t various points during his thunderous campaign rallies, Donald Trump would pause from his exhortations and litanies of self-love to extend his arms above the crowds, as if offering a papal benediction. “You’re what this is all about,” he would holler at the bobbing waves of bright red MAGA caps. “This is about you, the American people.” At which The American People would let out a mighty roar, as they did on Election Day.
Or some of them did, anyway. While Donald Trump boasts of being a non-politician (think of it: A man would sooner confess to being a real-estate developer than a politician), he has eagerly grabbed one crutch all American politicians find indispensable. Like our elected representatives, from the lowliest back bencher to the towering titans of the party leadership, Trump is on intimate terms with this thing all of them call “The American People.” He mentions them—or are they an “it”?—incessantly.
In these early days of the Trump Era, as partisan rancor runs high, The American People have been exceedingly busy and attentive, but in different ways, according to their leaders. Different pols isolate different traits of the 320-million-headed beast.
I have drawn a random sample from a few days in early February. When Trump began rolling back the Dodd-Frank financial regulations, Elizabeth Warren announced that The American People have a long memory. “The American People will not forget what happened today.” Blessed with good recall, they are also filled with appreciation. “The American people appreciate the candor of the president,” said poor beleaguered Mike Pence, after his Tourette’s-addled boss erupted in another of his unexpected Twitter belches. One admiring Democrat noted that “The American people want jobs, they want paychecks, they want solutions.” The American People—so needy.
And they are often subject to physical abuse. When the senate voted to approve Betsy DeVos as the new education secretary, Charles Schumer noted that “Republicans will ram this nomination down the throats of The American People sideways.” And yet—this is how remarkable they are—even with an education secretary stuck sideways in their throats, The American People manage to talk as a single creature. They are univocal. “The American People are speaking in one loud voice against this nominee,” said Schumer. Gurgle.
For politicians, and for one real-estate developer, The American People serve as camouflage, rhetorical trope, euphemism, and tool of misdirection, all at once. In most instances you won’t go wrong by simply substituting the word “I” for The American People when one of our public servants invokes us. What Elizabeth Warren meant is that she won’t forget that the president monkeyed around with Dodd-Frank, and she will be happy to remind TAP—forgive the acronym—when the time is ripe. Similarly, it was Schumer’s throat, not TAP’s, down which the Republicans were figuratively shoving their education secretary; nor were The American People speaking as one voice against the nominee, however loudly. It was the teachers’ unions who mobilized several million of their members to flood Capitol Hill with anti-DeVos phone calls and emails.
Several million is a big number, but it amounts to well under 1 percent of The American People—as Schumer knows, as Warren knows, as all professional politicians know. But the question arises, does Trump, our latest convert to TAP obsession, know it? Anyone haunted by the memory of his bizarre inaugural address can’t help but wonder if he realizes that invoking The American People is simply a nicety—a time-honored piece of political cant.
All this talk about the peaceful transfer of power from one party to another was all well and good, Trump said. He had something bigger in mind: “We are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, The American People.” He went on: “What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people.” And by people, we can assume he’s referring to TAP.
It’s become a commonplace to say that Trump’s vision of TAP is depressingly dark. He describes a nation of helpless victims that he—and he alone!—has been sent to rescue. But he’s hardly unique in his love of doom and gloom. Political outsiders dwell on the dark corners of American life for strategic reasons, to make their own election all the more urgent. The outsider Barack Obama filled his speeches in 2008 with tales from a landscape of noble losers: the waitress who works an extra shift at Dunkin’ Donuts to feed her children, the little girl who grew up eating mustard sandwiches because her mother lost her health insurance and then died of cancer, the proud blue-collar father whose factory closed and who now competes with his son for a $7-an-hour job at 7-11 . . . on and on it went, a Whitmanesque picture of America filtered through a scrim from hell.
Politicians out of power always see a nation in need of rescue. No, the real effect of the TAP trope, for Trump as for Obama, is to disguise what he’s really up to. The Founders’ dream of a nation without factions collapsed as soon as their Republic got up on its two legs. At least two tribes have been grappling for power ever since. The membership rolls of the tribes will shift over time, as interests and circumstances change, but the tussle for power remains fundamentally the same. The pluribus doesn’t, after all, create an unum, and, except for rare historical moments when the nation is busy avenging its enemies, it probably never did.
To see how deep this goes, and how nonsensical the TAP trope is, consider the issue of immigration, legal and illegal. The argument binds Trump’s followers to one another and sends his opponents running in horror to huddle in their own corner. The question in dispute is precisely whether the country contains a sovereign people, an entity that defines itself by enforcing its borders and controlling who gets in and who doesn’t, and what identity the newcomers will be expected to adopt. Here is the commonality that would truly rest on the premise of a single people. In the Trump Era, even this conception is under assault. The idea that we are The American People, bitterly divides the American people.
The reality of a population permanently cleaved and continuously locked in a struggle for power is too rough for politicians to admit. Too rough for the public to admit, too. No matter who they are, Americans will find themselves, whether they know it or not, in one of three big tents: a more-or-less right-wing faction, a more-or-less left-wing faction, or a third comprising those who don’t much care or are too busy to think things through or could fall one way or the other. Nobody likes to admit that his own political views aren’t shared by his countrymen—indeed, that he’s among a minority who think as he thinks. Yet happily enough, our history proves that a house divided against itself can not only stand but thrive.
“Take care of The American People,” Obama told friendly reporters in one of his last remarks as president. By this he meant, among other things: Don’t let the Trumpkins get away with calling themselves The American People. We know who We Are.
Too late! Naming rights have already passed to Trump and his merry band. “January 20th, 2017,” said Trump, “will be remembered as the day The American People became the rulers of this nation again.” And Obama’s The American People are just going to have to tough it out, until it’s their turn again.