“History is past politics, and politics present history.” - Sir John Seeley
I do not know why Trump was elected. Social trends and changes are difficult to interpret, especially when we live in the midst of them. It is possible to be too close to an object such that it becomes incomprehensible. We must be doubtful of any attempts to explain with one or two simple reasons why Trump was elected for at least a decade or so. Furthermore, we must be doubtful of any attempts by an American to explain the election: to be a citizen of this nation is to be close to the currents of the country such that we do not know when we are still, or when we are caught in a fashion. Tocqueville, for example, would not have been as perceptive had he been raised in America. Nonetheless, we demand some sort of answer, and no answer will be flawless. Our best bet at finding a true explanation of the events of this past year will be to remain open to ideas that had not previously occurred to us. This essay, then, is a collection of explanations. Some contradict each other, others are compatible. Some are simple ideas for this time and place. Others are attempts to explain the present and the past, and, perhaps, to predict the future. I am certain that counter arguments can be easily found for all of these accounts. Please offer them. I ask only that you pick one or two explanations and keep them in the back of your mind as you explain to your children why Donald Trump was elected. Ten or twenty years will provide you with new insight, including new insight into these accounts.
Furthermore, keep political biases in mind. A liberal will give a different account of this election than a conservative. This means only that they are seeing the same world through different lenses. Each lens notices things that the other is blind to. I am a Never-Trump conservative. The accounts I have chosen to give will rest upon that moral basis. I dismiss out of hand reasoning that rests upon the fact that America is racist. That explains some phenomena, but not all and certainly not this. America just elected its first black president. If Trump was elected by racists (which is a broad generalization and little more than a caricature of Trump voters), then we must explain why America has become more racist since 2008. Human bias requires an explanation. It will not do to explain racism by pointing to the racists and stopping there. The problem of racism cannot be solved without first attempting to understand why there are racists. To respond to Trump’s win with the simple answer of “racism/sexism/xenophobia” is lazy reasoning, circular, and also uninteresting.
Finally, the ideas that I am presenting are not all self-generated. I am hardly that clever. The vast majority of them stem from conversations I’ve had with students on campus, articles I’ve read lectures and interviews that I have listened to. I cannot cite all my sources, so rather I would like to thank the polity at large. One of the many benefits of St. John’s College is that it gives us an unmodern perspective to evaluate modern events. This makes the students here vastly more interesting than students elsewhere and I have enjoyed all the perspectives on Trump’s rise. The only person I wish to name directly is a person who is not even a current student, but might return in the future: Ryan Dau. Late night chats with him have helped me to get a larger and clearer picture of this election, especially in the context of history. I am in his debt.
The 2016 election is an event that directs our attention towards larger historical movements within which we live. Let us now examine what some of those movements might be.
"Forget the press, read the internet." - Donald Trump
In 1960, the first televised presidential debate took place between Richard Nixon and John F Kennedy. Those who listened to the debate on the radio believed Nixon to have been the victor. Those who watched the debate believed Kennedy to have won. This was one time in which the medium of a campaign entirely changed the nature and structure of the campaign itself. Looking at the role that the internet has played in this year’s election, I would argue that the 2016 election was another case in which the presidential campaign was transformed by a new medium. Both Obama and Hillary have Twitters. Trump, however, knew how to use it. His Twitter feed was (and is) interesting. He did not filter his thoughts through a series of experts who knew what words he ought to use and what words he ought not to use. Instead, Trump was personal in a way that Hillary Clinton was not, he interacted directly with his audience. We saw him use the medium less as a means of formal speechmaking, and more as a means of publicly portraying a stream of thought— for better and for worse.
