“The American dream is dead” and “the US is going to hell” do not make for inspirational campaign slogans. It is difficult to imagine either one decorating a vehicular bumper next to adhesive flags and yellow ribbons. Somehow through his sheer lunacy, paranoid xenophobia, and buffoonish and boorish antics, the Vaudevillian billionaire Donald Trump, against almost all predictions, has managed to detonate the boring Republican primary, and place among the wreckage the typically taboo and unutterable idea that America is a country in decline.
Historically, Americans have preferred optimism, smiles, and forecasts of long days under clear skies in a perfect climate. Campaign strategists have often advised their candidates to avoid using the word “problems” in speeches and interviews. America does not have “problems,” they explain. It has “challenges.” When President Carter, who unlike Trump is not a maniac, but a man of great wisdom, suggested that American greed, isolation, and materialism ushered into the culture a “crisis of confidence,” the press, his Republican opponents, and many Democratic allies excoriated him. The public replaced him with a Hollywood B Actor who played his part with panache. America is better than the rest, he told the people. We have nothing to worry about. We aren’t really in our long, dark night of the soul. It is “morning in America.”
In 2015, as Trump makes perfectly clear, America has sufficient worry and anxiety to lose a lifetime of sleep. “The bridges are falling apart. The roads are falling apart. The airports look like hell. Look, I come back from places like Qatar, Dubai, where everything is unbelievable. Then, we land at LaGuardia or Kennedy or LAX, and it’s Third World,” Trump recently told a visibly irritated Megyn Kelly. One doesn’t need to own golf courses all over the world to appreciate the accuracy of Trump’s indictment. In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave US infrastructure the grade of D+. The “cost of inaction is far greater than the cost of doing something,” the report warned. Further deterioration could result in “everyday things simply stopping to work in the way people expect.” The horror show of Hurricane Katrina demonstrated with bodies floating in the streets, and children living in the stench and squalor of the Superdome, that damaged and declining infrastructure is not only an aesthetic assault, but an attack on human life.
“Don’t believe 5.6 percent,” Trump declared during his announcement as a candidate for the Presidency, “The real unemployment rate is 18 to 20 percent.” The steady dismantlement of the middle class, and the escalating war on the poor, makes the economic picture of America as bleak one of the closing art museums in Detroit. Many critics mocked Trump for “inflating” the “real unemployment rate,” acting as if he were a lying lunatic, inventing numbers on the spot. The Department of Labor, however, in a number rarely reported, places the unemployment and underemployment rate at 12.6 percent. The unemployment rate more than doubles, when evaluators take into account workers “marginally attached to the labor force,” meaning those whose lives are caught in the chaotic struggle of working a few hours a week at a miserly rate when they are in desperate need of full time jobs. As if the 12.6 figure was not already disturbing and alarming, many economists place the number higher by attempting to include the increasingly difficult to determine amount of Americans so discouraged by lack of employment options, they’ve stopped searching for work, and have vanished from the labor force. Peter Morici, an economics professor at the University of Maryland and award winning columnist for The Hill, estimates that the national unemployment rate is actually 18 percent. The Mercatus Center, an economic think tank at George Mason University, makes a slightly lower, but similar estimation.
Quarreling over the exact number of unemployed or “marginally attached workers” in America will do little to ease the troubles or improve the lives of the “nickel and dimed” workers Barbara Ehrenreich brilliantly and bracingly studied in her book on the working poor. 25 million workers, according to Oxfam America, toil for, at least, 30 hours a week, and can barely pay the rent, keep the water running, and fill the refrigerator. Their lives are a daily struggle against the misery of privation, and they are one unfortunate incident – an accident, a child getting sick, a car breaking down – from slipping out of sight into the back alleys and basements of America’s underclass and underside.
