Over the past year, analysts have turned themselves inside out trying to unravel the phenomena of Trump and Trumpism. Why do somewhere between 30% and 40% of Americans remain invincibly indifferent to the self-evident instability, venality, mendacity, incompetence and coarse brutality of Donald Trump, despite the inarguable fact that they suffer most from his presidency’s misgovernment? No other chief executive in history has been forgiven by his followers for even a fraction of the affronts to every sort of decency and common sense that Trump delivers on a weekly basis.
As the exasperated conservative commentator George Will recently put it, “Trump’s energy, unleavened by intellect and untethered to principle, serves only his sovereign instinct to pander to those who adore him as much as he does. Unshakably smitten, they are impervious to the Everest of evidence that he disdains them as a basket of gullibles. He understands that his unremitting coarseness satisfies their unpolitical agenda of smashing crockery, even though his self-indulgent floundering precludes fulfillment of the promises he flippantly made to assuage their sense of being disdained. He gives his gullibles not governance by tantrum, but tantrum as governance.”
Less than a month ago those same analysts and, indeed, much of the nation were lost in confusion and grief, trying to coax some sense from the worst mass shooting in American history after a gunman whose motives we have yet to fathom killed 59 and wounded 585 people when he fired into a Las Vegas country music concert from his high-rise hotel room. Attention immediately focused on the killer’s huge arsenal and the way in which its death-dealing power was amplified by his use of “bump stocks” a new add-on device that turns a semi-automatic rifle into a virtual machine gun. You can buy them, it turns out, for less than $100 in chain sporting goods stores across the country. California’s senior Senator, Diane Feinstein, has been trying for some time to introduce a ban on the obviously lethal bump stocks and, for a brief moment, it seemed even some of her Republican colleagues might sign on. That moment, however, came and went, denial as usual descended, and nothing was done—nor will it be done.
There is, however, an important realization that I think can be gleaned from this latest firearm atrocity. Like many on the liberal left, I have written that Trumpism might be explained in large part by our neglect of those Americans who have been disproportionately disadvantaged by globalization, free trade and the transition to a digital, knowledge-based economy. More should have been done to assist them, I argued, and I still think that would be a morally and socially sound policy.
I no longer believe, however, that economics, unemployment or underemployment explain Trump’s appeal. His free pass from those Will calls “the gullibles” and Hillary Clinton correctly called “the deplorables” actually is a product of culture, demographics and social psychology rather than the economy.
In fact, the anti-gun control bloc foreshadowed in critical ways the rise of Trump. To understand why, I thought back nearly 30 years, to when I first professionally engaged the gun control issue. In January of 1989, a deranged drifter who had managed to get his hands on a Chinese-made AK-47 assault rifle sprayed a Stockton schoolyard with 105 shots, killing five Southeast Asian immigrant children at play and wounding 29 of their classmates and a teacher.
The leaders of the California State Legislature—Sen. David Roberti and Assemblyman Mike Roos—already had proposed a bill banning the military assault weapons that were turning up with increasing frequency in all sorts of violent crimes. The measure, the first of its kind in the nation, faced hysterical opposition from the gun lobby. After Stockton, the Los Angeles Times, then the state’s most powerful newspaper —with publisher Otis Chandler, who was a passionate big game hunter—nonetheless decided to throw the entire weight of its editorial page behind the Roberti-Roos bill, and I was asked to write the pieces supporting it.
I was selected, I think, because I knew something about guns, having been raised in a hunting and shooting family. I owned sporting arms and, to this day, some of my warmest boyhood memories are of fall days spent quail hunting with my father. I did not then nor do I now have a visceral antipathy to all firearms, just a certainty that some are too technologically dangerous to fall into the hands of the mad, the evil or the malevolently aggrieved, which they inevitably do.
Day after day, I wrote editorials stressing the peculiar lethality of military-style long guns which, after all, were designed to kill as many people as possible with the greatest possible efficiency. They occupy a different category, I argued, from the rifles and shotguns used in traditional shooting sports and could be regulated without impact on recreational hunting or target shooting. No serious sportsman ever would consider taking one of the assault weapons into the field anyway.
Moreover, regulating the rapidity and volume of rounds a firearm could discharge was a well-established feature of Second Amendment jurisprudence. Since the 1930’s, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld federal regulation of machine guns, and since the turn of the 20th Century, hunters pursuing migratory water fowl have been forbidden shotgun magazines holding more than three rounds. Similar protections for upland game legislated by the states also have been upheld. We ought to give school children at play at least as much of a chance as we give ducks, geese or pheasants, I wrote.
Roberti-Roos passed and was signed into law by California’s conservative Republican governor, George Deukmejian, who said he had concluded that “there was no common-sense reason for someone to have an assault weapon.” That was true then and it’s true now and doubly true for the semiautomatic handguns that have proliferated since.
