One of the most frustrating aspects of the Year of Trump, besides everything, was the viciously cyclical nature of Trump coverage. Attention and outrage are the fuel of Trumpism, and attempts to explain his rise wound up re-inscribing the central falsehood of his campaign: that people are angry about an America in decline and a government with suspect motives and marginal competence. But what if none of that were true?
What if people aren’t really angry, America isn’t actually in decline, and our government is neither malicious nor incompetent?
Are people angry? Americans as whole say they are and I’ve been through enough counseling that I hesitate to tell anyone how they feel. But Trump supporters aren’t angry; they’re terrified. There are forms of righteous anger—the kind of communal eruption that happens when there are no other legitimate forms of expression. Trump supporters, on the other hand, do not lack for legitimate forms of expression. People are asking them what they think and feel all the time. There is not a second of time in the last 600 years that the world has had to guess at what American white people want.
Numerous progressive commentators (and Saturday Night Live) have pointed out that the nostalgia inherent in making America great “again” is little more than a pull toward a time before a gaymarriageblackpresidentscarymuslims. As one analyst put it, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
Is America in decline, no longer “great”? I’m tempted to indulge in a poetic interpretation, to delve into the areas of American culture and society that produced greatness on a regular basis—from rescue workers to scientists, artists to educators. But Trump (and his supporters) are at once thuddingly literal and immeasurably ambiguous: “Greatness” seems to be a combination of economic success and world-leader dick-measuring. But if the U.S. has fallen so far in world esteem, how come the immigrants that so upset Trumpkins want to come here? Less concretely, there are actual data about how the rest of the world views America and it’s largely positive—we have an overall 65 percent approval rating, with some countries giving us the kind of marks that are a distant memory for America’s political class: 75 percent positive opinion in France (France!), 80 percent in both El Salvador and Kenya.
Economically, well, by the measure of the white, working-class, non-college-educated Trump supporters, they are either extremely late to the realization that their wages have stagnated (indeed, in real terms, the average hourly wage peaked in 1973) or—and we’re happening on a theme here—the complaint isn’t about the loss of “greatness” so much as the emergence of a perceived threat to the status quo. I don’t think it’s even about America being less great for them. It’s an alarm over the possibility that America is becoming great for people who aren’t them.
Whether American greatness is, in fact, becoming more widely accessible is a separate but related question—and it brings us to the final falsity of the Trumpian theology: Government is both evil and inept.
There’s no doubt that it can be; it’s mostly been evil and inept in the way it’s treated the very people Trumpkins worry about sharing the greatness pie with. Those communities continue to suffer, but here is where the Trump theology finds purchase: In 2015, our democracy—the functioning one, outside the circus of the party primaries—did a lot right by its citizens.
Some old wrongs began to be righted: The death penalty is increasingly unpopular not just in the public eye, but with state legislatures and judges. Courts in Texas (Texas!) issued two (two!) death-penalty sentences in all of 2015—the fewest since reinstating the penalty 40 years ago. Across the country, death sentences dropped 33 percent from 2014, with 49 people being sentenced to death this year. By comparison: In 1996, 315 people were put on death row. Also in 2015, just six states carried 28 out executions, the fewest since 1999—when 98 people were killed.
And while officer-involved shootings continue to be flashpoints for community unrest, cities have grabbed on to the Department of Justice’s best practices—hard-won lessons from Ferguson, Missouri, being put to use in places such as my adopted hometown of Minneapolis, where the biggest headline of the year might be the riot that didn’t happen in the wake of the death of Jamal Clark.
Also this year: Politicians embraced the end of the war on the drugs and the beginning of the movement to aid those in addiction. (A turn of events that may be the only lasting memory of Chris Christie’s presidential campaign.) Police departments are experimenting with a policy that puts treatment before arrest: In Glouchester, Massachusetts,, addicts who ask police for treatment will be assisted into a program—on the spot. More than 100 have found help so far. At the federal level, almost unnoticed this month, Congress ended the federal enforcement of drug laws where the state has legalized medical marijuana.
Somewhere between old wrongs being righted and new paths forward: The fight to raise the minimum wage continues to catch on among activists and allies in government. In 2015, workers won higher hourly wages in 13 states and in 14 municipalities (PDF). These weren’t just soft-hearted coastal governments’ blue bleeding hearts in action, either: Michigan and Nebraska went to $15 an hour, as well as Missoula, Montana, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo, New York.
And in more forward-looking changes, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, now in its fifth year, has become the exact kind of watchdog-with-teeth Elizabeth Warren envisioned. It’s taking in a record number of consumer-generated complaints (through November: 749,400; 24,300 in October alone—more in one month than it saw in all of 2014). AND it’s stepped in on some of the longest-running but legal scams in America, cracking down on (and getting huge payouts for consumers from) payday lenders and for-profit colleges. How successful is the CFPB? Its right-wing critics have resorted to fear-mongering about the importance of payday loans in the fight against terrorism.
This isn’t to say that the year didn’t also see tragedy and horror, many instances emerging from governmental abuse or ineptitude, but it’s important to remember that the fear that Trump has based his campaign on is not real.
The idea that small-d (and, occasionally, big-d) democratic government works undermines the entire framework of Trumpism. Programs like the CFPB and the slow turn toward true criminal justice are kryptonite to the strongman ideology of Trump, not just because it fucks with his message of government incompetence or maliciousness. Its successful tenure is evidence of government for the people, to be sure, but its existence is also evidence of government by the people.
The image of Obama as capricious dictator, making social-justice decrees out of pique, is Trumpkins’ favorite myth because it cuts out the part of our American story that they are the least able to explain or process: Obama and Democrats have facilitated these incremental bits of forward progress because they won. They were elected to do so.
Grappling with the fact of a functional government requires more than the admission that protecting citizens is legitimate activity—it also forces the argument that government protects and fights for people because that’s what its people want.
The fearful coverage of the Trump’s fear-filled campaign has created an echo of terror on the left, of course. Part alarmist fundraising necessity on the part of Democrats, part symptom of a conflict-obsessed media, many rational and sane Americans now think that there is a real possibility of Donald Trump will be elected president. I don’t want to encourage complacency by denying the possibility, but I do want to remind everyone: We’re better than that. We’ve shown ourselves to be better than that. Don’t be afraid. Be aware.