There is at least one person who, if he were still alive, would not be at all surprised by the rise of Donald Trump in the past 6 months. In 1997, almost 20 years ago, the philosopher Richard Rorty (by then at Stanford although he taught for most of his career at Princeton) came to one of the most prescient conclusions of the late 20th century. Writing of the industrialized democracies of the West, he predicted a Weimar-like period in which, because of the structural changes being brought about by growing globalization of the world economy, the blue collar work force of the West would become “desperately afraid” about its future, and completely lose trust in what he termed the white collar work force. It is the fear of the American blue collar work force that has fueled Trump’s rise. “Something will crack,” Rorty wrote, and that would lead blue collar work force to look for a “strong man… to assure them that… the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmoderninst professors (of which he was one) will no longer be calling the shots.“
“Weimar,” of course, refers to the period after the First World War, the 1920s, when the West, at least, seemed on the surface, peaceful and stable, but when structural pressures were building up that culminated in the rise of Fascism, the most destructive and costly war in history, and genocide on a grand scale. I do not believe that Rorty was necessarily prophesying, the same terrible outcomes, but he was saying similar pressures were building up for “strong men” of the right or the left to be welcomed again by significant segments of Western populations.
The parallels between the 1920s and the first decade of this century are rather stark, at least in the West. The Weimar Republic had pulled itself together by 1923, stabilizing the chaotic political situation that obtained following the loss of the First World War and suppressing the hyperinflation that characterized its first three years, and a flowering occurred that made Berlin a cultural and social magnet. But the Republic was dependent on US bank loans to meet its reparation payments imposed by the French and British after their victory in the war, and the Wall Street crash of 1929 slowed those loans to a trickle. The economy crashed and unemployment surged. The depression that hit Germany first, affected not just blue collar workers but much of the labor force, and it spread throughout Europe slowly but surely, creating political and social problems everywhere. Workers and the population generally lost faith in their democratic leaders, who failed to redress their hardship, and in many cases blamed those considered outsiders, the “other.” Populist and nativist political leaders prospered.
Honesty, they say, means he is not afraid to be politically incorrect
Shades of 2008 when the US banking system, having lived high wide and handsome through most of the previous decade, on faulty housing loans and other hollow assets, brought the US economy crashing down, producing unemployment levels not known since the 1930s. Manufacturing industry, with its blue collar work force, was especially vulnerable. This downturn spread through world also, economies were affected, and unemployment increased. In the 21st century, however, there were two major differences from the 1930s: 1) other economic powers had arisen, viz China, which provided some lift to the global economy; and 2) Keynesian economic remedies were used (though insufficiently in at least the US case) to counter the recession, and though unemployment increased it did not reach the catastrophic levels of the 1930s anywhere. Nonetheless, many blue collar American workers were affected, possibly permanently as industries moved off shore—an effect of globalization and of many trade agreements that have dotted the international economic landscape in the past 50 years.
Nothing better describes the rise of Donald Trump to the unexpected heights of presumptive nominee of the Republican party than a look at the 1930s. His celebrity, nurtured by over 10 years of popular “reality TV” (which is as far from the real world as Alice in Wonderland but far less entertaining), and especially the way he has used that celebrity, have led his faithful adherents, primarily white, less educated, blue collar workers, to consider him the strong man who will protect them from the dangers they perceive in the modern world— illegal immigrants, legal immigrants who are minorities, Muslims, trade agreements, and especially Islamist terrorism.
Trump is the populist voice that Rorty predicted, and one which echoes, not only the numerous other populist voices of the early 21st century who base their appeal on the fear of “the other,” but the fascist voices of the first half of the previous century who played also on the fears of many citizens that arose from structural dislocations of the world economy and fears of “the other.”(Interestingly some writers believe there is an intersection between celebrity and neo-fascism, and perhaps I will explore that phenomenon in a subsequent article.)
Much has been written about Trump’s appeal to the white, under-educated, segment of the American population, and about the energy as well as the boisterous, often violent, character of his rallies. His followers at those rallies, say they support him so enthusiastically because he is honest, strong, and powerful. Honesty, they say, means he is not afraid to say what he thinks; not afraid to be politically incorrect, and powerful enough to get the things done he says he wants to do—like end illegal immigration (with a wall), and do away with President Obama’s signature achievement of medical care for all (it was designed to help them). They perceive his strength and his combativeness from his years on reality TV, where he proclaimed his whole life was a fight. (It seems sort of interesting that a man who claims to be a billionaire 10 times over, and who inherited $300 million to start his adult life with has had to fight so hard all his life.)
“Something will crack,” Rorty wrote
His supporters cite his lack of fear of appearing politically incorrect as one of the reasons for their admiration. In fact he has made a number of racist, misogynous statements during the campaign, and these are probably what they are talking about. Professor Rorty saw this coming and predicted that, “the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out… All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.”
Can Trump win in November against Hilary Clinton? It seems unlikely, but I admit to thinking it unlikely that he could win the Republican nomination. Little did I understand his appeal when I dismissed his chances so lightly. The campaign against Hilary Clinton is almost certainly going to be down and dirty. Despite all the economic issues that rightly concern his core supporters, it may turn on security—who can protect the country better. Trump’s stock rose considerably after the Paris and San Bernardino attacks. His response to terrorism fits in neatly with his approach to immigration – the less the better. No immigration would make us safer seems to be his view. This ignores that most terrorist attacks in the US, and most in Europe, have been committed by home-grown terrorists, some of whose ties to the transnational terrorist organizations have seemed pretty weak.
To beat Hilary Clinton, Trump will have to win almost all of the white vote in the nation. He has antagonized all other groups—women, Hispanics, Muslims, other Asians, and other minorities. This will be steep hill to climb.