When I ponder why the American electorate turned to such an unorthodox President as Donald Trump, I think first of the idea of control. As I’ve outlined in The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream, so much of recent American history can be understood in terms of Americans’ desire to exercise increasing control over their individual lives, even at the expense of the national interest. So how might that apply to the election and Administration of Donald Trump?
When the Trump campaign came along, America felt just enough in control on economic issues to gamble on an attempted cultural restoration. At the time of Trump’s election in November, most economists agreed that the American economy was pretty close to full employment. And over the past year, real wage growth has been fairly robust, inflation has remained low, and the stock market has stayed high. Nor, despite of some well-publicized domestic terror attacks, has the American homeland felt under existential threat from abroad.
To date, the commentary on Trump has focused on perceived losses of control, such as 9/11 or diminishing global influence on the foreign policy side, and the loss of manufacturing jobs, real wage stagnation, and rising use of opioids on the domestic side. Those events all did raise the background level of anxiety, but the bigger picture is that the rise of Trump actually coincides with America righting its ship, at least to some extent, especially in economic matters.
For all the talk of change in the Trump campaign, we Americans often open the door for disruption when we know we won’t get too much of it. Think back to 2012, which was not so long ago. The economy was noticeably worse than in 2016, and yet the Republican electorate chose arguably the safest candidate on the slate, namely Mitt Romney. Responsibility was the priority, not counterrevolution. The presumption had been that the 2016 Republican primary voters would go through a similar calculus, but the national mood was different and the establishment candidates didn’t create much enthusiasm. Economic calm, being taken for granted, didn’t need another push from a mainstream Republican, and so cultural issues came to the fore, and that favored a provocateur who would command attention.
For all the talk of change on the Republican side, as the Trump Administration progresses, it has become increasingly clear that Trump doesn’t have much of an economic agenda. He’s sent mixed signals on Obamacare and criticized the now-ailing House Republican Border Adjustment Tax for being too complicated. Economic legislation is being postponed until 2018, or later still. Trump pledged to protect Social Security and Medicare, and he seems to be sticking with this, another cementing in of economic security. The main action so far has been Trump’s agitation for higher tariffs and trade agreement renegotiations, aimed at returning to the (supposedly) golden past of widespread manufacturing employment, not ushering in a radical new economic order.
Most of Trump’s core supporters (as opposed to the more traditional Republicans who are merely tolerating him as a possible vessel for their separate policy ambitions) are happy enough with this course of events. They are most of all interested in a kind of cultural restoration, or at least agitation in that direction, and Trump has been happy to oblige.
Many Trump supporters want a country where it is possible to speak in public as most people speak in private (more or less). The complaints about too much “political correctness” are the most visible manifestation of this attitude. The new culture wars, for Trumpists, are a battle about who has the social right to act as a higher-status person, as higher-status people can speak more openly and directly in many social and business settings. Trump takes this to an extreme by using his remarks and tweets as a primate-like show of attempted dominance, yet some of his most offensive remarks please many of his supporters all the more. The considerable number of Americans who sometimes speak crudely miss the earlier time when such rhetoric was socially acceptable, whereas the more educated and genteel professionals—who tend to oppose Trump—usually do just fine living under the rhetorical standards of political correctness.
In other words, Trump’s main policy is his rhetoric, and his very act of promising to restore control to the “deplorables” is a significant signal of control itself. In essence, Trump supporters are diagnosing America’s problems in terms of deficient discourse in the public sphere, as if they had read George Orwell and the Frankfurt School philosophers on the general topic but are drawing more on alt-right inspirations for the specifics of their critique.
When it comes to cultural control, the other primary locus of contention is immigration. Many Republicans fear a future in which demographics create a permanent Democratic majority, as seems to have happened in California. Trump supporters also wish to talk, without being accused of racism, of America’s successes as springing from a very particular cultural and ethnic heritage. Yet the successes of recent immigrants may have caused many Americans to feel they have become less central to the American national identity, and they have made it harder to praise America for anything other than its general ethnic diversity. It is becoming increasingly clear, as evidenced by remarks coming out of the Trump Administration, that economically successful immigrants are seen as a problem, too. That may sound strange, as was Steve Bannon’s earlier attack on Silicon Valley for having numerous Asian CEOs, but once you understand the anti-immigrant push as being about status and control, it makes sense—albeit in a rather unpleasant way. To be sure, many Trump supporters mix this with racist sentiments, but opponents will underestimate the strength and breadth of the Trump movement if they think of this as racism alone.
I was struck when one of my friends (a Trump supporter) described Trump’s policy positions as not so different from Dwight Eisenhower’s. At first the assertion shocked me, because I typically think of Trump as so erratic and Eisenhower as so extremely reliable. On reflection it occurred to me that the world Trump actually wants does bear a lot of resemblance to what Eisenhower loved and fought for, even if most Americans have moved on and accepted or embraced most of the social changes the nation has accumulated since that time. Consider how much the world of Eisenhower looks like the dream of Trump: There were hardly any Muslims living in America under Eisenhower’s presidency, he deported significant numbers of illegal Mexican immigrants, tariffs (but also taxes) were higher, and there was no NAFTA or TPP.
