Trump Supporters Want Snake Oil, Not Real Change
Donald Trump says Americans want change. His supporters say they want change and so are willing to support him regardless of his despicable views and actions. They proclaim that they are tired of dysfunctional government, and it definitely is dysfunctional in many ways.
Historian and retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich went so far as to call American politics a Ponzi Scheme in his 2008 book Limits to Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. But Bacevich also pointed out an important point that seems to have been lost in all the “Make American Great Again” rhetoric: the dysfunctional government we have is a function of the demands of the American people to see themselves as “exceptional,” deserving, and entitled at any cost.
Pandering politicians who will tell the American public whatever they want to hear are the legacy of the 1980 election, when Ronald Reagan roundly beat incumbent Jimmy Carter. At a time when Americans had to wait in line at the gas pumps because OPEC, an organization over which the U.S. found itself having little control, was choking off Middle East oil, candidate Carter had the audacity to suggest to Americans that they needed to tighten their belts and live within their means. He did so in a speech subsequently dubbed the “malaise” speech, though he never used that term. The Reagan camp, not surprisingly, seized upon that speech as an opportunity to portray Carter as not believing in the “special” nature of Americans who shouldn’t have to settle for anything less than whatever they considered their right. The outcome of the election taught future politicians a powerful lesson: Never tell the American public anything they don’t want to hear.
The political promises made since then have been astounding. Among the most audacious: terrorism will be defeated, manufacturing jobs will be brought back to the United States, social ills can be cured with more law and order, and the defense budget, infrastructure and economy can be “fixed” without raising taxes. That’s what Americans want to hear. But it’s not going to happen.
Terrorism is a tactic; therefore it cannot be defeated. It can be managed to a level where attacks can be minimized, but a crackpot white supremacist or religious zealot cannot be deterred from their fifteen minutes of fame. As for the ISIS level groups, the public has only two demands: defeat them, and no boots on the ground or long-term commitments. Those are contradictory demands, apparent to anyone who cares to think about it. And yet, politicians seem unwilling to point that out.
In 2000 Republican presidential nominee John McCain and Democratic nominee Barack Obama both told Michigan and Ohio voters that their jobs would not be coming back. Telling that truth was possible only because both did it. No such restraint has been forthcoming since. Overcoming lower wages available elsewhere – and China is already largely priced out of the labor market – and work contracts American workers wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole is professed as simply a matter of knowing how to “make the deal.”
Americans want law and order. To some Americans, that means returning to the days when “people” knew their place. To others, it means not having to instruct your children on how to act to avoid being shot if stopped by the police. With bullying now offered as an alternative to political correctness and civility considered for wimps, even discourse on a way forward is a stretch.
Finally, everyone wants better schools, infrastructure, a globally dominant military and a prosperous economy, and of course, lower taxes. And so, after 9/11, when the United States began spending $1 trillion on homeland security and embarking on the largest combat operation since Vietnam, Americans were told to get on a plane, go shopping, go to Disneyworld, and given a tax cut. That kept them distracted from the nonsensical nature of the illusion they were being sold for a while. But just in case that wasn’t enough, the American Dream Downpayment Act was signed in 2003, encouraging and enabling individuals who couldn’t possibly pay the mortgage they were taking on to sign on the dotted line.
Reality seems just too hard for most Americans. Globalization and automation have changed the nature of work in ways that cannot be reversed. Skills that were once sufficient to support a family are no longer sufficient. It is no longer a unipolar world where American might, kinetic and coercive, unconditionally dominates. And social structures that once prevailed, domestically and internationally, are being shaken to the core by demands for equality.
Further, what is good for America, things like trade agreements, isn’t necessarily good for individual Americans. That reality creates responsibilities for the government to help those being left behind, and for individuals to help themselves. Equality means equal opportunity, coupled with personal responsibility.
The American Founding Fathers assumed equality as a basis for democracy. But Americans are seeing the equality gap rapidly grow and fault the government, which does play its part. In order for real change to occur though, Americans would have to heed the advice of Jimmy Carter: tighten your belts and live within your means. But hell no, nobody wants to do that. That might entail moving to find another job, taking a lesser job than you had before, and foregoing a wide-screen television.
This new reality doesn’t mean American isn’t great. Quite the contrary. American military power is such that no country in the world is stupid enough to take it on head on. Countries scramble to avoid that approach. Protestors show up at American embassies with a rock in one hand and a visa application in the other. Nobody is lining up to get into Russia. For health care and education, with lots of room for improvement in the middle, the U.S. still offers the best available.
Bernie Sanders offered real change, but the change he was selling was considered too extreme, ironically to the people who likely would have benefitted the most. Hillary Clinton doesn’t really offer change, only that she won’t let the insisted-upon Ponzi Scheme collapse. That’s not satisfying enough to the nihilists who want to blow up the system in the hope that when the dust settles, America will again be the land of Opie Taylor.
And so Donald Trump, as the salesman he is, offers the snake oil they want to buy. He, and only he (he says), can fix the entrenched, systemic problems facing the American people through their own demand for pandering and their refusal to face reality. With the bellicose rhetoric perfected by snake oil salesmen before him, he offers unrealistic solutions to the crowds he can gather. And people are lining up to buy it.