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The Most American President by Luci

On Saturday, June 21, president Donald Trump held one of his beloved rallies in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the first in many months. This rally served to prepare his re-election campaign and to boost morale for both his wavering supporters – and for himself. The rally, which was expected to attract more than one million, suffered from poor turnout.

Trump returned to the White House after spending just 3 hours in Tulsa. As he walked across the White House lawn, a reporter captured a picture of him. The picture displayed a Donald Trump that I had never seen before. His posture was hunched. His gaze was turned downwards. His eyebrows were furrowed as he frowned. His suit was unbuttoned to reveal his red tie hanging limply around his neck. He carried his signature red hat crumpled in his left hand.

It is a renaissance painting.

It is the most expressive and emotive picture of Trump ever taken. It reveals what a broken and distraught man lies behind the typical smug aura of the real estate mogul turned politician. In a way, it’s humanizing, and it demonstrates something about the average Trump voter, and, by extension, what it means to be American.

Trump ran on a platform of American mythology. “Make America great again” is the assertion that the United States was once great, that the legend of American prosperity and happiness was once a reality, that it is no longer, and the promise that we can return. The era we are attempting to make a return to is a moving target. No one has a concrete idea. And that’s okay. It’s not meant to be concrete; it’s mythology.

This platform resonated with a very specific demographic. Trump had many different types of voters, but his most reliable and his most fervent were white suburbanites. For this demographic, the myth of America is very much alive, even if it isn’t achievable. These white suburbanites, some of which are affluent, many of which downwardly-mobile, hold the values of the United States as gospel: meritocracy, individualism, and above all, material wealth and the happiness it supposedly entails.

These are values upon which America was founded. However, for many people living in the United States, these values were not as heavily internalized. Among black, native, and other people of color, support for the philosophies of Americanism is limited, as the country was built to exclude them from the prosperity it created. As the country shifted to assimilate these groups by giving them rights previously only enjoyed by white Americans, the foundational ideals were diffused into their communities, but never fully adopted.

White Americans, the people for whom America was created, the people with more generational wealth than any other racial group in the United States, the people who still hold supermajorities of federal political positions and corporate CEO seats, also believe more firmly in American values than anyone else. America remains a country built for their own benefit. It is made up of others whom they have tried to assimilate, but it remains for the white American. 

To be an American in the twenty-first century is to be a white person of the professional or capital owning class. For all others, the United States was never built to accommodate.

This creates a problem when the United States cannot deliver on the promises made to its constituents. The belief in the values of America creates a sort of cognitive dissonance. Many of these suburbanites are unhappy, as either they do not have the wealth their hard work was meant to create or do not have the happiness their wealth was meant to create. As economic crises and opioids destroy what’s left of the so-called middle class, this feeling intensifies.

Donald Trump is the embodiment of the American dream, both of its material success and of its profound lack of fulfillment. In journalist Michael D’Antonio’s interviews for his 2014 book ‘The Truth About Trump’, the billionaire states that his favorite song is Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” He explains that he finds the lyrics relatable in his own life.

“It’s a great song because I’ve had these tremendous successes and then I’m off to the next one. Because, it’s like, ‘Oh, is that all there is?’”

He went from rich to richer, living in opulence and luxury most cannot imagine, and yet he seems perpetually unsatisfied. He went from being an ultra-wealthy elite to becoming the most famous man in the world in the office of the president, but only expressed joy at proving his detractors wrong rather than being proud of his accomplishment for its own sake. His affinity for petty arguments and name-calling does not exude the energy of someone who is confident, but rather of someone who is deeply insecure. Trump identifies and shares many of the same anxieties as his voters, and this endears himself to them. The American dream has failed him in much the same way it has failed his supporters. 

When capitalism enters stages of precarity, it tends to coincide with an increase of support for nationalism, authoritarianism, and even fascism among the more affluent or privileged classes, in hopes that the status quo will be restored. This is repeated time and time again throughout the world.

In his first run for office, his rhetoric and campaign promises sparked the ire of the democratic establishment and media class. They feared that he would become the first truly fascist president if elected. His platform of right-wing populism drew comparisons to the rise of authoritarianism in other countries.

After four years of his administration, there is no indication that we have significantly accelerated the decline towards fascism. Certainly not when we consider policies and actions that would have been taken under a Clinton or Cruz presidency. The United States has been in a steady downward spiral towards fascism for decades, from the destruction of labor unions to the militarization of the police to the creation and expansion of the surveillance state and institutions such as the DHS and ICE. This downward slope remains constant throughout both Republican and Democratic presidencies. Trump is a continuation of this trend. He expresses sympathies for fascistic policies, but does not seek to enact them with the fervor one might expect, because he is not ideologically driven towards fascism.

One of Trump’s most repeated selling points is that “he is not a politician”. He’s a New York real estate mogul whose search for attention and approval landed him almost by accident into the White House. He is fundamentally different than many who take the political fast-track from either Ivy League school or military officer to senator or congressperson, and as such does not share the same motivations or goals. Trump is more motivated by good-old-fashioned personal gain than by a burning inner desire to perpetuate capitalism or American empire. When he expresses sympathies for fascism, they do not necessarily entail a desire to actually do the work of enacting them. 

Trump, like his voters, is discontent and wants the world to return to the idyllic ‘Leave It to Beaver’ world of yesteryear that never actually existed. Fascism is characterized by an intriguing lack of creativity coupled with cowardice. The fascist would say instead of adapting to the changing world, let’s retain the structure and hierarchies of the existing world, and force others to either fit into that structure or be removed entirely, because the uncertainty of creating a new system is more terrifying than the atrocities we will commit upholding the skeleton of the old system. They are impatient and want the world to return to a sense of stability by any means – but many of them do not have a desire to do the work of achieving that.

In this regard, Trump is exactly as his voters. Trump is a non-politician who achieved political office but retained his general disinterest for ideologically driven politics. He is a man of the people in that he is just as discontent and insecure as the white suburbanites who put him in office. His wealth and privilege has allowed him no comfort. He is alienated, searching endlessly for anything to keep him occupied and distracted. 

After the 2016 presidential election, liberals across the media landscape indignantly cried “this is not us. This is not who we are.” They held the idea that the election of Donald Trump was an aberration, a break from tradition. Un-American. I posit a counter-argument: this is who we have always been.

We each grasp at the loose threads hoping to find our happiness and watch helplessly as the country unravels. What could be more American than that?