Barter Town

     The rise of a populist entertainer as the king of debate in America, the absolute dominator of the news cycle for months on end, and the force to be reckoned with in national politics, is largely treated as a matter of mystery by the media. It is portrayed as baffling.
     But not so.
     In American politics, I keep coming back to the idea of the bible salesman. There has always been a criss-cross between money and religion in our nation. The first feeds the second, the second sanctifies the first.
     Where evangelical congregations materialize on folding chairs in beat-up meeting halls, where Billy Graham caused a bigger traffic jam than Beyonce, notions of spirituality have always mixed freely with the underlying ethos of advancement, of making money, of hitting it big.
     As I see it, the two somewhat conflicting notions are illustrated by the inverse of greed, its opposite quality, the antithesis of avarice, generosity. If there is one standout quality to Americans, not universally shared but surprisingly common, it is their fundamental generosity.
     It contrasts starkly in my experience with the extraordinarily insular and tight-wad nature of rich Europeans, speaking generally, of course.
     So where a nation has become fatigued with the culture wars initiated by the Christians and also found itself stymied in the search for a better life, while at the same time hearing about a very small percentage of the rich who become fantastically more so, it is only natural that many Americans are searching for a vehicle, a locomotive, to carry their anger forth.
     Years on, a song keeps coming back to me from the movie Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. The Internet being the amazing thing it is, I can search for and watch the extraordinary figure of Tina Turner putting everything into the song: “We don’t need another hero, We don’t need to know the way home, All we want is life beyond the Thunderdome.”
     The movie, set in a post-nuclear future, follows a revolutionary theme as a group of children seeks freedom from a despot played with beautiful ambiguity by Turner, the leader of Barter Town where everything can be traded but contracts must be upheld.
     Barter Town’s constitution of sorts is: “Bust a deal, face the wheel.” Punishment is determined at random by a wheel of misfortune with nearly all options fatal.
     The U.S. is a kind of toned-down Barter Town where the basic promise was that if you worked hard you could get ahead. It is the busting of that deal that has spun the wheel and brought forth The Donald.
     An early manifestation of the underlying anger was the Tea Party which, a bit like the religious patchwork of our nation, had a multitude of leaders, little central organization, and hundreds of individual chapters. And like right-wing parties in other nations, such as the National Front in France, the party morphed out of tax protest into a potent movement against just about everything involving government.
     The Republican establishment — because there certainly is such a thing — rode that populist horse for as long as it could, then sought to rein it in by financing moderate conservatives against more radical figures backed by the TEA people. That set the stage for the rise of a populist TV figure who could rely on promotional instinct over position papers, and thump the GOP’s officialdom.
     So Trump’s rise is not such a huge mystery, riding the currents of conservative conviction and financial frustration. On the other hand, his ability to rack up big majorities in the Republican primaries while also, as David Axelrod said on CNN, “running to the left of Hillary on some issues” — that is a transmogrification that can be achieved only through a special talent. No doubt about that.

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