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Trump and the Clamor for a King

Regis Nicoll
Regis Nicoll
2015 8 Sep

The rock star status of Donald Trump as a presidential candidate is a phenomenon in search of an explanation.

Trump is a billionaire who, unlike Mitt Romney, doesn’t downplay wealth; he flaunts it, even to the point of boasting about his ability to line the pockets of elected officials for personal favors. He is business mogul for whom four bankruptcies are not cause for self-doubt, but self-praise for his ability to game the tax code and bankruptcy law. He is a self-proclaimed Christian who says he loves God but has never asked for forgiveness for his sins, or anything else in his memory. He is a showman whose celebrity is due as much to his bravado and string of high-profile divorces as to his reality show and financial fortunes. He is a presidential hopeful who is anything but conventional.

Styling himself as an apolitically-correct, un-politician, Trump distances himself from the political class by trumpeting his deal-making prowess, running a self-financed campaign, hitting the stump (and stage) unscripted and unrehearsed, and making unfiltered remarks that would have been used for the political obituary of any other candidate. 

Whether it’s turning off the middle class with his shameless crony capitalism, alienating Latinos with his “criminal and rapists” comment, disenfranchising African-Americans by saying their youth have no spirit, offending women with his demeaning remarks about Rosie O’Donnell and Megyn Kelly, infuriating military supporters by dissing John McCain, or thumbing his nose at the RNC by retaining the option to run as a third party candidate for political leverage,  “The Donald” is an equal opportunity offender who, when challenged, doubles down rather than backs down without apology, remorse, or regret.

Yet, despite Trump’s boorish manners, compulsive self-promotion/-adulation, and unabashed narcissism -- more suited an autocratic oligarch than a democratic statesman – his poll numbers have held or risen, along with his commanding lead in the GOP race.

How could this be?

The summer of our discontents

Carly Fiorina, a rising star in the GOP field, says that Trump has tapped into an anger with the “professional political class of both parties that talks a good game, gives good speeches, but somehow nothing ever really changes.”

Similarly, columnist Cal Thomas observes in, what he calls, “the summer of our discontents,” that Trump addresses a public mood in which “Little seems to be going right. America appears in decline under a disengaged president. We can’t seem to win wars, or know why we are fighting them. People are afraid of losing their jobs or unable to find one.”

Canvassing dozens of Trump supporters, a writer for The Atlantic found they fit into two camps: people who earnestly believe he has the best skill set to run the country, and people who simply enjoy the spectacle of his candidacy.

A supporter characteristic of the first group said, “Think about John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan inspiring the world with leadership. Think of Babe Ruth, Martin Luther King Jr., Fred Rogers. The American 20th Century was a great one. Now think about the American headlines of today. What do you think of? War? Poverty? Political division? Do we see greatness in America still on a daily basis or even in the movies?… When Donald Trump says that he wants to make America great again, I believe him.”

It was the sentiment in another time, of a people who, too, wanted their nation to be great again.

Give us a king!

After four centuries of Egyptian bondage and forty years of desert wandering, the Israelites entered Canaan and an era of national greatness. For thirty years, they won victory after victory over their enemies, taking possession of the land God had promised Abraham. But with the death of Joshua, the heady days of the nation began to fade.

For the next three hundred years, the Israelites experienced military defeats and moral failures under a dozen different administrations. While there were scattered victories and revivals here and there, the period was one of precipitous decline, nationally and morally, with everyone doing what seemed right in his own eyes. The end was punctuated with a bitter civil war and the people clamoring for a king to revive the nation.

God answered their demand with Saul, an impressive man showing all the hallmarks of a great leader. With his natural gifts and God’s anointing, Saul achieved early success, restoring a measure of the nation’s former stature. But it wasn’t long before Saul abandoned the counsel of God, giving full reign to arrogance, egotism, and petulance in pursuit of self-serving interests.

Saul’s kingship set the stage for a prolonged era of decline.  With few exceptions, each monarch after him was worse than those before and plunged the nation in a steeper moral descent until the kingdom was divided, the nation defeated, and the people dislocated in a diaspora that resulted in 70 years of enslavement and 2500 years of Gentile subjugation.

A people in more recent memory also longed for a national revival.

Another nation, another “Saul”

After the glorious era of the Kaisers, Germany was handed a blistering defeat in WWI. It was a humiliating blow to national pride made worse by the terms of the Versailles Treaty that required disarmament and monetary reparations that threatened the very survival of the country.

Over the next fourteen years, under the Weimar Republic, the economy deteriorated and crime, vice, and unemployment became widespread. Under these crushing conditions, the people, desperate for change, looked longingly back to the monarchal-style rule.

Just as the Israelites, who over two millennia earlier had clamored for a king, the Germans, impatient for national revival and international respect, sought a leader who would restore their nationalistic pride and make their country great again.

Their wish was fulfilled in January 1933 with the chancellorship of Adolph Hitler.

Learning from history

The U.S., while not an ancient Israel or 20th century Germany, shares some troubling similarities with their “pre-king” stage.

After holding the top position in nearly every measure of greatness and well-being, America’s standing in the world has been steadily slipping for decades. For example, the U.S. now ranks 3rd in economic competitiveness, 14th in education, 44th in health care effectiveness, 26th in child well-being, 1st in incarcerations, and 19th in national satisfaction with 67% of Americans dissatisfied with the way the country is going.

The number one dissatisfaction, amid growing concerns over the economy, jobs/unemployment, terrorism, immigration, and national security, is with the government itself, by a large margin.

There’s also rawness over the loss of respect and influence in the international community. Once the pacesetter in global affairs, the U.S. no longer leads, but follows, taking its social and political cues from Europe. And when it does lead, as in the case of climate change and fossil fuel reduction, it goes it alone, as the world stands by gleefully to watch it fall on its own sword.

It all makes for a strong mix of populism and nationalism, a powerful brew that can dull the senses and ready the palate for the hard stuff of monarchism.

Is the popularity of Donald Trump a sign that we’ve been duly benumbed, that we’re yearning for a king? God help us.