We are used to conceptualizing political positions in relative terms, in part to help us judge people’s social status. So if someone (say Ike) was a “moderate” back in the 1950s, we instinctively think of that person as in some way similar to today’s moderates. But an alternative perspective, bracing at times, is to simply to compare positions in absolute terms, and that makes a lot of Trump’s views resolutely ordinary in the broader sweep of American history.
It is hard for many Trump critics to understand that many of Trump’s supporters are, so far, getting what they wanted. If you think that Trump can’t possibly restore those manufacturing jobs and bring 4 percent growth, you’re right—but you’re also missing the point. Trump supporters see their leader as planting some very visible flags in the culture wars. And while Appalachia is not poised to make an economic comeback, at least measures of economic volatility are coming in at very low levels. For all the talk of Trump ushering in a fascistic apocalypse, the price of gold is lower today than in the fall, and the data indicate that investors are not expecting major turmoil in the stock market. In the meantime, Trump is dominating the discourse nearly every day.
One lesson here is that improvements in objective conditions don’t always yield better political outcomes. The common presumption is that rapid and relatively egalitarian economic growth strengthens good democratic institutions, but the data don’t always bear that out. The 1960s are typically seen as a golden age for America’s middle class, but the country ended up with a lot of violent disruption, social protest, and then the Constitution-shredding Richard M. Nixon as President. It is also misguided to think that slow growth and high inequality necessarily breed revolution or massive movements for wealth redistribution. As the political science literature shows, there are plenty of cases where those social features lead to political disengagement instead.
So what next?
To be sure, I don’t think this experiment will end well. One of the themes of The Complacent Class is that when everyone seeks control, the end result is typically that no one ends up with much control at all. The reality is that we have ended up with a supposed control-restoring instrument—Trump—who doesn’t seem capable of generating an enduring or even a temporary social consensus. President Trump doesn’t seem able to strategically turn off his frankness, even when it might benefit him to do so. The most polarizing President in my lifetime has become more polarizing yet.
Most likely, we’ll end up with a President who doesn’t and indeed can’t solve America’s basic social problems, and rather than restoring cultural control to his supporters he is likely to revitalize the ACLU and the protest movement, now including Teen Vogue and Saturday Night Live. He may well even return his country to the civic involvement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, if only because Trump’s opponents also seek control; in particular, they now want to feel a sense of “doing something” about him.
The biggest risk is probably in foreign policy, where a President faces fewer checks and balances, and where unfiltered provocative speech can create special problems, given the delicate nature of diplomacy and America’s extreme military power. American alliances will fray or disappear, and this country will end up with less control over global events. With weaker alliances, stopping terrorism and also global financial crises may become more difficult, thereby also eroding some aspects of control at home in the longer term, including over the economy.
The most positive scenario is that Trump will evolve into a placebo President, giving his supporters a public voice and the illusion of more control without the control itself. In this view, the more outrageous and provocative statements Trump makes, the better it may be. It’s not that we prefer a world where such statements are necessary, but if the pressures are in place, maybe those statements are the easiest way to defuse tensions. Trump on Twitter may be an especially useful way to parade his “cheap talk” proclamations to a broad public audience, and the hope is that this doesn’t spill over too much into creating a destructive foreign policy.
I don’t share the more extreme predictions of how a Trump Administration might seek to restore control, such as by moving to outright authoritarianism, or by fomenting a war or public crisis and then disrupting basic democratic institutions. These days, there are too many parts and layers to American government for that to happen readily. One recent New York Times article described the White House, in its early days, as being run by a small number of Trump picks literally working in the dark at night, because they had not yet figured out how to work the light system. So far these advisers have not managed to get much done or even to keep Trump’s approval rating stable. As further appointments are made and the Trump Administration fills out with more voices and more procedural checks, it will be all the harder to subvert basic democratic procedures. I do expect some bad outcomes when it comes to deportations, new visa procedures, voting rights, and basic civil liberties, but it will, for better or worse, prove possible to implement all or most these within the confines of the law.
I’ve been studying the history of European fascism as of late, and I have learned that one of the things the fascists did early on was to cultivate the loyalty of the mid-tier bureaucrats, including in Italy and Nazi Germany. That gave them a solid foundation in the daily running of the government and loyalty at the level of implementation, neither of which Donald Trump seems to have. There is plenty of resistance to Trump inside the Washington bureaucracy, as evidenced by the rogue Twitter accounts that have popped up, not to mention Trump’s abysmally low vote total in Washington, DC itself (4.1 percent). Insofar as political battles erupt, it is hard to see the permanent bureaucracy taking Trump’s side very often.
So in sum, this really does feel like a battle for control over America, and in some respects it is. But it is also a kind of phony war, in which there can be no real winner except chaos. In the meantime, both sides will enjoy their illusions that they are “doing something” to restore control.