“The country is no longer predominantly rural but urban, and the frontier mindset has been largely superseded by a cosmopolitan one.”
ake America great again. The catchphrase of the populist candidate is distinctly un-American, the first after a long line of anodyne presidential campaign slogans to explicitly admit that the glory days are gone. Escaping the lips of any statesman, these words would have comprised the unwitting reading of a political suicide note, an anathema to perhaps the most patriotic people in the world. And yet half the electorate cheered at the words, hurrahed at the rallies, proudly donned the hats and voted then-candidate Donald Trump into power. Soliciting raucous applause for words of concession is no small task—being the best is the American brand, and a willingness to concede weakness is an understated bellwether of the national sentiment. Wresting this frank admission from the American people remains one of his few victories to date. But why would his voters subscribe to such a message? After all, the United States is still tentatively the world’s sole superpower, has the largest economy, and remains, deservedly or not, the standard-bearer for democracy.
There are a few narratives that have emerged in the aftermath of the 2016 election. President Trump’s rise to power represents the boiled-over anger of rural voters, long marginalized by policies catering to urbanites. Who has not seen the map? A desert of red, choking slivers of blue along the coasts and waterways. Or maybe the scales were tipped by former supporters of President Barack Obama. “Hope” did not inspire their wages to rise, but the cost of living ensnared them tighter than ever. They felt hoodwinked that their embodiment of change bailed out Wall Street in the Great Recession at their expense. It was poor blue-collar and slipping white-collar workers, overworked, tired of being ignored and at a loss for how to make ends meet, who propelled then-candidate Trump to the White House. Undoubtedly, some of President Trump’s support came from the Rust Belt and coal country, where globalization, automation, obsolescence, and environmental regulations have decimated entire industries and emaciated company towns built around single factories.
That the contentious social issues that dominate American media—abortion, access to birth control, gay marriage, and transgender rights—are most visibly championed by celebrity activists and young college students perhaps led some moderate conservatives to interpret the liberal agenda merely as catharsis for the overwrought consciences of the privileged. They likely resented that their voices, hoarse from calling attention to real, everyday issues affecting Americans—health care costs, the stress of being laid off, having to work two jobs to make ends meet—were drowned out by the indignant rallying calls of those with the luxury of nitpicking over what must seem like fringe issues and frivolous contrivances. President Trump was likely a welcome bull in this china shop of political correctness and identity politics, as well as a fitting foil to out-of-touch, idealistic limousine liberals.
He was the de facto candidate for evangelicals who perceive advocacy for these social issues as the hedonistic demands of bacchanalians, a throwback to Sodom and Gomorrah. There is Biblical precedent for God using a wicked leader to achieve His end. President Trump’s promises to ban abortion and restore the church and nuclear family to the centerpiece of the community made him, at worst, a restored sinner. (Has he not since made good by moving the American embassy to Jerusalem?) And who can forget antagonized white males, perplexed at being forcefully bequeathed the twin hereditary titles of racist and misogynist, despite their vehement disavowal? These men are left scratching their heads at the notion that they are the privileged ones in a nation where Caucasians are the largest ethnic group in poverty and men lag women in educational attainment. The predominantly white and male Republican presidential roster perhaps seemed like the only sensible place to search for a spokesperson.
The anti-immigration, anti-globalist, and white nationalist segments certainly provided a few percentage points. Rhetoric of building a wall along the Mexican border, talking tough against a conniving China, threatening to deport illegal aliens, scrapping predatory free trade deals, and promising to ban Muslims made for a welcome dose of candor and a contrast to what these voters perceive as an anemic establishment chock-full of weak negotiators, globalist capitulators, and unpatriotic Islamist apologists.
Conceivably, President Trump was backed by the ultra-rich, who saw a friend in a fellow billionaire. He must have been a welcome relief for those with a libertarian bent as well, who were sick of seeing career politicians bungle policy, inflate taxes, bloat the government, and mummify them in red tape. Believing that a country ought to be run efficiently like a business, who better to install as the President than an iconic CEO of an eponymous business empire promising tax breaks? It was the uneducated, disenfranchised, demoralized, and gullible who voted for him, easily riled up by his bravado, vulnerable to his sales tactics and unable to filter the propagandist news dripping into their ears. Let us not forget the elderly, who have always disproportionately voted Republican. Even among the young, stymied by unemployment and seething with the resentment of inheriting a country with a plummeting standard of living, electing President Trump possibly provided a sense of respite to the hopelessness some experts say is fueling the opioid and suicide epidemics in this demographic.