Trump also seemed to attract and cultivate a certain kind of internet culture. He became a meme. The alt-right adopted the same sort of ironic, irreverent, and over the top humor to produce his propaganda that would normally be found on the pages of 4chan. After all, this is the year that Pepe the Frog, an absolutely pointless and idiotic meme of the internet, was portrayed on Hillary Clinton’s website as a symbol of white supremacy. Clinton regularly showed how foreign she was to the culture and age of the internet, and the internet responded by ostracizing her. Let us not forget the infamous (and, more importantly, entertaining) “Pokémon Go to the polls” comment. Any attempts that Hillary made to embed herself in the culture of the new medium were correctly interpreted as just that: attempts. Trump did not attempt anything, he used Twitter just as so many users approach the medium- he simply Tweeted whatever was running through his mind at that moment. Trump’s “memefication” meant that he did not have to create his own propaganda. His followers iconized him instead.
Interestingly, Trump was not the only candidate who became something a meme this year. Let us not forget the popularity of the “Bernie or Hillary?” memes before the Democratic primaries. Bernie and Trump both attracted tech-savvy young people in a way that Hillary never managed to.
“We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.” -McLuhan
“As we move from the industrial to the information age, from the cold war world to the global village, we have an extraordinary opportunity to advance our values at home and around the world.” -President Bill Clinton
The medium of memes and the internet do not tell us much about moral content that attracted America to Trump as opposed to Clinton. Both offered starkly different views of what is good for America’s future. Clinton was a progressive: she stood for free trade, lowered borders, and an urban culture and morality. Her ads (when not attacking Trump) catered to minorities of all sorts, defended equity, emphasized empathy as the primary moral value, and promoted a global society, free of loyalties to the in-group. “If you believe we should never write discrimination into our laws...you’ve got to vote!” —Hillary.
Trump’s moralism was nationalist in nature. His policies were protectionist: we must build the wall to protect the nation, increase tariffs to protect our economy, we must make the nation of America great again. The message that Trump proposed contrasts sharply with the medium in which that message is carried. The Internet transcends national boundaries; it brings all men closer together, regardless of national loyalties. If Trump is the first President to effectively utilize computer technology, he is also the first President to stand firmly against the social changes that computer technology will bring about. The inclusive ethic of globalism, an ethic which values individuality and individual freedom more than group loyalty and tradition, has been firmly attacked by Trump and his followers. Why? And what is causing the change of events?
I have found the works of Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan particularly pertinent when this trend from the past year. I will try to summarize some of his more basic ideas. Technology changes us more than we change technology. A device can be created for a specific purpose, but its effects are unknown even to its inventor until that device enters the free market. The car was invented to get us from point A to point B faster. It is also the best piece of technology ever created to change the layouts of cities. Furthermore, technology is changing the very environment in which we live; in fact, technology is the environment in which we live. If two men stand in the same room, and one has a phone in his pocket and the other one does not, then they stand in different environments. The phone serves as a window, an extension of the eye and ear to outer world.
Technology is serving to connect us. At one point in time, it would have taken months for a person in France to learn that the latest king of England is dead. Now I know about a school shooting in Ohio while it currently happening. Technology, argues McLuhan, is making us into a Global Village. Our interactions with a person halfway across the globe are similar to how villagers interact with each other. Gossip spreads quickly, judgements are made quickly, and the individual is absorbed into the crowd, shame- justified or unjustified- is the primary means of social control. As new technologies create new environments, men become anxious. “All new technologies bring on the cultural blues, just as the old ones evoke phantom pain after they disappeared.” He says elsewhere “The instant involvement that accompanies instant technologies triggers a conservative, stabilizing, gyroscopic function in man.” The global village is a tribal village. It is not a land of peace, but a land of in-groups and out-groups. The individual is absorbed into his or her respective tribe in order that he might fight against his neighbor.
