The State of American Democracy: Trump’s Deplorables

October 11, 2016

The State of American Democracy: Trump’s Deplorables

by Ian Buruma

Ian Buruma is Professor of Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism at Bard College. He is the author of numerous books, including Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance and Year Zero: A History of 1945.

Hillary Clinton, the Democratic US presidential nominee, recently described supporters of her opponent, Donald Trump, as a “basket of deplorables.” It was neither a tactful nor an elegant phrase, and she later apologized for her remark. But she was more right than wrong. Trump has attracted many supporters whose views on race, for example, are indeed deplorable.

Image result for Hillary and Trump's Deplorables

The problem is that many of these deplorable voters are also relatively uneducated, which makes Clinton’s remark look snobbish. Alas, the United States has too many relatively uneducated people.

Among developed countries, the US ranks low in terms of literacy, general knowledge, and science. Japanese, South Koreans, Dutch, Canadians, and Russians score consistently higher. This is at least partly the result of leaving education too much to the market: those with money are highly educated, and those with insufficient means are not educated enough.

So far, it seems clear that Clinton appeals to better-educated urban voters, while Trump attracts mainly less-educated white men, many of whom in earlier generations would have been Democrat-voting coal miners or industrial workers. Does this mean that there is a link between education – or the lack of it – and the appeal of a dangerous demagogue?

Image result for Hillary and Trump's Deplorables

The Dark Side of US Presidential Politics: How Low Can You Go, Hillary and Donald with less than 1 Month t0 November 8, 2016

One of the most remarkable things about Trump is the extent of his own ignorance, despite his high educational attainment, and the fact that he seems to benefit from flaunting it. Perhaps it is easier for a loud-mouthed ignoramus to convince large numbers of people whose knowledge of the world is as slight as his own.

But this is to assume that factual truth matters in the rhetoric of a populist agitator. Many of his supporters don’t seem to care much about reasoned argument – that is for the liberal snobs. Emotions count more, and the prime emotions that demagogues manipulate, in the US and elsewhere, are fear, resentment, and distrust.

This was also true in Germany when Hitler came to power. But the Nazi Party in its early days did not find the bulk of its support among the least educated. Germany was more highly educated than other countries, on average, and the most enthusiastic Nazis included schoolteachers, engineers, and doctors, as well as provincial small businessmen, white-collar workers, and farmers.

Urban factory workers and conservative Catholics were, on the whole, less susceptible to Hitler’s blandishments than many more highly educated Protestants. Low educational standards do not explain Hitler’s rise.

Fear, resentment, and distrust ran very high in Weimar Germany, after the humiliation of wartime defeat and amid a devastating economic depression. But the racial prejudices whipped up by Nazi propagandists were not the same as the ones we see among many Trump supporters today. The Jews were seen as a sinister force that was dominating the elite professions: bankers, professors, lawyers, news media, or entertainment. They were the so-called back-stabbers who prevented Germany from being great again.

Image result for Trump meet Gordon Gekko

Donald Trump and Michael ” Gordon Gekko”Douglas

The Trump supporters are showing a similar animus against symbols of the elite, such as Wall Street bankers, “mainstream” media, and Washington insiders. But their xenophobia is directed against poor Mexican immigrants, blacks, or Middle Eastern refugees, who are perceived as freeloaders depriving honest (read white) Americans of their rightful place in the social pecking order. It is a question of relatively underprivileged people in a globalizing, increasingly multi-cultural world, resenting those who are even less privileged.

In the US today, as in the Weimar Republic, the resentful and the fearful have so little trust in prevailing political and economic institutions that they follow a leader who promises maximum disruption. By cleaning out the stables, it is hoped, greatness will return. In Hitler’s Germany, this hope existed among all classes, whether elite or plebeian. In Trump’s America, it thrives mostly among the latter.

In the US and Europe, today’s world looks less scary to more affluent and better educated voters, who benefit from open borders, cheap migrant labor, information technology, and a rich mixture of cultural influences. Likewise, immigrants and ethnic minorities who seek to improve their lot have no interest in joining a populist rebellion directed mainly against them, which is why they will vote for Clinton.

Trump must thus rely on disaffected white Americans who feel that they are being left behind. The fact that enough people feel that way to sustain such an unsuitable presidential candidate is an indictment of US society. This does have something to do with education – not because well-educated people are immune to demagogy, but because a broken education system leaves too many people at a disadvantage.

