It is a media cliche that Donald Trump is the Bernie Sanders of the left and Bernie Sanders the Donald Trump on the right. They are angry at different things. But the essence of both candidacies is their anger. But that does an injustice to Bernie Sanders and it profoundly misunderstands the Trump phenomenon.
Trump shouts out anger. He does not hesitate to insult anyone. He has a foul mouth. He is all about Trump. Bernie, on the other hand, has a clear program. He is not just angry he is arguing for definite economic change, for a reorientation of the political system from being a system that caters to the rich to one that provides participation and attention to all Americans.
What is striking about Trump is not the Donald himself but the significant number of people who support him vociferously, often cruelly when they support his aggressive rhetoric against Muslims, against women, against all kinds of people.
Trump's supporters clearly are animated by vast angers and that is, of course, a real worry. Who the president is of our country does make a real difference. People disagree sharply about Obama's policies, for instance, the nuclear treaty with Iran, or the changed relationships with Cuba. But these and other initiatives are very likely not to have been undertaken had Romney, or even Hillary Clinton, been president in these last four years.
The choice of president makes a difference for all of us. It is an important choice.
Everyone knows that it is a bad policy to make important choices primarily on the basis of strong emotion. Many people believe that "being so in love" is a good reason for getting married. As a result the divorce rate is around 50%. (That is the common wisdom. Some people think that number is exaggerated. As a matter of fact it seems very difficult to come up with any very reliable numbers on divorce.)
Businesses that merge, businesses that split up into separate organizations, investors that move money from one investment to another, cities that tear down neighborhoods in order to build a road-a myriad decisions every day are best made on the basis of available information about the present and the future. The decisions are more likely to be good decisions when the evidence is being considered carefully, calmly and with a major effort to set one's emotions set aside.
The same is true of the choice of president. American presidents are very much involved in matters of war and peace. Many of us may die prematurely if we make a poor choice of president based on emotions rather than on rational consideration of what we know about the candidates.
But Trump supporters are not involved in thinking as calmly as they can about what is good for the country. That is not impugning their ability to make rational choices and to think clearly about their situation and that of their fellow citizens. On the contrary, it makes perfect sense for them to be utterly irrational in their adulation of their favorite reality TV actor.
Statistics have recently been cited of a high rate of drug overdoses among white men in their 30s, 40s and 50s. These are people who were told, when they were younger, that they would be better off than their parents. But that has turned out to be false. Getting work has been difficult. Getting good work has been very difficult. All the while they were being good persons, working, hard paying their bills. But that has not been a successful strategy for them. They are always short of money and their work sucks.
These people feel they have been lied to. The political system has not paid attention to them. Politicians constantly talk about job creation, but it is mostly talk. Welfare goes, they think, to people who are lazy. Welfare, in fact, goes to the rich and the large corporations. No one speaks for working people. No one is seriously concerned about their plight and their disillusionment. There are a significant number of Americans for whom our system is not working. They are by no means all persons of color.
The white working class that feels ignored has given up on that system. When they cheer for Donald Trump, they are not participating in the electoral campaign to select the next president because as far as they can see, it makes absolutely no difference who gets elected to any office. Whoever it is, in their perspective, will not pay any attention to them. So they might just as well express their alienation by cheering for a big clown who is very entertaining because he plays to their secret, and not so secret prejudices.
I obviously cannot prove that most Trump supporters are not participating in the electoral process but, instead, are expressing their disgust with the political system which, they feel, has completely overlooked them. But I think it is a hypothesis worth considering.
If this analysis is at all reliable, we can see that the neglect of what we today call "the middle class" is not only a gross injustice but it has serious consequences for our political system.
To the extent that significant portions of the population feel that the political system is not responsive to their significant needs, they conclude that political participation makes no difference. So they do not participate in the political system. They participate in public entertainments. The unfortunate fact is, however, that what is entertaining to them, may get us stuck with a totally incompetent president.
No democratic system that neglects significant portions of the population will remain democratic because the people left out refuse to participate. Hence only half the people in the US will vote for president and many, many fewer will vote in more local elections. It makes no difference for them. Why lose half a day of work to participate in a ritual whose results are of no interest to you.
The support that Trump continues to garner so far from showing how healthy our democracy is, manifests once again the precariousness of a political system, where going to mass rallies is fun and has nothing to do with politics. It is at most a protest against the failures of this political system.