That’s how one would describe the thesis of Donald Trump’s campaign.
Sure, he supports poll-tested positions like saving Medicare and Social Security, but one look at the heart of this campaign reveals its blackened core; he is playing “us” against “them.”
From the moment man learned to farm and abandoned the scavenger’s life for one of a villager, we have been evolving away from our tribalist instincts and towards a more pluralistic civilization. The acknowledgement that your efforts contribute to my happiness is the bedrock upon which civil society is formed.
However, because the two eternal rules of mankind are:
1. Man will try to make the rules
2. Man will try to break the rules
It follows that disproportionate share of humanity will reap the benefits of our society. This has always been true, but the process accelerates during periods of great global economic integration, like the wave we are riding right now.
The dawn of the 20th century was characterized by rapid technological innovation, spawning a new era of global trade. Before everyone could figure out what to make of this new economy, the robber barons of the late 19th century created systems to transfer the majority of wealth upwards, like resisting the implementation of an income tax until the 16th amendment became ratified in 1913.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the Weimar Republic was unable to adjust to this new economic reality, and it collapsed, driving the country into chaos. A lifetime of savings wasn’t even enough to buy food for a week. People became desperate and angry. Someone was to blame for all of this, but who?
“The internal expurgation of the Jewish spirit is not possible in any platonic way. For the Jewish spirit is the product of the Jewish person. Unless we expel the Jewish people. Unless we expel the Jewish people soon, they will have judaized our people within a very short time.”
Adolf Hitler had an idea, and he took advantage of people’s economic distress and gave them a simple explanation for their troubles. Their malaise wasn’t due to the failure of policy makers, the increasing greed of multinational corporations/individuals, or unseen consequences from a rapidly unfolding new economic reality, but because of “those” people.
When the majority of your attention is focused on ensuring your family has food on the table, you’re exercising your most primitive instincts. Economic conditions such as the hyper-inflation of the Weimar Republic stimulate our main reflexes, and every time, without fail, a new scam artist will come along preaching their version of “us” versus “them.” And every time, far too many people will follow along for far too long. Trump’s rhetoric against Muslims hasn’t been anywhere as heated as Hitler’s was towards Jews, but the “othering” Trump performs is incredibly similar.
“Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on. According to Pew Research, among others, there is great hatred towards Americans by large segments of the Muslim population.”
“There is great hatred towards Americans by large segments of the Muslim population” is making the same case as “Unless we expel the Jewish people soon, they will have Judaized our people within a very short time.” In both cases, Muslims and Jews are depicted as an insurgency inside our borders but outside our society, and thus, a prime threat.
Ironically enough, this same feeling is what drives our pluralistic society together. We want to help those we deem to be part of our community and reject those who would harm them. The ideal is that no matter one’s race, creed, gender, or sexual orientation, they can be just as valid a member of society as anyone else, one of “us.” The eternal tug and war of mankind is whether “us” is resolved over ideas and engagement or over ideology. The United States is hailed as mankind’s crowning achievement because it was the first country where citizenship is (was?) about something more than the plot of land you came from.
While this internal battle rages, external forces take root, and influence the outcome. From the anti-immigration wing of the Brexit campaign to Donald Trump’s alt-right neofascists, there is an unmistakable correlation between economic distress, a lack of education, and a susceptibility of anger towards “others.”
This is clearly a feature of humanity, not a bug. The beginning of the 20th and 21st centuries nearly mirror each other: Increased global economic integration that dramatically transferred wealth upwards, leading to a disaffected working class with skills unfit for this new economy, followed by intense periods of nationalism. Politicians and businessmen promised voters that increased global trade would be a tide that lifts all boats, all while devising bills they knew would ship many jobs out of the country forever. This betrayal on all sides left many working class members of society without much solid ground to stand on, and they turned to the only sources of pride that globalization cannot take away from them: race, religion, and nationality.
While many of us work to harmonize all these competing instincts, those like Donald Trump posit that these are the fault lines which divide us, and everyone must pick a side. This is a false choice, as any move in his game will result in a loss, as it is simply a distraction. The real battle is and always has been against the robber barons (like Donald Trump). Bernie Sanders may not be President, but he won this campaign of ideas.
George Carlin once said that they called it the American Dream because you had to be asleep to believe it. Many people are just waking up to this reality, but it’s uncertain how many understand it. Let’s hope that this century we learn to point the finger at the real culprits of our economic malaise, instead of continuing to mirror the 20th century and writing another ugly chapter in humanity’s self-defeating battle of “them” versus “us.”