Remember all of the blather about “American exceptionalism”?
If Donald Trump backers are to be taken seriously, it turns out that in one fundamental way – the smooth transition of power after elections – we may be no better than some Third World nation roiled by mobs in the street.
The same people pining to “make America great again” are now threatening what made it great in the first place. Falling prey to Trump’s desperate search for a face-saving excuse, they are lapping up his contention that the election must be “rigged” while embracing his attacks on the media and threats to lock up rivals.
These are the same elements at play in countries like Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Vladimir Putin’s Russia and fascist regimes of the 1930s, while America was supposed to be different.
That Trump is the one pulling at democracy’s threads makes it all the more galling. Being exposed by a vacuous charlatan infamous for his incuriousness, who speaks in bumper sticker slogans while offering no real policy solutions, just illustrates how tenuous our more than 200-year grip on “a more perfect Union” has always been.
As the candidate alludes to potential violence and a few of his supporters go further, it seems obvious in retrospect that a nation rife with civic ignorance would be ripe for such a threat. While some of his supporters – the David Dukes and neo-Nazis – fall into the “basket of deplorables,” many more are susceptible for another reason.
Analysis after analysis – from the 2014 Annenberg Public Policy Center survey to newsweek.com’s 2011 citizenship test to the European Journal of Communication’s 2009 four-nation poll – shows Americans far less knowledgable about civic affairs than citizens elsewhere. To put it bluntly: Many of the people who express so much dissatisfaction with government barely know how it works. That provides fertile ground for someone like Trump.
But it’s more than just the deplorables or the uninformed. “If you’re ready to believe things aren’t working, it doesn’t matter what you’ve learned,” said Michael Haselswerdt, political science professor at Canisius College.
The basic issue for Trump supporters is economic fear, with racial issues piled on top, he said, and if they were less fearful about their financial condition, “a lot of this other stuff would go away.”
That certainly could be true in Erie County, one of the few areas in New York that Trump might carry.
The idea of a “rigged” system is not solely the province of the right. Bernie Sanders makes the same claim about the economy. So does Elizabeth Warren, notes James Campbell, political science professor at the University at Buffalo. And he sees a parallel stemming from polarization.
The difference is that Warren and Sanders talk about an electoral revolution, not a violent one. Campbell said it’s “a big leap” from challenging the economic or political status quo to claiming that the election is “rigged.” He warns that if people really believe that, there is little incentive to abide by the rules or try to make things work.
“The next step is revolution, or chaos or anarchy,” he said.
Haselswerdt, too, calls Trump’s rhetoric “inciteful.”
We always figured it couldn’t happen here, while also figuring Donald Trump could never get this far. We may have overestimated ourselves on both counts.