I have a confession to make. A terrible confession.
I like Donald Trump.
Oh, I don’t support his candidacy and I won’t vote for him. I’m not voting for anyone this time around, not even defensively. I have not voted in the last two presidential elections. I don’t care about the courts and the machinery of government seems to whirr — even rustily and scleroticly — of its own accord, with little guidance from the actual writers of law or those who concoct policy. I gave up on voting long ago, in part because I believe democracy is a a false and idolatrous religion and voting is its greatest sacrament (the one thing that holds us together), but also because I have lost any faith I might have had in liberal democracy as way of governing. Any form of government needs a functional elite, and Western elites stopped being able to function — to think clearly and act prudently but decisively — some years ago. Any society, even a democratic one, needs confident and capable elites, and ours aren’t anymore.
That is another subject for another day. Maybe.
At any rate, Donald Trump. Like many, I thought he was something of a sideshow attraction, a trivial distraction during a long, painful, and very stupid election cycle while the “serious” (sic) candidates sorted themselves out. He would go away eventually, say something so ridiculous that he would alienate the very voters he needed to win anything.
But I have to say, with some amount of awe and admiration, that he hasn’t. Mexico sends its rapists and criminals as migrants to the United States. John McCain is not a hero for simply being a prisoner of war. My little cracker. Building a high wall on the border with Mexico and making our southern neighbor pay for it. Keep Muslims out of the United States. I could go on, and every time it seems Trump has gone too far, finally said that one wrong thing, he keeps going, his support undiminished. Even increased.
As someone who was told, by the respectable heads of a deeply respectable institution, that I am not a respectable person and have no place in respectable society (and I have heard some version of this my entire life), to see Donald Trump succeed is … well, gratifying. There is nothing respectable about the man. His tawdry, messy life is an open book, his mouth something of a festering, running sore. He’s not much of a thinker. His use of the law to advance his fortune is rather shameless. But honestly, I wish I could live that shamelessly, with that kind of courage, and that kind of persistence, and not have my life and my words constantly held against me. Or not care, because the judgements of gate-keepers don’t matter. Trump is poking all of the right people in the eyes for all the right reasons. I don’t so much care that he wins, but I am enjoying the spectacle of watching someone live so openly and so honestly. He’s coarse and crude, but he appears to make no pretenses. He offends all the right people. He seems to be honest about who he is. That’s not the same as speaking the truth — Trump speaks very little of that. But as someone who has lived in a world that has held the fact that I am Charles Featherstone against me, I am in awe.
I wish I could do that. I wish I could get away with it. And succeed as spectacularly as Trump is.
Past that, though, what he actually says resonates with me. Some. Mostly his anger, the anger he channels of people who do not matter, and who know they do not matter, who know the world is increasingly rigged against them.
Immigration, for example. Few people in the United States have probably benefitted from immigration as much as I have. Muslim immigrants from the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia were kind, welcomed me, and taught me how to be Muslim. (Those Muslim immigrants were, as a general rule, far kinder and more welcoming than American Christians.) And I have worked abroad, as migrant labor twice in my life. Yes, it was in a very privileged position as a white westerner in the Middle East (where white westerners are right below the native Arabs on the privilege ladder), but I also spent part of that time working illegally as well. I know what it is to live with the fear that an encounter with the police could lead to an inspection of documents which could lead to arrest, jail, and deportation. And to arrange my life accordingly.
And yet … something about how immigration is handled in the United States has always struck me as odd and left me unsettled. In the 1980s, a number of Central Americans fled wars in their home countries and found sanctuary — frequently aided and abetted by American church people — in the United States. I can understand fleeing the brutality of war, but most of those who fled were on the wrong side of governments (Guatemala and El Salvador) supported and armed by the United States. And it always struck me as strange to flee a government and find sanctuary in the nation … supporting that government. It was akin to finding refuge from the war in Afghanistan or martial law in Poland by moving to the Soviet Union. It may have happened, but I rather doubt it happened very much.