In the past, there were enough industrial jobs for less-educated voters to make a decent living. Now that those jobs are vanishing in post-industrial societies, too many people feel that they have nothing more to lose. This is true in many countries, but it matters more in the US, where putting a bigoted demagogue in charge would do great damage not only to that country, but also to all countries trying to hold onto their freedoms in an increasingly perilous world.


13 thoughts on “The State of American Democracy: Trump’s Deplorables

  1. Poor Donald, 3 on 1. The Mainstream media stabs him in all directions… a classic case of Manufacturing Consent (with apologies to Noam Chomsky) in a society of mindless zombies. The status quo will always win, thanks to Wall Street and Main Street (Madison Avenue).–Din Merican

  2. Well Din, me thinks Cambodia, Philippines and Malusia ain’t gonna be in great shakes with Grandma ‘Exceptionalist’ Hilary as POTUS. I don’t buy into the idea that she is ‘Elitist’ – and Bill, despite his peccadilloes, will be an exceptional First Gentleman, groping digits and all. Slick Willy and Slippery Hilary are gonna rock
    the world..!!

    Among ASEAN, only Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam will see any significant American investments and aid. Duterte will surely come up with something gross and vulgar, now that Trump is reduced to a mumbling-rambling snake-oil shyster. Rude-Boys are going down.

    As for OBOR’ing PRC and Russia, good grief – the Yin will whup the Yang! Disharmony.

    Btw, Boabab Botoxed Momma will now insist that she’s met Hilary in the swamps of Lousiana while hunting alligators and doing her Masters – during her time consorting with SwampThings in the ’70s.

  3. Trump’s message of America is broken and he can fix it is quite powerful to many Americans, educated or not, who have grown up to consider America the greatest country that ever existed and a recently weakened America is the fault of weak leaders like Barack Obama to be followed by an even weaker Hillary Clinton.

    America, I believe, is ready, or rather longing for a strong, even reckless, president to make America great again.

    The problem is no one can agree on the definition of “greatness”

  4. Trump is a poor candidate but despite what the popular negatives are about him, the fact is he has thousands of employee and thousands of customers and business partners that have no problem working with him, even profited with him. Yes, there are good cases against him from employees, partners and projects. But its likely for most of us, what is popularly negatives, sexist, racist, exploitative, will not matter with his presidency – it does not matter with the so called “deplorables” – which by the way include firmly Ben Stone before who is not a “deplorable” by a mile.

    What really matters is that Trump has a track record of leaving trails of problems, messes and issues. He is no solution. But neither is Hillary Clinton, basically a policy wonk with no real vision and ideas, who insist its her turn because she paid her dues when she also has a track record of personal mess, when she got bullied, she held up but she did not slam dunked her opponents.

    Again, its a disservice that Gary Johnson is not up there on the stage. That really is the bigger problem with this race.

  5. Dato.Din, it is not mindless zombies… but a reality of our current state of fragmented state of affair. There is not one America, never was. My fantasy of what America ever is shattered the moment I landed at JFK in the evening and as I got to see some dim light shining through some boarded up buildings on my way to that spiderman school with a Thinker thinking of about nothing. It was a cold night. A woman with a young baby got $20 from that very same night. Welcome to America 😫

  6. Recently a group of Chinese scientists came to visit my factory and I had an interesting chat with them, over lunch, about American presidential election. Since the U.S.-China relationship is probably the most important one the next president will need to manage, I asked them who they like to be the next American president. They all chose Clinton, reasoning that there would be few surprises for China in a Clinton presidency who would largely maintain the traditional ‘hedge and engage’ policy towards China. While a Trump presidency could be seen as better for China, allowing more leeway on security issues, adding an additional element of unpredictability that he would bring to China’s already uncertain economy, would not be good for China. Clinton is very predictable, no element of surprise.

  7. Trump destroying the Republican Party (through his narcissism-fueled rages and vendettas), like MO1 is destroying UMNO (and the Malaysian economy), through desperate efforts to cling on to power.

  8. “fear, resentment, and distrust, a broken education system, and on going bullshit politic” oh these all sound so familiar in Malaysia, unfortunately! God bless America if Trump ascend the presidency and for our country, we continue to hope and pray that we will have a leader that we can respect.

  9. ///Wayne October 11, 2016 at 12:40 pm
    Trump’s message of America is broken and he can fix it is quite powerful to many Americans, educated or not, who have grown up to consider America the greatest country that ever existed and a recently weakened America is the fault of weak leaders like Barack Obama to be followed by an even weaker Hillary Clinton. ///

    This Trump talk about making America great again is beginning to grate on my nerves.

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