Card-carrying loyalists ticked the same box they always have, and long-standing party members—fed up with the feeble leadership and stale ideas of familiar faces—put their chips on the aggressor that humiliated all the establishment candidates on every debate stage. There were thwarted Bernie Sanders fans who, after witnessing their messiah candidate be derailed by the shenanigans of the Democratic Party and biased media, channeled their revenge by voting for the only other populist, outsider candidate. Lastly, too, were those who perceived former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as two-faced, scripted, and laden with baggage and loathed the idea of political dynasty or an extension of Obama-era policy. Feminism must be nothing more than vanity and flimsy tokenism her detractors surmised if a candidate who spun her career from her husband’s coattails—and forgave infidelity to preserve his political patronage—could conduct herself as the presumptive first-female President. The role of Russian interference looms large and continues to only grow larger.
All of these explanations have been proposed and, in each, there is a kernel of truth. However, oversubscribing to any single explanation is bound to lead one astray, especially given that many are the persistent residual impressions of narratives crafted from exit polls and the speculations of pundits in the immediate aftermath of the election, not the product of complete datasets and sober retrospectives penned after the dust has settled.
Take for example the narrative that Trump voters are disproportionately uneducated. It does not hold much water given that the fraction of his supporters with college degrees (29%) matches the rate among registered Republicans (30%) and the whole population (31%). What about the supposed white working class surge? As The Washington Post summarized in a June 2017 article, “white non-Hispanic voters without college degrees making below the median household income made up only 25 percent of Trump voters. That is a far cry from the working-class-fueled victory many journalists have imagined.” And what about the idea that it was the rural poor who pinch hit? This is also not accurate. A third of his voters earned more than $100,000 per year, and only 35% earned less than the national median of $50,000 per year. Even if they are rural, they cannot be broadly characterized as poor. On average, his voters are more affluent than Clinton supporters.
Rural-urban divides are not revelatory; they exist by design.
Geographic voting preferences are, indeed, the most striking. However, the explanation that President Trump’s messaging unexpectedly struck a chord with a stagnant, rural America—emaciated by the forces of globalization and automation and resentful of the higher social mobility among urbanites—ignores the historical record. To get Republican candidate Richard Nixon elected in 1968, Kevin Phillips conceived of the Southern Strategy, musing: “Who needs Manhattan when we can get the electoral votes of eleven Southern states? Put those together with the Farm Belt and the Rocky Mountains, and we don’t need the big cities. We don’t even want them.” This line of thinking has informed the electoral strategy of the Republican Party ever since. Rural-urban divides are not revelatory; they exist by design.
More generally, that fluctuations of a few million votes have decided every presidential contest in recent memory is largely the consequence of equilibration in a two-party system (the most notable deviations from a stalemate in the history of the popular vote are due to the prominence of independent candidates: Wallace in 1968, Perot in 1992, and 1996). The surprise is not that then-candidate Trump won by a landslide; he lost the popular vote. It is that such a jarring candidate was able to claim the usual stake in a decades-long fifty-fifty partisan split in the popular vote at a time when the Republican Party itself was historically unpopular among its base (only 14% of Republicans approved of Congressional leadership in the lead up to the election, despite their party controlling both houses).
To this end, some analyses have focused on candidate Trump’s differential performance. What demographics preferred him to Mitt Romney, his predecessor as Republican presidential nominee in 2012? What was the effect of voter turnout among different demographics? The claim that Secretary Clinton lost the election instead of President Trump winning it begs the question of what Secretary Clinton could possibly have done to alienate voters that President Trump did not? Why was it that his base showed up reliably to vote for him despite gaffe-after-gaffe on a long campaign trail, while enthusiasm flagged for Secretary Clinton, his rivals in the Republican primary, and the Republican Party itself?
