On Friday night, fierce clashes broke out between his supporters and angry protesters in Chicago. Protesters had been expected, of course – they have been present at almost all of Trump’s major addresses. But this time it was not a few hecklers, it was a violent clash between opposing visions of the republic.
Critics often portray Trump as a clown. Popular comedians parody his blundering mannerisms and demolish his extreme political positions on the anvil of common decency.
Regrettably, even as they do so, Trump’s popularity grows ever stronger. The baffling question is: what’s the attraction of a man made famous for his hostile “you’re fired” antics on reality television?
A quick analysis of Trump’s following seems to indicate they’re middle aged, predominantly white and largely male.
Why is this demographic so attracted to Trump? Jared Taylor, a Yale scholar and editor of the online magazine American Renaissance, put forward a simple but compelling reason: the present system is perceived as unfair to whites – blue-collar males in particular.
For many working Americans, Trump’s angry rhetoric hits home. “If people can just pour into the country illegally, you don’t have a country,” he has said. He reflects the fear of many Americans (and some outside observers) that their dominant culture and founding values are being swamped by a tidal wave of non-white immigrants.
Anger at political correctness is common among Trump’s supporters. Ignoring the fact that there are many loyal American Muslims, Trumps states bluntly, “The United States has a problem with Muslims … I didn’t see Swedish people knocking down the World Trade Center.”
Many of Trump’s pronouncements are designed to inflame the latent racism and narrow stereotypes shared by his supporters. But Trump is becoming more popular because he dares to speak the truth about forbidden subjects. And one of those subjects is the betrayal of working Americans by decades of so-called free trade.
Freer trade has been a top priority for Western governments since the Second World War. In its earlier days, it was seen as a way of raising living standards in the Third World and eliminating a major cause of war. But free trade, while a boon to large corporations, has not worked out very well for blue-collar workers in America – and they’re angry.
Jobs in America are more difficult to find and far less secure than they once were. Three decades of globalization tipped the balance of power in the workplace in favour of management. Wages for working people have essentially flat lined. Many of Trump’s supporters resent this and have abandoned any hope that the Establishment will do anything about it.
Enter Trump with his breathtaking simplicity: “My big focus is China and OPEC and all of these countries that are just absolutely destroying the United States.” Trump supporters rise as one, fists pumping, when Trump tells them the fix is in and they’re the losers.
However, in rallying this base Trump risks driving wedges between Americans at a time when the nation is already divided and vulnerable. The foundation of any nation is the integrity of its civil society. Civility is vital to hold nations together, yet it is unravelling fast in America.
The U.S. was once notable for its unity of purpose and the strength of its civil society. It welcomed immigrants and supported its citizens with progressive policies and economic opportunities that were the envy of the world.
However, it’s been a long time since anyone – echoing Abraham Lincoln – described America as the “last best hope” for mankind.
Trump’s gleeful incitement to violence in recent rallies may be the beginning of the end for him. But it would be a mistake to underestimate the raw nerve he has touched.
Calmer heads and more compassionate politicians need to break out of their self-imposed silence and acknowledge the truth: the system is unfair and needs to be fixed. Doing so effectively would not only heal America’s wounds, it would help restore its greatest asset: the unity and strength of its civil society.
Robert McGarvey is an economic historian and former managing director of Merlin Consulting, a London, U.K.-based consulting firm. Robert’s most recent book is Futuromics: A Guide to Thriving in Capitalism’s Third Wave.