That which was is that which will be, and that which is
done is that which will be done, there is nothing new
under the sun. —Ecclesiastes: 1:9
If you are already fed up reading about Donald J. Trump, just wait. Books will be written about Trump for decades to come, exploring why the American people elected him and how America can prevent similar mishaps in the future.
The January 6 Trump-inspired attack on the Capitol was a national disgrace and an inane attempt to forestall and possibly reverse the election outcome. The Watergate burglary 50 years ago now seems like a scene from an old Marx Brothers movie compared to this assault on the Capitol, which left five people dead. At the same time, let’s not lose sight of the fact that similar acts of violence against governmental authority have been with us a long time. They began as far back as 1778 with Shays’ Rebellion. Since 1860, America has witnessed three presidential assassinations plus three near misses (compared with zero heads of state assassinated in the United Kingdom), as well as the antics of “Know Nothings,” anarchists, Bundists, communists, war protesters, union strikes that turned violent, urban riots and other acts of violence by those unhappy with the current state of affairs or political leadership. Similarly, deep political division has been with us since the beginning of the Republic; it led to the Civil War and has continued in paler colors ever since.
The physical attack on the Capitol, the seat of our government, was the end piece to Trump’s big lie that the 2020 election was somehow stolen. Fortunately, the assault failed. In a country of more than 300 million people, it takes more than an angry crowd of 15,000 to produce a successful revolution. Particularly where, as here, most engines of power were on the other side—business leaders, the military, academicians, media, religious leaders, political commentators and, of course, the intellectual elite so much maligned by Trump.
When Trump threw his hat into the ring before the 2016 election, he was an improbable candidate. In his eighth decade, with no prior political experience, a sexual harasser, unfaithful husband, reputed tax dodger, financial manipulator, and denigrator of American war heroes, with a cloudy academic record and a history of extreme petulance beginning in childhood and ripening over the years, he was clearly no Sunday school teacher’s pet. In fact, he had no religious affiliation, theretofore thought to be a prerequisite for presidential candidates. Some thought his candidacy was an attention-grabbing stunt to enhance the value of the Trump business. Yet Trump won the 2016 election, received more votes in 2020 than he had in 2016 and is still hanging around the political rim. How did this Antichrist do it?
The answer is that he captured the disgruntled and became the unlikely hero for millions of Americans. Despite the shapeless blue suits hiding his stomach, padded shoulders, dyed hair, combover and fractured speech, he was appealing to millions of Americans who believed he hated what they hated and would return things to the way they had been. He gave voice to the rage of millions of Americans who tipped the scales in his favor in the 2016 election. Like Bill Clinton telling Americans “I feel your pain” in a 1992 town hall debate with President George H. W. Bush, Trump gave the same message to millions of Americans who believed they were falling behind people less worthy than they, and worse yet, not real Americans like them.
Trump’s imagined “Deep State” became the object of their hatred, and “Make America Great Again” became their beacon of hope. The Deep State was a term that conjured up visions of demons (i.e., aliens, Blacks, Asians, Jews, perverts and other satanic figures). Falling behind was not the fault of the forgotten, and Trump, like the Wizard of Oz, would fix it.
For these Trump supporters, the Deep State was run by people who had unjustly prospered. The conservative sociologist James Q. Wilson has been warning us for decades about the political fallout from changes that hurt millions of Americans who saw themselves falling behind. Richard M. Nixon talked about the “Silent Majority,” meaning people who were put off by the Boston Brahmin John F. Kennedy and the traitor to his native South Lyndon B. Johnson, and especially by the 1965 Civil Rights Act and the riots that followed after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The racist card was part of the message, but Nixon wisely left it to his vice president, Spiro Agnew, to deliver it explicitly.
Ronald Reagan conveyed the same sentiments in more benign language with his mocking slogan, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” So, too, did George H. W. Bush with his knockout punch to Michael Dukakis’ candidacy, falsely accusing him of releasing convicted Black felon Willie Horton. But the foregoing all pale in comparison with Trump’s tactics.
Of course, Trump never told the American people what would “Make America Great Again.” Herein lies Trump’s secret sauce. Without specifics, Trump left it to his supporters to fill in the blanks, as they saw fit. Whatever Trump’s supporters did not like about their lives—changing neighborhoods, social status, high taxes, racial “uppityness,” gender equality or anything else that annoyed them—Trump, the Real American, would fix it.
