Trump will leave the stage, the broken man that is his due. But it is at our own peril that we underestimate the depth, the durability, and the destructive power of Trumpism.
Trumpism is the toxic blend of resentment at an economic system that has failed millions of Americans, compounded by racism as minorities gain status in society. Its roots go back 40 years on the economic side and 400 years on the racial side. Trumpism is not going to be extirpated by syrupy calls for unity, no matter how sincerely issued or felt. Until Trumpism’s root causes are addressed, it will only persist, metastasize, and grow.
"Only by restoring broad-based, high-income jobs to the tens of millions of American workers who believe their system has failed them will Biden be able to abate the seething rage that is Trumpism."Here are four world-changing insurgencies—attacks against a system from within—that caution vigilance and thoroughness in taming the monster that is Trumpism
Martin Luther was furious with the Catholic Church. He believed that the Church’s top theologian, Thomas Aquinas, had debased the purity of Christian faith by annealing church doctrine with the philosophy of a pre-Christian Greek pagan: Aristotle. Then, the Church started selling Indulgences: promises of remission for sins in exchange for a hefty donation to church coffers. Luther was repulsed.
In 1517 he Protested and demanded the Church Reform. But the Church was implacable. It was the wealthiest organization in the world and was raking in cash on sales of Indulgences. And the Pope wasn’t interested in being rebuked by the impudent upstart from Germany. So, Luther was kicked out of the Church, excommunicated in 1521.
He started his own church, practicing his own understanding of proper Christian theology. Millions followed, happy to get out from under the oppression of Rome. The rebellion unleased 130 years of European civil war, shattering the unity of Christendom that had bound Europe together as a single cultural entity for over 1,000 years. Then…
The Dutch were one of the groups that followed Luther. Protestant doctrine held that there was no need to give tithes to the church since a person’s fate was predestined by God. They got to keep their money, which they put back as capital into their businesses. It formed the seed corn of the economic system that would replace feudalism: capitalism.
But the Spanish king wouldn’t let the Dutch go. The Low Countries were part of his feudal domains, and he was Catholic. So, he tried to suppress the Dutch Revolt, sending the Spanish Armada to choke off the trade that made capitalist Holland the wealthiest province in Europe. The Dutch, happy with their new religion and the budding wealth that it fostered, resisted, furiously.
The war lasted for eighty years, finally settled in 1648. The Dutch won, inflicting a fatal wound on the Spanish Empire, then the mightiest empire in the world. Dutch victory signaled the emergence of the modern world, with Protestantism triumphing over Catholicism, capitalism over feudalism, and the first new Republic since Ancient Rome. The Dutch Revolt was the model the American colonists used when they revolted against their own Imperial overlord, Britain. Then…
Weimar Germany had suffered three economic body blows in just over a decade. The first was the loss of World War I. Then, the Great Inflation of the early 1920s wiped out the wealth of much of the middle class. Finally, the Great Depression destroyed the livelihoods of millions of working-class Germans. Like their modern-day American counterparts, they cast about for a savior.
They found one in Adolph Hitler who told them that their suffering was not their own fault. He told them that their country had been stolen from them and that they had been “stabbed in the back” by traitorous liberals and Jews. The Germans were ready to believe anything that exonerated them from culpability in their own demise.
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Hitler won 37% of the vote in the 1932 elections. He pressured President Paul von Hindenburg to make him Chancellor. He promised that he would stamp out labor protests and roll back communist electoral gains. Hindenburg caved and Hitler kept his word. He outlawed labor unions, suspended civil liberties, declared single-party rule, and put the country on the path to the greatest conflagration the world has ever known. Then…
The Vietnamese had lived for over 100 years under colonial domination by Western Imperial powers. They defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, but the Americans picked up the French sword and continued the domination. They imposed an Americanized ruler and set up a fictitious government in the south of the country, “South” Vietnam.
An insurgency arose by Vietnamese from within the South, the National Liberation Front, or Viet Cong for short. The Americans never understood what they were fighting. They thought it was the communist North. Every time the Viet Cong scored battlefield victories or electoral wins in the South, the U.S. bombed the North. These misdirected reprisals eventually drove the North to enter the War to drive out the imperial invader. It was the beginning of the end for the Americans.
The U.S. killed six million southeast Asians in the Vietnam War. It dropped four times more tons of bombs than had been dropped by all sides in all theaters for the entire duration of World War II combined. But the U.S. lost. The domestic insurgency of people fighting their own government to reverse what they believed was unjust governance proved impossible for even the greatest military power in the history of the world to defeat.
What can we learn from these four disparate vignettes?
Insurgencies from within, especially ones that are rooted in deep religious, economic, or nationalist grievances, are extremely difficult to stamp out. They become all the more impervious as the belief in the righteousness of their cause is deepened. Attacking the protesters doesn’t work so long as the cause of the grievance remains. That only supplies a new impetus to the grievance—suppression—adding fuel to the fire of the old.
The racist element of the Trumpist grievance cannot be eradicated. A hundred million people of color are not going to go away. Nor will they go back into the holes they were forced to live in for prior centuries. That leaves the economic grievances as the only way for Trumpism to be defeated.
Only by restoring broad-based, high-income jobs to the tens of millions of American workers who believe their system has failed them will Biden be able to abate the seething rage that is Trumpism. Lending a hopeful note, when the economic grievances are allayed—when plentiful, well-paying jobs are returned to millions of formerly downwardly-mobile white working class workers—the racial animus becomes attenuated, too.
The insurgency that is Trumpism is not going to go away on its own. Economic restoration is the only path available to Biden to save the country. He needs to focus on that more than anything else. And restoration will not be secured by more of the same neoliberal, enrich-the-rich ideology that Biden is so steeped in, with his almost five decades of faithful government service. That is the ideology, and those are the policies, that got us here in the first place. They’re not going to get us out.
If we are to save the country, we must find the wisdom to think anew and the courage to act anew. Anything less, and the country is done for.