So much of the coverage of Donald Trump implies that his rise is the fault of “other people,” a troubling eruption that’s come out of nowhere and has been brought on by strangers. But Trump is really everyone’s fault. Including yours and mine.
Here is what happened: Even those people who didn’t vote for Obama in 2008 fell prey to the notion that one person, with exceptional powers of persuasion, could “change Washington.” Even a lot of Republicans thought Obama was a “transformational figure” and “the best way to change the way Washington works.”
Then, we all went on our way. We went back to watching reality TV because it seemed like harmless fun. We subscribed to some Twitter accounts we’re not proud of. We took a break. Because, yeah, that 2008 campaign really tapped us out. It was hard to stay that involved for that long. We just needed to relax.
Something was happening when we weren’t paying attention.
It’s hard to argue that folks should stop worrying about their personal interests, but, as usually happens after an open election, a third of voters couldn’t be bothered to do much of anything. Most did just one thing, maybe signing a petition. The Age of de Tocqueville, it wasn’t.
For those who did pay attention, it was to dive head first into the echo chamber, the very thing we all asked Obama to fix. Whatever happened in Washington, it just wasn’t good enough, and the other guys were always to blame. The irony here is that Washington did actually try. The 111th Congress took on big stuff: health care reform, economic recovery, climate change, gun control, and immigration reform. But even those that passed did so with the thinnest of partisan majorities. Do we really think anyone called Congress and told them to “go for the compromise” or to “think differently?” No. I mean, did you?
Mainly, we all just tuned out. I mean, “The Bachelor” and/or football were on.
So, Washington got two signals from the citizenry. One, ‘my way or the highway.’ The other, ‘I don’t care.' If bosses said stuff like that, would anyone do their job? Or would everyone start acting selfishly and printing resumes? So, that’s what Washington did. It basically stopped working. A bad boss will do that. And we’re the boss.
Meanwhile, Americans pretty much stopped consuming serious media. The earthquake in journalism has been most devastating to reporters trying to tackle serious policy issues, because there is just so little audience for that work. As a veteran of cable news, I know how this goes in news meetings. In the early days of this race, when a show producer could have hosted a serious debate on the policies of the Candidates Who Might Actually Be President Some Day (your Clintons, your Kasichs, and your Rubios), that producer had an alternative: just put the word “Trump” on the screen, knowing it would help bring viewers, because they know that guy Trump from his reality show and because he’s really good at staying famous. In the calculus of cable news judgment, the variable “what people are already talking about” has the highest value. This is how fame begets fame, no matter the virtues of the famous. Enough people fell for this facile fame logic that it actually helped ratings. And, if you think media could kick the habit now that the threat of a Trump presidency is increasingly real, did you see the MSNBC special last week?
Since no one was watching anything serious, thus began the self-fueling cycle of “Trump” on the cable news shows and “Trump” polling well, just by virtue of name recognition. Then, after saying “Trump” to pollsters for a few months, folks had to come up with an actual reason for it, and now we have all these think pieces about what his supporters really want, when it’s not all clear they’ve thought this thing through.
We all found Trump funny, at first, because he was clever enough to play the echo chamber game, tossing red meat to both the left and the right by criticizing each party’s titans. Even if we find him abhorrent, we all loved that he’s poking someone else we don’t like in the eye. The left liked that he ribbed Jeb Bush. The right liked that he wanted to build a wall. And, heck, if you’re not Megyn Kelly, Carly Fiorina, or John McCain, or a refugee, or from Mexico, or a New York Times reporter with a physical disability, and if any of those people have ever made you mad, you find his candor oddly refreshing, in a reality TV “it’s not actually reality” sort of way. But, in his case, the enemy of your enemy isn’t really your friend; he’s a Born On Third Base Prep School jerk none of us would invite to our alumni get-together because he’s so full of himself. All this bragging even though it’s not clear he’s done any better than if he’d put his inheritance in an index fund.
We’ve seen this movie before. In Italy, a do-nothing (and corrupt) Parliament so frustrated Italian voters that they elected a roguish, billionaire businessman Prime Minister, who had a fondness for (much) younger women. Thus began two decades of stumbling, bumbling economic policy that left most Italians regretful. Just last year, Polish voters, sick of governmental business as usual, elected the Law and Justice Party to power, headed by a controversial conservative figure. Since then, Poland has seen political changes made to its security services, constitution, civil services, and public broadcasting while the party leader suggests migrants carry “various diseases.” Sound familiar?
And lastly, for the 40 percent of you who are reading this and might actually vote for Trump in November: It seems like he has two fundamental appeals. First, he’s not ‘politically correct.’ Okay, that’s fine for you, but would you really be proud of someone like that as your President? (If you think that yes, you would, consider that it’s all fun and games until he’s joking about killing the political opposition). It’s fine if he’s a reality TV star, but foolish words matter. But the second reason you might support Trump might be still more misguided. You think he can "get stuff done" and "shake up Washington." Let me refer you back to 2008 and your misguided belief that “one person” can do all that.
To invert the adage: One good person can’t do anything if we stop paying attention. We can’t let others play the Democracy Game just because we have better things to do. Democracy is a team sport, and we’re on the team. We need to lace up and get back on the field. I’m not telling you which party to support, but if you’re suddenly (and appropriately) horrified by the ascendance of Donald Trump, we only have ourselves to blame.