Now a year-and-a-half into the Trump presidency, it’s become a truism that the president’s support is anchored in a deep sense of social and political powerlessness felt by many Americans, especially older, white men. An early 2016 Rand poll comparing Donald Trump and Ted Cruz supporters found that those who agreed with the statement “people like me don’t have any say about what the government does” preferred Trump — and by a whopping 86.5 percent majority.
This sense of powerlessness turned out to be a more reliable predictor of Trump support than all the other issues that dogged the 2016 campaign, including immigration, income, education, the economy and his abusive sexual exploits. And it still does.
In 1941, the then-radical psycho-theorist, Erich Fromm, published Escape from Freedom. In it, he warned:
The annihilation of the individual self and the attempt to overcome thereby the unbearable feeling of powerlessness are only one side of the masochistic strivings. The other side is the attempt to become part of a bigger and more powerful whole outside of oneself, to submerge and participate in it. This power can be a person, an institution, God, the nation, conscience, or a psychic compulsion.
Like Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse, Fromm was then worried about the growing threat of totalitarianism. In particular, these thinkers, among others, were concerned about how the deepening sense of powerlessness among what was then referred to as “the masses” had contributed to the enormous increase in the power of the leader, whether Hitler, Mussolini, Franco or Stalin.
The peculiar dialectic between power and powerlessness is shadowed by a necessary third component, the perfect target. These are the people who are identified as the threat that the powerful and the powerless must come together to defeat. In pre-WW-II Germany, the perfect target were the Jews, communists, homosexuals and gypsies, people that Nazi’s claimed were different, thus threatening the purity of ordinary Germans’ “Saxon heritage.” The threat can come in any form, be it class, race, nationality, religion or political ideology – or whatever is a distinguishing characteristic of those targeted.
Pres. Trump has up to now played the perfect-target dance with great success. As a candidate and now in the Oval Office, he’s ranted successfully against “illegal” immigrants, whether long-time residents, married to a citizen and with American children, have a criminal record, served in the military or recent arrivals. In one Tweet, he opined: “They [Democrats] don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13. They can’t win on their terrible policies, so they view them as potential voters!”
The Trump administration may have recently overplayed its perfect-target hand with the forceful separation of seized immigrant parents from their children, no matter at what age. From purely bureaucratic and media-relations perspectives, it’s been a mess. No matter whether the immigrants might be “illegal,” they are still people, parent and child, and – in Christian America – family still matters. Equally revealing, the Congress has yet to underwrite building a wall separating the U.S. from Mexico.
The U.S. is not in a pre-fascist period. Globalization is forcing fundamental structural changes on American society, affecting the economy as well as personal life. One key question involves a president’s vision and the practices of his administration. Do fundamental social changes foster greater efforts to protect (and increase) the wealth and social power of the privileged or does it signal a sea change – like the post-WW-II consumer revolution — that enhances the quality and longevity of the lives of the many? Trump is effectively exploiting the power/powerless minuet to maximize his own wealth and that among others of the 1 percent. His – and his administration’s — efforts are designed to (moderately) upset the post-WW-II alliance between the federal government and private corporate interests. The alliance has long been a revolving door for both Democrats and Republicans – and the Trump Team is spinning the door.
The Trump apparatus is pushing the revolving door further to the right. Every federal department and agency, including the Supreme Court, appears to include, if not run by, someone drawn from the military, a corporation or bank, an industry association, a lobbying firm, a religious group or a conservative thinktank.
Trump and his administration, ably assisted by a get-what-you-can Republican-controlled Congress and Senate, seem more like that of Herbert Hoover and the great denial of what everyone knew was coming rather than that of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the making of a modern super-state. With hollow bravado, one with apparently little thought about consequences, Trump Tweets new federal policies, offers false apologies and ceaselessly attacks on the media. For Trump and his administration, all information questioning a Trump Team statement suggests possible treason.
For two-plus centuries, the U.S. has been a battleground between power and powerlessness. Through each era of contestation, a perfect target has been identified and exploited to help assure the position of those contesting for power. Four of the most revealing “perfect targets” are the Native People, African-American slaves and free people, Catholics and Communists. Each illuminates the social struggle between the powerful and powerless, thus providing a valuable snapshot into America’s evolving culture.
No clearer or more honest statement as to the social role of the perfect target was made by Pres. Andrew Jackson on December 6, 1830, in his Message to Congress, “On Indian Removal.” It was issued seven months after he signed the removal law that authorized to grant unsettled lands west of the Mississippi to Anglos or white people in exchange for Indian lands within existing state borders. He stated, in part:
It [the act] will separate the Indians from immediate contact with settlements of whites; free them from the power of the States; enable them to pursue happiness in their own way and under their own rude institutions; will retard the progress of decay, which is lessening their numbers, and perhaps cause them gradually, under the protection of the Government and through the influence of good counsels, to cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community.
Four European states – Netherlands, Great Britain and France as well Spain — invaded and conquered parts of what was once the vast North America territory and was then home to innumerable tribes of Native Peoples.
The first African slaves arrived in North America in 1619 in Jamestown. Over the following four centuries many Americans believed that Africans – and their descendants, African-Americans — were not fully human, but rather subhuman. It was long an essential belief among colonial revolutionaries like Thomas Jefferson as well as Confederate secessionists and those of the today’s alt-right. As Jefferson wrote:
I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind. … This unfortunate difference of colour, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people.
The U.S. Constitution embodied this racism in granting African and African-American males 3/5th voting rights compared to white citizens.
The Know Nothing movement grew out of the Second Great Awakening or the Great Revival of the 1830s and became the American Party that flourished during the late-40s and early-50s. It got its name when members where asked the party’s positions and simply said, “I know nothing.” It drew together Protestants who felt threatened by the rapid increase in European immigrants and, most especially, Catholics, flooding the cities. Catholics became the perfect target.
Know-Nothing adherents felt that Catholics, as followers of the Pope, were not loyal Americans and were going to take over the country. It had strong support in the North that witnessed large-scale Irish immigration after 1848. The American Party captured the Massachusetts legislature in 1854 and, in 1856, backed Millard Fillmore for president, who secured nearly 1 million votes, a quarter of all votes cast.
And then there were communists. It’s nearly impossible to image just how awful it was for those who challenged the nation’s official belief system during the post-WW-II era of 1945 to 1960. Alleged “communists” included Soviet Union agents, non-party trade unionists as well as professors, teachers, publishers and nonviolent civil-rights activists. And then there were the pornographers, homosexual and other alleged deviants who challenged the status quo.
The post-WW-II period was the age of Sen. Joe McCarthy, of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and New York’s Archbishop Francis Spellman – and Roy Cohn, Trump’s consigliere. It saw hundreds lose their jobs, dozens arrested and jailed. And the powerful found their perfect target in two innocent New Yorkers, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who they arrested, convicted and executed – they were prosecuted by Cohn.
The dance of power/powerlessness shadowed by the perfect target is being exploited by Trump and his followers. Trump knows how to play this dialect given his narcissistic personality and likely compensation for learning disabilities. Since the campaign, his perfect perfect target has been non-documented immigrants. He’s also targeted Democrats, the news media and NATO.
Trump needs a perfect enemy. In this way he is very much like other authoritarian leaders, whether all-powerful rulers like Hitler, Stalin or Mao or merely a failed petty tyrant like Nixon or – pick your favorite Latin American, African or Asian dictator.
So, keep your eyes on Trump’s ever-changing perfect target for it signals where the pin-ball bouncing around in his brain lands. And where it lands sets national policy by targeting those he thinks can distract Americans from understanding his profound failings. Who’s next?