It happens in nature all the time – a stroke of lightning burns the air away and the surrounding air masses slam together to fill the gap - warmer waters in the Gulf of Mexico draw down cold air from the Arctic – it’s pretty much what runs everything. Human beings aren’t that much different. We are more than our biology and we need more than our biology. What every one of us needs in order to take our next step, almost in order to take our next breath, is a unifying sense of meaning that defines our place in the world and how we’re supposed to act in it. It’s not about religion. Religion was created (by humans) to fill part of this need. It drives everything we do, from the clothes we wear to our ideas about right and wrong to whether we pick up a pizza slice with our hands or use a knife and fork.
Everything we do defines us and we create a mental/emotional structure around ourselves to support the definition. When church and state were linked at the hip, and everybody in the tribe was from the same ethnic group, this was easy to maintain. We knew who we were and what was expected of us, by our neighbors, the police, the king and even our God. It’s not so easy these days. What’s an American anyway? We’re split down the middle politically, we’re ethnically and religiously diverse and faced with an economic disparity that is no longer supported by our culture. In ancient times, the king and the nobility were supposed to be richer than the common folk. In America that wasn’t supposed to happen, at least not in the mythology that defined us. When we lose our sense of ourselves, especially if we feel that someone has taken it away from us, we get scared, and we get mad.
Now for some of us, defining ourselves by our sense of diversity works. Feeling that we’re part of an all-inclusive global community feels just fine and is in sync with the world around us. This is very much my own reality, supported by the urban multi-racial, multi cultural world I’ve spent most of my adult life (and made my living) in. For someone who sees their own ethnic, religious and economic identity being chipped away at by foreigners who take their jobs, rich CEOs who export whole industries to other countries and murderous terrorists who hate their country and their religion, it’s not so easy. If my sense of identity is “White American Christian with a job” it’s not hard to get the feeling that somebody who was supposed to be looking out for my interests has sold me out. This leaves me with what might be called an “identity gap”. Donald Trump is filling this gap. Last night he spelled it out.
In his speech after sweeping several Super Tuesday primaries, Mr. Trump pitted his “Make America Great Again” slogan solidly against the “Make America Whole Again” slogan his likely opponent had spelled out just a few moments before (in front of the same TV audience). His exact words were “Make America whole again, what does that even mean?”. He knows perfectly well what it means, and so do his supporters. “Whole Again” means “Diverse and Happy With It”. “Great Again” means “White Christian Again”. His assertion that he can bring back the money that’s fled overseas with a half hour meeting in the oval office, while flying in the face of reason and why the money fled (non white Muslims work for less) makes perfect sense if you see the whole thing as a case of mythological identity – they’ll come back when they see they’ve got their White Christian country back.
His supporters have, with some justification, lost their belief that the American political system represents not only their interests, but, more importantly, who they are. They want their sense of themselves as Americans back, and feel that restoring it will bring their jobs back too. Blaming the “enemy” (Muslims, Democrats, Barack Obama and anybody who likes him) for the loss of both is the oldest trick in the book and Mr. Trump knows how to play it very well.
None of his opponents, either in his own party or on the Democratic side, have been able to conjure up a competing mythology of identity. They’re going to need to, regardless of who wins the nomination or the election, even more if he does.