The Trump Movement and the Left-Behinds (and Il Duce too)

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
The likely Republican nominee, after his victories last night (Joe Skipper / Reuters)

Further on the Trump phenomenon, for good and bad.

The left-behinds. A reader argues that Trump has given a voice to people who thought they were unheard and invisible:

I am currently in California looking after my 99 year old mother and consequently watching more television than I’ve seen in a long time. It’s been interesting to see just how blindsided the talking class has been (and to a large degree still is) by the rise of Trump.

Pundits scratch their heads, “Didn’t see that comin’” but I’m sure that you, in your travels across America, are aware that there are many, many people who have been left behind by the “recovery.” A stroll through the WalMart in the city where I live (Santa Fe) tells me that.
Both parties have let our working classes down by sidestepping an inconvenient truth that is self-evident to them: this economy doesn’t need them. They are expendable. I’m not sure I know enough about how other countries feel about work but I know in this country when a man (and I’m concentrating on men here because I am one and because I think this is primarily a male problem) is out of work there is a profound loss of identity. For some time now we’ve had an economy where the role of the breadwinner has been shared by men and women and I think, in the talking classes, men have adapted to this paradigm. I don’t think this is the case for working class men.

This fall I read Joe Bageant’s book, Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War, which opened my eyes (and heart) to people I would not normally have given much thought to: working class men and women from Winchester, Virginia, Joe’s hometown. To put it bluntly, these are not my people but Joe paints a sympathetic portrait of men and women who have paid the real price of our current economy, the ones who get knocked to the ground when corporate decisions are made far, far from their doorsteps. These are people who are seen as consumers or digits on a spreadsheet. And when they are no longer valued as “assets” they disappear entirely from our radar.

And clearly, until Trump galvanized them, they have been (and to a large degree remain) invisible to the talking classes and, perhaps, more crucially, to themselves. The parade of shiny, happy people my mother sees on her TV in commercials and the shows themselves do not reflect the circumstances of their lives and when they do it is often in reality tv shows where their antics are remarkable only because they are so odd to the talking classes. They are fodder for entertainment.

From this perspective any appeals to reason, ideology, true Christian values or whatever, will fall on deaf ears. Trump has made them visible to the talking classes and to themselves. They will not be denied.

I’d like to say one more thing that seems critical to me. Capitalism takes care of the talking classes in a way most of us take for granted: it confers dignity to their labors. There might have been a time when a man who worked with his hands could also count on that as well but not in my memory.

The phrase that keeps recurring to me is this one: “a place at the table.” This is what working class men and women have not had in some time.

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He doesn’t really want to win. From an American reader in Asia:

I've been enjoying Trump's show from abroad after living in Japan the last few years... For what it's worth here's my guess how this plays out:

Trump knows he won't beat Clinton absent divine intervention (a real scandal, a perfect storm of an independent run), so he'll wait until the last moment and then instruct his delegates to support someone else... someone who checks the boxes of (1) palatable to establishment GOP, (2) credible general election candidate, (3) shares Trump's calls-it-likes-he-sees-it-ness (phony as it may be), and most importantly (4) promises Trump the moon in return.

Trump's brand depends on his reputation of not being a loser (phony as it may be). He's shown no interest in actually running a general election campaign -- no interest in the issues, no fundraising, no campaign. If he wants to maximize the return on his investment, this is the safest course.

Note that in this universe, Christie's endorsement actually makes sense.

No, really, winning would be bad for him. From an American reader in New York:

If you want to compare Trump to an athlete, he's not Muhammad Ali so much as the guy at the YMCA who swears he can make a shot from half court. It's a lot more fun to see him talk about it than to watch him try to do it.

I think it's possible that Trump could win a general election. (I switched parties so I could vote for Kasich in the NY primary next month for just that reason.) But it's worth asking if Trump could ever be reelected in 2020. [JF note: thinking about 2016 is enough for me.]

It seems like Trump's appeal lies in the ambiguity of what his policies would be. It's easier to run on vague promises than an actual track record. After Iowa, most of the punditry I read was about how losing would sink Trump. But it seems like winning in 2016 would be the end...

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This is less amusing than it seems. From a reader in California, who makes a surprisingly precise comparison between The Donald and Il Duce:

This is in response to the reader from Europe who asserts that Trump is not a fascist and that the US would be better off as a direct democracy.

As a resident of California, I've seen some of the problems (that of course you already know) about direct democracy. On the more immediately impending issue: of course, we can't tell yet whether Trump is a full-fledged fascist. But do we want to put him in power and find out? The Italian historian Roberto Vivarelli's description of Mussolini's rise could have been written today about Trump [JF: emphasis added]:

“From the very beginning, for example, the relation between words and deeds among Mussolini and his followers was very peculiar, and words were used not to state any firm conviction, nor to outline a definite political program but, rather, to arouse emotions that would generate support for a changeable line of action.

“Language, that is, was used by fascists not as an instrument of persuasion but as a means of deception. As a result, the fascist movement from its inception presented itself as a purely political phenomenon-that is to say, as a movement created for action which acquired national relevance through a skillfully executed plan ending with the seizure of power. But when in October 1922 Mussolini became Italy's prime minister, his contemporaries had no idea of what was in store for them. There was no such thing as a fascist blueprint for government, simply because fascism was not an intellectual movement with anything comparable to a doctrine; and, in fact, among the fascist rank and file one finds at that time the most bizarre and varied collection of people.”

This is from Vivarelli's article "Interpretations of the Origins of Fascism," in the Journal of Modern History 63 (March 1991), 30.