This article was written as a personal journal entry on January 21, 2017 and appears here as originally written, except for minor formatting and editing. It was posted on a personal Medium account in 2017 but I removed the article from Medium a few years ago. I decided to publish it on The Rational Walk on January 19, 2021 as Donald Trump’s term as President reached its conclusion.
They seemed to be everywhere. Mostly women, but quite a few men and even a fair number of children, streamed steadily toward National Mall, the venue for the Women’s March on Washington. Many were carrying signs and wearing clothing that allowed no ambiguity about their intentions. On this Saturday morning, the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration as the 45th President of the United States, people were flooding into the District of Columbia to make their voices heard.
The Memorial Bridge, normally a busy thoroughfare into the city, was eerily devoid of traffic, blocked by numerous heavy vehicles and snowplows. Just a mile into my twenty mile run, I had the experience of running along the middle of the normally busy bridge, accompanied by even more people walking toward the security perimeter of the mall. The Washington Monument, always a majestic sight, came into partial view through the misty drizzle and low cloud cover.
Washington D.C. had become a fortified city over the past several days with freedom of movement severely curtailed. As I turned toward Georgetown to avoid the security perimeter, I encountered more and more protesters, now walking toward me.
I knew that I would soon escape the crowds. Rock Creek Park has miles of single track dirt trails usually devoid of foot traffic on winter mornings. The last protester I saw before heading into the urban “wilderness” was a family with a three of four year old child, dressed in anti-Trump clothing and carrying a rather nasty sign.
It was good to get on the trail where silence reigned, as if a world removed from current events.
I am what is often referred to as a “free market conservative”, but in reality, my views are more in accordance with the term “liberal”, taken in the classical sense. I believe in free markets and free people, while holding libertarian views on social issues and recognizing that markets are not perfect and that externalities exist that can require government intervention.
Crony capitalism and oligarchical capture of public resources (such as public lands, one of the most infuriating cases) by crony capitalists with political ties has given capitalism in general a bad name. Many people cannot conceive of capitalism without these perverse features. Of course, these are actually perversions of capitalism, but few realize that, particularly the younger people who know of no other form of capitalism given our experience in recent decades. I often think of the couple seated next to me on a plane about a year ago who liked both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, apparently equally. Why both? Both were perceived to be willing to upturn the entire system from the ground up.
I did not vote for Donald J. Trump.
Not because the social pressure to oppose him was intense where I live, and among nearly everyone I know (in fact, some people will automatically not associate with you if they discover that you are a Trump supporter, and for the even less tolerant, if they learn that you failed to vote for Hillary Clinton). I did not vote for Mr. Trump because the man is not a free market conservative in any sense of the word that I recognize. He is, instead, an authoritarian character with a very … “flexible” political ideology. He appeals to people on a visceral level who recognize the flaws in the current system and have given up hope of ever fixing these flaws through normal political channels. “He’s our last hope” is the comment one reads quite often.
As best as I can tell, the man is a demagogue, and demagogues are dangerous, particularly when equipped with a short temper and nuclear weapons.
But who are the Trump supporters and what motivates them?
The election was won based on the fact that a small number of districts in the Midwest switched from voting for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 to voting for Donald Trump in 2016. The idea that these people are racists doesn’t seem to compute. No, there must be a different answer.
I have little direct exposure or means of answering that question beyond reading about voting patterns and quotations in newspapers. Perhaps that is part of the problem. Perhaps we need to try to actually understand why tens of millions of Americans voted for Donald Trump rather than denigrating them.
The suburbs are less noisy and active, and it passes for a regular day. On the paved running trails snaking through well maintained subdivisions and suburban parks, people are taking advantage of a relatively mild day to walk their dogs, take strolls with their children, and do what normal people do on a normal Saturday morning. In these Virginia suburbs, there were no protesters, no colorful signs, no excited talk, and very little indication that anything usual had happened the day before. It was about as normal (and mind numbingly boring) as one can imagine.
These are well-off suburban areas where people predominantly work for the Federal Government or the various industries that support its massive existence. The recession was not felt very severely, if at all, for most of the people in this region. The housing market never crashed to the extent that it did in “flyover country”. Most faces are white, most people voted for Hillary Clinton, expensive SUVs and cross-overs dominate the roads, and running is a popular activity. A number of small groups of runners pass in the opposite direction, probably part of a club. Public services are widespread, allowing me to fill up my water bottles at a year-round frost free fountain half way through my run, and to use a clean restroom. Taxes are high, but services and high quality education are provided. The system seems to work.
But as is the case in many areas, within a mile or two, you cross the other side of the (now) virtual tracks. I’m on a converted trail that used to be a railroad line before gentrification took over. However, it still seems like perhaps that old rail line serves as a division. I soon come to a location where dozens of men, apparently of Hispanic descent, stand around waiting to be offered employment. The county, although not to my knowledge a “sanctuary city”, maintains a location where those with manual labor skills can find daily employment.
I wonder whether these men feel differently about their prospects today than they did a couple of days ago.
Perhaps one of the worst aspects of Donald Trump’s candidacy was his demonization of immigrants. Sovereign countries have an absolute right to control immigration, there is no doubt about that. Illegal immigration has been a serious problem for a long period of time, to the point where we now have millions of young people in this country who were brought here as children who know no other country. Although Mr. Trump has recently made statements somewhat supportive of continuing the Obama Administration’s DACA program protecting young illegal immigrants from immediate deportation, his rhetoric seems to vary day by day. No one knows what his true intentions are.
