Donald Trump, as Tom Engelhardt reminds us today at TomDispatch.com, was a declinist candidate for the presidency. He saw America in decline, in peril, and said so. He deplored America’s trade policies, its immigration policies, its position in the world. He was a unique blend of pessimism, realism, and optimism — but, as recent events have shown, it has all ended in opportunism for Trump. And that opportunism — combined with his ego-driven need for adulation — is only exacerbating the very real decline of America.
As a candidate, Trump was rightly pessimistic about America and its wars, outspokenly realistic about our “third-world” infrastructure, and cagily optimistic that America could be great “again.” But if his first five months as president have shown anything, it’s that his approach to governance is in the service of his own brand and interests. His motto: What’s good for Trump is good for America. And that motto defines as well as restricts his vision.
As a candidate, Trump had valid insights into some of the aspects of American decline. If only he would act on these insights! If only he’d get us out of debilitating forever wars; if only he’d invest a trillion dollars in U.S. infrastructure; if only he’d commit truly to helping the working classes with better jobs (support for higher wages and health care for all would be a start). Yet Trump, who talked of draining the swamp of Washington, has only become the latest and scariest creature of that swamp.
Despite all his failings, Trump has managed to secure a base of support that is resilient (so far). Why is this? As undisciplined as Trump can be and often is (all those damaging tweets!), there’s a reality to him. He may be boorish, bullying, boastful, and belligerent, but he’s real in the sense that he’s not trying to hide his flaws (because he sees them as strengths).
Contrast Trump with the Democratic establishment. Yes, Bernie Sanders is real; he resonated (and resonates still) with America. But the Democratic Party? It’s still caught in the past, re-fighting the election of 2016, re-fighting the Cold War with Russia, re-fighting its old dispute between its “activists” and its “pragmatists.” It appears the pragmatists are still winning, despite the fact that its posing pragmatist of progressivism (yes, it’s an oxymoron), Hillary Clinton, crashed and burned so spectacularly last November.
But to return to Tom Engelhardt’s article. The grim irony of Trump is that the man who campaigned on the slogan “MAGA: Make America Great Again,” is doing his best as president to lead America deeper into a ditch.
In a different context, the Gospel speaks of a day when the first shall be last, and the last shall be first. Trump, posing as an American Firster, may well lead Americans to a new and shocking position as Lasters.