When America is growing and happy, the country is sort of like a sprinter’s track. As Robert H. Wiebe put it in his classic book “The Segmented Society,” when things were going well the diverse country comprised “countless isolated lanes where Americans, singly or in groups, dashed like rows of racers toward their goals.”
In times of scarcity and alienation, it’s more like bumper cars. Different groups feel their lanes are blocked, so they start crashing into one another. The cultural elites start feuding with the financial elites. The lower middle class starts feuding with the poor.
A few decades ago the sociologist Jonathan Rieder studied what was then the white working-class neighborhood of Canarsie, Brooklyn. People there were hostile both to their poorer black neighbors, who they felt threatened their community, and to the Manhattan elites, who they felt sold them out them from above.
We are now living in a time of economic anxiety and political alienation. Just three in 10 Americans believe that their views are represented in Washington, according to a CNN/ORC poll. Confidence in public institutions like schools, banks and churches is near historic lows, according to Gallup. Only 29 percent of Americans think the nation is on the right track, according to Rasmussen.
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This climate makes it hard for the establishment candidates who normally dominate our politics. Jeb Bush is swimming upstream. Hillary Clinton may win through sheer determination, but she’s not a natural fit for this moment. A career establishment figure like Joe Biden doesn’t stand a chance. He’s a wonderful man and a great public servant, but he should not run for president this year, for the sake of his long-term reputation.
On the other hand, bumper-car politicians thrive. Bernie Sanders is swimming with the tide. He’s a conviction politician comfortable with class conflict. Many people on the left have a generalized, vague hunger for fundamental systemic change or at least the atmospherics of radical change.
The times are perfect for Donald Trump. He’s an outsider, which appeals to the alienated. He’s confrontational, which appeals to the frustrated. And, in a unique 21st-century wrinkle, he’s a narcissist who thinks he can solve every problem, which appeals to people who in challenging times don’t feel confident in their understanding of their surroundings and who crave leaders who seem to be.
He appeals to people who, as Walter Lippmann once put it, “feel rather like a deaf spectator in the back row. ... He knows he is somehow affected by what is going on. ... But these public affairs are in no convincing way his affairs. They are for the most part invisible. They are managed, if they are managed at all, at distant centers, from behind the scenes by unnamed powers. ... In the cold light of experience, he knows that his sovereignty is a fiction. He reigns in theory, but in fact he does not govern.”
When Trump is striking populist chords, he appeals ... to members of the alienated middle class (like those folks in Canarsie) who believe that neither the rich nor the poor have to play by the same rules they do. He appeals to people who are resentful of immigrants who get what they, allegedly, don’t deserve.
But Trump’s support base is weird. It skews slightly more secular and less educated than the average Republican, but he doesn’t draw from any distinctive blocs. Unlike past populisms he’s not especially rural or urban, ethnic based or class based. He draws people as individuals, not groups.
Unlike past populisms, his main argument is not that the elites are corrupt or out of touch. It is that they are morons. His announcement speech was fascinating (and compelling). “How stupid are our leaders?” he asked rhetorically. “Our president doesn’t have a clue,” he continued. “We have people that are stupid,” he observed of the leadership class.
In other words, it’s not that our problems are unsolvable or even hard. It’s not that we’re potentially a nation in decline. The problem is that we don’t have a leadership class as smart, competent, tough and successful as Donald Trump.
Measured in standard political terms he is not ideologically consistent. As Peter Wehner pointed out, he’s taken so many liberal positions he makes Susan Collins look like Barry Goldwater. But ego is his ideology, and in this he is absolutely consistent.
Never before have we experienced a moment with so much public alienation and so much private, assertive and fragile self-esteem. Trump is the perfect confluence of these trends. He won’t be president, but he’s not an aberration. He is deeply rooted in the currents of our time.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.