President Trump was the only candidate to provide a narrative that unified the specious explanations for American discontent that were already on the tips of many voters’ tongues. His brash style and his stature as a household name and billionaire businessman lent credibility to these explanations; when the public image someone crafts of his life story epitomizes the American Dream, voters are bound to listen to that individual’s diagnosis of what has since gone wrong. His raucous campaign rallies provided opportunities for his voters, who previously felt cowed from articulating their thoughts (some of which are considered politically incorrect) to rally in solidarity. His gaffes and refusal to apologize for them signaled to his base that they too could—at long last—voice their views confidently without fear of reprisal. What are these specious explanations for American discontent, and how did they come to be affixed in voters’ minds in the first place? First, the American ethos needs to be understood.
A striking feature of American elections—absent in their Canadian counterparts—is an appeal to a formula. It is common to hear phrases like “the American system is not working for the middle class,” and “we need to get back to the fundamentals that made our country great” from both Democrats and Republicans. Canadian elections also center on the economy, healthcare, foreign policy, and balancing the budget; however, there has never been an argument that the path forward is to “return to the Canadian way.” Undoubtedly, there are Canadian national values—kindness, inclusion, egalitarianism, etc., but these are taken for granted and, therefore, never feature in contentious policy debates. (Canadian political parties may debate how to lower health care costs, but it is a given that everyone is entitled to universal health care.) Since there is no sense of a tried-and-true Canadian recipe, discussions are specific and pragmatic, focused on the present and the future—and not on the past. Even when debates do become ideological—conservative and liberal schools of thought exist in every democracy, after all—there is never a sense of jostling for historical certification; never a sense of competition for fidelity to the original, authentic national identity; and no party purporting to be the heir to the nation’s recipe for success. Prime Minster John A. MacDonald and Premier George Brown are discussed at length in history classes, but consideration of whether they would approve of a present-day policy is, thankfully, not a feature of Canadian political dialogue.
The United States, on the other hand, has election rhetoric that is inevitably peppered with quotations from the Founding Fathers, references to the hallowed Constitution, and allusions to an implicit national philosophy, a template for success hearkening back to the glory days. Perhaps this is not surprising given that the fiery historical circumstances of the country’s birth—a coalition of resolute colonists breaking the chains of imperialistic tyranny through violent revolution and being shepherded into nationhood by political geniuses—naturally lends itself to being installed as a mythological origin story in the national psyche by the media and curriculum. And, given that the heyday of the Baby Boomers, the largest age demographic, coincides with decades of American prosperity and dominance, it is no wonder that this rhetoric resonates with nostalgia.
What exactly is this philosophy? What are these principles for success divined by the Founding Fathers and enshrined in the Constitution that are supposed to guarantee the nation’s prosperity? Stanford economist John B. Taylor provides a characteristic summary in his 2012 Hayek Prize winning book First Principles: Five Keys to Restoring America’s Prosperity:
“The principles of economic freedom are naturally intertwined with political freedom—speech, press, assembly, religion. Excessive government interventions and economic controls will tend to constrain people’s freedom to speak out or take public political positions for fear of retribution through more interventions and controls…The principles of liberty…[the] founding fathers first delineated in the Declaration of Independence in 1776 are remarkably similar to the principles of economics that Adam Smith first heralded in the Wealth of Nations in the same year…In a market economy, most decisions…are made by individuals, firms, and organizations interacting in markets. Prices in those markets signal what goods and services people want, and the prices create incentives…to invent and…to create firms to sell the new products. The higher wages paid for skilled labor offer people the incentive to become skilled, whether by staying in school or by learning on the job. As they respond to these incentives, people who become more skilled are frequently led by Adam Smith’s “invisible hand to promote” the interests of society…Lower income tax rates increase incentives by raising the benefits (higher incomes) one gets from investing in education or a start-up business. The foundational economic principles recognize a role for government in providing public goods…[and] protecting individual rights and liberties…[but] we must explain the case for a government role rather than a market-based solution…America’s founders stressed these same principles of markets, incentives and limited government.”
At first reading, the national philosophy appears to be rooted in historical axioms that are noble and novel—individual freedoms, property rights, valuing innovation, meritocracy—and given the historical context of imperialism, the wariness of government was quite well-founded. These principles have been compounded by the historical imprint of a Puritan work ethic, the image of Lady Liberty welcoming newcomers with open arms, and the cultural presence of a strong evangelical base. These outfit the image of the ideal American as industrious, with a halo of self-righteousness, virtue and community validation. Since many of these ideas—liberty, equality, meritocracy, opportunity—were avant-garde for their time, for many years, the American way may frankly have been the best. If so, the capstone conviction in American exceptionalism was rational, and it made sense to be resolute in adhering to first principles.
