Playing on desperation of the American people is key to Trump's success

Writing about Trump must be what carrying coals to Newcastle felt like, but less useful. Nevertheless...

His numbers are holding up rather well. A recent poll has him tied at 46 per cent each on approval or disapproval of his policies; 55 per cent approve his leadership versus 41 per cent who do not; on overall approval or disapproval rating he's ahead at 47 to 44 per cent.

A recent poll has him tied 46-46 on policy support, ahead 55-41 on leadership and at overall 47-44 approval. That’s better than his election result. What accounts for it? It's not that his backers are unaware of his flaws. They've always known, they just don't care.

Let me go roundabout on this. I attended last week's community meeting on a huge towering project that will replace iconic, beloved Honest Ed's bargain store in downtown Toronto. It was packed. There were longtime residents, largely my vintage. They expressed the vintage position that We Don't Like Change.

The surprise was the meeting's overall tone: positive. Why? Because the project's housing component will be entirely rental -- mostly market value with some affordable. But no condos so you won't need a down payment and a hunk of capital you've miraculously managed to save.

Young artists and starting-out doctors lined up at mikes to say they loved the area, once lived here but were driven to East York or the Lakeshore by high rents for crappy apartments in private homes. They were blissful at the thought of moving back where there's street life, you can walk to theatres, and raise kids in actual neighbourhoods.

None lamented that they'll never be homeowners. They'd moved beyond that already. For them the dream is no longer owning a home. It's renting an apartment -- at market value! Humans are spectacularly adaptable.

(In abstract terms this reflects the "fact" that over the past 40 years, average hourly earnings rose only 3 per cent though productivity increased 42 per cent. Someone got rich off that chasm but it wasn't people working for a living. For the vast majority the only way to keep up was plunging into debt, enhancing the returns for those at the top, who dole out the credit.)

Now take all these factors and the despair they predictably encourage for much of the population and then deduct public health care so that at least you won't go broke from illness; also deduct still decent public education, a passable social safety net (though deteriorating) and add the toxic residue of slavery with its continuing after-effects, plus a delusional myth that you live in "the greatest nation in the history of the world." The result is the U.S. today and the shocker is that it hasn't exploded with rage and despair till now!

Why not? Thoreau said the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation (when I lived in New York his quote appeared on subway ads) and they do. Why do they stay quiet? It may be hope of improvement, if not for them, for their kids. If that hope is quelled, as it has been, by steady declines -- not just in income but markers like life-expectancy -- they'll feel less taciturn. But they'll still stay hushed if no one provides a channel to vent their despair and anger. This is what Trump, however unlikely, delivered.

In hard times populism, which basically embodies the comprehensible anger of the majority, stands ready, but requires an outlet. Bernie offered that but his party beat him down. Trump's party tried, but he beat them back.

For normal Americans, politics has been an entertainment sideshow for ages. They knew it didn't matter who won, they'd get similar results. So it made sense to vote for the most entertaining candidate, the one you'd rather have in your living room or on your screens nightly. It's surely paradoxical, then, that the candidate who broke through with a believable offer of actual change was the one who's been nothing but a sideshow forever. And still is.

Yet he represented desperate hope to desperate voters. He didn't do it with coherent policies or empathy. He did it, rather, by a willingness to touch the third rail repeatedly -- by being racist, misogynist, even blatantly stupid, along with dissing free trade, U.S. exceptionalism and, gasp, Gold Star families. It all represented a way of saying: "I won't be what they've been, I am their very opposite, so you may truly have a hope in hell with me. Go on, touch it yourself."

We simply underestimate the level of ongoing desperation in people's lives, à la Thoreau. If it rises above a certain "normal" level, it awaits only a voice.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

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Image: Flickr/Darron Birgenheier

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