Issue Briefs

When Americans Stopped Believing In America

When Americans Stopped Believing In America

Paolo von Schirach

July 28th, 2021

WASHINGTON – Does anybody remember Lyndon LaRouche? He was a weird, if colorful, U.S. agitator who founded the National Caucus of Labor Committees through which he promoted a strange combination of crazy ideas mixed with a variety of outlandish conspiracy theories. LaRouche overtime built a national organization with significant international connections. He run for President many times as a candidate for his own US Labor Party. In 1976 he got a little more than 40,000 votes –nationwide. His campaign platform stated that unless his plans were implemented, the world would come to an end in about 15 years. Undeterred by this dismal 1976 showing, he kept going. At some point he was charged and convicted of tax fraud and ended up in jail. All this craziness notwithstanding, LaRouche for years enjoyed the support of a small, yet unwavering and loyal, sliver of American voters.

Fringe candidates had modest appeal

LaRouche’s story tells us that there have been and probably there will be strange or even mentally disturbed people who tried and will try to articulate their extreme or impossible ideas into workable political movements. His story also proves that there used to be and there will be at least some Americans willing to be persuaded by these “ideas”.

Closer to our times, we may recall billionaire Ross Perot who mounted an impressive presidential national campaign as a populist independent presidential candidate in 1992. He failed; even though in a three candidates fight, with himself, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, he got a respectable, if insufficient 18.9% of the votes. After that national campaign Perot faded away.

Most Americans favored mainstream candidates

The main point here is that, while we have had fringe would-be leaders in the course of the American political history, in most cases at best they enjoyed very modest or at least limited popular support. For better or worse, the vast majority of Americans who cared to participate in the national political process have supported the two mainstream parties and the candidates they fielded. While these parties, their leaders and platforms have proven at times to be mediocre or misguided, (think of Barry Goldwater on the right in 1964, or George McGovern on the left in 1972, both of them overwhelmingly rejected by a large majority of voters), overall, winning and losing national candidates have been insiders, people who emerged from within the two established political parties. Most of them did not promote very radical agendas, let alone conspiracy theories and crazy doomsday scenarios. And this is more or less how the US political system worked.

Trump’s improbable triumph

But then in 2015 Donald Trump came along as a newly minted candidate for the Republican Party presidential nomination, even though he had no previous formal affiliation with the GOP. This sudden entry into presidential politics was not just unusual but unprecedented. Largely because of his lack of experience and therefore credibility, Trump was immediately dismissed by all analysts –liberals and conservatives– as a joke, a publicity-seeking reality TV star with zero substance when it came to public policy, let alone presidential politics.

But Trump surprised everybody. During the GOP primaries Trump in no time literally “destroyed” all the other supposedly reliable, experienced would-be presidential nominees. All of them nurtured by the Republican Party Establishment. Several of them with long public office careers and distinguished resumes.

Amazingly, with zero hands on political experience and no record as a policy-maker, Trump became the GOP nominee. By itself, this was an incredible political achievement. But then Trump proceeded to win the national elections against Hilary Clinton, the steel-plated, quintessential Democratic Party establishment candidate whose campaign had ample funding, an enormous staff and the open support of many party heavyweights. Sure enough, in 2016 Trump won by a very small margin of votes in the three swing states that gave him his victory in the electoral college, (a little less than 80,000). But he did win. And he did all this by spending almost no money and with the help of a rather poorly organized campaign managed by second rate operatives, (at least until Kellyanne Conway and Stephen Bannon became key advisers), and assorted amateurs.

Americans fed up with the corrupt establishment

The difference between Lyndon LaRouche improbable and always losing fringe political movement and Trump’s completely unexpected political triumph, first on the old leaders of the GOP and then everything else, rests in part on the almost magic Trump appeal.

But in larger measure his stunning political success illustrates the twin problems of the cultural and psychological decline of the American society and the vastly deteriorated quality of the political establishment against which Trump run –a discredited establishment now openly mistrusted by millions of voters who would roll the dice in 2016 with an inexperienced new person rather than reflexively vote once more for one of its members.

