Like many people I’m shaking my head in bewilderment at the rise of Donald Trump to lead the Republican candidacy for the Presidency of the United States. What strikes me as particularly jarring is his campaign slogan that he will “make America great again”. It strikes me as bizarre that people who live in the most powerful nation on the planet, who in the case of the Republicans tend to be on the more wealthy side of the population and thus constitute one of the most privileged generations to have ever trod the earth, feel marginalised and disenfranchised.
Observing from a distance it would seem that three things are happening. First, that many Americans have fallen prey to that most modern consumerist malady in which people who are by any measure among the most prosperous on the planet, who enjoy conveniences and comforts their grandparents could only have dreamed of, lose sight of their absolute privilege and measure their well-being by comparison to one another. By absolute and historical standards I may be extraordinarily well off, but I just don’t feel that way because compared to everybody else around me I fear my standard of living is falling behind. And so it seems many Americans are left feeling that their country has gone from greatness to being diminished.
Second, Trump’s strength amongst conservative Evangelicals (and if it is not Trump, it is Sen Cruz) suggests that the US religious right has not yet come to grips with the end of Christendom and the rise of the modern human rights movement. So much of the complaint seems to be that as the rights of “minority groups” (immigrants, gays and lesbians seem to be their favourite target at the moment) have been recognised, those previously at the centre of power are feeling marginalised. Again, it seems to be a case of perception and reality passing like ships in the night. The recognition of the rights of minorities does not mean those of the Anglo centre have been marginalised (I can’t recall too many stories of Anglo businessmen being beaten up on racial grounds or kicked out of public facilities or denied the vote) but it does mean they have to share power in ways they never had to previously. So they are left with a perception of loss, when in fact they remain enormously privileged.
My final observation is that armed with these sense of grievances born of perception rather than reality, it is all too easy for the American vision of exceptionalism to become very ugly. Ever since the arrival of the Pilgrim Fathers America has been imbued with the notion that it possesses a special destiny in the world. When it has seen that destiny in terms of serving the global community the nation’s incredible power has, arguably, achieved some outstanding goods. But against the backdrop of perceptions of powerlessness it easily transmutes into a desire to dominate, to build up the national self-esteem by demonstrating its ability to impose its will upon others. This is what I think is truly terrifying for the rest of the world out of a Trump presidency (or a Pres Cruz or Rubio for that matter). I’ve listened to a couple of the presidential debates and the rhetoric is very strong. America will become great again by militarily dominating its enemies and by repelling illegal immigrants.
These observations of course, are those of an onlooker, and may very well be wide of the mark. But the United States is such a dominant force on the earth today that all citizens of the world can be forgiven for venturing comment upon the strange turns American political life is taking. Furthermore I suspect that the things I’ve observed about the United States from a distance I’ve also observed in my own society. Whatever we may make of the current state of affairs we all seem a long way from the vision of greatness embodied in the Statue of Liberty and the words celebrated over it: “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”.