Donald Trump’s outrageous rise: What does it say about the US?
volume 36
issue 5
October 2015

“Part of the beauty of me is that I’m very rich.” — from an interview on Good Morning America, 2012

Photo credit: L. E. Baskow / Reuters

Message to international friends of the U.S. working class: No, despite the rise of Donald Trump to the top of the Republican heap of presidential candidates, we haven’t lost our minds. Well, maybe a little.

The Trump phenomenon has two sides. On one hand, there’s no denying that Trump has some support based on his racist, sexist, and anti-immigrant proclamations. In other ways, though, there’s less here than meets the eye.

Trump is like a celebrity insult comic, or like an orange-topped, blowhard clown with his own ring at the circus, spotlighted in a media glare. How much of his bluster against immigrants, other countries, Black protesters, and “ugly” women is real, and how much is just egotistical posturing for entertainment and publicity value? There’s no telling, since he changes his positions as often as other people make jokes about his hair.

How much of his support is real? That’s a tough question too. Some of his fans are no doubt true believers, people who didn’t need Donald Trump to tell them that immigrants are, in his words, rapists and criminals who steal “American” jobs, exported by Mexico in a scam to unload its problems onto the United States. Trump wins points from this crowd by making right up front the racist, misogynist, and jingoistic points that other candidates are delivering in coded language.

On this score, Trump is kin to the far-rightists in Europe and elsewhere, like Golden Dawn in Greece, who are appealing to people’s economic insecurities by blaming immigrants and foreigners. He sounds like every nativist since Benjamin Franklin, who complained about the “swarthy” Germans moving into colonial Pennsylvania.

Of course, the more people are afraid for their futures, the better this scapegoating works. In this connection, enthusiasm for Trump shows just how wide the gap is between capitalist economists, who peddle the myth of the jobless recovery, and the people who live that “recovery” every day.

Just as elsewhere, polarization in the U.S. is growing. Every working- and middle-class person feels the unfairness and precariousness of the system. This does much to explain the attraction of Bernie Sanders as well as Donald Trump.

However, another dynamic is at play. Many people are Trump fans not because of the content of anything he says, but because he is willing to blow up the house — the house being the every-four-year two-party charade that everyone is supposed to take seriously.

For all intents and purposes, there are only two electoral parties in the U.S., both owned by Wall Street, and voters aren’t wild about either of them. The number of people rejecting the Republican and Democratic labels and defining themselves as independents is growing steadily, reaching an all-time high of 43 percent in 2014 (with Democrats at 30 percent and Republicans at 26 percent).

For all the good it does. With electoral laws and corporate war chests stacked against them, the chances of a third-party candidate making it into the race for president are about the same as a rich man getting into heaven. (Sorry, Donald.)

So the reality of having nobody worth voting for translates into voters staying home. In the 2014 midterm elections, turnout was only 36 percent, the lowest it has been since World War II.

In this depressing electoral scene, Trump provides some electricity. He refuses to play by the rules, turning as much venom on his Republican rivals as he does on Democrats and the media.

But it’s a safe bet that many of the people cheering him on now wouldn’t actually vote for him in a million years. They are enjoying the anarchy, the theater, the exuberant expression of free-floating resentment.

So, the bottom line: most people in the U.S., even those who are happy to see Trump in the race, aren’t mad as in deranged. They’re mad as in pissed-off — and likely to stay that way long past Trump’s flamboyant (and admittedly disturbing) moment in the headlines.

Also see: Can Bernie Sanders move the Democrats left?

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