In 2016 millions of Americans, especially those hit hard by the heavy winds of globalization, felt left out. They were tired of mediocre, self-serving politicians, always making grandiose promises that sounded and were false. Many wanted to see in Donald Trump, a successful businessman, a breath of fresh air, an untainted non politician who would come to Washington and finally clean up the mess and –yes– “Make America Great Again”.

Not the whole story

This narrative may provide a partial explanation for Trump’s meteoric rise. But it does not explain how Trump could get elected president of the United States despite his fantastic ignorance about the issues, despite his heavy personal baggage, his vulgar language and lack of a any experience whatsoever as an elected official.

And it gets worse. As President Trump ruled in a chaotic fashion, misrepresenting issues, inventing data and stories on a daily basis, improvising policies, while reversing them sometimes within the same day. He caused consternation among his senior aids, many of whom were fired or left. This lack of continuity contributed to the overall confusion about policies and priorities. Furthermore, Trump picked major fights with practically all our Allies, even if at times he had ground for showing impatience with some of them, (think of the unmet pledges by most European members of NATO to increase their defense spending.) And yet his support, while never above 50%, stood firm at around 41-43%. Clearly, his vast army of loyalists stood by him, regardless of what he did or failed to do.

Trump almost won in 2020

In hindsight, it is quite clear that it was the colossal mishandling of the Covid pandemic, with over half a million of dead Americans, that ultimately caused Trump’s defeat in November 2020. Still, despite the Covid massive debacle, Trump lost by a very small margin in the electoral college, in an election that showed how his bizarre behavior and chaotic messages continue to resonate positively with millions of Americans, including minorities who almost by definition would seem to be his natural political enemies.

And, as we know, Trump did not leave the White House graciously. Now out of office, he continues to affirm publicly –without evidence– that he actually won the elections. His defeat is all about massive voter fraud. He did not concede nor is he willing to concede at any time in the future to Joe Biden. This is another first in American politics. Losing presidential candidates always concede, this way providing additional legitimacy to our elections system.

Most Republicans believe Trump

But the real problem here is not about how Trump handled his time in office and political defeat. The issue is that most Republicans actually believe his story. Indeed, despite his lies about the elections and all his rules-breaking behavior, or may be precisely because of all this, Trump continues to be very popular among rank and file Republicans, this way exerting enormous influence on the Republican Party. All GOP national leaders, whatever they may actually believe about who won the elections, will not publicly contradict him, this way allowing a colossal lie to become “truth”, at least in the eyes of millions of American voters. As all polls indicate, to this day, a majority of rank and file Republicans believe that Trump indeed won the 2020 elections and would definitely vote for him again, should he be a candidate in 2024.

The problem is us

These are some of the key facts –amazing but real. But focusing on what Trump said or did before, during, and after his presidency and how totally outrageous all this is, is not very helpful. The true and difficult issue here is not Trump.

The true issue is how a populist, protectionist, xenophobic would-be leader who routinely misrepresents facts and is at times borderline incoherent can be so immensely popular in a country composed (we thought) of reasonably well educated people, supposedly guided by a good amount of pragmatic common sense. As indicated above, Lyndon LaRouche was also an unorthodox politicians who said bizarre things and advocated strange stuff. However, LaRouche never moved beyond a loyal but very small group of followers. Ross Perot did better in 1992. But he failed to transform his significant popular appeal into a credible national political force. Trump instead became President in 2017, and he almost got re-elected in 2020. To this day, almost half the country was and still is behind him.

Sadly, I see only one simple, if disheartening, explanation for all this. The values that supposedly underpin America and supposedly inspire the aspiring political leaders who should carry them on are no longer understood or believed by millions of our fellow citizens. Maybe with cause, I should add.

A partisan cacophony

Indeed, the American national political process long time ago degenerated into a partisan cacophony dominated mostly by ideologues engaged in weird culture wars and self-serving, cynical pros who are at best capable of supporting the powerful economic interests of those who lavishly funded their campaigns. No statesmen here, only posturing crusaders and wily, opportunistic politicians.

