Donald Trump and Twitter may have finally freed national emotions from the fading, traditional social and political constraints and exposed a full-frontal photo of the array of our political opinions.
It was inevitable that post-WWII Americans would develop political and social attitudes different from those of the pre-war decades. Millions of veterans returned, used the GI Bill and reveled in the fact their country was now the richest, most powerful and most envied place on Earth.
The Cold War, Communist threat, women’s changed expectations, booming economy, burgeoning middle class, home ownership, cars, national highway system, TV, Vietnam (living room war), Civil Rights, Great Society, JFK, MLK, RFK assassinations, all left their mark on a younger electorate’s political perspectives. And definitely on their elders.
However, it was the communications revolution, the tumbling technological innovations one on top of the other that sharply accelerated the development of more and different citizens’ perceptions of their government’s proper role. 9/11, Afghanistan, the Iraq Invasion and perhaps most telling, the Great Recession, together served to sharpen and deepen the political divisions between and among the American people. Using social media and smartphones, they found like-minds, targeted their messages and influenced politics.
The full-throated 2015 entry of Donald Trump onto the Presidential Election stage, armed with a keen sense of the smoldering popular discontent and anger and an accomplished entertainer’s ability to read his audiences accurately introduced us to a new political novelty. He has been able to deliver what they want, smashing existing norms and tolerances along the way. The Donald amplifies and intensified, many Americans’ sense of grievance and frustration and expresses it using a very satisfying vocabulary; one virtually unheard in earlier presidential campaigns.
Millions have also been seduced by having an extremely wealthy, bon vivant elitist launch personal attacks on others also accustomed to due deference. Trump has become the sometimes awkward, champion of the 99% in the gilded halls of the powerful.
Sixteen other Republican candidates applied past proven techniques and tactics and huge amounts of money and were overwhelmed by the force of Trump’s personality. To date, Trump has loaned his campaign some $40 million, but will now seek contributions to amass the near $1 billion he estimates will be required for the general election.
How the current American political system, particularly its two principal parties, responds to Trump’s seismic tremors could well influence the future political paths the country follows. The Republican candidate and some of his sixteen primary opponents have raised, but not created, important political questions evolving for decades. They center on the degree to which our fundamental Constitutional principles, e.g. checks and balances, separation of powers, equality before the law, inalienable personal rights, the greater good and securing liberty, continue to drive America’s government.
Who actually becomes president, in this context, is relatively unimportant.
Tom Timberman is an expert on military policy and now lives on the Eastern Shore. Among his many assignments with the US Department of State, he has headed a provincial reconstruction team, embedded within a combat brigade in Iraq. He has also helped implement a new counterterrorism strategy in South East Asia as Senior Advisor for South Asia in the Office of Coordinator for Counterterrorism.