No-Yong Park came to the United States in August 1921 from Manchuria, where his Korean parents had fled to escape from the Japanese occupation. Park went to Europe for his studies but found the continent inhospitable. Arriving in the U.S., Park studied international relations, eventually doing his PhD from Harvard University on China and the League of Nations. Park’s keen eye focused on the trials in the U.S. during the Great Depression of the 1930s. In 1934, he published An Oriental View of American Civilization, which provided a witty look at American society and its institutions. “The Americans make business their life and politics a joke,” he wrote. “No one goes to the butcher for a surgical operation. Nor does one go to the barber for a dog license,” he ruminated. “But in order to be a ruler of the state, no education, no experience, no examination, no license is necessary.” For political power in the U.S., Park wrote, “any joker can throw his hat into the ring and may be elected by the careless people.”
Looking back at the 1932 U.S. presidential election is instructive. Herbert Hoover, the Republican incumbent, bore the blame for the Great Depression. It had happened on his watch. Armies of the unemployed moved into shantytowns, which they named Hoovervilles. Hoover’s main Democratic opponent, Franklin D. Roosevelt, came from establishment stock. Roosevelt’s main plank was to shrink the government and expand U.S. trade with the world. These were policy positions much favored by the elite. During the election, there was little sign that Roosevelt would expand the U.S. government and use state spending to enhance economic activity. The tone of the campaign was ugly, with Hoover calling Roosevelt (correctly as it turned out) a “chameleon in plaid” and Roosevelt responding that Hoover was a “fat, timid capon” (a capon being a rooster). Hoover felt that Roosevelt was “very badly informed and of comparably little vision”. Roosevelt was elected to three consecutive terms. He died in office.
Park’s assessment that “Americans make business their life and politics a joke” provides a window into the ascent of Donald Trump. The real estate developer has no pretentions to being a politician. He is a businessman, the author of the 1987 bestseller The Art of the Deal, a person who has no legislative experience and no understanding of world affairs. Trump’s prowess is not so much in the world of business as in the world of public relations—he is able to sell himself as a successful businessman. Business leaders, in the U.S., carry the patina of masculine heroism: Ford’s Lee Iacocca, Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffett, Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Apple’s Steve Jobs. Trump puts himself into that pantheon. On Fox News in 2015, Trump said: “They say I’m the best-known businessman.” When he announced his run for the presidency, Trump said: “I don’t have to brag. I don’t have to.” There is no embarrassment here. Quite the contrary, the fact that he can claim to be a successful businessman is sufficient to qualify him for politics.
As with the Hoover-Roosevelt race of 1932, the harsh personal attacks in the Republican race amplify Park’s idea of U.S. politics as a joke. Trump pilloried each of his opponents with the mastery of advertisements. Jeb Bush, the brother of George W. Bush, became “Low Energy” Jeb, while Florida Senator Marco Rubio became “Little Marco” and Texas Senator Ted Cruz became “Lying Ted”. Each of these slurs defined Trump’s opponents. They were defeated by his belligerence and mockery.
Now that Trump has all but secured the Republican Party’s nomination for President, the various elites who had doubts about him have settled their differences. The “Stop Trump” movement was stopped in its tracks, and while some of its adherents continue to oppose Trump, the bulk of them are making their peace with him. Trump made a journey to Washington, D.C., where he buried the hatchet with Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and a popular establishment Republican. The joint statement they released after their meeting shows that what unites them is less agreement on principle and policy and more on their adversary: “The United States cannot afford another four years of the Obama White House, which is what Hillary Clinton represents.” Antipathy to Hillary Clinton is the glue. Although even here there is dissension; the conservative funder and oil tycoon Charles Koch said that Hillary Clinton might be better than Trump. Koch, who has funded some of the most bilious movements in contemporary U.S. history, said that he believed that Hillary Clinton’s “actions would be quite different than her rhetoric”. Once in office, the billionaire suggested, Hillary Clinton would not rattle the class structure.
Nor would Trump. The institutions of the U.S. are so firmly erected on behalf of the economic elites that no President can change their core commitment. Bernie Sanders, who continues to run for the Democratic nomination against Hillary Clinton, finds the road to his ascent far steeper than Trump found for his run. Despite victories in a number of primary elections, the media continue to report about the impossibility of Sanders’ ambitions. Sanders, a democratic socialist, has an agenda that while not pledged to expropriate the 1 per cent is nonetheless talking about reforms that displease the elite. They find it more important to stop Sanders than to stop Trump. Trump, for them, is an embarrassment. Sanders has an edge of danger. Sanders, who has had extensive experience in the school of politics, is treated as a novice, while Trump has been anointed with his business background to leadership. Park’s slogan, about business and jokers, is appropriate.
Trump’s idiosyncratic political positions for someone of the Republican Party, such as his hesitancy about free trade and about military intervention, confounds the 1 per cent class. For it, “free trade” and globalization have been bonanzas. It is this class that has benefited from the outsourced jobs and the desert cities of the former industrial belt in the U.S. It makes its money along the global commodity chain and in the financial sector. Little of this investment and profit are shared with the American working class, which suffers from a decline in living standards.
Trump stood as the standard-bearer of the dislocated section of the white working class, who had previously been riled up to vote Republican on issues such as abortion and guns. These issues mattered little to Trump, who spoke on all sides of them without harm. His main appeal lay in his challenge to the “free trade” orthodoxy. But Trump will not be able to deliver on his promises. A Trump presidency would be dangerous not because of what he would do but because of what his supporters would do if disappointed. They are red hot with enthusiasm. This is the danger of the Trump phenomenon. He has promised what he cannot deliver, and what no U.S. President can deliver without a major change in class power over the institutions.
Failure of the Trump agenda will lead to more than disappointment amongst this section. Trump knows this. He speaks with an edge of violence in his voice. When it appeared as if he might not get the nomination, Trump warned: “I think you’d have riots.” When protesters come to his rallies, Trump channels the violence in the room. “I’d like to punch him in the face,” he said of one protester in Las Vegas. Violence saturates the rallies. Expectations of victory are high for his supporters. Trump’s likely loss in the November elections will draw the frustration towards violence. It is inevitable. Previews are common. Last August, Scott and Steve Leader of Boston beat a homeless Mexican man with a metal pole, broke his nose and then urinated on him. “Donald Trump was right,” said Steve Leader. “All these illegals need to be deported.”
Trump might, in Park’s terms, be a joker. But he is a dangerous clown. He has awakened the class animosity of white workers. But he can only offer them bigotry as coin. Real change is not possible through him. Nor through his opponent. This is what is most worrisome about the near future for the U.S.
This column originally appeared in Frontline (India).