Trump is like the safety-valve that was attached to the old railroad steam engines. This safety-valve would automatically open to harmlessly relieve any excessive pressure building up in the boiler; preventing an explosion that could derail and destroy the train. In a sense Trump’s presidential campaign has served as a safety-valve for society by allowing voters to vent pent-up feelings of powerlessness, disenfranchisement and the tension of economic displacement that has built up; preventing an explosion that could potentially change the very structure of American government.
Frustration with the established political process reaches a dangerous boiling point every few generations because the American government is an oligarchy masquerading as a democracy. The only thing the founders of the American government feared more than the tyranny of a monarchy was the power of the people. Not trusting the actions of the people in a true democracy, the founders created a representative democratic republic. The government structure outlined in the Constitution was intended to limit, not liberate the power of the people. Just a couple of examples make the point: When the Constitution was adopted, only six percent of the American population were eligible to vote; people could not vote directly for their senators or president. Even now the president is not elected by a direct vote of the people.
The idea promulgated by those in power that the American government is “of the people, by the people and for the people” is at odds with reality. The American government is, and always has been, controlled by an elite few. That is what the drafters of the constitution intended. This contradiction creates a natural friction between the masses who are told that they have power, but don’t, and those elite few who really do have power. If this tension between the myth and the reality of where power resides is allowed to fester for too long, it could lead to catastrophic consequences for the country.
Populism as a Safety-valve to Release Political Tension
Over the years the tension between the people and the government has given rise to a number of presidential candidates who were identified as “populist leaders.” Some of the best known of these populist leaders include William Jennings Bryan, Huey Long, George Wallace and Ross Perot. The appeal of these populist leaders was based on the economic grievances of those who felt financially exploited by the system – farmers, factory workers and small businesses. Ancillary to these economic issues, the populist leaders promised a “crusade” that would bring to task the entrenched elites of the political establishment, powerful banks, the Lords of Wall Street and the national media that is seen as gatekeepers of established power.
While none of the populist provocateurs were able to wrench power away from the establishment elite, they did give voice to those who felt disadvantaged and powerless; releasing the tension between the powerful and powerless before it reached the boiling point. (It can be argued that Andrew Jackson was a populist leader who did succeed. Jackson had a plurality of votes in his first campaign for president, but not a majority, so the election was thrown into the House of Representatives where the establishment elected their own candidate, However Jackson did come back to win the presidency in the next election. Seeing himself as the “direct representative” of the common man, Jackson brought about fundamental changes in the political and economic power-structure that took the establishment almost 60 years to undo.)
Trump is the Heir to Frustration, Distrust and Disappointment
Donald Trump (and Bernie Sanders too) has inherited the legacy of the populist leaders who have gone before him. There are those who suggest that Trump is better described as an egotist than a true populist for the common man, but nevertheless he has touched the nerve of disenchantment with the overwhelming power of the elite establishment felt by the average person. Trump’s candidacy has given those who are frustrated with the reality of power in America a venue to vent their feelings. And they have by – much to the shock and chagrin of the establishment – making him the “presumptive” Republican nominee for president.
At first Trump’s candidacy was viewed as an egotistical lark or ingenious marketing campaign for the Trump brand. (Ted Cruz was initially seen by the establishment as the real threat as a populist candidate.) The establishment underestimated Trump and his appeal. What Trump had – and the other candidates lacked – was flamboyance, personality and exceptional savvy as a marketing genius. Because Trump was not seen as a serious threat, the establishment either ignored him or treated him with kid-gloves. After all, Trump had little experience in politics and certainly did not have a history as a populist. (As did Sanders.) At the same time, the media was mesmerized by his flair (something lacking in all other candidates) and what were seen as his free-wheeling audacious comments and antics. The media not only gave him a platform, they egged him on.
The combination of the establishment’s ambivalence toward Trump’s candidacy (until it was too late) and the fawning of the national media allowed all those who felt powerless and frustrated with the establishment to latch on to Trump; even though he shared few of their beliefs and is anything but a traditional populist. In essence, Trump became this generation’s populist candidate by default. People were looking for someone to speak for them against the establishment and Trump was the only one they could find.
Now What Do We Do?
Now that Trump has (supposedly) secured the nomination of the Republican Party, the establishment (of both Parties) and their media bedfellows are in a panic. With the fear that Trump might actually be elected president and upset the establishment applecart, all the guns of the elite establishment and the media have been turned on Trump in a unified effort to vanquish him. There are even those in the Republican Party calling for a change in convention rules that would deny Trump the nomination. The media has gone from fawning to flogging in their coverage of Trump.
This is not surprising. The last thing the elite power establishment – political and moneyed – want to see happen is for a candidate who is perceived as populist to win a presidential election. That would give too much power to the people who are not supposed to have power.
The likelihood is that Trump and those who support him will be crushed. That’s the way it is supposed to be, but give Trump credit for one thing. Trump has served as a safety-valve that has given those who feel powerless, disenfranchised and frustrated by economic displacement to make their views known. But there is something even more important here. Trump’s campaign – as flawed as it and the candidate may be – has made America great again by showing that people do have power and that it is possible to challenge (or at least really frighten) the elite establishment. Maybe the next populist candidate will have the experience, talent, temperament and unifying “crusade” to win the battle against the entrenched elite establishment. And that would be a good thing.