Violent fallout from change has been around a long time, beginning with the transition from hunter to gatherer as depicted in the biblical story of Cain and Abel. Farmer Abel was killed by his hunter brother Cain, from whom we are all descended. Fast forward to late 18th-century England, when the Luddites destroyed machinery that threatened to take their jobs. Now, in the first half of the 21st century, it is no longer steam engines but robots powered by artificial intelligence or AI, that are snatching jobs. The main character in Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel, Klara and the Sun, was created by AI to act as an artificial friend for its ill human adopter, whom robot Klara saves by superhuman powers. In Ishiguro’s story, the superpowers of robots are resented by humans who lost their jobs to them. In retaliation, the losers turn to guns to defend themselves against the robot invasion. If this sounds like the mob in Charlottesville shouting “Jews will not replace us,” the similarity is not lost in Ishiguro’s telling. However, the anti-Jewish ranting in Charlottesville was not fiction.
Those shouts, and later, the tearing down of church signs proclaiming “Black Lives Matter” (which led Washington, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser to paint the message in huge bright yellow letters for Trump to see from the White House), were both racist and wide of the mark. Sought-after jobs have gone overseas or in some cases to robots. Displaced American workers do not move across the ocean, but money moves with the push of a button.
The negative reaction on the part of millions of Trump supporters to social and economic change explains part of the Trump phenomenon, but so too does reverence for an idealized past that exists largely in the imagination. Trump captured this in the “Make America Great Again” slogan, implying that the past was better than the present, but this notion of a better past goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden. Moving forward there is Rome founded by Romulus and Remus lovingly raised by a wolf; and let’s not forget Tacitus’ Germania and Milton’s Paradise Lost.
One might ask, what is wrong with extolling the past? Some may go further and say to venerate the past is in our DNA, so why fight it? The answer: The past is just that, it is gone forever.
To illustrate the truth that the past is gone, that all the king’s horses and all the king’s men cannot bring it back again, the disappearance of the family farm has been joined with the disappearance of a large swath of industry that prospered for 100 years or more. The bedrock of American industry 150 years ago was wheat and steel, followed by the century-long industrial reign of oil. It, too, is on the wane, destined to be replaced by electric engines and renewable energy. True, John D. Rockefeller’s name is still in the history books, but his progeny are now dispersed across the land and largely unknown. The Texas oil barons of today are not far behind. Whole industries have disappeared from the American scene. The clothing industry, shoe manufacturing, even traditional department stores are on the wane. None of them are coming back. The internet will soon dominate retail trade. The impressive growth in service-sector jobs has resulted in only menial wages for those at the bottom (waiters, supermarket employees, custodial workers, etc.) reserving the top-paying jobs for applicants with one or more university degrees.
Economic obsolescence has been with us since the advent of the industrial age. Businesses are created, prosper and die as a result of economic forces over which they have no control. Today’s leading businesses—Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, Netflix, Tesla—were not around 50 years ago. Capitalism is a cruel deus ex machina. With its focus on increased profits, it is justified by a rise in GDP that benefits the nation as a whole, but at the cost of misery for many. In truth, those left behind pay the price for the success enjoyed by the rest of us. This, too, will not end with Trump’s defeat.
Some forms of nostalgia allow us to hold onto moral certainty, but Make America Great Again was different in suggesting that if we only went back to the past, our problems would disappear. As an example, let’s look at Trump’s false promise to restore coal’s primacy as a source of fuel. This led him to proclaim to a crowd in Charleston, West Virginia, “Coal is back.” In truth, coal was not back and never will be. Facing the headwinds of cheap natural gas, clean air regulations and climate change, coal production in our country is steadily declining and there was nothing Trump could do about it.
America is now moving in a different direction, looking to heal its divisions. It remains to be seen whether this directional change will continue.
Even if Trump, beset with criminal charges and mounting debts, disappointing poll numbers, and the stain of January 6 on his forehead, ends up forsaking Washington’s harsh political climate to continue enjoying Florida’s sea breezes and golf, it will not put a stop to the political forces that produced his presidency. Trump’s popularity was the product of underlying social and economic forces brought about by the social fallout from the rapidity and pervasiveness of change. It took roughly 150 years to move from the steam engine to the jet engine. The time lag from the present scene to the world of the future will be much shorter. Electric vehicles are already replacing gas-powered engines. Supersonic flights will be the preferred choice for long-distance travelers, and super-intelligent robots, now on assembly lines, will be joined by other more advanced applications of AI. Interplanetary flight will be offered to the rich, and human cloning will challenge our long-held religious beliefs. The response for some will be: “Stop the world, I want to get off.”
When this occurs, America’s liberal democracy may again be threatened by a new populist leader, this time without Trump’s personal baggage and woeful attempt to falsify the election results.
Alfred H. Moses lives in Washington, DC. He is the author of several books, most recently Bucharest Diary: Romania’s Journey from Darkness to Light, and has held three presidential appointments.