However, many elements are also simply revisionist. The supposed emphasis on individual rights in the Constitution historically only applied to wealthy, white, male landowners, and it is irreconcilable with slavery and the Native American genocide, which stain American history. The Founding Fathers had conflicting views on how things should be done (e.g. federalism vs. republicanism, isolationism vs. internationalism), and the credibility of many is forfeited owing to their double-life as slaveholders. The historical Puritan influence often led to violations in the principle of separation of church and state that was intended to preserve freedom of conscience, a phenomenon that persists with modern-day evangelism. The open immigration policies that supposedly prove America to be a welcoming land of opportunity are checkered with a long history of anti-Semitism and anti-Orientalism. The country’s avowed hatred of imperialism is contradicted by its theft of Mexican territory and gunboat diplomacy in Latin America during the 1800’s, the dozens of times it toppled democracies to install pro-American dictators in the 1900’s, and its support of French imperialism in its initial pursuit of the Vietnam War. The 1950’s-1960’s—often touted as the Golden Age of Capitalism—were actually the product of Keynesian economics, with substantial government involvement in markets.
Adopting the second thrust in a patriotic country is typically political suicide, but Senator Bernie Sanders’ explicit espousal of socialism in a popular, grassroots campaign is evidence that an increasing number of voters are willing to reorient the country towards social democracy.
Taken together, the national philosophy reads encyclopedic for those who minimize these facts, and as Randian cliché for everyone else. Irrespective of its veracity, perception is more important than reality, especially when the perception is widely held and reassuring. It is impossible to watch interviews from major political figures, read testimonies from those who voted, or contrast the culture in other developed countries and not conclude that the mentality induced by this philosophy is at play. Although the average American may not subscribe fanatically to such a view, the fact that it has sustained politicians and public thought leaders for so long suggests that there is a vague acquiescence buried deep in the American psyche—or, at least, an ignorance of alternate strategies. Taylor for example contends that:
“Our problem now is that we are paying too little attention to these principles, and even worse, we are moving in the wrong direction. The good news is that if we begin to apply these principles to our current circumstances, we can restore America’s prosperity and our confidence in the future.”
Against the backdrop of this ethos, there are only two rational thrusts. Either the national philosophy is sound and the country has erred by neglecting it or being seduced by a bastardized interpretation, or it is fundamentally incorrect at its core. The first tack—catering to the ethos and effective in milking political brownie points—is the most common, with each party claiming stewardship of the national philosophy and accusing the other of tainting it. Adopting the second thrust in a patriotic country is typically political suicide, but Senator Bernie Sanders’ explicit espousal of socialism in a popular, grassroots campaign is evidence that an increasing number of voters are willing to reorient the country towards social democracy.
Regardless, eventually one must reckon with facts on the ground that challenge the national philosophy’s promise of prosperity. This uneasy reckoning is the source of American frustration. The middle class has been hollowed out, with the share of adults living in this tier falling by 11%. The median wealth of the middle class has remained flat over three decades, while that of the upper class has doubled to seven times the middle class median. Wages have been stagnant for decades, despite gains in worker productivity of over 70%. Half of American households report living paycheck-to-paycheck. The national debt has exploded to over $20 trillion under the strain of trillion dollar deficits. The United States has the largest incarcerated population in the world (dwarfing the population of 15 states), the second highest incarceration rate, and a homicide rate seven times that of other developed nations. The number of people living in high-poverty areas has increased to 14 million, largely along racial lines. It has the highest per capita healthcare costs in the world with among the worst outcomes in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), literacy and numeracy rates that consistently trail other industrialized countries, and is home to an opioid epidemic that claims nearly 50,000 lives annually. With a Gini coefficient of 0.48, income inequality is starker than in any country of the European Union. Consequently, social mobility is worse than in Western Europe, Canada, Australia, and the Nordic countries, and it is so low as to render the American Dream a cruel practical joke.
