Local fear and ignorance in the rise of Donald Trump
The thirty-mile phenomenon
The election of Donald Trump as president was motivated by a popular rejection of party politics as it had evolved over the decades. There was a rejection of politics that only responded to special interests and not to millions of increasingly disappointed and frustrated citizens. However, there was something else underlying this, and that was a prevailing despair as to how to change the system.
Most people who said they wanted change (with the possible exception of the Tea Party loyalists) apparently just sulked and waited for a “strong man” to come along and then, again apparently giving little thought to who this guy really was and what he really stood for, voted him into office. Why was there a passive acceptance of, first, a dissatisfying status quo and then, second, a very problematic agent of change?
One way of understanding this situation is to see it as a consequence, at least in part, of what I call the “30-mile phenomenon” – the fact that a majority of people, any people and not just Americans, can observe relatively accurately what is going on around them within a 30-mile radius. This is where they live and work, where their friends are and the other people they interact with. If something unusual is going on within this zone, it is possible for an individual to “check things out” and make a more or less informed decision.
However, go beyond these 30 miles and things quickly get fuzzy. In this wider zone most people come close to “knowing nothing”. That does not mean they are stupid or incapable of understanding the outside world. It does mean that they are largely ignorant of it and therefore are dependent on various forms of media to inform them, perhaps reliably, perhaps not (Fox News comes to mind). As we have just found out, such dependence puts us all at great risk.
It may well be because of this ignorance that it took so long for anger at the status quo to build to a boil. That same ignorance can account for why Donald Trump was able to get elected while speaking nonsense, while presenting himself as someone who was literally the very opposite of who he really is, and while blatantly lying with shocking regularity.
Edward Graydon Carter, a Canadian-born American journalist and editor of Vanity Fair has put together a list of Trumpian misrepresentations. I paraphrase some of them below. After each of Carter’s statements about Trump, I describe how it could be readily accepted by an ignorant public.
Carter: Only in America, a nation built on a history of immigration, could a man who married two immigrants – one of whom is alleged to have worked illegally when she first arrived – run on an anti-immigration platform.
- Trump can marry, and also employ, “his” immigrants as long as he promises to deport the millions of others who are the focus of local misconceived and irrational fears.
Carter: Only in America could a man with a legendary reputation for stiffing small-business owners and wage labourers be able to pass himself off as a champion of the little guy.
- Trump can “stiff small-business owners and wage labourers” in places like Atlantic City and Los Vegas, but this is largely unknown to the local voters in rural Iowa, Ohio and North Dakota. The result was that this particular bit of truth had almost no impact.
Carter: Only in America could a man who brags about groping and kissing women without their consent win 53 per cent of the vote among white women.
- Trump can be an outspoken misogynist but that is not a significant drawback in areas where white women explain such action away by claiming that the “average” local white man behaves much like Trump. In other words, his behaviour fits within their familiar understanding of the male world.
Certer: Only in America could a man who kept a volume of Hitler’s speeches by his bedside rule over the second-largest Jewish population in the world.
- That Trump has read, apparently uncritically, the speeches of Adolf Hitler should cause more alarm bells to go off than does his admiration of Vladimir Putin. But of course most locally oriented folks don’t care what their hero reads. The historical knowledge on this subject of those born after 1960 is probably too superficial to even allow a clear idea of what this choice of bedtime reading suggests.
Carter: Only in America could a man who thinks climate change is a hoax, and something invented by the Chinese, be put in charge of not only the Environmental Protection Agency but also our negotiations with other nations – at the most calamitous environmental period in the earth’s modern history.
- When it comes to global warming, it is very possible that, unless their local environment is noticeably impacted, most people shrug their shoulders and think that global warming is either untrue, exaggerated, or relevant to a future time that they can’t relate to. For, you see, localism operates in time as well as place. Most Americans see global warming as not relevant to their “now”. It is like the national debt – someone else’s future problem.
Donald Trump has played to the average citizen’s fears of what is going on beyond their 30-mile zone, and the feeling that whatever it is, it is bad and already irreparably invading their local neighbourhood.
Specifically, this translates into perceived threats to community self-identification, often tied to feelings of nationalism, and threats to economic well-being of people whose education and training cannot accommodate rapid technological development.
Political leadership not only did not seek to ameliorate the resulting unemployment, under-employment and fears of cultural change but rather, in the popular mind, the US elites appeared to accept these problems as inevitable aspects of changing times. As a consequence, the local popular reaction, confused about real causes and real solutions, became open to exploitation.
Millions of Americans were obviously thrilled when Donald Trump appeared to acknowledge their fears and frustrations. Feeling that the worse is yet to come, they willingly ignored his Trumpian misrepresentations in the hope of salvation.
It would appear that the political pendulum, both in the US and elsewhere, has swung from a fragile “progressive” point on its arc to a potentially savage regressive location. A lot of damage can be done in the next four to eight years unless humane and truly progressive counter-strategies to what is coming down the line are devised – and devised fast.