I live about 100 kms northwest of Washington in a leafy deindustrialised county of the same name which gave President-elect Donald Trump 62 per cent of its vote on November 8.
Back when I had reason to use his services, the guy who cut my hair out here was an affable Harley-Davidson rider called Pete. I’d ride to his shop in Boonsboro, Maryland, on my BMW and we’d talk bikes.
Not politics. From his conversation with other customers, I knew where that would lead. I had no wish to bandy words with a man wielding a razor. A couple of weeks before the latest election Pete hung a banner 5 metres across above his store front. It read: “We want our nation back. Please vote! It’s our country too.”
A coward about practicing journalism on my own doorstep, I suggested to a visiting colleague that she stop in and ask Pete and his clientele who they wanted the country back from.The short answer turned out to be Moslems of whom, in this neighborhood, there are approximately zero.
From our previous encounters, I am certain that chief among the alleged invaders Pete and co. had in mind was that well-known son of Kenya or somewhere else not America, Barack Hussein Obama. I am equally confident that what they have against him is less what they assume to be his faith than the color of his skin. But they are not about to say this in so many words to an outsider, or perhaps even to themselves.
Trump, who believes he can manufacture truth through the persevering repetition of lies, has tweeted that the only reason he lost the popular vote (by close to 3 million votes) was fraud and that he won the electoral college in a “landslide”. Actually, it was the 44th biggest such “landslide’ of the past 54 elections. As for the popular vote, there is no evidence of cheating. The margin that put Trump over the top in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania — 78 000 votes all told — was well under 1 per cent in every case. Had she won those three states, the White House would by Hillary Clinton’s.
The narrowness of the mountebank’s win makes it difficult to say which of several factors was decisive. Any and all could have played a part. Did Putin’s hackers and their willing accomplice, Julian Assange, do for Clinton? Was it the shortcomings of her own campaign?
Statistician Nate Silver, who got things right in 2012 but whose reading of the entrails was not as felicitous in 2016, backs the theory that James Comey, the FBI director, queered Hillary’s pitch by publicly insinuating in the closing days of the campaign that his agents had found more incriminating emails from Clinton’s private server.
I attribute more agency to Trump himself.
When President Obama was elected on 2008, a lot of us naively imagined that America had at last exorcised its racial demons. A hundred years earlier, President Theodore Roosevelt was excoriated, North and South, for destabilising the Republic simply by inviting a black man, Booker T. Washington, to dine with him in the White House. Now a black man had been chosen to fill Roosevelt’s shoes.
In reality, the country that elected Obama had not come nearly as far as we, or perhaps even he, wanted to think. Out there, in a world we did — do — not feel comfortable engaging, lurked the undead ghosts of America’s original sin — the founding exception to Thomas Jefferson’s ringing assertion that all men are created equal. It has haunted the nation ever since.
Trump, a man driven to win solely for winning’s sake, sees White House as Everest, to be climbed because it’s there. Winning it was his way of getting even with the elites he correctly sees as judging him to be our own day’s equivalent of Trimalchio, the vulgar, hyper-rich parvenu invented by the emperor Nero’s arbiter of elegance Petronius, in his novel, the Satyricon.
Trump, unfortunately, is way cleverer than Trimalchio. He’s a marketer. He knows his suckers and what it takes to hook them. He saw political gold in the white working class left behind by globalization and automation in the deindustrialising hinterland. He saw, too, the resentments and propensities for racial scapegoating in the age of Obama that were awaiting someone as cynical as he to enable and fan into a movement. Accordingly he campaigned to prove Obama foreign-born and thus illegally president.
Where from here? Trump has promised the voters who gave him his electoral college edge things he cannot deliver however much he tries to jawbone companies like Carrier to keep production in the US. Assembly line jobs offering middle class incomes are not coming back. In any event, Trump is putting together a team that seems largely insensitive to blue collar interests, eager, rather, to smash what is left of the labour unions and to unleash the predatory squid that is Goldman Sachs.
So what does he do to keep his suckers hooked? Rev up the racism? It has worked well for him so far.