Donald Trump may be aberrant, but his election in 2016 was not an aberration; it was, instead, the logical extension of that one detail of our country that we seem to hold dearest: democracy.
Imagine for a moment Donald Trump rising to power in China. In Thailand. In Turkey or India. Imagine a grifter and thief like that challenging any of those countries' leaders for a position of authority. Or envision Boris Johnson as Prime Minister of Iran. How would that even happen?
And in the unlikely possibility that such a challenge occurred, would (A) Xi Jinping start producing clever political ads to denigrate his opponent and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan begin a skein of stump speeches to rouse the electorate? Or (B) would they, like other authoritarian leaders, squash Trump like a bug and move on with their lives?
The answer is (B), as in bug.
And yet here in our self-proclaimed land of the free, Trump was able to win the presidency, come uncomfortably close to repeating the act, and remain viable to make another attempt in 2024–all under the constraints of a democratic form of government where the people elect their leaders.
And that, of course, is the rub. We know that from history.
After World War I, Germany instituted the so-called Weimar Republic, an attempt at democracy where people also elected their leaders and exercised freedom of speech, assembly, religion, and private property ownership. Then came the American depression, which decimated the German middle class. Newly impoverished, angry, and frustrated, they used their voting power to eliminate any perceived enemies (any "others") and turned toward extremism. The Nazi Party attained a majority in Parliament, and Adolf Hitler was named Chancellor in 1933. He jury-rigged the Parliament to ensure passage of the Enabling Act and passed whatever laws he thought appropriate to purify his country. Dictatorship, genocide, and nearly fifty million dead—all the result of a failed democracy. It didn't take long.
The parallels to today are unmistakable: in 2016 middle America faced the reality of the election of a Black president, the legalization of gay marriage, and the acceptance of transgender and cisgender as valid adjuncts to our language.
Even more important, corporate profits had reached obscene levels. Prior to the so-called Reagan revolution, the top management position generally earned eight- to ten times what the lowest paid worker in the company earned. By 2016 the factor was no longer eight or ten but 300 or 400. The entry-level $60,000-a-year employee often worked in a company whose CEO earned $20 million.
Socially and economically, the so-called main cog in America's existence, the middle class, had been abandoned. So as with Germany in the thirties, they turned to an extremist—a man with no moral backbone but one who understood their concerns. (It's important to add that Trump understood their concerns but didn't give a damn about them.)
We had become the victims of our own choice of government. We had crowed about our democracy and held ourselves above lesser countries, but then we used those very freedoms to make horrible decisions. Is it any wonder we have devolved to the point where the Supreme Court has begun eroding those freedoms, and we can do nothing but idly watch?
I offer no ready solution here. We have become more socially and environmentally aware, but nothing else will matter until there is recognizable financial equity. We can convince a person who believes in and benefits from democratic ideals that a demagogue like Donald Trump is toxic. But the worker who can barely afford to fill his gas tank while his boss is Net-Jetting to Tahiti is much more challenging to persuade, and he may see the 2016 election as more of a solution than an aberration.