Like many other opinion journalists, I continued to urge rational firearm regulation in the years after Stockton, arguing for laws banning not only assault and other military-style weapons, but also high-volume detachable magazines for both sidearms and long guns of any kind. Those were pleas renewed as tragedy after preventable tragedy followed one after the other—Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Orlando, San Bernardino—columns that I now recall like tombstone epitaphs over the mass graves of memory.
At a certain point, though, it was necessary to admit that this is an argument our side has lost; a substantial part of the country simply doesn’t agree with us and it does not appear they ever will. Military-style assault weapons now are the best-selling guns in America and there are more firearms of every type in private hands than ever before, more than 300 million, which is more than one for every man, woman and child in the country.
Only nations collapsing in deadly dysfunction, like Yemen, are more heavily armed on a per capita basis than the United States.
In the 500 days since the Orlando club massacre, more than 600 Americans have died at the barrel of a gun and about 2,500 have been wounded. Since 2005, the number of Americans killed by guns exceeds the population of Pittsburgh. Imagine our national shock and outrage if a terrorist attack suddenly killed all of Pittsburgh.
What wouldn’t we do to bring the murderers to justice? Self-inflicted fatalities are apparently another matter—at least for the 38% of Americans who this month told Associated Press pollsters that they want no further restrictions on firearms of any type or actually would like to see existing regulations loosened. More than six in 10 Americans would like to see gun controls tightened, but those wishes—like those who disapprove of Trump and his conduct in office—continue to be frustrated by the intransigent minority willfully indifferent to facts.
The delusional minority today defines the American problem with firearms. When I started writing about this issue, about 50% of U.S households had a gun. Today firearm ownership is confined to about 30%–there’s your anti-gun control pro-Trump bloc—of our households and, according to a recent study by Harvard and Northeastern Universities, just 3% of American adults own half the country’s 300 million guns, an astonishing average of 17 firearms each.
There is no doubt that gun controls, particularly those on the most lethal weapons, work. Between 1979 and 1996, Australia had thirteen fatal mass shootings. In that latter year, the country banned the sale of semiautomatic weapons and began a buyback program for the military-style weapons that had already been sold. Since then Australia has had no mass shootings. Not one.
California, which has adopted some of the nation’s tightest gun regulations has notably lower rates of gun-related homicides and, particularly, suicides by firearm than states with lax regulation.
When next-door Nevada, which has virtually no regulation, hosts one of its periodic gun shows, the suicide rate in California spikes.
There’s also no doubt that the diminution of the American manufacturing sector by globalization and free trade is not the root of Trumpism. Trump and his ignorant fulminations on the subject notwithstanding, the overwhelming majority of vanished factory jobs were lost neither to trade nor to globalization, but to automation and the consequent increase in worker productivity.
In real terms, American manufacturers today produce more than double what they did in the supposed golden age of the Reagan presidency. American factories generated more than $2 trillion dollars in product last year and, since 2002, the productivity of the average U.S. factory worker has increased 47%. With wages rising in China, many leading international economists expect American factories to competitively outmatch that country’s industrial juggernaut within the next few years.
The dirty secret of U.S. manufacturing is that most of the Trump voters are unemployed because they don’t have the education or skills necessary to participate in the country’s new manufacturing sector with its reliance on robotics, computerization and, increasingly, 3-D production. Many show no willingness to get the required training or to move to the places where jobs are available as other generations of American workers have done.
Instead, they prefer the comforting oblivion of video games and opioids—and the politics of resentment and blame. As a consequence, according to the Deloitte consultancy, at least 2 million of the 3.5 million new manufacturing jobs the U.S. factories will create between now and 2025 will go unfilled. You can’t blame NAFTA for that—unless, of course, you’d rather watch Fox News than think.
The real divide in American society today is not over economics or foreign policy or public safety. It is between those who recognize facts and those who willfully deny them. It is between those who are accepting of and comfortable with the demographic, cultural and technological change that we are undergoing—as we always have—and those who have been made resentful, frightened and unthinkingly vicious by change they refuse to accept.
It’s no accident that the polarization between those Americans who support rational firearms regulation and those who hysterically oppose it widened and hardened during the eight years the White House was occupied by its first African American president. The angry, resentful and frightened 35% of America supports Trump as unthinkingly as it opposes gun control.
Make no mistake, this willfully and, apparently, invincibly ignorant and wrathful minority imperils us all. Our best forbearers foresaw the danger of just this sort of situation:
In the arguments James Madison made urging Virginia’s ratification of the Constitution, he insisted on the indispensability of “virtue” among the electorate by which he meant a willingness to embrace a disinterested vision of the common good.
Without such virtue, he argued, no system of government, however ingenious, could function as it should. “I go on this great republican principle, that the people will possess the virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom. Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks–no form of government can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea.”
A little more than a century later, the great Fredrick Douglas put it plainly: The life of the nation is secure only while the nation is honest, truthful and virtuous.” Today, we must face the unpleasant and unsettling fact that a little more than a third of us possess none of those attributes and support a president who is indifferent to all such things. These next years will be a dark period of unending struggle and no good, secure or decent outcome can be assured.