Whose Fault is Trump? Top 7 Culprits

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign platform has from the beginning been based on racism, religious bigotry, class warfare of the rich on workers, hatred of women, and a whole series of other unacceptable and disgusting planks. Not since David Duke of the Ku Klux Klan ran for the senate in Louisiana in 1990 (and got 60% of the white vote) have we seen so extreme a candidate have such a good chance of winning national office. Yet despite Trump’s black soul (in the phrase of Khizr Khan), the polls in September had showed him competitive.

What in the world so degraded our politics such that a candidate as bad as Duke in most respects was not disavowed (as Duke was) by the Republican National Committee? That he was given thousands of hours of free airtime by cable news networks like CNN and MSNBC, who simply switched to his daily rallies as “breaking news,” in prime time! I can’t remember seeing them do that for a Hillary Clinton speech even once in prime time; maybe on a Saturday afternoon when no one is watching.

Obviously, the national kid gloves with which Trump has been treated didn’t come out of nowhere. The US political and information system was softened up for him over the past decade and a half. So here are some turning points that led us down this primrose path to the new American fascism.

1. The use of media by politicians to create an alternative reality. The Bush administration’s propaganda war on Iraq, which manufactured “weapons of mass destruction” that did not exist, was an important turning point. The United States had been involved in a lot of murky police actions and colonial small wars, don’t misunderstand me. But at least in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, it came in on one side in what was essentially a civil war. The rights and wrongs of the entry into both of those wars (and we know that the pretext for escalation in Vietnam was fraudulent) can at least be debated. But in the case of the Iraq 2003, the United States simply launched a war of aggression with no semblance of international law or really even any casus belli at all. The president and his men wanted to do it, so they did. They pulled it off in part by feeding the pliant media a daily diet of propaganda and falsehoods. They hinted around that then Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had been behind 9/11. They warned that he was two years from having a nuclear bomb. They went on television and said that had secret intelligence that the rest of us did not know about. They said they knew exactly where the nuclear bomb making facilities were and where the biological and chemical weapons were stored. And virtually no one challenged them. MSNBC, i.e. NBC and Microsoft, actually fired Phil Donohue before the fact so he wouldn’t be in a position to cast doubts. It fired Ashley Banfield for complaining about the pressure to propagandize. Trump has trotted out a whole series of similar lies, from his allegation that the murder rate has risen astronomically to his equally false assertion that immigrants are disproportionately responsible for crime (they are actually unusually law abiding). Virtually all of the Bushies and the Neoconservatives have come out against Trump, but they paved the way for his technique of using the media to create an alternate universe for viewers that would allow him to launch assaults on other people.

2. Elevating terrorism above other crimes, to the status of existential threat. The Bush administration “war on terror[ism]” played on public fears to hype the threat of terrorism. It is one of President Obama’s failures that despite trying, he wasn’t able to change this meme. Americans are much more likely to fall down in the bathtub and break their necks, or to be hit by lightning, than they are to be caught up in a terrorist attack. And, the far right, which Trump coddles and whose dog whistles he cheerfully blows, is responsible for more terrorism than Muslims in the US. We have bankrupted ourselves spending money on wars and counter-terrorism, but when congress complains (I kid you not) if counter-terrorism officials focus in on white terrorism. Treating terrorism as a form of crime makes far more sense and would save us from actions that probably actually increase terrorism.

3. Islamophobia. Fox Cable News, the baby of billionaire and extremely corrupt press lord Rupert Murdoch, and run by serial sexual harasser Roger Ailes, spent tens of thousands of hours and tens of millions of dollars to promote hatred of Muslims. Their hypocrisy is obvious insofar as Alwaleed b. Talal, the Saudi billionaire, was a partner during much of this period. After 9/11, polls showed that 60% of Americans still thought well of Islam, which had been their ally against communism during the Cold War. The relentless bombardment of the airwaves by people hating on Muslims definitely moved the needle, and the series of wars Washington prosecuted fruitlessly didn’t help. They actually called Iraqi guerrillas who fought against an illegal foreign occupation of their country “terrorists,” so that they managed to create millions of terrorists that hadn’t been there before. Among those in this hall of shame we have to count comedian Bill Maher, the chief poster boy for being LEOM, “Liberal Except on Muslims.” Maher called on his audience to support Israel’s assault on little Lebanon in 2006. When the youth of the Arab world rose up against dictatorship, he quipped, “the Arabs are revolting.” He said that Jews and Buddhists are peaceful in a way Muslims are not. He falsely repeated the propaganda that “most” terrorists are Muslim. He was personally offensive to Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), taunting him, “are you going to cry?” Maher has had a lot of fun teasing Donald Trump, but he bears some responsibility for the widespread and disgusting acceptance of hatred of Muslims by so many in the American public.