Don’t get me wrong. I have always felt far safer in immigrant neighborhoods than I have in all-white or mostly white communities. I like the spaces that immigration has created, especially in big cities. White people, whether middle class or working class, tend to scare me.
But it always struck me there was some other agenda to the immigration. That there still is. I’m not sure what. So immigration — legal, illegal, refugees — makes me uneasy. And I hear, somewhere in the background as I struggle and try to eke out a marginal existence, unable to find meaningful work or care for the people I want to care for — from the advocates for immigration, whether progressive or conservative: “You are privileged, and so you must sacrifice, you must be made to sacrifice. We will take from you and we won’t care what becomes of you. Because you no longer matter.”
So, as horrific as Trump’s pronouncements on immigration are, honestly, they speak to me. They shouldn’t, but they do.
Trump channels something — the rage and desperation of a people who know they don’t matter anymore. Whose lives and wellbeing have become a blight, an embarrassment, who are now disposable. Yes, they have may been a privileged people once, knowing the order of the world arising from the great struggles of the first half of the 20th century was arranged for them, and may be struggling for privilege again, but they also know politics has told them — economically and socially — “lie down and die.” That they are white, and crude, and prone to brutality and violence, frequently not very compassionate or empathetic, all-too-often confused by the world, and that their religion is simplistic and mostly idolatrous, all that makes it hard to sympathize with them. (I find it hard.) But you leave people behind at your peril. You can tell them to “lie down and die,” and some will. But many won’t.
And if there are enough of them, well…
I think Trump supporters get there is no longer a common social good which includes them. They no longer live in America that values them. (I know I don’t.) I’ve said before in this blog I do not believe in the common good. I don’t. Instead, what I see is a rhetorical trick on the part of the powerful to make the powerless pay the price for something they did not necessarily want or support while the powerful walk away with all the benefits, having made no sacrifices of their own. Common good is “watch the birdie” language. It’s empty and hollow, the calming words to disarm before the looting and the beating.
Trump says he can will us into a better world. I doubt that very much. Instead, his is the last gasp of a people losing their position and their place in a society where they will soon be only a plurality. And then just one more minority. Demographic change in America is a slow motion civil war, and Americans are trying to do something I’m not sure human beings have ever done without violent struggle — rewrite the rules of society to change who benefits, and elevate those who were and are on the wrong side of the rule. Maybe it can be done. That it hasn’t, though, suggests it cannot be done. Like any war between peoples over a slab of shared land, there will be little mercy shown and little magnanimity when the conflict is over.
“Lie down and die.” We will surely die. But we don’t have to be silent about it.
Donald Trump reminds me a lot of the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, a fantastic spectacle who represented, for the first time in that country’s history, the majority population of his country. He too enjoyed poking enemies in the eyes with a big, sharp stick — his country’s immigrant-descended commercial and social elites, the United States, ExxonMobil. And watching Chavez at work was truly entertaining. He made all the right enemies, and he was fun to watch.
But he ruined his country, and his successor Nicolas Maduro presides over the rotting and collapsing remains of Chavez’s deeply fraudulent “Bolivarian Revolution” in a country plagued by shortages and violence.
Would Trump ruin America? America is already on the way to ruin, and I suspect ruin is inescapable, written into the very things that make us successful. One of the lessons I draw from the biblical story of Israel is that the very things which made David and Solomon’s kingdom powerful and important — wealth, the army, and the opulence of Solomon’s court — also set in motion the ruin of the state. The court and the army were costly, which led to rebellion and apostasy and idolatry. What lifts us up also brings us down. History doesn’t have laws but it does have patterns, because human beings haven’t changed much in 10,000 years of nation-making and storytelling. No state, no empire, no people is permanent. No wealth is so secure that it can squandered without care, or that it can be successfully shepherded without considering how it is made in the first place. No order is so stable that it can have a foundation yanked out from under it so it can be entirely rebuilt while it still stands.
Folly, however, is permanent. As is humanity. What will become of Donald Trump, I do not know. We still have a full and busy primary season in front of us, and anything could happen. Right now, I will not vote for Trump and I won’t even support him.
But I could. I really could. Which is more than I can say about any of the other candidates.