I do not think that these tribes necessarily have to be founded upon some sort of ideological content. Trump, for an example, is not an ideologue. If he were, he would be predictable. He is more like an energy which a person can pin their ideology to. He’s not conservative, but conservatives may see him as one. He is not libertarian, but libertarians can see him as one. I suspect for many Trump voters (though not all) he acts as a mirror, reflecting their own views and passions, expressing their own anxieties in less than 140 characters. If Trump is a sign of the future, and McLuhan leads me to believe that he is, then the political tribes of the future will have no philosophical standard to which they belong, but rather an empty sophistry used only to attack whoever dares draw their ire.
Trump’s election is one of many events— from Brexit to the rise of France’s National Front and Germany’s Alternative for Germany— that signal a global shift away from globalism. This may be a good thing. The end of globalism seems to be a unified and open global democracy in which national divisions are thin, if they exist at all. I do not see how globalist ethics permit any kind of national or local loyalties; such ethical dogmas directly conflict with ethics built upon empathy as the primary value. The left, always empathetic, wants Europe to open her borders so as to prevent the suffering of migrants. It seems blind to any argument that suggests that Europe’s first priority is to her own citizens because they are hers. Such arguments, I suspect, trigger a moral sensitivity that those who propose open environments either do not have or suppress. What matters is that people are suffering; this trumps all other moral concerns.
The global society, then, would be a land without a sense of belonging. A world in which men move freely across borders is a world in which no external moral demands are made upon the individual. Finally free, men move across the world like tumbleweeds, rootless, carried by the wind. Our children’s children’s children will have no homes, not because their houses were destroyed in some war, but because the concept of a home will be foreign to them; it demands a loyalty that is not empathetic.
“The American creed, one that Yale has proudly espoused, holds that an American should be judged as an individual and not as a member of a group.” - Judge Fleming (1969)
“A social theorist [Wyndham Lewis] about ten or fifteen years ago said, ‘You know, if you classify people enough different ways, you deprive them completely of their individuality.’ If somebody is exclusively moved in virtue of his participation in this bloc or in that bloc, creating enough blocs in which each one of us belongs, in the end we are all treated as categories …” - William F. Buckley Jr.
Anyone who has discussed politics with me at any length will know that I am extremely adverse to identity politics of any kind. Too often it becomes an excuse to lob ad hominem attacks, as opposed to taking the careful and tedious route of examining the argument itself. In short, it puts an end to discussion by attacking the attacker. Furthermore, it creates a political danger. If identity politics become common on both sides of the political aisle, and cooperation or attempts to understand and engage with the opponent’s argument become null, then there is no use persuading the other guy—he cannot understand our perspective because of his socio-economic background, skin color, gender, and so on. The mechanism by which any polity, especially democracy, moves—dialogue—is obsolete.
There is no reason that these identity politics must remain the tactics of the minority. If it is an effective tool of persuasion for one person, then it can be an effective tool of persuasion for another. Power does not dictate who argues by what means, and identity politics on the left has given rise to identity politics on the right.
Some people on the alt-right are white supremacists. I do not know the numbers, but I fear that it is greater than I would suspect and wish. White identity politics have long been tied to social unacceptable political movements (namely the Nazis and the KKK) and have not had a mainstream voice for years. Donald Trump is providing that voice, whether he means to or not. I suspect that there are several causes. First, we are now distant enough from the horrors of World War II that the events of that war have become common jokes. The same, incidentally, can be said for the horrors of the Soviet Union. Hitler killed seven million people in the concentration camps. According to Solzhenitsyn, Stalin killed around sixty million people over the course of his dictatorship. The vast evils of the previous century seem unreal to us, in large part because they are scarcely imaginable.
Second is the rise of politically correct culture. It is no coincidence that one of Trump’s most ardent and outspoken supporters, Milo Yiannopoulos, is supremely popular on college campuses. He attacks all of the things held sacred by most leftist college students- he attacks Muslims, feminists, and new sexualities and genders. His speeches are devised to make people angry, and they do. I regard it as a general rule of debate that as soon as one person loses his or her temper, they have automatically lost the debate. Milo knows what punches to throw, and what claims to make in order achieve this end. He is, in short, a very effective troll. He forces people to give way to their anxiety and anger in order to make a scene. I do not like Milo, but there is a reason he is popular. Like Trump, he speaks the unspeakable. There is a problem with the culture at large when that becomes a virtue.
