This is the first entry in a new monthly series.
To my dear European readers (and any Americans privy to the deep secret that the internet lacks borders), I regret that this inaugural column must begin with an apology. I sincerely apologize that the much more consequential inauguration of Donald J. Trump occurred some 3 months ago, according to my countdown-to-Armageddon clock (imported from Geneva), and I am only now penning my first entry. From the nation of industrial industrialists, I offer my profoundest mea culpa that my Protestant work ethic has not lived up to the American caricature our current commander-in-chief claims for his public persona.
To be sure, there are reasons for this delay besides my desire to hide under Plymouth Rock. Picking a topic to begin has been difficult. I first wanted to explain, as best I could, how America came to the sage decision that an erratic toddler would be just the right fit for our highest office. Then, his time in office became seductive. Should I examine the travel ban, his conflicts of interest, his foreign leader tête-à-têtes happening in a semi-public restaurant he happens to own or, to bring it completely current, how his current about-face on Syria/Russia may seem encouraging, but should be taken with a shaker of salt because, if we are to believe this latest chemical attack really shook his worldview, then said view was tragically based on profound ignorance of the previous atrocities that gave rise to the maligned refugees he has been attempting to block? In the end, I have decided to begin with my first instinct, and offer my humble theory as to how Trump came to put his hand on the sourcebook for “two” Corinthians. Effort will be made to avoid delving into the myriad issues and biases that derailed Sec. Clinton (a separate topic) and limit discussion to the positive case somewhat less than half of America saw for shattering that highest glass ceiling for Orange Americans.
But first, a brief caveat. This is an opinion piece and, as such, its author has a bias. My animosity for Trump far predates his political life. It goes back to sometime in the late 90s, when the AOL-Time Warner building had just been erected at Columbus Circle in Manhattan. I remember walking beneath its considerable shadow and happening to glance at the top of the glittering high-rise directly across from it. The top two floors of this building, part of Trump’s considerable New York portfolio, were covered with a banner that, while difficult to read from the street, would have dominated the view of any would-be buyers touring the AOL-Time Warner penthouses. It read, “See, your views aren’t so good, are they? We have the real Central Park views and address. Best Wishes, The Donald.” I was enraged by this middle finger being broadcast across our public space. I tried to imagine what sort of coke-addled narcissist would think this was a good, or even acceptable idea. I fantasized about selling t-shirts with his likeness and the caption, “The Duchess of Poopershire,” because I imagined how tortured he would feel if this sobriquet made its way to headlines in the New York Post. What I certainly NEVER imagined was that this fuck-you attitude would someday help him resonate with voters. I thought this was something he could get away with, not something that would ever help him. Oh, the innocence.
So, how did this vituperative developer-turned-TV personality make the successful transition into politics? I’ve been trying to remember the source of a quote on this, and since I can’t remember the source, I probably also have the wording a little off. The quote is that Americans can’t possibly understand the rise of Hitler, because he looks like German mythology. An American Hitler would look like John Wayne. While I don’t like comparing Trump to Hitler (Berlusconi feels more apt), I think the thought has merit. Trump succeeded through his calculated resemblance to a certain type of American folk hero, not the laconic cowboy personified by John Wayne, but rather the brash self-made businessman personified by Andrew Carnegie and, well, Trump.
Timing also played a part. As many Europeans will recognize from their own nations’ histories, there is a certain moment when demagogues tend to emerge. It may not happen in the middle of deep recessions, when people are too scared to throw bricks at the systems that are their last defense against the rising chaos, but it emerges like clockwork when that recession is just far enough behind that people feel a little more secure, but still mad as hell about what they just went through. Now people feel safe enough to roll the dice on a tectonic change, and their irrational anger often takes the form of some radical expression of their national id. This is the moment that gave us Hitler and Pinochet.
In America, we were protected from this cycle after The Great Depression by the long and popular incumbency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, but contemporaneous American political figures, like Huey Long on the left or a resurgent Ku Klux Klan on the right, fit the pattern. This was both the danger and the promise of this past American election. It was dangerous because we were in this perilous part of the economic cycle, where voters stop thinking rationally, but there was promise in the fact that, if we dodged the bullet by even a hair, the moment would be safely in our rear-window by our next election. Unfortunately, the proverbial bullet hit us.
Those from countries, regions, or even segments of the United States that are accustomed to seeing business moguls as oppressive entities to be resisted or restrained may find the notion of a businessman folk hero somewhat odd. But for wide swaths of the American public, this is indeed a celebrated figure. Ironically, it is often the farthest removed from this archetype, the very blue-collar individuals who are most likely to be oppressed by unfettered business, who cling to this legend. Maybe that’s to be expected. I am reminded of a Roman tour guide who once told me, “In Rome, we are much less Catholic than the rest of Italy, because in Rome we know the Catholic Church.” Whatever the cognitive dissonance is that leads the hardest-hit Americans to often venerate the most well-off, it is important to keep in mind that it is only one type of businessman that fits their platonic ideal.
