Here’s a story about how the United States elected Donald Trump. For many educated, thinking US citizens, Trump’s victory wasn’t just stunning, it was unthinkable, and it remains somewhat incomprehensible. Going on two years of rule under the Trump administration, conversations with friends at home and abroad are still punctuated by reactions to the daily outrage and chaos that define this presidency. And we all struggle, desperately, to find satisfactory narratives for understanding how the US could deliver such a person into the White House.
There’s no lack for explanations from commentators and political pundits, but the very nature of modern news media, and indeed of Trump himself, make the telling of a comprehensive story about the arrival of this president unlikely. Or better, we have important pieces of a story, but we aren’t looking back far enough for its context or looking in the right place for the storyline.
Before we start, this is not actually a story about Donald Trump. Overwhelming evidence confirms that, if not certifiably unhinged, he is genuinely brash, rude, and narcissistic, an inveterate liar who prefers to live in his own parallel universe. A political hack who doesn’t like politics, much of what Trump says and does is noise. His position on real issues is typically, embarrassingly, uninformed and changes with his moods. It’s a mistake, however, to write him off as stupid or to minimise his power to influence real policies – consider his various attempts to vilify immigrants generally, and Muslims specifically, as in his ‘Muslim bans’ seeking to forbid or restrict travel into the US. Nor is this a story that centres on his ‘base.’ Apparently, the frequency or severity of Trump’s inept crudities, inconsistencies, and outright lies have no bearing on their approval ratings. It’s not accurate to claim that most of his supporters are actively racist or xenophobic, but Trump has unquestionably encouraged and emboldened those who are, and his insistence on building a wall along the border of Mexico continues to animate his followers. Trump and his base are not the story – they are, instead, the result of it.