THE TRUMP PHENOMENON
It does not require a history degree to realize that the 2016 Presidential election of Donald J. Trump will produce a plethora of books and articles on the subject, which is to say that my analysis is by no means the last word. True, he got less of the popular vote than Hillary Clinton, but in our system it is the electoral college that counts, and in any case, it still holds that half the voters chose Trump. Furthermore, he was supported by a wide variety of people whose interests would seem to be polar opposites. Whereas racist, antisemitic bigots were enthusiastic supporters, so were orthodox Jews. Pro-Trump voters also included evangelical Christians, mainstream corporate executives, and traditional conservative Republicans. Only an estimated eighteen percent of hispanics voted for Trump, but that was a large amount considering this candidate’s offensive remarks about Mexicans. Even a considerable number of Bernie Sanders enthusiasts voted for him.
What makes Trump’s victory all the more remarkable is his lack of qualifications. He is the first person elected President who never held political office or served in the military. As to his businessman acumen, whereas former Mayor Michael Bloomberg came from modest beginnings to become a multi-billionaire, Trump inherited tens of millions of dollars, and though he claims to a multi-billionaire, evidence is that his actual worth is worth under a billion, and though he personally never filed for bankruptcy, four of his casinos did. His airline, the Trump Shuttle went belly-up. He lost control of New York’s Plaza Hotel. Trump University was declared a fraud leading to his having to pay a twenty-five million dollar settlement, and he has a nasty habit of stiffing contractors. Despite this abysmal record, Trump makes a lucrative living licensing his name to the properties of real estate developers, meaning that buildings with the Trump name usually are not owned by him, and he may not have played a role in their creation.
Trump’s campaign was characterized by vulgarity, insults, lies, and distortions on a level not seen before, and he made denigrating remarks about the lack of sex appeal in female competitors and journalists. He claimed to have seen a video of a Muslim crowd joyously celebrating the 9/11 tragedy, a video which is not known to exist. He implied that a majority of illegal Mexican immigrants are criminal, which conflicts with the statistics that say crime is lower among them than the native born. He spoke of having Mexico pay for a border wall that would cost in the tens of billions. He promised to bring back manufacturing jobs by enacting a huge tariff against China which will end the trade imbalance, a policy most economists conclude would wreck the American economy.
What is obvious is that Donald Trump is an ingenious self promotor, whose successful Presidential campaign constitutes the most extraordinary hustle in American history. One definition of a hustle is to obtain by illicit means, that is, by fraud. But why did this hustle work? It is complicated.
My membership in atheist organizations has given me an interesting insight to the Trump victory. I do not know one atheist who voted for him. (A few went for Stein and Johnson.) Among my acquaintances outside the atheist community, there are several Trump supporters. I believe that atheists are just more fact/science based than Trump supporters. (See my essay, “Does God Exist?”) Put simply, a sizable percent of people (which includes the religious) do poorly when it comes to abstract reasoning, no surprise. If one can believe that Jesus was the son of God, and that God arranged Jesus to die for the sins of others (Human sacrifice), it is no stretch to have faith in Trump.
People are proficient at understanding the physical world, not a surprise given our specie’s evolution. For thousands of generations our ancestors lived in a complex environment, the understanding of which determined survival. They had to distinguish between nutritious and poisonous vegetation. They had to recognize and have strategies for dealing with danger. Hunting required complex planning and the invention of tools. The invention of fire, and the bow and arrow began a tradition that lives on in todays computers, internet, aviation industry, and medical science. By comparison with our technological gifts, we are often simpletons when it comes to abstract reasoning. (See my essay, “The Psychology of Conservatives.”) The result is that people make decisions on such sociological issues as crime, economics etc. based on cultural influences or instinct, which often leads to the support of foolish policies.
Then there is the influence of talk radio, and cable news, which are dominated by a right wing philosophy whose message in simplest terms is that tradition and faith take precedence over science, that liberal innovation is dangerous and destructive; and government is almost always bad, while private enterprise is always good. The policies of lower taxes on the rich and less government oversight begun by Ronald Reagan led to the 2008 economic downturn. After the disaster of George W.Bush’s administration, liberal Barak Obama was elected because he was a fresh face, not for being a liberal. By 2011, Republican conservatives were sabotaging his administration, creating a government that many feel was not working. A Hillary Clinton administration was viewed as a continuation of the governmental gridlock of the Obama era made worse by her less likable personality and too close association with Wall Street. Bernie Sanders’s innovative Western European style politics was attractive, but many Democratic primary voters and party officials felt that in a general election Clinton would have a better chance against a Republican than Sanders, so she won the Party’s vote. Ironically, Sanders would have done better against Trump than she.
Trump’s strategy took advantage of human psychology, conservative propaganda, and star power from his show, “The Apprentice.” Trump’s colorful personality and often outrageous statements drew vast media attention, and for every person outraged by Trump there was another he pleased. A first rate performer, his most outrageous fibs were taken as, says it like it is, facts. In the Republican primary he appealed to bigots and religious anti-science folks. In the general election he gained the support of people frustrated with an economy that has not worked for them. Unlike Clinton, he offered the possibility of real change, i.e. he will shake things up.
So what kind of administration will Donald Trump have? Political forecasting is a most unscientific activity. That said, from a liberal’s perspective there is optimism based on Trump’s history of being a political moderate, even a liberal, and with a Republican dominated Congress, Trump, unlike Obama, could get support for massive infrastructure repair, and even a single payer healthcare system. On the other hand, unlike Obama, Trump is narcissistic and thin skinned with little tolerance for criticism, qualities that could bring dangerous, irrational temper tantrums. More unsettling is Trump’s dishonesty. While all successful politicians distort truth, he is a master of mendacity, which could prove disastrous because liars often believe their own, or other people’s lies, leading to dangerous policies. His appointments are also not reassuring.