How a fragile and broken national psyche led to the Frankenstein’s monster of an out-of-control presidential candidate.
- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
How did we get here?
It is September 2016 and Donald Trump is one of two people who have a chance of being the next leader of the most powerful nation in the history of the world. Something in excess of four out of 10 Americans who are likely to vote support him and, according to a recent poll, his voters are more enthusiastic and engaged than those supporting his opponent, Hillary Clinton.
All this despite the fact that any objective analysis of the facts reveals the following: Trump has virtually no qualifications to be president, repeatedly failed as a businessman, has no history of public service, is the target of multiple investigations into possibly illegal activities, has regularly expressed racist and misogynist views throughout his career and during this campaign, and has deliberately and systematically reached out to groups that can only be described as “deplorable” — including white supremacists, anti-Semites, and other hate-mongers. Further, he has repeatedly expressed (including on Russian-state TV) his admiration for Vladimir Putin, a man who has systematically suppressed democracy in Russia, invaded his neighbors, scoffed at international law, and sought to undercut the interests of the United States. Worse, he has hired top aides who worked closely with the Moscow regime and sought to take advantage of a shockingly overt campaign by Russian intelligence to interfere in the U.S. election cycle.
Trump has repeatedly insulted and attacked the U.S. military and intelligence community, its leadership, and performance — while showing such utter contempt for the electorate that he has made no visible effort to come to understand America’s situation in the world or how foreign policy works. What is more, he has demonstrated his derision for the First Amendment to the Constitution and regularly sought to block, quash, and intimidate the press. If there were a more textbook example of the narcissistic, brutal personality type from which authoritarian thugs are made, it is hard to imagine. Trump is not just an American Berlusconi, he is our Putin- or Mugabe-in-waiting.
In an election year in which inequality and economic insecurity rank atop the list of voter concerns, Trump is a billionaire who has made his money by gaming the system and stiffing the little guy. He is odious and offensive; a poster child for everything wrong with the U.S. system. Indeed, the fact that he is not broke or in jail is powerful testimony to the special and unfair advantages the very rich have in America today. (See, for example, the evolving pay-to-play corruption scandal involving him and Florida’s attorney general.)
In fact, by any rational calculus the only federal office for which Trump seems suited is one with bars on the windows. The notion that somehow he has become a champion for Joe Lunch Bucket is beyond ludicrous. It would be like Kanye West becoming spokesperson for the American Humility Society … except the stakes are incalculably higher.
Meanwhile, Trump’s success is apparently due in part to widespread doubts about his opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. These doubts have many roots, it seems. Some are tied to an email scandal that the FBI concluded was not worth pursuing and about which a Washington Post editorial made clear, as Gertrude Stein might have put it, there is no there there. This is exactly the same outcome that has resulted, and rightly so, from all the ridiculously expensive investigations into what happened in Benghazi — none has produced the slightest evidence that Clinton did anything other than her job as secretary of state. Some of these would-be smear jobs are linked to previous attempts to impugn the Clinton family; some go back decades, to when Clinton’s husband, the former president, used to walk the halls of the West Wing.
But beneath this veneer of sensationalism and unfounded accusations, there are of course facts, much as there are beneath the oily veneer of the Trump campaign.
In the case of Hillary Clinton, she is undoubtedly among the most qualified candidates to run for president in the modern era. Her record in office as a first lady, senator, and secretary of state was one of accomplishment and distinction by any metric (but to choose one, just look at her approval ratings while in those jobs.) Further, if you speak to anyone who even knows her somewhat or has seen her in action — and I have had the good fortune to have done both — they will tell you that not only is she extraordinarily smart, she is hardworking, warm, and funny. She comes to every meeting prepared. I have seen her sit in rooms with the world’s leading foreign-policy experts and with top economists: It was clear to all that she knew the material as well or better than anyone in the room. But what is more — she did something even rarer than knowing her brief inside out, she listened. It is no accident that she has an excellent team around her, one with the enduring loyalty that comes from having seen her in action.
Her election would be also a profoundly important historical moment, the first time a member of America’s majority population actually held the country’s highest office — an essential watershed for a representative democracy.
