Seven in ten voters say that things in the United States are headed in the wrong direction. Even though President Barack Obama is posting some of the best approval numbers of his presidency, there is a strong undertone of disaffection. I think it is attributed to a genuine sense of anxiety by a forgotten middle class that has felt betrayed and whose anger and frustration has truly boiled over this year. What is this anger all about?
First, it is financial, a sense that they are losing ground. Whether it is “real wages” that have been either stagnant or actually lower than they were or the fact that so many have lost jobs and have not been able to recover where they were before, there growing sense of “status anxiety” – the fear of losing their middle class status. Remember, that “middle class” is not a financial reality, it is a sentiment, a feeling. Middle class is all about achieving, having enough, of being secure, of feeling confident that one can provide for now and for their children’s future. That confidence has eroded. In that very important sense, more Americans believe with good reason that they have been let down.
Second, the status anxiety among the middle class comes in the form of broad demographic and cultural changes. For many white middle class Americans, looking out the window and going shopping in their communities means seeing immigrants who do not appear to be “people just like me”. The growing numbers of Latinos, Asians, Muslims seem to represent part of a massive social and demographic change that is also underscored by the changes in their own children – the Millennials and Gen Z who are already diverse, mixed, transgender and proud, and have gay friends and partners and spouses. Compounded by the fear of losing their middle class status, the family and the community don’t seem to offer the “haven in a heartless world” they once provided.
Police shootings, fear of terrorism, the continued presence of the “other” don’t seem to help matters very much in this context.
And third, what happened also to “my America” – the one great superpower, the essential nation, the exceptional force in the world. To Americans losing ground, there is this sense that America is no longer respected, no longer able to shake a stick and get the rest of the world to comply. American seems to have lost its value just as their paychecks have lost their value and their lives are riddled with too many changes all at once.
In steps Mr. Trump. Face it, his acceptance speech was masterful. He is offering strong leadership (he has creds there) and stability (his choice of “law and order” as a theme was a stroke of brilliance). He came up short on other counts, however. Never once did he mention Congress, a Republican majority, or the need to work with anyone else, except for “brilliant minds” he would gather. But that is vintage Trump. He sang an Italian opera last night: “I, I, I, me, me, me”. But he promised strength and leadership.
Sure , he gave no idea how he would accomplish any of what he promised – especially bringing law and order on January 20, 2017. But he set himself apart from his opponent and that is all that mattered to his audience. Interestingly, he gave a shout out to the GLBTQ community and he seemed to have brought the crowd along with him – especially after he chose Mike Pence and thanked the Christian conservatives for supporting him. He is different enough from Hillary Clinton that he got what he wanted.
Finally, he trashed all the rules in his run and in his speech. He has used the corrupt system to expose how cynical it can be and how it doesn’t work for those who are losing ground. He promised change, not status quo. And he contrasted that with Mrs. Clinton who he feels has betrayed public trust and broken all the rules to do the one thing she has lived for – to become President of the United States.
His speech was brilliantly teed up by the very poised, personal, and articulate speech by his daughter, Ivanka. She and her father set aside the braggadocio for the night and used his enormous success as a context for his leadership.
All in all, I think it worked. I have said before many times, demographically and historically he should not be able to win. He has too much going against him to win by any conventional standards. But this is an unconventional candidate and everything else has worked for him so far. He put himself in a good position on Thursday night. I think the era of big bounces is over – but this is a very close race already… and he can win this.
The GOP may have lost its way and its voice – but Trump is just fine today.