Donald Trump's rise seriously challenges U.S. openness to, and engagement with, the world. The system he attacks is worth defending, but must be modified to work for people it has left behind.
For months, Donald Trump was treated by the media and non-GOP-primary-voters as a sideshow attraction -- someone to gawk at, to raise one's eyebrows at, but ultimately to be dismissed when the time came. Unfortunately, for a man who utilizes attention the way the rest of us do oxygen, that was enough to propel him past a crowded field of unappealing Republican candidates. Since his unlikely ascension to the nomination there has emerged an appropriate focus on the obvious: that a vain and crass blowhard who espouses bigoted views against ethnic groups and religions, who has a poor business track record despite that being his claimed competency and source of fame, and who hasn't demonstrated a grasp of the details of any key aspect of public policy -- such an individual is a poor choice for president.
Even so, these criticisms have always been obvious to Trump's detractors and largely irrelevant to his supporters. It may yet be that, having come this far, his competitiveness has only been sustained due to former foes, critics, and the Republican Party apparatus dutifully falling in line behind him. And it isn't a stretch to think that Trump's unforced errors, such as a spat with the parents of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq, combined with his seeming lack of interest in actual governance (versus personal brand-building), lead to a resounding defeat this November. And yet...
And yet Donald Trump did get this far. The outsize attention on the portion of Trump supporters who spew hate distracts from acknowledgment of why he earned more primary votes than any Republican candidate in history -- and why even now he is receiving a tidal wave of small-donor funds1,2. It obscures the fact that anti-establishment anger has been the defining characteristic of 2016, reflected in the insurgent candidacies of Trump and Bernie Sanders, in the elevated urgency of the "Black Lives Matter" movement, and even outside of the U.S. in the "Brexit" decision by U.K. voters to leave the European Union.
Much of Trump's rhetoric is repugnant and debases the political process, something not to be minimized, but "Make America Great Again" has proven to be a sentiment that strikes a deep chord with a broad swathe of citizens who feel hopeless and powerless3. It has enabled a socially liberal New Yorker and Ivy League graduate with an inherited fortune to emerge as the voice of non-college-educated whites, particularly in the economically-depressed South and Rust Belt. Trump's convention speech, which presented a gloomy vision of America as a Robocop-like hellscape, seemed unmoored from reality but matched the emotional tenor of people who are hurting and have been ignored or condescended to for a long time.
It hints at the strongest likelihood of a radical realignment of the political order we have seen in decades. David Brooks and The Economist, among others, have raised this specter recently, pointing out that when the Republican Party's standard-bearer is railing against free trade, the debate is no longer "left vs. right", it's "open vs. closed". Trump's divisiveness nature will prevent him from achieving this toppling of the status quo, but the groundwork has been laid for a future candidate to do so4.
This is a problem because the existing system has "underpinned global prosperity for seven decades. It enabled the rebuilding of post-war Europe, saw off the closed world of Soviet communism and, by connecting China to the global economy, brought about the greatest poverty reduction in history." Brooks notes "Pittsburgh has lost 5,100 steel jobs since 1990. But it has also gained 66,000 health care jobs over the same time. The problem is getting people from the bottom layer to the top layer... a universe away." Unfortunately, the benefits of the latter don't much help the former group. Folks who are struggling to earn a living wage or unable to find employment they can take pride in are not going to defend this system.
Trump and fellow "closed"-minded advocates are wrong because their philosophy leads to a less secure, less prosperous, more mistrustful world. What the "open"-minded have to acknowledge and act on, though, is that the modern era has had broad merits and made many winners, but the safety net for those who've been negatively impacted by globalization, technology, and automation has to be strengthened significantly--or this epoch of progress we've enjoyed won't last.
1. Coverage of Trump remains dominated by typical horse-race journalism and unimportant details. This week the obsession has been with the candidate refusing to endorse leading Republican lawmakers who were slow to embrace him; then his partner on the ticket endorsing them after Trump's supposed go-ahead; finally, Trump saying he does "endorse" them. That word no longer means what we once thought it did.
2. Yes, the former occurred in part due to higher turnout rates (many voters turning out to vote against him), and the latter claim is yet to be verified by official FEC filings. But still.
3. Keep in mind the last Republican nominee was a (generally well-intentioned) plutocrat whose most memorable campaign moment was being caught, in a room full of fellow wealthy elites, disparaging the "47 percent" of the population who don't "take personal responsibility and care for their lives".
4. An isolationist, economic protectionist who doesn't needlessly antagonize women and minorities could draw voters from both ends of the political spectrum, and more importantly, energize a meaningful portion of the ~40% who generally sit out the voting process