4. Misogyny. Trump clearly devalues women. The American political right, which stopped the Equal Rights Amendment and makes fun of women’s issues and equates machismo with political success all laid the ground for his acceptance. The virtual repeal in most Red states of Roe v. Wade, taking away women’s control over their own bodies; the bold arguments on Fox for paying women less than men; the denigration of women politicians as shrill or incompetent– all of this discourse made it possible for Trump openly to say women-hating things and to face no particular public backlash. If Republicans captured by the Evangelical or Catholic right wing can keep introducing bills to make abortion illegal, then are they not saying what Trump said, that women should be punished for having one?

5. The replacement of television journalism with infotainment. I’m old enough to remember when ABC put their news operation in the entertainment division in the 1980s. In the old days, news was a loss leader and media executives didn’t expect to make money on it except maybe at the local level. It was expected that television journalists be careful with their facts and strive for impartiality. Obviously, no one can entirely escape their society or social class, etc., but professional ethics were high. I rush to say that there are still excellent journalists and commentators out there– Richard Engel, Ben Weedeman, and so many others. But they are often ill-served by their bosses. Once cable news and the networks decided to try to make money with news, they went to infotainment. I remember when CNN first started under Ted Turner and had real news. It distinguished itself with its Gulf War coverage. Then after a while it was sold to Time Warner, and propaganda for certain causes and against others began being highlighted. And then I turned it on one day and the headline, I kid you not, was that Britney Spears had gone clubbing without her underwear. Then the news was gradually banished to the ticker underneath, and inexpensive panel discussions were substituted for reportage. No one watching American television news and mainly getting information from it probably even knows there is a war going on in Yemen or what has been going on with the drug war in Mexico, or about the persecution by Burmese Buddhists of the Rohingya Muslims. Increasingly, what was onscreen was just a form of celebrity gossip. “The news” is what gets eyeballs and therefore sells toilet paper and tampons. The Yemen War won’t do that, so it isn’t news. But guess what gets eyeballs? Donald J. Trump. So American mass media just surrendered to him without a shot and how badly they have screwed us over is still not completely clear. I hope they sold a lot of toilet paper so at least it was worth it to them. But it has been pointed out that this media system we now have is actually a security threat, since it doesn’t inform the citizens of a democracy about pressing issues on which they have to vote, and isn’t acting as a sentinel in investigating potential threats. Some progressive billionaire needs to create a really big endowed news organization that could actually present news and which can’t be pushed around by the advertisers or special interests. (You’ll note you never hear labor unions mentioned).

6. Climate Change Denial. Exxon Mobile, the Koch brothers and other big Hydrocarbon interests have spent 20 years very successfully casting doubts in the minds of the public (and especially in those of politicians and other businesspeople) about the reality and danger of man-made climate change. People now think they can drive around their gasoline cars and burn coal for electricity (as at the Monroe plant in Michigan) and put billions of tons of dangerous CO2 into the atmosphere every year, and that won’t come back to bite them on the ass. Trump has campaigned on denial of science, and now the Koch brothers are upset and pulled back from the monster they helped create.

7. Racism. The US Republican Party is largely a party of white Protestants, though about half of Catholics also vote for it. It has not succeeded in attracting minorities, and, indeed, by backing Trump may have chased away Asian-Americans and Latinos for the long term. Since the Nixon southern strategy, GOP politicians have increasingly used racist dog whistles. Reagan ran against welfare queens. Dan Quayle railed against a “cultural elite” (i.e. Jews in Hollywood). GOP congressmen attacked Latinos. Trump just ran with their discourse and outdid them. Republicans have gotten mad at me for pointing all this out, but it is time they instead engaged in some introspection and reconsidered racism as a platform for a major American political party. If the policy you’re running on produces a Trump, and threatens blood in the streets, wouldn’t it be better to forego political office?

