The roots of our nation's current descent into madness can be traced back to a series of unresolved catastrophic traumas Americans experienced during the Bush Administration. In the short span of 8 years, we suffered a collective loss of confidence in American leadership, in the ability of government to perform its most basic functions, and in the very essence of the American Dream.
Recall that when George W. Bush was elected in 2000, the electoral process itself had been confidence shattering. Having been brought up to believe in the inviolability of our democratic process, exposure to "how the sausage was made", caused great discomfort. Nevertheless, we moved on because the country was doing well both economically and politically. We had emerged victorious from the Cold War and in the decade that followed demonstrated our uncontested leadership, winning two relatively quick wars: liberating Kuwait and bringing peace to Bosnia.
Then came the devastating blow of 9/11. The fateful decisions taken by the Bush Administration in response to that attack only prolonged and ultimately deepened the trauma of the terrorist attacks. They misled the country into two wars, telling us that victory would be "quick and clean" and certain—we would be heralded as liberators, and the spark of democracy would spread throughout the entire Middle East. Five years later, with thousands of American lives lost, a trillion dollars of our treasury spent, growing anti-American sentiment worldwide, and both wars far from over, Americans had lost confidence in our world leadership.
The Bush Administration performed no better on the home front. While the president was given credit for saying "Islam is a religion of peace" and cautioning Americans not to target their fellow Arab and Muslim American citizens, his Justice Department undercut that message by instituting practices that profiled both communities. Mass round-ups, inflammatory press conferences, and the frequent abuse of "heightened alerts" created fear and fostered public suspicions about the "enemy within".
It was at that point that Katrina hit, dealing another blow to the an already reeling country. Even "small government" conservatives expect that government will perform well in time of tragedy. The Administration's delayed response and the bungling that followed only served to deepen the public's loss of confidence in the ability of government to act.
The final blow came in the Bush Administration's waning days in the form of a deep and, for a time, growing economic recession that shook the foundations of our financial system and the public's confidence in the American Dream. Within a few short months, major banks and manufacturers were on the verge of bankruptcy, average Americans had lost 20 to 30% of the wealth they had accumulated in their pension plans, the unemployment rate had doubled, and one in five homeowners were threatened with foreclosure. Polls, which throughout the 1990's showed two-thirds of Americans confident in their economic future, were suddenly reversed with two-thirds now saying that the country was on the "wrong track" and the same two-thirds no longer believing that their children would be better off in the future.
This was the setting of Barack Obama's victory in 2008, the most remarkable aspect of which was that it was based on the triumph of hope over fear coupled with a call to look forward to better days. In most periods of collective trauma that I have studied, the more typical reaction is for movements to emerge that prey off fear and social dislocation and to appeal to the values of a romanticized past.
This time was different, but it only lasted for a short while. No sooner had Obama won, then the GOP began plotting his demise. They did everything they could to block his agenda in Congress; they funded and provided logistical support for the Tea Party; they gave a wink and a nod to the "birther movement"; and, in ways subtle and not so subtle, they exploited the basest of fears about the President's African heritage and his father's religion. Within a year of Obama's election, a substantial number of self-identified Republicans said they believed that the President had not been born in the US and was, therefore, not a legitimate president.
Polls have consistently established that both the Tea Party and "birthers" share some demographic characteristics. They are white, largely middle class and middle aged. They had been disproportionately impacted by the economic collapse and felt that the government's response to the crisis had been to favor the rich and poor minorities—at their expense. They see themselves as victims of a failed government that misled them and let them down. Despite indicators that point to an economic recovery, they remain insecure and are waiting for the "other shoe to drop". They are afraid of "foreigners" whom they blame for their economic decline, the erosion of social cohesion, and the "benefits" they believe are doled out to immigrants at their expense. They especially blame Muslims for the danger they pose at home and abroad. And they blame the President because they see him as "foreign" and favoring the interests of "minorities" and Muslims over their own. [A recent poll showed that over 50% of all Republicans now believe Obama is a Muslim, with over 60% of Trump and Carson supporters believing this and believing that the President wasn't born in the US.]
The Trump and GOP appeals to "Make America great again", to "stop us from losing", or to "restore our honor" are in response to the still unresolved collective trauma experienced by the same group of voters who comprised the Tea Party. They are the anti-Obama message—appealing to fear and not hope, and looking backward, not forward. Ironically, they are the themes on which Republicans might have based their campaign in 2008, had they not been running to replace one of their own in the Oval Office.
For months now, the pundits and the GOP establishment have dismissed the dangers posed by the likes of Trump and Carson and Cruz. Trump, they said, would be undone by his insults and fabrications; Carson was a fad who would soon fade; and Cruz, because he was so disliked, would go nowhere. Most recent polls, however, show these three garnering between 50% and 60% of the Republican vote. And as their rhetoric becomes harsher, with naked appeals to intolerance and even violence, it is time to wake up. Because they speak to an entire group's existential crisis, tap into their deep reservoir of resentment, and elicit violent emotions, these themes and their proponents must be addressed.