The question is: how did we get here? How did we make it to such a leader and such followers in such a crisis? We’re talking about a man who, unlike President Herbert Hoover, may usher us into a true Great Depression and possibly not suffer a staggering defeat at the polls in November, as that president did in 1932. (Of course, to put things in perspective, Joe Biden isn’t exactly Franklin Delano Roosevelt, is he?)
If you’re wondering how all this could have happened in such a fashion, and why that base of the president’s remains so remarkably faithful amid the rubble of our world, I offered my own answer years ago. After all, there never was much of a question about Donald Trump himself. He was, without a doubt, a self-aggrandizing, narcissistic, self-absorbed monster of a man and -- to give him full credit -- he never made the slightest secret of who he was. Nonetheless, in the middle of election season 2016, when it became increasingly obvious to me that he had a real shot at beating Hillary Clinton and becoming president of the United States, I started wondering why that might be so.
That June, as the presidential race was heating to a boil, I offered my own pre-answer to all such future questions. In a piece at TomDispatch, I suggested that, in a country of already grotesque inequality,
“a significant part of the white working class, at least, feels as if, whether economically or psychologically, its back is up against the wall and there’s nowhere left to go. Under such circumstances, many of these voters have evidently decided that they’re ready to send a literal loose cannon into the White House; they’re willing, that is, to take a chance on the roof collapsing, even if it collapses on them.”
Yes, even if it collapses on them. I also pointed out that “The Donald represents, as a friend of mine likes to say, the suicide bomber in us all,” adding that a vote for him would be “an act of nihilism, a mood that fits well with imperial decline.”
Nihilism indeed. Donald Trump, the birther king, was then visibly the opposite of great, despite that MAGA slogan of his. He was, from the beginning, a degraded (or, if you prefer, de-greated) personification of imperial decline. And now that the roof has indeed collapsed on his base, among so many others, his personal responsibility for the severity with which it’s happened should be obvious enough. Still, don’t kid yourself: everything about this America of ours suggests that, for a significant minority of the population, it’s not. Not yet, perhaps not ever.
And here’s the weirdest thing for me: I answered that question in 2016, but all these years later, as I address you on graduation day 2020, I have yet to fully accept it. At some level, I still can’t believe it and I’ll bet you can’t either.