By David K. Shipler
Just as the world has entered a phase of post-nationhood, where warfare is committed most persistently by non-state actors such as ISIS, the United States has entered a phase of post-party politics, where insurgencies sap power from the party professionals who are supposedly schooled in the arts of campaigning and governing.
The political upheaval would be exciting if it weren’t scary, and it would be uplifting if the grassroots impulses were humane and inclusive. But the populist resentments are varied, and they are channeled into different streams. Bernie Sanders taps the noble yearning of those who want a society pledged to open opportunity. Donald Trump gives voice to a sinister tide so surprising in its scope as to raise the question of how well most Americans know their own country. How many of us realized that so much ugliness resided just beneath the surface of civility?
Probably not many, perhaps not even among those who find themselves supporting Trump. As they keep telling reporters, he says what they think. But do they really think that stuff? Has some intoxication with Trump removed their inhibitions? Do they all detest people not of their race, religion, ethnicity? Are they actually, deep down, soft on the Ku Klux Klan? Do the men, in their hearts, disparage women, and do the women among his voters ridicule themselves because of their gender? Do they truly admire crude name-calling, and would they tolerate such coarse rudeness in their children or their spouses?
Do they seriously misunderstand the American system of checks and balances that would prevent Trump from doing most of what he promises? Would they really prefer an authoritarian system whose head of state had semi-dictatorial powers? Do they actually believe that government, which has so disillusioned them, can resolve all the economic anxiety and hardship many of them have endured?
Do they admire Vladimir Putin as Trump does? Really? Do they truly want the nuclear proliferation that Trump proposes, with Japan and South Korea in possession of the bomb? Do they actually want a trade war with 45 percent tariffs on goods from China and China’s inevitable retaliation? Do they believe that America’s leadership will be enhanced by dismantling military bases and alliances? Do they think that swagger and bluster and boasting are what make America great?
If so, I do not know my own country, as I told a friend over lunch two months ago. Last week, I heard my own remark echo back to me as Garrison Keillor told NPR the same thing, which was disturbing, coming from the quintessential troubadour of Middle America.
In that vein, the advance of Trump should be taken as a salutary experience, not just by the political pros but by the press, which—before giving us all Trump all the time—largely missed the current of angry disaffection that was coursing through the public. That failure to report adequately at the ground level is understandable in a closed society but inexcusable in an open system such as ours.
By its nature, and because of the essential work of covering government, the press has traditionally followed the issues on government’s agenda. During Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, for example, the plight of the poor got great attention; but as the topic moved off center stage for Washington, it did for the press as well. The same is true in foreign affairs, whose coverage tends to follow the United States into one or another region, and to ignore parts of the world where the U.S. is less involved. The parochialism is natural but unhealthy.
So, disaffected Americans were under covered until they started voting for Trump. One reason for the blindness lies in the erosion of local reporting by news organizations, caught by falling advertising in the digital revolution, that have cut back or gone under. Before the Trump phenomenon, the resentments of disaffected and powerless citizens went largely unchronicled.
Another failure has been the mainstream press’s aversion to throwing a spotlight on raw bigotry. Genteel editors excise the racist epithets and caricatures that are frequently directed against Barack and Michelle Obama, even when the bigoted expressions are germane to a story about a local official or personality getting fired, for example. The broadcasters and writers won’t usually tell us what was actually said, so you have to hunt for the exact quote on the internet. Thus do the principal news organizations bowdlerize reality and ignore a vile American subculture, which doesn’t tamp down the spread of bigotry but merely keeps it out of view until it explodes into a Trump candidacy.
Then, too, the balkanization of information makes it easier now than ever for all of us to read and hear only what we agree with. The country’s political polarization has cast opposing views as so offensive and immoral that we screen them out. (I get odd looks when I tell friends that I listen to Rush Limbaugh occasionally to know what that side is saying.)
And so the elites—whether in politics, business, education, or the press—are taken by surprise by an elite businessman’s play to the humiliation, fear, and deep alienation of a large segment of the public.
An open, pluralistic political system is at its best when it is both responsive and stable, when it reforms as the people wish but without lurching wildly to extremes. Injustice demands the impatience of a revolution and the measured tempo of steady progress. That complicated blend, dissatisfying to both the afflicted and the comfortable, has been achieved by the interplay of diverse American interests and sentiments living together on common ground.
Now is a time of testing, and we’ll see in November how much of that common ground remains, and how much of our country we did not understand.