There are lots of other culprits. You can make your own lists.

But basically what I am saying is, a lot of powerful Americans have a lot to be ashamed about.


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26 Responses

  1. Dear Juan,

    You are so completely “right on” in all your 7 points, yet I would like to re-emphasize Point 5, the replacement of “news” by “infotainment.” As you put it so well at the end of your point,

    ” But it has been pointed out that this media system we now have is actually a security threat, since it doesn’t inform the citizens of a democracy about pressing issues on which they have to vote, and isn’t acting as a sentinel in investigating potential threats.”

    A democracy is only viable to the extent that the intelligence of its citizens is involved in civic life. Our grandparents and great-grandparents in the 30’s and 40’s of the last century mostly did it. Because of the failures of our media (and the elitism and insider-ism in our political culture in the last few decades,), both our intelligence (individually and collectively) and our involvement in our civic life have been greatly reduced.

  2. It.s weird you bring up Donahue. Yesterday I was thinking of how he was pushed out of the door by Chris Matthews and other newly converted Iraq war zealots.

    As for Trump, he conquered the field of GOP sad cast of characters by using the kind of bombast he learned during his days of promoting WrestleMania. Here is a well put together clip from YouTube that illustrates this point of view. Notice the crowd at the WWE event is similar to those you see at Trump rallies. This is not to say they are bad people or even ignorant (My attorney is a Trump man) just a group of angry white males….link to youtube.com

  3. It is an interesting exercise but does it not simply work backwards, picking circumstances that preceded Trump’s present status to identify as causes of it? It is a mechanistic way of looking at things, arising from a belief that there is no higher perspective and what happens has to be the effect of some identifiable preceding cause. However, there are far too many other evidences that suggest something more significant may be underway of which Trump may simply be a symptom. There has been debate around the concept of an ‘end of liberalism’ to explain many such phenomena including these 7. The unfortunate thing about such a notion is that it too often becomes a simple debate about whether Western liberalism and its global financial model is or isn’t coming to an end when we might be looking for some transformative process, a process that may be speeding up but for which there is no individual or collectively contained cause and therefore no ‘cure’ beyond the fleeting comforts of nostalgia. There has to be transformation, everything is subject to it, and we cannot tell where it will lead but there seems to be a nisus towards a broader humanitarian perspective and growing environmental awareness. If this should be so it might somewhat explain the vicious and aggressive survival responses of those elements standing in its path.

  4. Your top three are symptomatic of media irresponsibility. It’d be useful to pick at that subject a bit: it seems to distill down to basic capitalistic (human?) instincts that may be irredeemable.

  5. Here is story that to my knowledge was never reported where the Inspector General of the Depart of Defense in June produced a report that stated that the DOD is missing 6.5 trillion dollars. Although this wasn’t reported, or didn’t get much aire time if any, but instead we were treated to a ‘Trump Fest’ to keep us all better informed.

    link to dodig.mil

  6. The bad news is that the MSM stands for Madison Social Management and that he rest of the media is more or less terrorized. The good news is that everyone knows it: The Emperor’s New Clothes tragic-comedy.

  7. Here’s a possible addition: The fragmentation of media caused by the internet. The myriad of far right and far left news websites has led to a cocooning effect, where people increasingly hang with similar-minded folks. It’s not for the good. There are sites, such as TruthDig, where the soundtrack gets extreme. But it’s far, far worse on the right, where Breitbart is nowadays one of the lest strident voices comparatively; that’s how crazy it’s become. Unfortunately, any crank now has a platform to spout and the wingnuts have figured out how that works.

  8. The main reason the idiot Trump is competitive is Hillary Clinton. At a time when the public overwhelmingly feels that the country is on the wrong track and desperately want change, Hillary is the candidate of the status quo forced on the Dems by the establishment. And she has the highest negatives on record except for Trump. Any other Democrat would be running away with the election by now. Any other Republican would be beating her soundly. Hillary’s problem is not that she is woman, it isthat she is a Clinton.