Even if Americans prefer the boosterism of having their leaders endlessly tell them they are perfect, at the levels most immediate and intuitive, many of them cannot deny that something is rotten in the state of America. As Howard Dean put it when he was in the middle of his campaign in 2004, “Not even Fox News can convince you that you have a job when you’re unemployed.” Young college graduates, buried in debt and unable to find placement in a career that enables them to pay down the debt, know there is something wrong, as do working parents who barely survive, counting the minutes in their Sisyphean climb from paycheck to paycheck. Senior citizens unable to even dream of retirement are equally incapable of living in denial. More and more Americans fear that Trump is correct when he proclaims, “the American dream is dead.”
Walking down the street of a major American city, one can often feel a sense of spiritual defeat. Crowding those streets are people who, according to the American Sociological Association, report having fewer “close friends” with every survey, people who are increasingly isolated and alienated from any sense of community, and who take more anti-depressants than any other people in the world, and self-medicate with high rates of alcoholism, drug dependency, compulsive gambling.
When Donald Trump, a billionaire in a culture that consistently and foolishly equates wealth with wisdom, describes the death of the American dream or compares the US to Third World nations, he alone on the Republican side speaks to the anxiety in the American spirit and the panic in the American heart. Many uninformed but intuitive Americans praise Trump for his forthrightness, and it is likely his refusal to act as if America is an Edenic paradise, that resonates with them. Americans have problems, and unlike Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton, Trump is talking about those problems.
The fascinating and dangerous trick of Trump is that he offers an escape from responsibility. Americans, especially those conservatives who preach personal responsibility, are terrified of accepting responsibility for any American problem, and resist it like healthy people resist pneumonia infections. With cynical mastery of demagoguery, Trump tells frightened and disillusioned Americans exactly what they want to hear: None of it is their fault.
Yes, the American middle class is barely existent. Yes, the American poor are barely alive. Yes, American culture is violent beyond comparison with massacres happening on almost a weekly basis. Yes, American institutions are dysfunctional and American cities are in decay. But none of it is America’s fault. It is all the fault of the Chinese, the Japanese, the OPEC nations, and most of all, the Mexicans who are “killing us in trade” and “killing us at the border.”
The reasons that America’s economy and culture are disintegrating right before the eyes of anyone willing to remove the red, white, and blue blindfold are American greed, selfishness, corruption, and arrogance. Rather than learning from other nations, America demonizes or ignores them. Rather than learning from its own tragedies and traumas – the 9/11 attack, Hurricane Katrina, the financial collapse of 2008 – America doubles down on the sources of those nightmares: war and military aggression, neglect of infrastructure and abuse of the poor, neoliberal deregulation and financialization of the economy. Given an opportunity for introspection, Americans will always look outward. The problem is never America. It is the Soviet Union. It is Islam. It is somebody or something else.
Donald Trump might correctly identify many American diseases, but he offers no real prescription for healing. In the words of conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, “he has no ideas, only barstool eruptions.” Trump’s campaign amounts to nothing more than xenophobia. China, Japan, OPEC, and Mexico are responsible for all of America’s failures, and America is forever granted immunity for creating an economy that works only for people with bankrolls similar to Trump, and for creating a culture that produces massive amounts of loneliness and emptiness.
It is easy to ridicule and belittle Trump, and the hatred he expresses towards immigrants makes him worthy of it. It is harder to believe that Trump will quickly go away, as many pundits predicted when he declared his candidacy. Trump, and the ugly lines he recites with skill, is right out of American central casting. There is always an appetite in America for someone who scapegoats foreigners as the fault of everything in our society, and there is never a shortage of xenophobia. Whether or not Trump, the chief clown in the clown car of the GOP, wins the Republican nomination, his appeal to the nativist impulse in America will ensure a long stay, should he want it, in American political discourse.
When President Carter addressed the “fundamental threat to American democracy” and spoke honestly about his country’s problems, he demonstrated strong and courageous leadership by explaining that the “crisis of confidence” presents “two paths to choose.” One was a path of “truth seeking,” “common purpose,” and “true freedom” in the form of communal investment and involvement – a “spiritual restoration” rather than material fixation. The other path, “a certain route to failure,” was “fragmentation and self-interest” – “The mistaken idea of freedom as the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others.”
America chose the route to failure, and has paid for it ever since. Only from the vantage point of a ditch is someone like Donald Trump able to look like a leader.
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