This American Carnage

Four years ago, Donald Trump spoke of an “American Carnage” in his inaugural address. He spoke of a country that resembled a hellscape. In his address, he said:

For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government, while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs, and while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land. That all changes, starting right here and right now, because this moment is your moment — it belongs to you. It belongs to everyone gathered here today, and everyone watching, all across America. This is your day. This is your celebration, and this, the United States of America, is your country.

What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people. January 20th, 2017 will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again. The forgotten men and women of our country, will be forgotten no longer. Everyone is listening to you now. You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement, the likes of which the world has never seen before. At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction, that a nation exists to serve its citizens. Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves. These are just and reasonable demands of righteous people and a righteous public, but for too many of our citizens a different reality exists. Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted out factories, scattered like tombstones across the across the landscape of our nation, an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge, and the crime, and the gangs, and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.

Donald Trump got very little right as President, or as a candidate. What he did get right was appealing to his market- not a shocking feat for a guy who made his money “marketing his brand (or name, honestly).” His vision of a hellscape country, one being taken away from the “common man,” by the hyper-educated, the woke, and “the elite,” hit home to voters who happen to live in swing states, blue collar voters that feel left behind by Washington. In 2016 his message hooked high school educated white voters that felt talked down to, forgotten, and left behind. It was the perfect foil to a former First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State who best appealed to voters when she appeared competent in office, and appealed less as a candidate pushing an agenda of change. In 2020 he aimed his appeals not only at that base, but went a step further- targeting Black and Latino men with a message that they too are not being served well by the “elite.” That message kept him in the ballgame against a very strong opponent who can appeal to a very broad cross-section of the country both personally and politically. While President Biden clearly beat him, Trump’s message of “every man” vs. “the elite” didn’t exactly fail him in a very difficult race.

We live in a very great nation, but not everyone enjoys the fruits of that greatness equally. For many, the last 50 years of American growth has not been marked by an exponential improvement in quality of life. While our economy has grown, people are working more and more to make ends meet. Anxiety, chronic pain, and other illnesses are leading to more addicting pharmaceuticals, and more addictions. Individual households are relying more and more on credit to maintain their lifestyles. The concept of vacations is more and more foreign. Divorce is now more common than “happily ever after.” In short, people are living to work, and seeing their personal lives suffer. It is a hellscape.

Even as society is feeling the stress of this unequal distribution, our institutions have spent much of the 21st century failing us. Millions are protesting against police brutality. The Catholic Church and major college sports programs failed to protect children from predators or hold people accountable for the abuse. Wall Street and the big banks gave us the 2008 crash through unethical and immoral behavior aimed at making themselves profits. Congress repeatedly shows itself as incapable of handling major issues from climate change to immigration. Terrorism has touched our shores several time this decade, most famously on 9/11. We had an insurrection after our last election. We fought the war in Iraq for over a decade, on false pretenses. We’ve been in Afghanistan even longer than the Soviets were. We do nothing about mass shootings. Bernie Madoff and Enron seem long ago, but they too were this century. And all of that was before Covid shut down society for a year. We have had an early 21st century of memorable and epic institutional failure. In a country that has long since accepted it’s higher standard of living, it has taken it’s toll on our public confidence.

Official Washington, particularly Democratic official Washington, doesn’t quite comprehend how Trump happened, or why his message worked. They don’t understand why he made inroads with non-white voters in 2020, let alone how he won once. Their advanced degrees from prestigious universities allow them a far better understanding of New York and California than Ohio, but Ohio is more like 30 other states cast out across the nation. They find themselves shocked that their message cannot reach tens of millions of Americans, or that many Americans would simply rather “burn it down.” How can Trump’s baseless, crude rhetoric be fine to many people? So much of official Washington was shocked on November 8th, 2016 as Hillary Clinton lost to this bleak vision of America, and they were shocked again on November 3rd, 2020, when Trump was not overwhelmingly repudiated at the polls. How did Iowa and Ohio go from Obama states to Trump states? Why has North Carolina stopped trending our way? How has Florida gone this way? The truth is that many pundits, appointees, staff on the Hill, and political consultants in DC would be totally and completely lost if they were dropped into a bar in Wilkes-Barre, PA, which may offer us a clue into why their algorithms can’t explain away the anger in our electorate.

On January 6th, I watch the insurrection against our democracy in a fit of rage. As he was leaving Washington, Donald Trump had managed to truly create the kind of carnage that he spoke of in his inaugural address. Like Nixon, Reagan, and Bush 43 before him, he left his successors with a mess to clean up, problems that would consume their political capital, preventing them from some of the big achievements they sought to do. Fortunately, Trump and his party paid a steep political price for their failings. Even if fairly narrowly, they lost the White House, House, and Senate. For a little while, we’re safe from Trumpism. That will not be the case forever. The forces that created Donald Trump’s Presidency still exist. His defeat is not an ending, unless the conditions many Americans live under improve. People do not embrace a bigoted demagogue all of a sudden, by accident. The carnage that leads to bad leaders takes a long time to create, and an even longer time to fix.