One of the aphorisms of our populist era goes that Donald Trump is more of a symptom than a cause. Fair enough. I’ve certainly said it many times myself. But for it to be more than just a way to dodge nettlesome issues, we have to be clear about the diagnosis.
As Trump’s second impeachment trial gets underway, it’s crucial to know which causes and effects we mean. Since Trump re-emerged on the political scene a decade ago hawking Obama birtherism like a box of frozen steaks, he and his antic carnival of grift have been credited with and blamed for everything from “bringing peace and prosperity” to the world all the way down to dating woes.
I don’t pretend to know everything that caused the nation to be such ripe pickings for a hustler like Trump. We all know some of the causes: cultural starvation that created a yearning for rabid partisanship as a simulacrum, economic transformation, weak political parties, atomization of media, the ease of employing mob tactics in the digital age, and on and on. In fact, Trump has been a big and messy enough symptom that one can find his origins in almost any longstanding ill he or she wishes. Confirmation bias didn’t just help make Trump possible; it has confused the work of an honest, complete diagnosis.
This is the kind of algebraic thinking that makes it so hard to address serious problems in America. If one already knows the product of the equation is that their opponents are to blame, solving for X is just a matter of looking for a root cause that originates on the other side. Satisfied that it’s somebody else’s fault, the mind closes with a pleasing “snap.”