When presidential candidate Mitt Romney uttered his infamous “47% of the nation think of themselves as victims,” he lost his 2012 bid, but virtually predicted Trump’s victory four years later. Now six months into the Trump presidency, most polls show him holding some of that same 47%. The angry-victim part of the country that elected him, still appears to support him.
Victimhood can range from blue-collar laborers earning too little money, to white-collar professionals paying too many taxes, to mothers afraid to let their children walk to school. But exactly how did they become so angry? How did an aging New York billionaire become their unlikely populist-champion?
Complex questions both “fake news” and “deep state” pundits explain to us in complex ways. However, to many of us the answers now seem self-evident. The generations growing up during the 1930s Depression, 1940s War, and 1950s Boom all grew up on a cultural diet that nourished us weekly in little neighborhood movie houses. Mine was called the Rockne [after that mythic American] but there were thousands just like it across the land.
In those years before Television and Internet, a movie a week was where we learned many of the ideas and ideals about our America. Oh yes, History classes and Sunday pulpits were in play, still it was the cinematic images of rugged frontier-individualism, luck-and-pluck entrepreneurship, personal courage-under-gunfire, righteous victory against evil, plus a chicken-in-every-pot-with-a-car-in-every garage that we beheld. And believed.
Beliefs like that are powerful to behold. We never consciously thought Hollywood’s dream factories were “selling” these beliefs; and the noveau-rich moguls in their studios didn’t bother to think so either. However, our parents and later our children joined us in a felicitous faith in this America.
Fast forward 50 years. The neighborhood movie houses are gone. Many of the pulpits are empty. Jobs are lost to automation. Urban safety is problematic. Crime and drugs are rampant. Not as many talk about that other America. Instead, we are told about an America of “carnage.” Watching the nightly news, it seems all too true.
Facts alone do not nourish. Feelings and faith do. So while it may be statistically true America in the 21st C is the soundest and safest nation in history, this is thin gruel for the growing swath of disaffected who are easy to resent the One Percent they see in the celebrity media. Some of that America was what they were led to believe belonged to them. When someone helps you think and fume about that, well, you can soon find yourself in the 47%.
America has seen pied pipers before. The occasional populist who can nourish victims with hopes of revenge and reward. In some subconscious ways those hopes were part of the diet my parents, I and my children witnessed on that silver screen at the Rockne, week after week. Truth be told, some of those happy-endings actually came true. For many, but not all of us.
Now another generation later, they seem more elusive than ever. At least to about 47% of us. Romney knew this, but didn’t know what to do with it. Trump did. Which brings us to what may be an historic change in the national menu over these next four years. The chefs in the nation’s kitchen are currently standing nose-to-nose, ladle-to-ladle.
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