Well, it happened. If the reality of a Trump presidency didn’t set in already, his inauguration and immediate execution of numerous executive orders were sure to do the trick. As Americans, we are now officially subscribed to four years of whatever “winning, winning, winning” entails. Though we knew from the beginning that last year’s collection of candidates was sure to produce an interesting election season, few people would have predicted this outcome a year ago … or even a few months ago. So how did we get here? Specifically, how did he get here?
Let’s start with the slogan “Make America Great Again.” Whether you love or hate Trump, this slogan (and the red snapbacks that showcase it) will live in infamy. Why? This is by no means an inherently unique or provocative slogan. 2004 democratic candidate John Kerry used the campaign slogan “Let America Be America Again.” Since then, Obama has used the iconic slogan “Change,” Ron Paul has sported “Restore America Now” and Marco Rubio’s 2016 slogan was “A New American Century.” With each of these slogans, regardless of party, we see a common theme; a desired shift from the status quo, whether it be a creation of a new norms and values or a return to old ones.
Trump’s slogan was special for one reason: when placed in the context of his campaign, it had the ability to provide prejudiced messages to the Americans who were receptive to them. For example, when Trump’s slogan was preceded by speeches about creating a Muslim registry “for safety,” “Make America Great Again” became “Make America Christian Again.” When it was preceded by calls to deport Mexican workers “for jobs” and build the wall, it became “Make America Whiter Again.”
By combining his campaign slogan with talking points that appeared racist, repeatedly denying any racist motives and later praising the very people who his policies would target, Trump managed to pull the wool over the eyes of millions of average white Americans – who chose to see him as nothing more than a controversial but fearless anti-establishment crusader – and keep them aboard, while he simultaneously signaled a clear message to the truly racist and sexist individuals in this country: “Yes, I’m really with you. I just can’t come out and say so.”
I emphasize the Trump campaign slogan’s ability to transform not to exaggerate its effects on the election result or on Trump’s support (I don’t doubt other slogans could have played the same role), but to provide a clear example of the way Trump ran his campaign in general. Largely, this was a coloring book campaign. Trump provided a vague message, created just slightly more specific versions of that message which he paraded around and sold to different factions of Americans and let them fill in the remainder by assumption. This was what we might call passive manipulation of the public.
Trump’s vision of a greater, better, utopian America has always been a blank canvas that never really meant anything, but that each individual could make his or her own with a little imagination. This fantasy campaign largely resonated with an increasingly frustrated white working class who refused to place blame on the catalysts of their economic decline (exploitative corporate owners and the upper class), creating the perfect populist storm. By the time we took it seriously, it was too late to stop it.
Trump’s vision of a greater, better, utopian America has always been a blank canvas that never really meant anything, but that each individual could make his or her own with a little imagination.
In the media sector, the acceptance of Trump’s message was greatly aided by an increasingly sensationalist set of mainstream news outlets. While reputable foreign and world news sources like BBC and Al Jazeera have kept a consistent, informative tone in recent years, American political news sources like CNN and Fox News can be caught at any hour of the day flooding our televisions with “BREAKING NEWS” alerts, short, clearly biased taglines and celebrity guests instead of political theorists. These tactics may increase the entertainment value associated with mainstream media, but they only hurt its trustworthiness.
Trump, realizing a weakness in the media’s credibility, attacked these news outlets from the very onset of his campaign, feuding with reporters and later including the term “fake news” as a part of his campaign’s regular discourse.
By slowly injecting more media distrust into the public and by reducing his media adversaries to defenders of the “political establishment,” Trump created the environment he needed for his statements and stances to be defended publicly. Whenever a news source fact-checked Trump, analyzed one of his scandals or brought up the implications of his proposals, Trump’s spokespeople could quickly cast aside critiques with deflective interviews, knowing that if any ambiguity remained in the debate, a portion of the general public would immediately side with Trump without researching the issue themselves.
Trump managed to raise the bar for the acceptance of lies (yes, I’m calling them what they are: blatant lies) and racist/sexist comments because the people who were supposed to be holding him accountable to the public were the very people he had already discredited and turned a portion of Americans against. And thus, his message could be broadcast to greater audiences with less resistance.
Lastly, Trump’s rise was greatly aided by members of a Democratic Party establishment, who assumed all they had to do was hold their ground in order to see Hillary Clinton elected despite early polling that consistently suggested her primary opponent – Senator Bernie Sanders – was far better positioned to defeat Trump. In fact, let me remove any sense of uncertainty from the last segment of that sentence; Bernie Sanders, who regularly polled at margins of 10-plus points above Trump (while Clinton polled only slightly better – and in some cases worse – than Trump), would have ABSOLUTELY beaten Trump. Yet, as democratic voters exited polling stations during the primary, they cited “electability” as the primary reason for voting for Clinton.
Why? Because electability was the (false) narrative Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Clinton’s former campaign manager and then supposedly neutral DNC chair) and other democratic elites were pushing, and because superdelegates pledged their votes to Clinton so early and in such a great number that Sanders’ chances seemed extremely slim to primary voters.
Instead of adjusting the game plan and moving towards a candidate that presented new, fresh and popular liberal ideas – a candidate who could garner widespread support from the independent crowd (which happens to make up 40 percent of Americans) – the Democratic Party stuck with what they knew: a candidate who was almost as widely hated as Trump himself and who was (rightly or wrongly) plagued by scandal as well. They created an environment in which many moderates saw Trump as an okay alternative and in which Democratic Party voters were so apathetic toward their candidate that many of them chose not to vote at all on election day. They shied away from a chance to mobilize behind a candidate who has always represented liberal values, not one who recently decided to adopt many of them.
If the Democratic Party learns from its mistakes in 2020, it may be able to reverse some of the human rights violations it will be partly responsible for in the next four years. Until then, liberals everywhere should focus on mobilizing new grassroots campaigns to resist Trump’s initiatives and plan to support a truly liberal future, not a half-assed, disingenuous one.
Dylan Parisi believes that through liberal mobilization, some of Trump’s policies can be resisted.