By Jimmy Quinn
Twenty years from now, students in high school politics classes across America will learn about this election primarily through the lens of a historic party realignment. They’ll learn that we only realized this year that the “Trump coalition” of white, working class voters truly replaced the alliance of social and fiscal conservatives who used to make up the base of the Republican party; that the pro-business party of Lincoln and Reagan became a populist party in the mold of Andrew Jackson’s Democrats; that the ideological diversity of Clinton 42’s Democratic Party finished its transition to a progressive-liberal monolith under Clinton 45.
But only some students will be taught how the historic presidential election of 2016 revealed the American politics we know to be a farce.
On November 9, provided no civil war or insurrection has consumed the United States, every American will do some soul-searching and participate in what is sure to be the largest ever political “autopsy” in U.S. history. We will attempt to decipher what happened not just the night before, but also in the months leading up to the election, how a dangerous demagogue almost made it to the presidency. Understanding the spectacular rise and fall of Donald J. Trump will be the lifetime work of academics, the rhetorical fodder of pundits and columnists for decades, and the perpetual hangover of some conservative elected officials for the next couple of election cycles. Eventually, though, life will go on, and our system of government will endure.
The same, however, cannot reliably be said about our politics. The contrast that has been most invoked this year is that between establishment and disrupter, elite and relatable. It’s more pronounced this year, but certainly not new; non-incumbents have used this narrative wedge since the advent of the first democracies. But Trump’s refusal to submit to traditional American political rhetoric is different, blunt, jarring.
He is an atheist in a body politic that worships American civic religion.
Anyone aspiring to higher office, in his or her own way, pays homage to this mighty pantheon of liberal democratic virtue. Some candidates claim to be a living embodiment of the American Dream, others extol the exceptional quality of American democracy, while still others invoke their military service as proof of their duty to their nation’s founding principles. They recite the same lines about liberty, or equality, or upward social mobility, and invoke the same motifs of American exceptionalism with uncanny similarity.
In the past, candidates have disagreed about what precisely makes America so special. But without exception every candidate seeking the White House has believed that the ultimate aim of politics is higher than just winning the next election or advancing his party’s policy priorities. Each knew that politics is about bettering the human condition and promoting the set of values that makes America unique.
This is a haughty goal, to be sure. I doubt that Romney and Obama woke up every day of the 2012 campaign thinking about improving the lives of their countrymen; the day-to-day struggles of a race for the presidency leave such a consideration by the wayside. It is because of this that the benevolent end of politics is maintained only by conscious effort to remember and honor it through the icons of American civic religion: Plymouth Rock, Ellis Island, and the American melting pot; the constitution and the freedoms that it enshrines; triumph over slavery and Jim Crow, and the ongoing battle against prejudice; Stonewall and the fight for the freedom to love.
Running for president used to mean that you believed in America as an imperfect city upon a hill, blighted sometimes by historical inequalities, but shining bright as an example to the rest of the world as the closest to perfect a form of government and a society could ever be. America could lead, because nobody else would. It meant that you had faith in this beacon of hope, and to have faith you must hold belief that can weather any storm, be it world war or war of secession, constitutional crisis or crisis of confidence.
But because the rhetoric of American civic religion is constructed so deliberately to create a single common identity, it is fragile and can ring hollow to Americans in such times of crisis. And today there is a crisis in Donald Trump’s America.
During the Republican primaries the counties that supported him the most were those hit hardest by the opening of trade relations with China. They were also, shockingly but not surprisingly, the counties in which middle-aged whites are dying at increasing rates.
The latter correlation is shocking because while the mortality rate of most groups has declined over the past decade and a half, that of middle-aged whites without a college education has increased drastically. In Donald Trump’s America, there is an epidemic of alcohol abuse, suicide, and notably, opioid abuse. Donald Trump’s America is not only out of work, it’s also dying.
The real estate mogul has made it this close to the presidency by tapping into the desperation resulting from this prognosis of death. Why vote for a mythical founding narrative when you can vote for the man who says he’ll save you and your family? He replaced the ideological talk about freedom that usually occupies the political right with vows to bring order and prosperity to his people. Rural, white working class Americans don’t want dogma; they want results–at any cost.
There’s no doubt that Trump’s policy proposals are fuzzy at best, but to his supporters they feel more concrete than Hillary Clinton’s talk of glass ceilings and realizing the potential of every American. In speaking directly to the voters left behind by Clinton’s America–characterized by diversity of race, religious affiliation, and level of education–he has revealed American civic religion, and thus the fundamental premise of American politics, to be hollow.
To these voters it feels as though faith in this political tradition has not fixed a thing. Yet it is exactly what they need.
Today White America doesn’t want to worship, but rather prosecutes its case against the people under whom it thinks it is subjugated. Today’s populism is nativist and anti-globalist; it is ugly, resentful, and cynical. It embraces a zero-sum perversion of American civic religion where the United States loses when it works with others and inducts new members into the American family.
Donald Trump proved that electoral victory is possible for any demagogue capable of tapping into this militant victimhood, provided they have less baggage and more discipline. We could say that Trump’s crassness and ignorance is the most unfortunate part of this election, but I think that’s only part of the problem. The truly sad thing is that disaffected White America needs a seat at the table but is instead being deceived by a charlatan.
On November 8, the populist demagogue who sought to disprove American civic religion will put a few million cracks in White America’s own glass ceiling. In 20 years, students in high school politics classes across the United States will learn whether a sincere and constructive populist movement was able to re-embrace this political tradition to guide its aspirations through a rigorous contest of ideas.