To put it mildly, by any terrestrial standards Donald Trump has not had a good week.
Be it seeming to threaten Hillary Clinton with assassination or stubbornly refusing to back down on his Oliver Stone-like claim that President Obama is the founder of Isis, Trump has stretched the already fraying bonds of American credulity to breaking point. While some of this can be put down to slips of the tongue and hyperbole, Trump is failing to get the benefit of the doubt precisely because he has already so coarsened American political discourse.
Trump’s unnerving outrageousness (as all Americans know, whoever wins this ugly election will have access to the US nuclear codes) has finally started to hurt him in the polls. Clinton’s small but steady three to four point lead now looks like a far more commanding seven to eight point margin. The latest RealClearPolitics election data shows secretary Clinton ahead comfortably in states worth 256 electoral votes; 270 are needed to win the presidency. Things are so bad for the Republicans that they are behind in Georgia, a deep south state that has been part of their bedrock support for a generation.
And yet despite his shambolic campaigning, while Trump has fallen behind, he has not yet been routed. The question isn’t why Trump has bled support; instead it is who could still possibly be supporting him and why? For he can say demonstrably fantastical things – even contradict himself in the same speech – and yet his core supporters’ enthusiasm is undiminished.
Trump’s all-but-explicit promise, beloved by demagogues throughout time, is to “take back” the country from usurpers and restore it to its rightful “owners”.
Yet ownership, as a concept, is deceptively slippery. Philosophically it’s a problem – if something isn’t a part of my body (the most primal “ownership” we can conceive of), then what makes an object mine?
Some measures – legal documents, explicit gifts – seem to be fairly clear. However, long-term use and sacrifice also confer an emotionally compelling argument for ownership. Illegal immigrants – lacking the government-given stamp of approved ownership in the form of citizenship – still start to attain some ownership when they work in a country long enough or establish other roots (marriage and children, for example). Ownership of a purely social construct like “a nation” is even murkier.
As many people have pointed out, it is far too easy (and entirely wrong) to dismiss all Trump supporters as stupid. They clearly articulate a deep desire to own something (and it has been asserted ad nauseam how “disenfranchised” Trump supporters are, which can largely be explained by the fact that they feel they are “owning less than before”). The Scottish philosopher David Hume thought that social consensus confers ownership. So the problem Trump voters have is that there is no longer a consensus that they have monopoly ownership over being American.
Trump’s latest outrageous insult to Muslim Americans – his tasteless argument with the Khan family, whose son died serving in the US military in Iraq – highlights exactly the real struggle of this election: who owns America? The Khan family touched such a nerve with Trump because the father’s moving speech about his son at the Democratic National Convention implicitly said: we are as American as you, not least because our sacrifice has bought our right to call America ours.
This sticks in the craw of many Trump supporters and seemingly the man himself, and they have conjured up the very un-American (in historical terms as the country is entirely made up of immigrants) argument that the amount of time lived in America gives a citizen the right to ownership of the country. This is a very old European idea that has done nothing throughout history but stifle new, creative energies on the continent.
Ironically, America has been the prime beneficiary of such an elitist notion. When once asked by a German colleague what I didn’t like about “Old Europe”, I merely replied that the difference between him and me was both sets of our relatives had complained about the injustices of the old world, but only mine had gotten on the boat. It is best to have a country of doers, and not victims.
Give Trump’s supporters great credit, for – far from being knuckle-dragging Neanderthals – they are among the first to tap into a great issue of our time: who owns a country? Trump’s likely defeat should not allow the rest of us to turn away from this seminal question, whose answer will do much to determine the long-term fate of western democracy.