One can debate “the wall” and illegal immigration in general, but some form of path to citizenship for these young people who, themselves, committed no crime, has long been a bipartisan issue. No longer. Many Republicans have fallen in line with Mr. Trump’s worldview, apparently for political reasons.
One of the big frustrations of the two-party system in the United States is that it resembles more of a cult system than a political party. What is a Republican? What is a Democrat? It depends, and often varies based on what seems to work politically. Even when the core ideological aspects of a party shift, as has been the case with the Republican recently, most of the party members remain party members. Why? Because they have always been party members.
Someone who supported both John McCain and Mitt Romney for President, and also supported Donald Trump for President, must have either changed their political philosophy in fundamental ways or it was more important to stick with the party than to independently think for themselves. McCain, Romney, and Trump share very, very little in common with each other. To vociferously support all of them implies a major level of cognitive dissonance. For someone like Speaker Paul Ryan, who used to be a free market conservative, to be able to support Donald Trump implies either a change of philosophy or a cynical attempt to cling to power. The latter seems more likely.
Free market conservatives do not believe that Presidents “run the economy”.
Not at all.
Presidents are not directly responsible for hiring and firing, for capital allocation, and for determining the location of manufacturing plants. Presidents, in conjunction with Congress, set policy that, we hope, encourages economic prosperity.
Trade is part of the equation. Free trade is not inherently evil. But there are winners and losers. As consumers, we are winners when our dollars go farther in our purchasing patterns. But some people end up being losers if they lose their jobs and cannot adjust. Millions of consumers save money on buying underwear, cars, and televisions, which adds up to major benefit in aggregate, but the more salient loss is when someone loses his or her livelihood.
Free trade, when implemented correctly, should result in an aggregate gain that exceeds the aggregate loss. But the losers of the system feel the pain more acutely than the winners feel the benefits.
Rather than leveling with the American people on the true trade-offs, which presumably Mr. Trump understands as a businessman, he chose to demagogue the issue and make promises he cannot keep.
But his promises go far beyond trade. We will have wonderful healthcare for all at lower cost, without any specificity regarding how this will be achieved. We will have wonderful infrastructure, again without any details of how this will be achieved. The list goes on and on… There are plenty of reasons that many suspect that the new President is a con man, perhaps having more in common with Bernie Madoff than his Presidential predecessors.
Passing Reagan National Airport, the Washington Monument comes into view again, and then the Jefferson Memorial and finally the Lincoln Memorial. Donald Trump was often compared to Ronald Reagan during the campaign and one wonders why. Agree with President Reagan’s policies or not, one cannot deny that he was an optimistic man with a sunny disposition. He probably would have been horrified with Mr. Trump’s inaugural address.
With temperatures now in the low 50s, the protesters have again appeared, this time walking the running/biking path leading toward the city. More signs and t-shirts, universally against the new President, but this time the people seem more cheerful, perhaps happy with the warming temperatures and the fact that the drizzle has stopped.
As the GPS on my watch closes in on twenty miles, I run toward the end of my route at the Iwo Jima Memorial, commemorating a war long ago fought by a generation that has mostly left us. It is there that I finally see some supporters of Donald Trump. Many are wearing “Make America Great Again” hats and Trump t-shirts, and all seem to be in a great mood. The area seems devoid of protesters, probably because the memorial is not on the direct route one would take going toward the National Mall. I stop running and walk, but do not stop to talk to anyone. But there is a general sense of happiness and optimism in the air, the exact opposite of the mood prevailing elsewhere in the city earlier in the day.
What can we make of the situation and prospects for the country going forward?
First of all, I have little patience with the idea that Donald Trump isn’t our legitimate President. He is the President, he is our President, and he is “my President”.
This is simple reality. One may not like it, but the world doesn’t have to adapt to what we may like. Rather, we have to adapt to the world as it is. We can try to change it. But we have to accept reality before we can try to change reality.
“But he didn’t win legitimately.” I don’t believe it, there isn’t evidence of it, and even Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama do not appear to believe it. Up to the day of the election, the talk of a “rigged election” was entirely on the Trump side because they thought they would lose. The situation turned out differently, of course. Mr. Trump won the election because he made a very risky move to devote resources and time to Midwestern states where almost no one thought he could possibly win. He took a risk and it paid off, as he might say, “big time”.
“But the electoral college is illegitimate.” No, it is not illegitimate. One doesn’t have to like it or support it. But it is part of our Constitution, and exists for a reason. The United States is not a single monolithic state, but a union of fifty states that agreed to join the union on specific terms. One important term for smaller states is that they have equal representation with larger states in the Senate. The Senate is far more “undemocratic” than the electoral college system, yet few say that the Senate is illegitimate.
Perhaps more time should be spent trying to understand why Donald Trump won and why Hillary Clinton lost. Perhaps more time should be spent trying to understand Trump voters rather than demonizing them as racists and irredeemable deplorable creatures. Those of us who live in coastal areas and know few, if any, Trump supporters might want to try to get to know some of them.
Perhaps the most significant risk, which few seem to talk about, is a miscalculation that leads to nuclear war. The world has had many leaders like Donald Trump throughout history, but few have had such a short temper in an age of weapons that could end civilization as we know it. A miscalculated tweet or some stupid bluster could cause a chain reaction we will never recover from.
Short of this type of disaster, the United States will get through the next four (or eight) years, but it is unclear whether the two-party system will survive. The Republican Party is essentially the Donald J. Trump Party, bearing no resemblance to its past roots. The Democratic Party may splinter into an establishment party led by the political heirs of Hillary Clinton and a progressive branch led by Bernie Sanders.
No one knows what the future will bring, but running twenty miles over two and a half hours through our nation’s capital brings to mind many thoughts on the subject.