At the beginning of this election cycle, few took a Trump candidacy very seriously – an opinion piece published in The Guardian last July reeled off a list of commentators who thought his campaign relied on a “celebrity bubble” that would inevitably burst. Now, only the Democratic nominee stands between Trump and the most powerful office in the world.
How did we get here? How can a man who seems hell-bent on alienating swathes of voters now be a serious contender for the White House? What series of events have led to a world where such a thing is not only possible, but increasingly likely?
Broadly speaking, there are two identifiable narratives that are meant to explain the rise of Donald Trump:
The first considers his political success to be the logical conclusion of a stagnant and corrupt political system, coupled with a decline in economic prosperity. The second points out that Trump’s rise is thanks to the efforts of the Republican Party, who have treated their voters like mushrooms: Feeding them crap and keeping them in the dark.
Both of these narratives are correct.
The U.S. political system is notoriously undemocratic. Around 70% of people in this society have absolutely no meaningful influence on government policies, and those who do use their excessive wealth to buy their way in. This has provided both Republicans and Democrats with absolutely no reason to consider the popular will, and if they do find a reason, propaganda quickly removes the need to follow through on promises of reform. Elections are deliberately narrow in scope, and are meant to stop voters from looking for progress beyond tidy four year segments.
Prior to the Iraq War, polls found that a large portion of society was against an invasion without international approval, without evidence of WMDs, or without finished inspections. As we know, the Republican President ignored this popular will, and his Democratic successor, who had promised a departure from the Bush Doctrine, actually expanded the war and started various other wars in the years to come. Voters have come to realize that no matter who occupies the White House, death and violence abroad are not really issues you get to vote on.
In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, you see a similar pattern: The Republican President tanked the economy through extreme corporate welfare and haphazard mismanagement, and his Democratic successor repaired the problems on the surface through extreme corporate welfare and haphazard mismanagement. His Justice Department has stayed away from prosecuting Wall St. executives, and his financial policies have deliberately seen wealth remain in the hands of a tiny elite. Voters have come to realize here, too, that financial corruption is not an issue you get to vote on.
Now, along comes Trump, who reacts with hostility to the status quo each and every time he speaks. He laments the fact that “we don’t win any more”, and blames both parties almost equally for the mess that the country finds itself in. For Republican voters who lived through the 2008 financial class and have witnessed the deceit of politicians from both sides of the aisle, Trump’s fiery denunciations of Mexico and China seem like a breath of fresh air. ‘Finally’, they might say, ‘a candidate who isn’t afraid to take on the powerful interests controlling our lives’.
Naturally, the powerful interests controlling Americans’ lives are military officials and corporate monarchs, whose vampiric greed has bled workers dry to feed an always-hungry military-industrial complex and a decadent Wall St. machine. China and Mexico have a negligible effect on the policies of Presidents – it is their own insurgencies back home they must appease if they want any sort of power.
But Trump supporters have been brainwashed into blaming foreigners, sexuality minorities and political dissidents instead. Though they may think they are having their awakening, the past two decades of internal Republican politics has proven that they are further from seeing the light than ever.
The Tea Party phenomenon has been something of a thorn in the side of establishment Republicans for quite a while, and Trump now represents the biggest thorn in their side, but the rise of both is an inevitable consequence of driving your voters into a frenzy so that they vote for you, and then failing to deliver on the exorbitant promises you made to them.
If you are going to paint yourself as a moral crusader against transgender people, refugees, and ethnic minorities, it is a mistake to think that the voters you will attract have a short memory. Just think about when Republican candidates debated immigration in the televised debates: Trump used other candidates’ failure to stop illegal immigration and build a wall to boost his own campaign.
If Republicans had kept to their xenophobic word, he would have less cause to attack them. But by the time this election cycle rolled around, it was too late to prove their worth: Voters shamed the likes of Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio for expressing even basic humanity towards those who cross the border, and yet again praised Trump for ‘telling it like it is’.
So we have both Democrats and Republicans to blame for the rise of Trump.
The Democrats are to be blamed because they have failed to offer an alternative to the corrupt, militarized and austerity-ridden empire they wish to preside over. If they have their way, they will select a candidate who embodies all of these vices and more: Hillary Clinton, who will entrench the values of this bloated, decadent empire and lead even more ordinary people into the hands of the far-right through her classist policies.
The Republicans are to be blamed because of their Frankensteinian obsession with creating a gang of white working class supporters whose attention is directed at minorities and foreigners, rather than at the real culprits of societal stagnation. The Republicans’ failure to either reign in their angry mob, or appease it sufficiently, has led to a fascist outsider sweeping in and promising to do what the likes of Mitt Romney could never do, or never wanted to do. The Republicans, through their ineptitude, have turned their own voters against them, and put the entire nation at risk in the process.
This is the essential appeal of the Trump candidacy. Here we have a working class that is so beleaguered by bipartisan corruption, so abandoned by the state, and so indoctrinated by societal phobias, that it will accept any new narrative that explains their suffering, even if that narrative has tribal and fascist overtones, and even if that narrative is plainly false.
The only solution to such a narrative of the right is a narrative from the left, and Bernie Sanders is delivering it. Though he is wholly inadequate when it comes to foreign policy, and amounts to little more than a New Deal Democrat, Sanders is perhaps the only one capable of challenging Trump on an ideological basis, and is the only one capable of convincing people to move away from fascism. Polls show that he has a far wider margin over Trump than Clinton does, which makes her the outsider, not him.
If the Democrats do not choose him, ordinary voters will have no anti-establishment counternarrative to persuade them away from Trump.