What is worse, these statistics are multimodal with strong geographic correlations. As such, one can travel through vast swathes of the United States without concluding that anything is amiss. This characterization of the United States as a dilapidated nation likely comes off as melodrama for those in New England or Silicon Valley, while being an exasperating understatement for those living in the inner-city ghettos along the East Coast, tumbleweed towns of rural Appalachia, or the trailer parks of the Florida Panhandle. Many of those who have their heads above water are, therefore, not privy to the evocative imagery of a broken state that would spur the emotional reaction necessary to initiate change. They also likely take the benefit of family wealth and public programs enacted at the state and local levels for granted. Even the sizable number who recognize the damage have limited ability to effect change outside of their voting districts. It is less a matter of having to convince one’s neighbors of the dangers of the current political trajectory and the appropriate recourse, than of having to strong-arm a deluded stranger a thousand miles away. The symptoms are variegated, but the national sentiment is one of anxiety and agitation that the United States’ performance is no longer up to par, that the American engine is sputtering, that the well has dried up. Most of the population is left gasping for air, while those in positions of power point fingers and play tug-of-war over economic and political theory.
The world is a more complicated place now than at the time of the Founding Fathers or during the post-war period. The country is no longer predominantly rural but urban, and the frontier mindset has been largely superseded by a cosmopolitan one. There is a long history of political polarization, economic missteps, social quagmires, and military blunders, whose understandings are skewed by the libertarian and exceptionalist interpretations spawned by the national philosophy. There is an increased capacity for policies to be informed by mathematical models and empirical studies in ways that may contradict the intuition dogmatically codified in statements of principle. The governments of centuries past are very different from modern ones in their hazards, capabilities, organization, and ethic. Whether the United States’ approach outperforms the strategies of other countries in a global market—such as the state capitalism of China—is unclear.
In this context, the national philosophy, which was instrumental in unifying the United States and catapulting it to the top of the world, backfires. It, in turn, becomes a source of discord, leaving a country with enormous momentum squabbling as it barrels towards a tinderbox of social and economic pain. And the steadfast belief in American exceptionalism means that the country may have wed itself to an anachronism. It is reluctant not only to apply the brakes or change course, but to even look out the windows to study the successes and failures of other countries—let alone glance at the rearview mirror to learn from its own history.
The current repercussion of the national philosophy is that financially successful individuals exert outsized influence in government, where they have lobbied aggressively and successfully for deregulation and laissez-faire economic policies. Legislators, who see them as the cream of the crop of a meritocratic process, defer to their preferences, fearful that hindering their autonomy will dull the sharp edge of American enterprise. The United States’ clout is derived from its economy, after all. President Trump’s credibility and ability to strong-arm the Republican Party is derived from this deference. The proof is in the pudding logic of the national philosophy (i.e. material wealth must be the remunerative evidence of the fruits of individual skill, work ethic, or entrepreneurship that has also benefitted others) ignores externalities and the processes by which wealth is generated and accumulated. Government policies, consequently, are enacted to prime outliers at the expense of the working and middle classes. This is all done under the ansatz of trickle-down economics—that by helping the best and brightest be successful—everyone will reap the economic benefits. In practice, the so-called best and brightest are drawn from a small, privileged pool of the well-connected, whose path to success is often lubricated with gravy rather than elbow grease.
Although many are cynical, they have no options in a gridlocked two-party system. Moreover, they fear the stigma of being a complainer or being accused of ingratitude through unfair comparisons to countries with a fraction of America’s wealth, are self-conscious that their struggles are due to innate inferiority instead of a rigged system, and are ultimately beholden to extractive companies for their livelihood in the absence of a reasonable social security net. Conversely, the financially successful are idolized, even if begrudgingly, by many among the working and middle classes who—though held hostage by exploitative labor practices—are still naively optimistic about the American Dream. They subscribe to the branding of the United States as the land of opportunity, are easily manipulated by their misguided sense of patriotism and meritocracy, and remain suspicious of—or are under-represented—by government. That the bootstraps adage is actually the normalization of an adynaton is a fitting metaphor for the quixotism of their mentality.