    • bingo… that is the #1 main reason.

      The Republican field was supposed to be Bush + a field of clowns. The clowns won, nobody wanted a 3rd Bush presidency. Trump happened to be the most entertaining clown.

      And on the other side we have Hillary. Nice lady no doubt, but let’s be real, she got to the Senate as a courtesy to Bill, and again to Sec of State as a consolation prize for stepping aside for Obama. Take note there, the D party recognized in 2008 that they needed someone like Obama to actually win. Her qualifications? The ability to score high positions and raise funds, and being less heinous than Trump. Her liabilities? Being in the pockets of the folks that brought you deregulation and then the 2008 economic crisis, and Iraq, and Libya, and we could go on.

      So again, who’s fault is it? You tell me. I don’t think it’s the media though.

  9. All true but you forgot to mention a key one: OBAMA. His skin is black and seeing a black president was too much to bear for a lot of Civil War losers and disempowered whites elsewhere. Hatred of Mexicans and Muslims resonates in that same strata of the American collective subconscious. Also worth mentioning are gun-possession identification (fanned by the NRA and GOP), the persistence of Reagan era delusions about rugged individualism, and (here’s to blame the Dems except for Bernie Sanders and a few others) the minimal attention to the very real and painful worker displacements caused by free trade, globalization and likely in the near future. a response to climate change.

  10. I would also mention voters who instead of revolting are lining up to vote for one of the two worst candidates ever dredged up.
    As a former Dem, I would say that the lesser evilism endemic among Democrats has come to it’s natural conclusion exposed as full blown evil.
    People who used to have a future before neolibs destroyed it for profit are prime Trump fodder. They’re p. o. ed. Trump isn’t their spokesman as much as their revenge. The more bad things the Neoliberals have to say about Trump, the more reason to vote for him. People vote not for Trump but for the dysfunctional dynamic he’ll create. As someone said before, “to throw a wrench into the works.”
    To me it’s amazing how the buffoon came out of nowhere, supported by nobody and was seized upon by a long ignored and degraded citizenry now reduced to penury. He took advantage of a power vacuum that should have been Democrat or Republican territory had they not been co-opted by corrupt interests, dark money, perverted science and wars of aggression.

    • Actually, the data I’ve seen indicates the typical Trump supporter is above the national average on the income scale — hardly in a state of penury. The Trump signs I’ve seen in my town are all in front of houses that appear to be doing quite well. It’s kind of like the meme that seems almost universally accepted that America is in awful, awful, awful shape, although it’s hard to support that with data. The deficit as a percentage of GDP is quite low by historic standards, and while I agree the benefits of the recovery have not been well-distributed, the US has done better than almost any other country in the world, and we’re indisputably in better shape than we were eight years ago.

      For some reason, Americans seem to think there should be no problems in the world, and those that exist should go away just because we say so. It doesn’t work that way.

      And if Hillary Clinton is “full-blown evil,” where do you go to describe Charles Manson? Vlad the Impaler? Hitler? Hyperbole is rarely useful.

  11. It has been said that a people get the government they deserve. While all you say is true and while the oligarchs have been successful in capturing our political system, the American people also share a large part of the blame. People are intellectually lazy. We have the curious situation of a time when all the world’s information is instantly available, with all different viewpoints also available. Yet, studies have found that more and more people insulate themselves and look at only those outlets which they already agree with. Also, they will blindly accept statements of opinion without checking to see if there is a factual basis for them. Another problem is that even those who do use the internet for new information, often limit themselves to that and fail to read in depth information as found in books and scholarly articles. So, they may have some fairly wide bits of knowledge, but it is very shallow and thus lacks context and perspective, both very important. (I am reminded of a historical quip about William Jennings Bryan who was first known as the “boy orator from the Platte.”. One wag said that was appropriate since the Platte River was a mile wide and an inch deep.)Having read a fair amount of history, one thing that has struck me is how I think the average voter 100 and more years ago may have actually been more informed than the average voter today. For example, it has been estimated that around 10,000 people attended each Lincoln and Douglas debate, which must have been a very large portion of the surrounding population. Also, you read of rallies and political events throughout the 19th Century that had large attendance with interested and informed voters. Political events often seemed to also be social events. I often get the feeling that the populace was more informed of the issues and more concerned with them back then than they are today, when so much of politics is a sideshow of sound bites and character assassination.

