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EDMONTON, AB Aug 9, 2015/ Troy Media/ – Donald Trump was supposed to be a sideshow, comic relief during the dog days of summer. And, although Trump’s run may turn out to be exactly that, the unprecedented popularity of Trump among U.S. Republicans today speaks to a growing malaise in politics – call it the Rob Ford Effect.
Rob Ford broke the mold of civility in modern politics. Outrageous comments, open biases against gays, women and immigrants were used effectively to differentiate him from the norm. As Ford proved over and over, the tragi-comic entertainment value of shock politics hits a raw nerve in some voters; bottom line it’s also working for Trump.
Trump kicked off his run for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination by calling immigrants from Mexico “rapists”. His central message of ‘Make America Great Again’ is underpinned by his unorthodox opinions and his vicious attack on the quiet civility of the status quo. And shockingly, as the media reacts in horror to his political incorrectness, Trumps poll ratings are soaring.
A generation ago, none of this would have been possible. In fact it shouldn’t be possible today. Polls consistently show that the broad majority of Canadians and Americans support civil and gay rights, are lenient when it comes to immigration and believe strongly in formalizing the equality of women in society.
Ironically many of these same people also voted for Ford or are supporting Trump. What gives?
Well, I believe the answer to that question lies in the pace of change in modern life. The second half of the 20th and the first decade of the 21st century have been among the most radical and reformist in Western history.
In the wake of the Second World War’s unprecedented violence and the racist horrors of Nazism, the very idea of social hierarchy and cultural privilege began to lose their social legitimacy. In consequence, as the post war world began to emerge in the ‘60s and ’70s the rights rebellion began in earnest.
Beginning with the Civil Rights movement in the United States, and Women’s liberation more broadly, Western societies began the process of dismantling their pre-existing racial and gender hierarchies.
These reforms were followed by the very popular policy of multiculturalism, which became another unstoppable movement redefining the cultural makeup of Western life. More recently, we’ve seen the Gay Pride movement, including the thorny issue of gay marriage and LGBT rights, overcoming historical sexual and gender biases. Taken as a whole, a host of popular minority rights legislation has radically transformed Western life and culture.
While all this has been broadly popular and is supported philosophically by the principle of equal rights, it has also been necessary to unravel older (white) privileges and tribal prejudices to make it all work.
Until recently, although there was isolated opposition to societal changes, they were never sufficient to reverse the progressive course of history. Indeed, the very fact of political ‘correctness’ implied that challenging the activist status quo would contaminate your views with ideological poison.
Today, Donald Trump can openly insult Mexicans or refer to women as ‘fat pigs,’ or ‘slobs’, with impunity.
What has changed to make this kind of viciousness OK?
To answer this question we need to look more deeply at the stresses and strains modern living is placing on ordinary citizens.
Donald Trump strikes a cord when he says, “This country is in big trouble. We don’t win anymore. We lose to China. We lose to Mexico, both in trade and at the border. We lose to everybody.”
While it is true we’re more equal and socially just today, behind the scenes rising debt loads, globalization and other changes in the economy have progressively undermined middle-class economic security. Truth is, individuals are carrying an order of magnitude more risk today, just as their cold-hearted politicians are (in the name of fiscal ‘responsibility’) cutting programs and dismantling social supports across the board.
The Rob Ford Effect drives a wedge by appealing to these deep-seated insecurities. It denies our collective future as a progressive culture and reduces our political dialogue to a narrow bitter tribalism.
This development is dangerous. Make no mistake what happened in Germany in the ‘30s can happen here. Ford and Trump are canaries in the cage; they indicate a troubling (and potentially violent) counter-revolutionary force waiting to burst forth if we fail to make real progress raising living standards and improving the individual, social wellbeing of all in our society.
Robert McGarvey is an economic historian and co-founder of the Genuine Wealth Institute, an Alberta-based think tank.
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