The cultural consequence of the national philosophy is a sizable stigma against those who could most benefit from government assistance. They are frequently cast as moochers or delinquents devoid of personal accountability, and their destitution is used to justify further stripping what is interpreted as a futile social security net. This attitude is doubly harmful to historically disenfranchised groups like African Americans, since it implies that multi-generational poverty and malaise are the result of cultural nihilism, instead of the endemic effects of extractive policies that prevent family wealth accumulation at lower income brackets. Attempts to expand the social security net are met with resistance due to a pervasive belief—presumably compounded by the events of World War II and the Cold War—that socialism is the same as communism or is inevitably a prelude to fascism. And distrust of government has been deepened by revelations of manufactured evidence and cover-ups during the Vietnam and Iraq Wars. The financial elite, well-to-do, and self-made tend to view wealth redistribution as state-enforced theft of their hard-gotten gains. Churches tend to consider an expanding state as an atheistic encroachment on functions traditionally handled by religious charity, as well as amounting to the encouragement of sloth. The wealthy are often graced with undeserved virtues, while those who are struggling are admonished for non-existent vices.
The suspicion of government has, unfortunately, turned into a self-fulling prophecy.
Since so many treat government as a forum for corruption, extortion, and incompetence, its capabilities to serve as the major nexus of public input; to advocate for public well-being; and to stabilize the economy are not fully tapped. The end result is the repeated election of individuals and parties that seek to reduce the capacity of government to serve as stewards for public property, as well as the vociferation of free-market ideas that are empirically pernicious to the average individual. The suspicion of government has, unfortunately, turned into a self-fulling prophecy.
Either due to the realities of campaign financing (which requires courting corporations), a wariness about burdening a deeply indebted economy with additional social spending, or the necessity of coexisting with an opposition that has moved the middle-of-the road well to the right, the Democratic Party hardly fits the liberal mold of its international analogs. (It is difficult to believe that the party of labor rights had as its candidate a former board member of Wal-Mart, who received $1.8 million in speaking fees from Goldman Sachs.) Many consider the grassroots success of Bernie Sanders a damning indictment of the Democratic Party’s abandonment of Middle America in favor of Wall Street over the last several decades.
The Republican Party, on the other hand, has long been a coalition of single-issue voters and unusual—even adversarial—bedfellows held together by financial support from the ultra-wealthy. As income inequality continues to rise, a plurality of them would actually benefit from the policies of the Democrats yet continue to steadfastly vote Republican, suggesting that pragmatism has yet to overpower ideology. Until it does, things will continue to get worse.
The Republicans claim that Democrats—with their belief in higher taxes, a larger social welfare system, and bigger government—are antithetical to the libertarian underpinnings of the national philosophy. The Democrats charge that the Republicans’ strategy of tax cuts for businesses and the rich has tilted the playing field so severely as to exorcise the spirit of meritocracy. That the two strategies ultimately seek to achieve the same goal—a domineering economy rather than a humanitarian society emphasizing quality of life for everyone—but are diametrically opposed in their approach makes compromise difficult. Consequently, there have been few landmark bills passed over the last couple of decades (Obamacare is the recent notable exception), as the two parties see-saw in and out of power with little long-term direction. Whereas other countries would have reacted more decisively in reforming their economy and policies in light of an eroding quality of life, both political parties in the United States—having the additional apprehension of jeopardizing American dominance—are forced to tread cautiously. They run the risk of the nation rotting from the inside-out.
Pointing to the national philosophy as the source of political polarization is undoubtedly deeply unsatisfying. It is intangible, difficult to fix, and feels like a cop-out. Injecting what is itself a manufactured concept as an explanation seems like a textbook logical fallacy. It feels more substantive to identify a single issue and understand a candidate’s or party’s handling of that as the dealbreaker. War, recession, terrorism, disaster relief—these have been the hot-button issues in the last few elections. However, President Obama, who inherited a country in a mess, left things largely in good order. Ironically, in doing so he may have removed all the distractions that normally take center stage during the American presidential elections and, thus, allowed the deeper undercurrent of frustration, building for decades, to be exposed. And given that this frustration was addressed not by a barrage of policy proposals but an unprecedented level of grandstanding, punditry, and reliance on talking points, it is perilous not to take the role of ideology seriously.