    • yes. Civil War soldiers on both sides spent much time reading the daily newspapers and discussing the issues of the day. Several regiments or brigades established debating societies while in winter quarters.

  12. Although all your points are true, I think another culprit is chiefly responsible for both Sanders and Trump – the sense that the upper and upper-middle classes have sold the lower-middle and working classes down the river.

  13. All of your points are correct. However, point #8 needs to be added.

    8. The credulity of We The People

    We the people (in the broadest sense) are also culpable, because enough of us bought 1 through 7 to validate their apparent success.

  14. The Trump’s culprits were there long before Donald Trump came along – racism, misogyny, peer-group bullying and ignorant hate have always been a part of America. Especially in those ill-equipped to make good in the 21st Century. Trump preys on IGNORANT, low achieving, self-interested culprits which are our national weakness and Trump’s only real strength among the voters.

  15. The media could not sell it if people weren’t buying it. Hedonism is our highest value. Screw the environment because all possible futures are impossible. Live well today for we die tomorrow.

    The media as root cause premise fails to account for the rising ignorance of the electorate in spite of high levels of literacy and ubiquitous access to information in the “age of information.” Media alone cannot be held accountable for rising anti-intellectualism and anti-science agenda which are the spirit of our age. Your industry contributes too professor. What were once the pillars of our communities have become diploma mills. University is no longer the place where people learn to see the world clearly and as a whole. Universities now produce products for profit which serve neoliberal globalism instead of critical thinking. Once upon a time we trusted higher education to produce knowledgeable citizens with leadership skills. Now we have glorified trade schools—some place to get you ticket punched for a good paying job. And even that’s not true anymore.

    Universities owe allegiance to private interests (e.g., Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois) rather than the public trust. Even publicly funded institutions are subject to supply and demand lowering their requirements in order to compete for dumber and dumber students. Educators have to beg for their commissions from the wealthy and the powerful and accept the inherent quid pro quo that comes with it.

    At some point you have to look to the citizens themselves as the source of the poor quality of “civilization” we are witnessing. This is what comes of letting the “free market” make all our decisions for us.

    • About 20 years ago, many said China wouldn’t make it b/c the students couldn’t think critically.

  16. I would for sure add Reich Wing hate radio to Juan’s list of the abominables who have given us Trump. Cumulatively, they get around 45 million listeners per week (some listen to more than one “show”), and they are the default programming at many offices, construction sites, etc.

  17. Trump is the “What, me worry?” app. As we strive for ever increasing convenience, Trump provides it by eliminating our need to confront details. Just touch the screen in the right spot.

  18. With all due respect, this discussion is narrowly focused on proximate co-effects dressed up as causes.

    Why did any of those happen, then? Why did the media fold to money, focus-groups, and infotainment? Why was the population susceptible to scapegoating of Muslims?

    In the bigger picture, we could ask why both the conservative and the liberal value systems so easily and so completely sold out to the self-serving “neo-liberal” [sic] orthodoxy, in so doing cutting off their remaining connections to social democratic and to libertarian currents, respectively.

    Trump may be the perfect storm, but perfect storms need a perfect vacuum to develop. You may as well vote for the giant meteor

  19. Other than perhaps overstating the importance of a smarmy wise-ass like Bill Maher, I agree completely.

    On Point 5 (news as infotainment): While movies set in the near future usually look a bit silly within a few years, an exception to this is the ’70s film “Network.” I suspect the screenwriter, Paddy Chayefsky, thought at the time he was exaggerating what were then barely visible trends to the point of ridiculous absurdity. But 10 years later it looked truer than before, and 40 years later, truer still. If anything, it almost looks understated now.

    Add in a specific (and heinous) political agenda like Fox News, and a Democratic Party elite as clueless about the views of its own base (they thought Hillary Clinton was going to be popular) as it is spineless in opposition to Republican bullying, and you have a democracy in peril.

    Be strong, everyone. Be strong.

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