Bryan Lisman | SIPA Class of 2018
To all my international friends and fellow Americans who are still dumbfounded by the new U.S. president, let me in my own way try to explain his rise. Trump did not come to power on his own (no matter how much he’d like you to think so). Instead he jumped on an already existing skepticism of the media and traditional politics. In my mind, and many others, the way the alt right movement gained traction mimicked the way insurgencies gain footholds. The word insurgency usually brings to mind a rebel group in some dark basement plotting to overthrow the government. While it may be the case that insurgencies, whether morally just or not, are fighting the current power, it is essentially a political conflict. And any extremist political movement will have some insurgent like tendencies. Looking at the alt right movement and the rise of Trump as an insurgency provides much more clarity for his rise.
The Tea Party played to the lowest common denominator
The now deemed Trump movement started long before the Donald ever decided to run for office. During George W. Bush’s presidency Democrats and Republicans began to become more and more partisan and the media started to look like our modern one. Ordinary people began identifying more closely with their political beliefs and any attack on a politician they supported was an attack on them. If the media portrays my politician in a good light they’re honest and if they attack him/her they’re lying and biased. During this time a slow creep of social conservatism started to encompass limited government ideals and came to a head when Obama took office. This was the true catalyst. People of similar beliefs began grouping together by what they watched and subscribed to, marching under the same banner. The Tea Party, like a parasite, latched itself onto the Republican Party and played to the lowest common denominator. The Republicans, all too happy to accept the large grass roots base support, did nothing but appease the small yet extremely loud group. This is the point in time when staunch pro business Republicans decided to appeal to rural/middle Americans in order to push an agenda of limited government.
Rise of fringe media
Demagogues came to rally the Republican base to gain more political power. Cue the Ted Cruz’s, Mike Huckabee’s, Sarah Palin’s, and the all too forgettable pro life Scott DesJarlais. A congressman who urged both his ex-wife and mistress to get abortions. The vast majority of the Republican base were being blasted with talking points from the same news sources like Glenn Beck, Fox News, and Rush Limbaugh about how politicians are evil and corrupt. This allowed fringe media like Breitbart and InfoWars to seem semi-reasonable. With many Americans misinformed, it was time for charismatic outsiders to make their case. Government experience was a no no this past election for Republicans so our main three stars were Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, and of course Donald Trump.
The Republican primary produced a man who spent most of his business career in bankruptcy claiming to be the next great negotiator for the U.S. people. Just like a charismatic leader of an insurgency, Trump didn’t need to be held accountable or held to any standard of truth at all. He just said what was on his mind and his base ate it up. And don’t be fooled or distracted by arguments saying that the majority of Trump voters are good people. Of course they are, but the good intentions of ignorant people often bring about the worst outcomes.
Alt-right was ready to lie, lie, and lie some more
The reason this insurgency worked so well even without having a majority was because no one knew it was an insurgency, not even Trump. If we categorize the alt right as the insurgents and the Democratic party as the counterinsurgents the way things played out makes much more sense. The alt right was ready to lie, lie, and lie some more in order to gain power. With this we also had the 24 hour media ready to blast every outrageous comment into our ears without ever really addressing the lies until it was too late. So on the right we had the majority ready to believe whatever Trump said and staunchly shout down any opposition as liberal media bias (which slowly became replaced with ‘fake news’). On the left we had a sort of pretentious apathy that thought it could solve every problem via tweet.
And with the big news organizations focusing more on any perceived scandal rather than policy, Hillary Clinton came off poorly. Hillary was always at a constant disadvantage. Someone who prides themselves on legislative accomplishments, knowledge of policy, and political experience wasn’t going to have an easy time in this current atmosphere. Just like an insurgency the alt right never had to be held accountable for a lack of tangible policies, hypocrisies, and blatant lies. While the counterinsurgency, oblivious to what was going on, never had the correct defense. A counterinsurgency has to strike hard and early and then hold their position. The democratic pundits went much too easy on their republican counterparts. Propaganda is the foundation of this insurgency and if we are to truly overcome it then it must be seen as the true battle.
Time to push back
Now that the insurgency is in power it is at its weakest. It has to make good on its grandiose claims while the majority of the nation is against its positions and to some extent has shaken off its indifference. We’ve already seen the catastrophe this administration is turning out to be. Stephen Bannon and all his ilk hate government and disdain the common person. Trump is just a figure for this nation’s ignorant and disgruntled to attach their misguided beliefs. It is now the time to deploy our propaganda machine. This does not mean we should lie. It simply means we need to shout the truth until it is as internalized as the McDonalds jingle. Any mistake and illegal or unethical action this administration makes needs to be in the spotlight instead of Trump’s outrageous behavior. With this said, we should all keep in mind that the hardest part of a counterinsurgency isn’t the battle itself. It’s the rebuilding that has to happen after. Hopefully after this administration inevitably fails, our country will know who we truly are and where we truly stand.