Listen carefully to how Donald Trump says he'll fix a 'rigged' America
In Donald Trump's telling, his wife Melania urged him not to run for president, fearing it would distract from their perfect life. But alas, the call of destiny was too insistent, so Melania was sucked into the role of potential first lady, which hasn't gone all that well for her. And this week a new story emerged: Politico raised the possibility, for which there is strong evidence but not definitive proof, that for some time she worked as a model despite being in the United States on a tourist visa, which would have violated the law. In other words, she was... an illegal alien! If only we had had some kind of wall.
From this you might easily accuse her husband of being a hypocrite — if the story is true, his wife found U.S. immigration laws a hindrance and maneuvered around them so she could earn money, yet he wants to deport 11 million people who have done the same. But I'm guessing that his supporters will be less than upset at the third Mrs. Trump. When he tells them the system is rigged and needs to be changed, she's not the villain of that story.
If they thought in detail about "the system" — political, governmental, economic, even cultural — those supporters could find a lot of ways to put Donald Trump among those doing the rigging. He got out of going to Vietnam with a transparently phony medical deferment, he outsources his products to low-wage countries, he declares bankruptcy to skip away from his debts, he scams struggling people out of their money, he hires foreign guest workers — in other words, it would be hard to imagine someone who works as hard to benefit from the system as it exists.
That's part of why Trump tells a different story about the pathologies of the system. If you listen closely, you realize that despite his supposed populism, Trump is very careful about criticizing big business or the economic elite. And many of the policies he has actually detailed, like huge tax cuts for the wealthy and the rollback of regulations on corporations, are aimed directly at helping that elite. He never assumes their bad faith — if they move jobs overseas it's only because our "stupid" political leaders have negotiated bad trade deals (and he'll replace them with captains of industry, who will negotiate better deals on our behalf).
The real villains of the system as Trump describes it can be found not by looking up but by looking down: immigrants, disfavored groups like Muslims, the people of color who keep you from saying what you really think of them through their vicious political correctness. Throw in black people voting 10 times, people on food stamps who ought to be working, and you have an old Republican story.
Right now this resonates powerfully with a lot of working class white men who feel simultaneously powerless and superior to those a rung or two below them on the ladder — or those they feel are climbing past them. The real problem isn't so much that the system is rigged, it's that it's rigged in favor of the wrong people. As Harold Meyerson argues, "the declining status and income of many white working class men impels some of them to embrace all the more those leaders who embody the waning ideal of white, paternal authority, particularly when wielded against those 'others' (liberals, women, minorities, gays, etc.) who've supposedly or actually eroded it."
It also resonates with some people who are doing just fine economically, but still see all kinds of change they don't like. During the primaries the median income of a Trump supporter was $72,000 — lower than for some of his opponents, but higher than the median income in the country as a whole. Many of those voters still feel they're at the mercy of powerful forces they're unable to fight against; it's just that the forces are more cultural than economic.
But when Trump aims all his anger downward, he misses the opportunity to battle against the real ways the system is indeed rigged against people without wealth. He might occasionally say something that could come out of a Democrat's mouth (like a promise to protect Social Security), but he'll never make a villain out of those with true economic power.
He also offers very little in the way of a solution to the problem he identifies. To those who feel powerless he doesn't claim that he can help them achieve some sort of agency — unless you count telling a crowd to "knock the hell" out of protesters. Instead, Trump's answer is himself. "I alone can fix it," he said in his convention speech; and to those who feel voiceless he said, "I am your voice." Which means you still don't have your own voice, and you have no role in fixing it, whatever you think "it" might be.
Trump probably isn't worried that his supporters will be so disgusted over revelations about his wife supposedly gaming the immigration system that they'll abandon him. They've bought the story he's telling, and at this point nothing will dissuade them. When he said "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters," he might have been right. But not losing the voters he has isn't the challenge he faces now; winning over new ones is. And that's something he seems determined not to do.