In Eric Hoffer’s seminal work,True Believer, he asserts that the ideal convert to the appeals of a demagogue are the newly poor, those who perceive themselves as having lost some degree of previously held wealth and status. “The memory of better things is as fire in their veins.” Jobs shipped overseas; trade unions weakened; the flood of big money into politics due to Citizen’s United; and the unfathomable gap of income inequality are like gut punches to the working class. Over the course of forty years in America, the grievances of the white working class have merged closer to those ofless advantaged minority communities already well acquainted with socio-economic inequities.
A large segment of Americans have come to see themselves as forgotten. Examining more than 20 years of data,Gilens and Page found that the bottom 90% of income earners in America has basically zero influence on the making of public policies. The economic upper crust, business interests, and others who can afford lobbyists wield the big guns of influence. Money in the literal sense may not be able to speak, but for people who have lots of it in their pockets, they have a loud voice.
Not Just the Economy
Among the white working class, discontent has been fueled even more by cultural, technological and ideological forces thrust alongside economic tides of change.
Among the white working class, discontent has been fueled even more by cultural, technological and ideological forces thrust alongside economic tides of change. For many, the community landscape has dramatically transformed. People of different nationalities line the checkout counter of the stores. Strange languages are overheard. A seeming loss of traditional values and mores confront them.
Inside this emerging and unfamiliar social sphere, a new age of political correctness began to resonate. To the advocates of political correctness, it is a time of sensitivity to the plights of minorities and historically disadvantaged groups. To others more fixed on old rules and norms, it’s but another face slap wrought by cultural shifts. Why, a fellow can’t even tell a dirty joke without being called a racist or sexist. What’s the world coming to if a person can’t make fun of blondes or Mexicans or black people? What happened to the good ol’ days? Anxiety and resentment escalate through the discontented as new norms struggle to take shape. Xenophobia and racism come seeping out of the woodwork and into the open air.
Modern Media as a New Variable
The modern media’s remarkable power to shape and influence our beliefs and values is a new variable in the development of demagoguery. Today, unrestrained cable media channels, ubiquitous talk radio and social media platforms exploit discontent by pushingoutrage at such speed and frequency never imagined. This outrage sells like popsicles out of an ice cream truck on the 4th of July. Ratings or clicks soar toward greater profits. Social algorithms sharpen their knowledge of us. Reality television shows flourish. Advertisers sign on. Inclined to believe something is true? Flat earth? Autism producing vaccinations? Masking to prevent viral spread is a violation of your liberty? Just follow your outrage and click onward to confirm your beliefs.
This unimaginable media technology now inadvertently provides the infrastructure for rapid destruction of our ability to recognize what isaccurate and true. In an age of escalating misinformation our trust in politics and government, as well as in all spheres of society—business, tech, science and health care--is in jeopardy. Trump followers proclaim that it’s traditional media that flames hatred and lies while not-Trump followers exclaim, ‘Are you out of your mind, it’s the Trump media forces, such as Fox News.’ Alas, the power of media echo chambers. Alternate realities with alternate facts. Can we not help but lament the demise of the principles inherent in theFairness Doctrine?
The Demagogue Has Entered the Building
In this discordant American cultural landscape, Trump, on June 15, 2015, floated down an escalator to announce his run for the presidency. A fuse was lit that led toward a flash point where the absurd was to become normal. Scapegoats (devils) were tossed out for consumption. “Rapists and drug dealers are crossing over our borders. Countries of the world are taking advantage of us.” More recently, in a July 4thMount Rushmore speech, he gave liberal democrats remarkably long tails. No small wonder—they want to attack our liberty, overthrow our American Revolution, demand allegiance to their left wing fascist ideals, and not last, and not least, indoctrinate our children to hate America.
Pause to consider another ofHoffer’s insights: “Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil.” Immigrants, Muslims, offshoring of American jobs, U.S. national debt, the elite Washington establishment ad infinitum are served out as devils. Trump’s divisive, blame-oriented messages hit upon the deep cords of resentment among many of the working class. He stitches his devils together with fear mongering and seething indignation. As disenchanted crowds vent their rage, cohesion and purpose solidify among them.
Along the way in his progression toward the presidency, he offered an essential element in the demagogue’s formula for power making--hope. The beating hearts within the crowds sped and all became part of something greater than themselves. A movement to Make America Great Again. Never mind the nuances, the opaqueness of what exactly that means. Then comes the finishing touch: He, alone, can do the greatness making. I alone can fix it.
