Donald Trump barked his way through a mire of intangible promises on the campaign trail. His appeal however resonated with the public’s general perception of him as an agent of change; a man, who in his own words, would ‘drain the swamp.’ As we have seen in the past few weeks however, he is doing anything but this. The nominations of Wall Street fat cats Steven Mnuchin and Wilbur Ross to Secretary of Treasury and Commerce, Rick Perry to Secretary of Energy, and Jeff Sessions to Attorney General, among other malevolent choices, have made it clear that the billionaire will be anything but a champion of the blue-collar Americans he courted. In this respect, he is therefore already a ‘failed’ president.
Last week, Bernie Sanders entered what might have seemed to many, the lion’s den, participating in a town-hall discussion with Trump supporters. What became abundantly clear from this Kenosha, Wisconsin talk was that the people there, who had suffered grave unemployment levels, were not in the least bit willing to be coalesced by the Clinton/establishment machine. Many would have chosen Bernie if he had been on the ticket. Politics, for the most part, did not influence their decision. What did was the deep and troubling realization that Washington, in its current state, would never cater for them. One of the gravest mistakes the mainstream media has made this year (and there have been many) is to conflate these peoples’ ideals with those of Trump’s. His supporters were for the most part never proponents of such ridiculous schemes as the Mexican Wall. They did believe however that this election could break the cycle of the past. After all, what would it be like to have an outsider in the White House? Hmmm…
Forty years ago, America did exactly that, with perhaps its most honest and earnest president ever, Jimmy Carter. The 39th President’s tenure was hardly a smooth road (to put it lightly) but it was undoubtedly a diversion from what came before and what would follow. For example, he conducted himself with an air of modesty, you wouldn’t even expect of state politicians, by carrying his own suitcase, enrolling his daughter Amy in a public school, and refusing the playing of the ‘Star Sprangled Banner’ for his arrival at functions. He led by example, when conducting policy, turning the air conditioning off to promote energy conservation whilst opting for a sweater when things got cold. He spoke candidly and took the blame when he felt it was deserved, addressing the nation on a ‘Crisis of Confidence’ in July of 1979. He also refused to bow to the whims of the Democratic Party, whose power was consolidated in Congress, but whose aspirations did not always meet in tandem with his idea of a fiscally responsible nation. In the end, he was punished with defeat, largely for his inability to solve the Iranian Hostage Crisis but also for his refusal, in many respects, to play the establishment game. Outsiders are necessary, every once in awhile, for the sake of shaking Washington up but as President Clinton, came to understand in 1994, compromise is essential too. So what happens then, when the so-called ‘outsider’ decides to compromise on this vision before his inauguration has even taken place?
Populism drove the course of this election. Sometimes it can be a good thing. It gives way to new ideas or revitalizes issues lost within the course of a specified agenda. This happened with New Labor in Britain in 1997 during the era of ‘Cool Britannia,’ when Tony Blair helped recapture a country bogged down by over 17 years of Thatcherite policies. Sometimes, if unchecked, it can go terribly wrong however. For example, to step outside the election process, let’s take a look at the explosion of patriotism that blossomed in the wake of 9/11 (something we addressed briefly in our last piece). Whilst America’s critics remained, their voices were largely subdued. This gave way for Bush to instill his ineptly named ‘War on Terror’ on the world, pass the Patriot Act, and launch two wars. Before Congress, when he declared that nations must decide ‘whether they [were] with’ America or against them, applause rang across Washington. It was pretty disgraceful but populism drove the rational mind to cowardice amidst an atmosphere built on hate and American pride. Bush was an insider but he and his team knew how to capitalize on this bulwark of emotion. Carter did too, within a different context and Trump does now, within his.
‘Populism’ is not necessarily a bad thing, if you take it to mean ‘pleasing all the people all of the time’ as Tony Blair so ambitiously hoped to do nearly twenty years ago. Its specific intent must always be checked however. Carter sought to break with the past and restore a moral sense of authority to America. In my opinion, with no lies put forward and no shots fired in four years, he did that. Bush used it, at an opportune time, to drive forward a domestic and foreign policy. Trump, it seems, has taken the people of America’s most desperate hopes and fears, and twisted them to project an image of authenticity in his own name. He is, within one sense, an ‘outsider’ because he lacks the political know-how to do his job. (He also doesn’t look like most humans.) His administration will however not be revolutionary in this vein. It will more likely resemble a Bush II presidency, pumped up with right-wing steroids and of course, gaffes galore.