Donald Trump’s supporters believe that his election will end business as usual in Washington. The self-glorifying Trump agrees and indeed has, so far, been the most unorthodox president of our era, if not any era. It’s a chaotic and tweet-driven administration that makes headlines daily thanks to scandals, acts of stunning incompetence, rants, accusations, wild claims, and conspiracy theories. On one crucial issue, however, Trump has been a complete conformist. Despite the headline-grabbing uproar over Muslim bans and the like, his stance on national security couldn’t be more recognizable. His list of major threats—terrorism, Iran, North Korea, and China—features the usual suspects that Republicans, Democrats, and the foreign-policy establishment have long deemed dangerous. Trump’s conception of security not only doesn’t break the mold of recent administrations, it’s a remarkably fine fit for it. That’s because his focus is on protecting Americans from foreign groups or governments that could threaten us or destroy physical objects (buildings, bridges, and the like) in the homeland. In doing so, he, like his predecessors, steers clear of a definition of “security” that would include the workaday difficulties that actually make Americans insecure. These include poverty, joblessness or underemployment, wages too meager to enable even full-time workers to make ends meet, and a wealth-based public school system that hampers the economic and professional prospects, as well as futures, of startling numbers of American children. To this list must be added the radical dangers climate change poses to the health and safety of future citizens.
Trump may present himself as a maverick, but on security he never wavers from an all-too-familiar externally focused and militarized narrative.
Conjurer in Chief
Barack Obama wrote a best-selling book titled The Audacity of Hope. Perhaps Donald Trump should write one titled The Audacity of Wealth. During the presidential campaign of 2016, he morphed unashamedly from plutocrat to populist, assuring millions of people struggling with unemployment, debt, and inadequate incomes that he would solve their problems. The shtick worked. Many Americans believed him. Fifty-two percent of voters who did not have a college degree chose him. Among whites with that same educational profile, he did even better, winning 67 percent of their votes.
Unemployment, underemployment, stagnant wages, and the outsourcing of production (and so jobs) have hit those who lack a college degree especially hard. Yet many of them were convinced by Trump’s populist message. It made no difference that he belonged to the wealthiest 0.00004 percent of Americans, if his net worth is the widely reported $3.5 billion, and the top 0.00002 percent if, as he claims, it’s actually $10 billion.
Former Louisiana Governor Huey Long, perhaps the country’s best-known populist, historically speaking, was born and raised in Winn Parish, a poor part of Louisiana. In the 1930s, his origins and his far-reaching ideas for redistributing wealth gave him credibility. By contrast, Trump wasn’t cut from humble cloth; nor in his present reincarnation has he even claimed to stand for the reallocation of wealth (except possibly to his wealthy compatriots). His father, Fred Trump, was a multimillionaire who, at the time of his death in 1999, had a net worth of $250 million, which was divided among his four surviving children. The proportional allocations are not publicly known, though it’s safe to assume that Donald did well. He also got his start in business—and it wasn’t even an impressive one—thanks to lavish help from Fred to the tune of millions of dollars. When he subsequently hit rough patches, Dad’s connections and loan guarantees helped set things right.