All of Trump’s reality tv show rhetoric included ingredients to spark more soul-stirring enthusiasm, engender a renewed sense of purpose and belonging in those who have been disenfranchised by a government that had turned its back on the average American. In this strange, spiritual uplifting, undercurrents of racism, xenophobia and sexism rise even further to the surface. The convenience of immigrants, minorities and the poor are not easily passed up as scapegoats for blood stirring. It’s much harder to scapegoat a funding billionaire or a super-pac than a brown-skinned immigrant. And the resulting heightening of racism works wonders to disrupt class solidarity and working alliances at the bottom of the income ladder.
To many of his followers Trump has become a surrogate combatant. He wields his verbal clubs against the police of political correctness, against the snubbing Washington establishment. His despicable attitudes are reframed as honest reactions to what his minions consider extremes of political correctness. Since so many of his followers feel pandered to by politicians, Trump acts like an atypical politician. They believe him to say what he means. Paradoxically, he appears trustworthy and becomes more trustworthy the more he shocks, intimidates and even lies. This holds true despite him having given people just as many reasons as other politicians to think that he's a "flip-flopper.” The fact that he's not saying things that you would expect a politician to say means that his supporters will be more likely to overlook and forgive his misstatements and assume he's actually a truth-teller. Yeah, it’s a little crazy making.
Paradoxes exist aplenty when it comes to the Trumpian phenomenon. A natural inclination to counter Trump’s lies and distortions is to present credible facts and utilize logical reasoning. We assume his followers will eventually say, ‘Ah-ha, I was wrong.’ And then, our world will once again normalize. Instead, we with exasperation and frustration observe his supporters become more solidified. Amplesocial research bears this paradoxical phenomenon out. We humans appear to be genetically geared to seek out information that confirms our beliefs and readily discount new information that contradicts our world views, especially within the context of tribal dynamics, that is, when we’ve divided ourselves into Us and Them. It’s called confirmation bias, a familiar term these days.
Basically, if you are a Trump supporter, the more I try to convince you Trump is a pathological, incompetent, irresponsible, immoral liar the more I’m, in all likelihood, going to strengthen your allegiance to him. You dig in your heels and I try harder to convince you that you’re an idiot and, likewise, you take defense and set about illustrating my wrong mindedness and we got a beautiful negative loop going, you dim-witted, brain dead, wanker you. Such internecine loops are predictable dynamics in inter-tribal conflicts.
Looking Past the Diatribe Into the Preconditions
The travesty of Trump does not lie solely in the deepening divisiveness that has gripped our country. It is in the failing, in great part, to appreciate and acknowledge the conditions that spawned him. There, within, may lie meaningful points of intervention. Although facts and credible information are essential for a culture to exist and go forward, the use of facts and logic alone to confront Trump and his phalanx of true believers is usually ineffective. Rather, it is best to spirit initiatives toward recognizing that when the demagogue is afoot, discontent was already festering in the body of the people. Listening to grievances and addressing those that have merit may be more effective than solely condemning and arguing with Trump followers.
People, by nature, need hope, purpose and opportunity. And they must trust that within our democratic system of checks and balances the rules for obtaining these values are fair. Can one not say, ‘I won’t accept the racist, sexist bullshit, but let us dialogue about the insecurities felt by so many?’ Are we prepared to recognize significantsocial disparities and injustices that have risen over the last four decades? And that have been extant for minorities since our country’s founding? The seeming arbitrariness and unfairness that has been experienced? How wealth and power has triumphed? How stagnant or declining real wages is the reality? How soaring CEO pay and the undermining of democracy by big money are the new norms? How media venues propagate our outrage so their profits soar? Yeah, maybe the system is rigged,the two parties blended together by their like dependence on big money. To where can people turn?
This may be an inherent truth, whether it be a world free of viral pandemic or not, that when citizens feel abandoned and opportunities for fulfillment are diminished, discontent foments and draws the demagogue forward. It would behoove all, the haves and the have nots, to acknowledge and address the disenfranchisement felt by so many Americans lest the spiraling down continues. One in which descent is apt to reach a conclusion that has been played out over the millennia, whereby there is a reckoning of great social turmoil, revolution and people say, Why didn’t I see it coming?