A few days ago, I posted John Oliver’s segment on Donald Trump, which is a valiant attempt to challenge the myths surrounding the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. Oliver provides some hard-hitting criticisms, which focus on Trump’s failed business ventures and bankruptcies, along with his habitual lies, thin-skinned immaturity, and overall inconsistency. Oliver makes the point that while Trump’s unpredictability may be entertaining, it is also a deeply problematic characteristic for a politically inexperienced presidential candidate who would be responsible for creating a coherent set of policies to lead a deeply divided country.
In the last quarter of the segment, Oliver explores why so many Americans are drawn to Trump. He provides his own theory with the following quotation: “Even when you can demonstrably prove Trump to be wrong, it somehow never seems to matter…and that may be because he has spent decades turning his own name into a brand synonymous with success and quality, and he’s made himself the mascot for that brand.” Oliver humorously promotes a wide scale effort to refer to Trump by his ancestral name, Drumpf, to dispel some of the magic surrounding his brand and celebrity.
Oliver’s theory for Trump’s broad support throughout the US reminded me of a great book chapter I read by Eugene Rosow called “The Myth of Success.” The chapter traces the plots and conventions of gangster films to the American creed of exalting wealth and individual success. Rosow provides a great overview of the heritage that gave American capitalism its rationale and mythology — the Gospel of Wealth and the Myth of Success. From the nineteenth century until the Great Depression, the Gospel of Wealth functioned as an apologia for private property, acquisitiveness, accumulation, and concentration (Rosow 23). Industrialism and Protestantism combined to depict wealth as a sign of God’s favour and good morals. Wealthy industrialists fought to define capitalism in terms of democracy and promoted the Myth of Success, the idea that anyone can climb the ladder with enough grit, ambition, and intelligence, to placate the masses (Rosow 28-29).
I believe that much of Trump’s appeal derives directly from his wealth and the prevailing notion, with roots in the Gospel of Wealth, that wealth should be respected in and of itself. The idea is that Donald Trump is very wealthy and successful. Because he is very wealthy and successful, he must possess good judgement. Because he possesses good judgement, he would be a capable and effective political leader. For most critical thinkers, these are undoubtedly dubious leaps to make.
Donald Trump also benefits greatly from fear and insecurity in particular segments of American society, particularly racist whites, nostalgic for the Confederacy and white supremacy. For decades, the Republican party has made deliberate efforts to specifically incorporate racist whites as a significant part of their support base; however, many feel that establishment politics have abandoned them. This insecurity is not without basis: in an era of globalization and technological revolution, many poor whites have lost their jobs and livelihoods, and fear losing their place in American society. Trump makes them feel safe by scapegoating Mexicans and Muslims, and reserving judgement on his white supremacist supporters.
Notwithstanding his wealth, celebrity, and effective racial attacks, I have to wonder why more moderate Trump supporters, who clearly take issue with rising economic inequality, the declining middle class, and crony capitalist plutocracy, do not turn towards a Bernie Sanders. After all, Sanders has consistently supported efforts to keep American jobs from being outsourced and has been very vocal in his attacks on Wall Street greed. Furthermore, Sanders supports much tighter corporate regulation and higher tax rates for the wealthy and super wealthy. The only answer I have besides partisanship relates to what I view as learned passivity. Bernie Sanders insists on revolution; Donald Trump insists he will take care of everything. He will defeat ISIS, make Mexico pay for the wall, put China in their place, and simply “make America great again.” Trump’s rhetoric puts no burden of real, sustained political action on the American people.
Nick Hanauer, a wildly successful American entrepreneur and venture capitalist, gives a very persuasive TED talk wherein he warns his fellow plutocrats that it’s time to wake up and help make the economy more inclusive and more competitive. With economic inequality at historic highs and only rising, Hanauer insists that American plutocrats will have to either support a New Capitalism or contend with the pitchforks of the masses. I agree with Hanauer’s warnings; however, the vast majority of ordinary people have no desire to take up a pitchfork. Most people just want the myth of success to somewhat resemble reality for both their own sake and the sake of their children. And for now, Trump promises to fulfill that dream and asks for nothing in return but blind, uncritical support.
Freeland, Chrystia. “The rise of the new global super-rich.” TED. Sep. 2013. Lecture.
Hanauer, Nick. “Beware, fellow plutocrats, the pitchforks are coming.” TED. Aug. 2014. Lecture.
Heer, Jeet. “How The Southern Strategy Made Donald Trump Possible”. New Republic. 18 Feb. 2016. Web. 3 Mar. 2016.
Last Week Tonight. “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Donald Trump.” YouTube. 28 Feb. 2016. Web. 1 Mar. 2016.
Rosow, Eugene. Born to Lose: The Gangster Film in America. New York: Oxford UP, 1978.