This is literally an election in which any fair evaluation of the facts should result in Trump’s disqualification and Clinton’s election by acclamation. And yet, here we are, mired in a race that has the world scratching its head about what’s going on in the United States and many Americans wondering what happened to send us all down the rabbit hole after Alice.
Theories about how we got here are plentiful. We could trace the rise of Trump back to Goldwater or Reagan and the rise of the modern right wing in America. We could trace it to Gingrich and the obstructionists who first shut down the government in the 1990s, proponents of a political scorched-earth policy that has only grown worse in the years since. (The Democrats, it must be said, are not without blame here. After all, it was a Democratic effort to shape the Supreme Court that gave us the verb “to bork.”) We could trace it to the concurrent emergence of the fringe right that stretches from Pat Buchanan to Pat Robertson, from Michele Bachmann to Rick Santorum, from Sarah Palin to the Tea Party. And certainly, elements of all of these movements led us here.
So, too, has the chorus of toxic commentators played a role in this — the Rush Limbaugh phenomenon and the Black Helicopter guys. They have embraced smear, conspiracy theories, inflammatory language, and gross incivility to drum up ratings and stir up emotions. They have a special role to play in moving the media world along the spectrum from light to heat. But cable news networks (Fox and MSNBC) and websites (Drudge, Breitbart, and the liberal equivalents) have all seen their success and aped it, valuing conflict over insight, cage-matches over thoughtful, unbiased analysis.
There is a special place in this demonology, by the way, for the right-wing newspaper commentators who developed a strategy and a series of code words that made them sound patriotic but in actuality were dog whistles for the haters. They spoke of family values — and slammed gays and broken inner-city families. They spoke of Christian values — against the express wishes of the Founding Fathers and in a way that excluded all the world’s other major religions and those who did not believe or doubted. They slavishly followed the playbook of the National Rifle Association — despite the fact that our national gun pathology has always posed a greater risk to the United States than any terrorist group. They spoke of liberty — but really meant freeing the rich from taxes while seeking for the state to play an ever more active role in women’s reproductive systems or determining whether convicts should live or die.
They created the vocabulary that has been twisted into the mantras of today’s haters and Trump lovers. And now, of course, most of them are running the other way, shocked and horrified at the monster they have made, ink-stained Dr. Frankensteins who lack the courage to admit their own responsibility in this gross national failure.
But somehow, when we trace each of these roots, they all take us back to periods in which the idea of a President Trump would be impossible — to Democrats, Republicans, and Independents alike.
Something catalyzed all these forces and produced this inexplicable outcome. Determining it scientifically is impossible, of course. The rise of the echo-chamber-within-an-echo-chamber media phenomenon has helped isolate groups from one another and has deepened the us-versus-them mindset. The nonstop Twitter and social media conversation — wherein many of us get most of our news from friends, with whom we share values — is also to blame.
But something else has happened. The 15th anniversary of 9/11 underscores this for me. The entire country endured a psychic shock unlike any other in modern history as we collectively watched a human atrocity and national tragedy unfold. This made us feel more vulnerable and at risk than ever before. It created a level of fear that surpassed that all but the darkest days of the Cold War. This despite the fact that then, as now, we are probably safer than at any time since World War II. We’re stronger. We face no real strategic threat (except those from within our own borders). And the enemies we face, while awful, are weak, small, disparate, and doomed to fail.
The lingering sense of vulnerability indicates the severity of the trauma. It also suggests that subsequent shocks — notably the global financial crisis — deepen the psychological damage. We, as a country, are still suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. And Trump is a symptom of our distress.
He is not the answer. Restoring the country to psychic health is. That can only be achieved via the path that Barack Obama started us on and Hillary Clinton is promising to continue — systematic, material, economic, and social gains at home coupled with growing stature abroad (and here Clinton can help in ways that Obama could not).
In other words, the only constructive response to the Trump phenomenon is finding ways to help his supporters once again truly understand how great America still is — by delivering the benefits of that greatness to them as well as to all those who have been left behind as a consequence of the yet-to-be addressed inequities in our system.
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