It is often said that America is a deeply divided country. That raises a question. Exactly what are we divided about?
The intuitive answer is that we disagree about policy. Some want policies that they call “progressive”. They think of policies as solving persistent problems and perhaps even “curing” the country of social ills like racism and bigotry. Others want policies that are “conservative”. They think that traditional values are under assault and seek to protect those values. To them, progressive policies are part of the problem, not the solution.
If this is true, the core political challenge is to bridge this divide. A progressive who is respectful of traditional values or a conservative who is mindful of social ills might be able to lead..
Instead, we have Donald Trump. He is not a progressive in any coherent sense. Nor is he a conservative in any coherent sense. How did he get elected? Why would anyone vote for him if he does not fit into either demographic?
You might argue that not that many people did vote for him. But enough conservatives did vote for him to win the republican party nomination and enough of the general public did so to enable him to win the general election. Who are those folks?
Whoever they are, they do not easily fit into the above model. And that suggests that the model needs a re-set. There is another factor at work. It is not progressive and it is not conservative. What is it?
Channeling my inner Donald Trump, it may be that a certain number of folks are just fed up with the endless fighting between progressives and conservatives. They think it is a joke. They identify with a person who sees the absurdity of endless bickering. They just want comic relief from the bullshit. And it would help if that relief included action rather than words.
If this is what Trump thinks, you can expect President Trump to flip the bird to the politicians again and again. He will be the “flip the bird” president. And he will keep an eye out for how his flip the bird antics play out. To what end? Trump hopes that this will create enough of a power base to give him whatever he wants.
And where will this lead us? Of course, from a policy perspective, nowhere. Trump does not understand policy, and he has no interest or time to learn it. We will instead get politics as entertainment. An endless barrage of outrageous antics that have no meaning other than keeping our attention. it will be as if the court jester has stolen the crown. And like any good con man, Trump will anchor attention of his activities rather than results.
Are we trapped in this syndrome? We may be until someone finds a message that resonates more than Trump’s nihilistic humor. That may come from either progressives or conservatives. But for either to deal with Trump, the messenger will need to take into account this new wrinkle in American politics. I do not think politics as usual will do it. That will just play into the hands of the court jester. That is what he expects and wants, so that he can ridicule both sides.
To win legitimacy back from the court jester, we need a stronger and more hopeful sort of rhetoric. One that unmasks the jester for the fool that he actually is. And if we cannot achieve this, then we are the fools ourselves.