President Trump’s candidacy was successful because his blame campaign proved effective in pulling the ideological puppet strings of various factions who—on the basis of self-interest in policy—should long ago have fractured. He echoed each faction’s specious explanation of how the national philosophy was adulterated by the establishment, validating their viewpoints and acknowledging their resentment. His remarks were not the product of careful calculation but, simply, knee-jerk comments reflecting his own ignorance, and drawn from a cultural pool of common stereotypes. His secondary slogans of “drain the swamp” and “America first” reinforce the message of reinstating the national philosophy to its rightful place to “make America great again.” Given that the national philosophy is the psychological equivalent of a patriotic symbol to a sizable fraction of the population, his pronouncements had the same effect in garnering outraged solidarity as burning Old Glory.
President Trump enthused rural voters by lauding their difficult lifestyle and portraying city-slickers as ungrateful leeches who bite the hands that feed them. That the rural man is the prototypical American echoes Thomas Jefferson’s sentiments that the “cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bands.” To the rich and poor alike, he promised across the board tax cuts, claiming that the government had no right to take their hard-earned money to support the lazy. To the Rust Belt and those in coal country, he promised to lift environmental regulations. How dare the government kill their industries? This is the encroachment of government into private enterprise the Founding Fathers warned us about!
The sales pitch to evangelicals, who are enraptured by prosperity gospel and convinced Democrats are the party of moral corruption, was trivial. The country needs to return to its Judeo-Christian roots so that it can once again be the shining city upon a hill! Look where Barack Hussein Obama is taking us, with his legalization of same-sex marriage and support for abortion. Conservative media consumers were already well-primed for then-candidate Trump’s message, and the ultra-rich were lolling their tongues as soon as he put his name on the ticket. What better way to vindicate the cultural and employment anxieties of the anti-immigration, anti-globalist, and white nationalist segments than to insist that the homegrown American recipe tastes best with local ingredients? We do not want foreigners with their backwards ideas and customs coming over here and taking our jobs. Our factories are already closing and moving abroad because of them! Do we want to be medieval like the Middle East? Do we want to be like the sissy Europeans? There is a reason China copies the USA after all! His accusations that the world has been taking advantage of America resonated because many are convinced that dutifully following the national prescription will inevitably lead to success—and that it is only by subverting America’s magnanimity that other countries have thrived.
Getting the elderly to turn on millennials, already derided as weak, lazy, and entitled is an easy game, as is tapping into the unfocused, naïve frustration of the young. And what better way to refute the idea that American democracy is sold to the highest bidder, to outrage oversensitive social progressives, and for disgruntled Sanders supporters and those wary of Clinton allegiances to vindicate themselves than to elect the trash-talking, self-financing, screw-you candidate. Of course, none of his interpretations of how the national philosophy was neglected hold much water, and—taken together—they are completely inconsistent. However, they all have undeniable emotional appeal for a patriotic population attached to its belief in exceptionalism, tired of political gridlock and desperately looking to stop the hemorrhaging in its quality of life. And President Trump’s rambling style, unabashed ignorance, and unapologetic braggadocio made him the perfect salesman for this incoherent message, devoid of particulars and built on bravado.
In electing President Trump, a good chunk of his voters have, of course, made a tragic mistake. If the goal was to drain the swamp—to prevent Washington insiders and bought politicians from catering to lobbyists and crony capitalists—the election of the Republican Party, representing itself as family‑, faith-and community-oriented, while consistently aligning with the subversive interests of big corporations, was an own goal. And to elect this party to power based on the bluster of an unconfirmed billionaire, who has a decades-long track record of unscrupulous personal and business conduct, amounts to walking oneself to the gallows. The people who are counting on him to kick the corrupt to the curb are going to get kicked off a cliff. The first portend of suffering to come was the Trumpcare proposal, which sought to cut taxes levied to fund healthcare by $765 billion over the next decade, with 40% of the savings going to the top 1%. It would have disproportionately denied services to his own voters, forced 14 million people off Medicaid, and been a literal death sentence to thousands had it not been blocked in the Senate by a margin of a single vote.
The great irony is that every instance of desecration of the national philosophy that President Trump identified and railed against was a red herring: for the current convulsions in American society are neither the hunger pangs of a country deprived of its staple crop, nor the emetic reaction to consuming a contaminated serving. Rather, it is the angina of a nation engorged on its signature dish. The current state of the United States is the product of the national philosophy, left unchecked and taken to its natural conclusion.
Duluxan Sritharan is a PhD candidate at Harvard University.