Wayne O'Leary


Donald Trump, the Peck’s bad boy of presidential politics, is in full action mode, gleefully ripping assorted scabs from the body politic while at the same time verbally stroking the erogenous zones of a love sick Republican party. If it weren’t so crazy and destructive, the spectacle would be genuinely funny. Even Stephen Colbert’s comedic right-wing ranter can’t hold a candle to the Donald and his comb-over at this point.

Not that Trump is ultimately likely to unpack his bags at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue; those for whom his worldview represents reality are still a distinct minority, notwithstanding the slavish coverage a bored and cynical mass media is according him. Nevertheless, he may very well be able to seize the nomination of the national GOP, which is rapidly evolving from a normal party to a political cult. That prospect alone should send shivers up the spine of anyone who takes governing seriously.

American politics has reached the stage where the choice for voters is between a Democratic party that, for all its faults, is a relatively rational political institution and a Republican party that has become a grab bag for the strange, the bizarre, the mean-spirited, the angry, and the borderline psychotic. It should come as no surprise that the GOP front-runner for president is a man of so little self-awareness as to routinely demean and disrespect rivals, as well as members of the general public, on the campaign trail and yet insist that everyone loves him. Freud would have a field day with the Donald’s psyche.

It could be, of course, that Trump is a political genius who knows exactly what he’s doing, although this grants him an unwarranted measure of political astuteness and strategic insight. More likely, his antics represent a natural expression of what the Republican party has become: a child-like organism that simply reacts viscerally against whatever doesn’t give it immediate pleasure and gratification.

Trump is really the logical outgrowth on the national stage of what began at the state level in 2010; he’s Chris Christie, Paul LePage, or Bruce Rauner transferred to presidential politics: a personification of the primitive Republican id, taking the form of a primal scream let loose on behalf of the GOP base.

A party that used to nominate conservative but rational figures (Eisenhower, Reagan, Ford, Dole) now seeks out extremist spokespeople who are a few playing cards short of a full deck. The most valued Republican campaign asset, a facility for getting in opponents’ faces and hurling vitriolic personal insults, has been combined in Donald Trump with a tasteless propensity for overstatement and braggadocio. Usually, this kind of behavior reveals an element of fear, if not on the part of the leader, then on the part of his followers. It’s true in this case as well.

Deep down, Republicans are frightened people. Their world and their country are changing; their eternal verities are in question; their position in society is under threat. And they are lashing out. Donald Trump’s signature issue, immigration, encompasses all these fears. It’s true the Donald worries aloud about foreign policy writ large (ISIS, China), stoking right-wing anxiety over external menaces from afar, but it’s the expressed outrage over “anchor babies,” Mexican “rapists,” and the lack of a great southern border wall connoting Fortress America that really consumes his audiences.

Trump’s flogging of the immigration issue is over the top, with its emphasis on crime, terrorism, birthright citizenship, and drug importation; it also carries a nasty undercurrent of racism aimed at non-white Hispanics. At the same time, it contains an element of truth. Trump is a xenophobic Frankenstein, but he’s our own creation, the product of decades of flawed immigration policy.

Trump and his followers see an America where an estimated 11 million undocumented aliens reside. That’s triple the number the country contained in 1986, when a “one-time” amnesty supposedly ended this nagging social problem once and for all. There are widespread calls to repeat the process, promptly absorbing the current 11 million, but little discussion of how to prevent regular future recurrences.

World populations are on the move. Middle Eastern political refugees are overrunning Western Europe; Central and South American economic refugees are threatening to overwhelm North America. To this must be added migration, legal and otherwise, stimulated by multinational corporate enterprise, a phenomenon presently swelling Asian arrivals to the US from countries such as India and China. A key aspect of economic globalization, one rarely acknowledged by those demagoguing the immigration issue, is the insatiable demand of the multinationals for the cheapest possible work forces, prompting political pressure for “open borders” and a worldwide free flow of labor.

So, the paranoia of Trump and his supporters over immigration is not without foundation. If they feel besieged by outsiders, there’s some basis in reality for their concerns. Foreign-born Americans are approaching a record 15% of the population. Legal immigration to the US in the postwar period quadrupled from 2.5 million in the 1950s to 10 million by the 1990s. Since 2000, we’ve continued to accommodate over 1 million legitimate newcomers each year, plus another 700,000 who arrive illegally — this in a country wracked by periodic recession and threatened by diminished resources and selective overcrowding.

Equally problematic, fewer than 9% of new immigrants come from Europe, the nation’s historic population base, while fully 80% come from Asia or Latin America. The upshot is an increasingly multicultural society. Non-white minorities will constitute a majority of Americans by post-2040. This may be a good thing in the long run; in the short run, it means social turmoil, culture clashes, and political confrontations as the US, instead of addressing common national problems, struggles to continually assimilate large numbers of diverse newcomers.

It also means the inevitable rise of pseudo-populists like Donald Trump, who either don’t grasp the meaning of the moment or seek advantage by appealing to the worst in people. A strictly enforced limit on total immigration to ease the social dislocations of assimilation, combined with a foreign policy aimed at resolving political and economic problems in the countries of origin so as to discourage massive waves of emigration, would seem to be the approach to take. But don’t expect it from an irresponsible Trump and his venting partisans; he’s having too much fun, and they’re on a sociopathic high.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He holds a doctorate in American history and is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2015


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