The easiness with which Trump destroyed the old edifice of American politics shows that the building was already condemned. With a mighty Trump kick, the whole thing crumbled –literally. Because of Trump, now we know that this Great American Architecture of strong institutions supported by great values genuinely embraced by honest and competent elected leaders –an Architecture that we used to extoll as almost perfect and therefore everlasting– has not been cared for. As a result of decades of neglect, it is now both aged and corrupted. As a result of this long decay, when millions of despondent Americans saw an opportunity to dismantle it via their support for a total outsider, they did so –with enthusiasm.

In so doing however millions of Americans demonstrated that they had given up their common sense. Nothing wrong with a desire for change, trying something new. But “this” change? In choosing Trump as their unquestioned champion, millions of American have turned politics into quasi-religious fanaticism, eventually morphing their support for a candidate into a bizarre cult whose leader can do no wrong.

So, here we are. The Trump phenomenon, whether confined to the four years of his presidency or not, is not the cause of our national problems. It is the uncomfortable illustration of how deep they run.

A fragile edifice

The fact is that the American edifice we inherited from the Founders of this Republic was and is fragile. It needed and still needs constant care and repair. It is not self-fixing. We should recall the reply given by Benjamin Franklin to a lady who asked him what kind of government the Constitutional Convention had come up with. “A republic, if you can keep it”, was the answer. With this simple assessment, Franklin pointed out that the success of this newly minted creation rested in the continuing wisdom of its citizens. “We the People”, that is the education institutions, the culture we produce and embrace, the ethics and morals we display, accept or condemn, along with the respect, decency, and benevolence we genuinely feel and manifest towards one another ultimately determine who we are as “keepers” of this Republic. The sum total of all these diverse factors got us here. Obviously something –something Really Big– went wrong.

In another America, an inexperienced and untutored populist lacing his message with nativism, xenophobia and protectionism would have been at best a footnote in the history of our political process. Whereas in 2016 Donald Trump, against all odds and all by himself, competed against everybody and won, fair and square; along the way mocking, humiliating and shredding to pieces a large field of supposedly seasoned opponents, often exposing their all too real weaknesses, to the delight of his followers.

Unhappy Americans

Trump won because millions of disenchanted Americans were fed up with what they perceived as morally weak establishment politicians. They wanted radical change and believed Trump could bring it about.

In fairness, as president Trump changed many things. He cut taxes and deregulated the economy. By accident or as a consequence of his policies, he presided over an uninterrupted cycle of sustained economic growth, (not exceptional but sustained), and historically low unemployment. These are no trivial accomplishments.

But he did not transform the US economy. The 4 to 5% GDP growth rates he promised during the campaign never materialized. He did not “drain” the Washington swamp. He did not bring coal back, this way saving the jobs of thousands of coal miners. He attacked illegal immigration, but also vitally important legal immigration. Yet, despite all this, and despite the way he still refuses to accept his defeat, he is revered as a prophet among his core GOP supporters.

The Founders believed that Government’s primary mission was to preserve freedom. To accomplish this important task “We The People” (at least most of the time) would elect sensible, moral individuals who would carry out their duties with genuine dedication, in an impartial way. America was not supposed to be about prophets and visionaries to be blindly followed by enthusiastic masses. But this is where we are now.

Can we fix this?

This pernicious regression into extreme populism articulated through emotionally charged but ultimately empty slogans did not happen all of a sudden. The corrosion of our fundamentals which brought about lack of confidence in the would-be leaders who supposedly embody our traditional values on the part of millions of Americans took a long time.

With the Trump phenomenon we had a rude awakening. We had to come to terms with the fact that millions of Americans simply do not believe anymore in the textbook Good America we supposedly learn about in school. The Big Question is: “Now that we know all this, now that we know that we have to repair or maybe reconstruct the foundations upon which our successful but fragile society was built, are we up to the task”?

I really hope so.

The views and opinions expressed in this issue brief are those of the author.

Paolo von Schirach is the President of the Global Policy Institute, a Washington DC think tank, and Chair of Political Science and International Relations at Bay Atlantic University, also in Washington, DC. He is also the Editor of the Schirach Report.