In his 1878 novel, “Return of the Native,” Thomas Hardy wrote: “Successful propagandists have succeeded because the doctrine they bring into form is that which their listeners have for some time felt without being able to shape.”
For decades, a growing mass of disillusioned Americans has been uneasy, unhappy and, from their point of view, unrepresented by the political establishment of both American parties. They are the invisible, the forgotten, unable to articulate the gnawing feeling that they have been left behind as others have been swept along on a wave of prosperity.
In Donald Trump, a “propagandist” has emerged who has been able to “bring into form” the sentiments that millions “have for some time felt without being able to shape.” He may be a pied piper who is incapable of leading his followers to a better life but, at the moment, they see him as their only hope. They have nothing to lose.
Many have pointed to the vast swathes of this nation that are characterized by poverty, unemployment, low wages, inferior or out-of-reach educational opportunities. These are the largely unseen Americans left behind in an age of rapid technological transformation and economic globalization. Promises made by politicians have turned out to be empty slogans. For such people, Trump doesn’t sound like those who have deceived, denied and devalued them. They think: Maybe he can help.
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But aren’t Democrats the party of the poor, of empathy for the vulnerable?
During the Great Depression, it was the Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt who, in a time of crisis, introduced Social Security and other programs that staved off what might have been widespread social unrest. Later, under Democratic administrations, Medicare helped alleviate the health crisis faced by millions of aging Americans. More recently, Obamacare has attempted to address the plight of those lacking affordable health care.
Can Democrats do it again?
Under the current circumstances, I think it unlikely. Sen. Bernie Sanders has touched the hearts of many who feel disenfranchised. At a Sanders rally in Greensboro some months back, I was struck by the fervor of the thousands in attendance, most of them young. Their enthusiasm showed that it isn’t just middle-aged Rust Belt workers displaced by NAFTA and other trade deals who hunger for change. It includes the young who are entering adulthood burdened with debt and encountering limited opportunities.
But Sanders is not likely to be the Democratic standard bearer. And, as is pointed out over and over again, Hillary Clinton carries lots of baggage. Whether she received $100,000 or $250,000 for a speech matters little to people working for low wages, even the widely touted $15 an hour. (Someone paid $15 an hour, and working all year, would gross $31,200 a year.)
Clinton, like most of us I suspect, never enters the world of the alienated. Perhaps she should take a break from campaigning and spend a week with a group of Trump supporters, not telling them what she will do for them but letting them tell her who they are, why they are angry, why they have lost faith in the American dream. Then there would be hope.
A more likely outcome is that, come November, Hillary Clinton will be elected president and little will change. Trump’s moment in the spotlight will end, but the pain and resentment of the invisible millions will continue. They will be on the lookout for another savior, someone else to give form to their discontent.
William Powers, a retired professor of sociology, lives in Chapel Hill.