The businessman folk hero must be self-made. What is impressive is to build something out of nothing through the superhuman force of your hard work and talent. To be born into a fortune is to be removed from hard work, disconnected from regular people, and probably effete. It’s to be ignored that any self-made Titan of Industry has benefited from some degree of miraculous luck along the way. Trump understands this requirement, and it is why he has always tried to downplay the degree to which he inherited his father’s fortune and business. Trump is adamant that he started out with a “modest” one-million-dollar loan, rather than the hundred-million-dollar inheritance others have claimed. Another absolute requirement is that a business empire is founded on making something tangible: Railroads, steel mills, or, in the case of Trump, buildings. A financial empire is too abstract, too convoluted, and therefore untrustworthy. Plus, instead of hiring “regular” Americans to do physical labor, Wall Street hires intellectual elites (ignore the fact that most factories and coal mines are financed with money from venture capital firms).
In J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy, Vance writes about how the people he grew up around in rural Ohio admired entrepreneurs, but detested the professional class of lawyers and mid-level businessman. According to Vance, these are seen as two-faced mincers of words. They violate one of the central tenets of rural masculinity: Plainly and bluntly saying what you mean at all times. Vance also touches on, but doesn’t really delve into, the notion that many Americans view letting someone tell you what to do as, well, un-American. “Normal” folk don’t tell anyone else what to do, even if they have to listen to their boss, and business leaders don’t let anyone else tell them what to do, even if they are constantly bossing around their employees. The professional class is damned on both fronts: It consists of people who get to listen to a boss AND be someone else’s boss. This removes them entirely from a hallmark of American masculinity (imagine how such a voter would view Hillary Clinton, who is both a woman AND the epitome of the professional class lawyer).
Still, in the case of Trump, it’s really the blunt talk that is the most salient point. This is the part of the businessman folk hero that previous business-magnate-turned-politicians failed to grasp. The businessman folk hero is brazenly “new money.” He is an emissary of the working class who has punctured the effete world of old money, like an anti-snobbery brick thrown through a window of Venetian glass. When people talk about Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of the “men who built America,” as the cult of personality would label them (robber barons to others), it’s generally considered an important part of his legend that he not only became filthy rich off steamships and railroads, he continued to swear like a sailor, and never even attempted to behave “refined.” This is something Michael Bloomberg, Steve Forbes, and Ross Perot never understood about the brand they were selling. The type of self-made billionaire their target voters lionize needs to talk like a dockworker. Trump got this, and so his rudeness, his bluntness, and his tackiness completed the archetype. These voters were waiting for a self-made businessman who trash-talks his opponents (“Little Marco”), who brags about the size of his anatomy during a debate (“I guarantee you there’s no problem.”), who is comfortable advocating violence (“You know what we used to do to guys like that?”), who lives in a Louis XIV cosplay set and gaudily brands his name on the side of his private jet (in which he eats fast food), and who isn’t cowed by “PC culture” into not saying things that may be taken as “vaguely” sexist or racist.
And here we get to the least comfortable part of Trump’s appeal to discuss: The appeal to bigotry. Certainly, there were millions of non-bigoted Trump supporters, but it’s much less clear that millions of bigots chose not to support him. The Titans of Industry who Trump models himself after weren’t consensus builders; they were stubborn insisters that they knew something other people didn’t. Carnegie knew that steel was the future. Vanderbilt knew that railroads were the future. Rockefeller knew that oil was the future. This stubbornness is connected to bigotry. You can’t rationally argue that white is better than non-white, because there is no rational basis for this belief. You have to stubbornly insist that these are truths you know in your gut. So, when Trump insisted Obama was born in Kenya, with absolutely no evidence to support that, he gained fans. When he called Mexicans rapists, he gained fans. When the Central Park Five, five minority teenagers arrested for raping and murdering a white female jogger, were exonerated by DNA evidence, Trump continued (and still continues) to maintain their guilt. And while one shudders at the similarity between this approach and Southern lynchings of the last century, it is impossible to ignore that Trump tapped into something dark in American culture.
One may note that this argument ignores Trump’s ability to control a news cycle, to bury scandals beneath other scandals until they become almost impossible to focus on, and to generally drum up unprecedented amounts of free publicity. While these skills did certainly help him, they were ultimately techniques at deflecting negatives and emphasizing positives. His ability to control the news cycle wasn’t the reason people voted for him. Although, it may have been the reason people saw him as a serious candidate, and the skills that allowed him to control the news cycle, particularly his propensity for outlandish statements, certainly did resonate.
One might also note that this folk hero argument largely ignores Trump’s actual policy positions. While it is true that some of his positions (keeping social security, pulling out of free trade agreements) may have been popular, it is also true that his campaign was remarkably devoid of policy specifics. What Trump offered was a certain type of swagger and a promise that he would be a barroom brawler for America. At one point, the ever-fawning Sean Hannity referred to Trump as a “blue-collar billionaire,” to which Jon Stewart responded, “That’s not a thing.” Stewart may have been correct in fact, but he was incorrect in archetype. The “blue-collar billionaire” may not be a real person, but it is an idea. In fact, it is an American folk legend. A legend that somewhat less than half of America voted to become the 45th President of The United States of America.