This new right wing identity politic will do nothing to protect the basic liberties I care about. The result will be the same silencing of thought and enforcement of political correctness, but under a new name and a new language. The alt-right supporters will ostracize from its ranks anybody who dares question its new facts or dares doubt the philosophical basis upon which it rests. How could they not? By adopting the tactics of identity politics, they cannot be criticized. The political has become the personal, and to attack an idea shall become the equivalent of attacking the person. A recent article stated the issue clearly: “‘I knew that identity would come next,” she recalled. “It had to come. All they had to do was copy what they were hearing. The multiculturalist arguments you hear on every campus — those work for whites, too.” Mr. Spencer, asked in an interview how he would respond to the accusation that [the alt-right] was practicing identity politics in the manner of blacks and Hispanics, replied: “I’d say: ‘Yuh. You’re right.’’’
I have attacked globalism, now I must attack nationalism. If the choice of the future century will be between the two, then neither will lead to positive result. Classical liberalism and freedom from the tyranny of the state is, I fear, a dead man walking. America can do little more than to provide bread to her citizens, but man does not live on bread alone. We must attach ourselves to some hope of a better world, some reason to hope beyond our current sufferings. An America that delights in its virtues and refuses to see its vices can never be as a city on a hill, it will see itself instead as the new Jerusalem. The sense of belonging—the tribalism—that the alt-right desires so dearly will be its despair. In wanting to make itself ever more pure, it will not cease in ostracizing all members who are unlike it. In attempting to keep the nation the same, and not cover it with a new coat of paint, it will find that the nation shall rust. The alt-right is not conservative- the conservatism of Burke moves, though slowly. The alt-right demands a purity of thought and blood that is a reversal of many of the most basic American values. I support slowing down immigration, but I do not support building a wall. A wall demands a loss of individuality that serves both to keep out immigrants and also to retain emigrants. It symbolizes a closing of borders in both directions. While I want to keep America as my home, I do not want America to become my world.
The greatest criticism I can offer to the alt-right is that it is arrogant. For all its anti-semitism, it pretends to be the semites themselves. It forgets that Lincoln made sure to preface his description of the Americans with the phrase “almost-chosen people.”
“A golden rule: We must judge men, not by their opinions, but by what these opinions make of them…” - Georg Lichtenberg
What I fear most about Trump is an undoing and under-turning of established values. I do not see how we can defend crudity as a moral good. It is difficult to be tactful and polite. It is difficult to speak well. Any common slob can talk about grabbing women by their pussies. Rare is the man who keeps his mouth shut, and more rare and noble is the man who does not think about such things at all! Prudence is a trait that any leader must have. To praise slander that cannot even be deemed clever is to praise the opposite of prudence. The right, I fear, has fallen into the same trap of ressentiment that the left fell into many centuries ago. Things that were once thought properly good and virtuous are being decried as unvirtuous on both sides of the debate. One ought not take pride in being a “nasty woman” any more than one ought take pride in being a cheap tax-dodging businessman. Both are reversals of common sense: a common virtue for the masses which is not virtue at all.
That being said, I do not think that all Trump voters suffer from this suppressed envy. Hardly so! Most of them, I hope, simply decided to choose the devil they did not know. Many of people who voted for Trump wanted change, and decided to take the chance and roll the die, not knowing if the roll would be high or low. For others, a vote for Trump was a loud “no” at a long standing system which they see to have produced more evil than good. The average Trump voter is not a white supremacist, not overcome with a subconscious feeling of ressentiment, and not an enthusiastic voter. The average Trump voter is an average American, a trustworthy people for the most part. Nonetheless, my prophecies of the future are all pessimistic. Let us pray I am wrong.