America’s Current Malaise

01 november 2017Leestijd: 4 minuten
Verlaten straat in centrum Kansas City - foto: Dale Nibbe

Many Dutch journalists think that Trump voters did not know who they voted for in november 2016. Roberta N. Haar thinks this in not true: ‘They actually wanted someone who would shake up Washington.’

At the beginning of November the Dutch-Flemish Investigative Journalists Association held their annual conference in Maastricht.  They kicked off their event with a series of presentations by well-known journalists, such as James S. Henry and Ryan Lizza, in one Maastricht University’s (UM) largest lecture halls.  Through UM’s role playing host, I was able to attend the opening lectures and the more intimate Q&A session with Lizza the next day.

Political junkies who follow American politics closely will know that it was Lizza who had the infamous (and profane) phone call last July with White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci, which ultimately led to “the Mooch’s” dismissal after only ten days in office.  This bizarre and momentous phone call certainly propelled Lizza onto the world stage, but in fact he was already an award-winning Washington correspondent for The New Yorker and sometimes political analyst for CNN.

In the coffee break after the Q&A, I asked Lizza about his other big story, his reporting of an un-named White House adviser who said Obama’s 2011 intervention plan for Libya was to “lead from behind.”  Lizza said that Obama was in a rage about this leak and as a result, Obama threatened that when he found out who that “un-named White House adviser” was, that person would be fired.

Duped and manipulated

While previously undisclosed interesting tidbits of information were exchanged in the coffee break, the discussion that took place during the Q&A was much more thought-provoking and illuminating.  That is because the discussion revealed to me what Dutch and Flemish journalists think about those Americans who voted for Trump for president.  It was clear that there was a sort of consensus amongst the journalists gathered that Trump voters were duped and manipulated and that he was not the ‘apple that they voted for, but rather he was actually a pear.’

Fruit really was used to make this analogy, which was an attempt to illustrate a belief that if American voters would only learn the truth—if they could be educated that Trump was really the man who was going to bring them more economic pain—then we could get back on track to normal American politics or at least more predictable American politics.  And along with this sentiment, if only the public who voted for him could see that he quickly betrayed them, then they would not vote for him again in 2020.

Burn the house down

But, this view of those Americans who voted for Trump is wrong.  Americans who voted for the reality-TV star knew exactly what they were getting because the pear is precisely what they wanted to send to the White House.  Americans who voted for Trump want to burn the house down.

Here is a number that Democrats surely find humiliating: 9.2 million.  That is how many Americans who voted for Obama in 2012 then shifted their vote in 2016 for Trump, with the greatest shift coming from key swing states in the Rust Belt (Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) and the Midwest.  Nine million Americans who wanted Hope and Change that by 2016, when they still had not got it, wanted to Drain the Swamp of the politicians that were continuing to thwart their American Dream.

America’s current malaise and anti-establishment fervor is the true source of its fling with the rebel non-politician.  While certainly many Americans voted for Trump out of fear of “the other”—a fear that Trump is very good at whipping up at his rallies, the nine million that secured his win over the establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton, voted for him out of hope that he would shake Washington up in ways that would benefit them.  Hence, Trump voters are pleased when he behaves in unorthodox ways—they want Trump to unnerve the Washington establishment.  Indisputably, Trump is doing just that, in spades.

Real frustration

I grew up in America’s fly-over country and when I return for my summer holiday, I am struck by how much communities have changed and how barren it feels.  If you drive through small towns in Nebraska or Kansas, the Main Streets are full of crumbling, empty buildings.  While the pressures causing change in middle and rural America are complex and have as much to do with technology and the natural growth of urban centers, the frustration is nevertheless straightforward and real.  Americans living in the heartland are dissatisfied and discontent with their leadership in Washington because they feel like they are not being heard, that some sort of coastal condescension is robbing them of their fair share and relegating them to the garbage heap of opiate addiction and low-paying jobs.

They are additionally angry that their leaders did not prevent the 2008 financial crisis and then after the crisis they are incensed that no one was held accountable for it.  The tribalism and the partisanship displayed on Capitol Hill only serves to reinforce public perceptions of an out-of-touch and self-protective elite.  An elite that Trump said he was not beholden to as a candidate.   Unfortunately, the general dysfunction on display in the nation’s capital provides considerable justification for heartland Americans to lose confidence in their political system.  Democracy feels like a farce, so a farce president does not feel so out of place.

The Dutch journalists attending Lizza’s sessions all wanted to know whether he thought Trump will be re-elected in 2020.  Lizza said, yes, for two reasons: first, because he was an incumbent and, second, because the economy is strong.  As long as Democrats and even the Republican Party establishment continue to disregard the hopes and fears that Trump utilized so successfully, I worry that Lizza is right.

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