Two Islands

Ten days ago, at the start of my DC program, I noted that few people I met in official Washington seemed to have a grasp of the political situation. With two-thirds of the program now complete, I would say that quite a few political professionals are rattled by Trump’s rise and confused about how it happened. To help them out, I offer the following analogy.

Imagine a country composed of a large and small island separated by a deep and tumultuous body of water. The small island has a substantial but shrinking and fairly homogenous population used to running the country. The large island contains a growing and diverse population, many of whom are descended from residents of other far away countries. The people on this island have historically been on the fringes of power and are not used to voting, but when they do their votes can be decisive because of their large numbers. They are feared by the people on the small island, who see them as a threat to how things have always been.

Times have been hard in the country. Jobs are dwindling, wages are stagnating, and the hope of a better future seems to be disappearing for all but the very rich. Sensing a political opportunity, one of the nation’s major parties begins blaming economic hardship on the folks living on the large island. It’s an easy argument to make because small island residents are already skeptical of their large island counterparts, and over time that party comes to dominate the politics of the small island. Highly motivated to participate, their voters turn out and they win local and legislative elections when their large-island counterparts stay home in large numbers. But they can’t compete in presidential elections when turnout on the large island is high, and this frightens them. Party leaders promise to protect small island voters by standing up to forces on the large island, but there is only so much they can do because that very message precludes them from securing the large island voters they need to win national elections and run the government.

Time passes, and small island voters become restless with party leaders who have promised and failed to stop the perceived large island threat. Sensing an opportunity, one of the nation’s premiere reality television hosts decides to run for president on the small island party, and like other candidates of his party he blames economic hardship on the folks living on the large island. But he also blames party leaders who promised and failed to undermine large island political power, promising things will be different when he’s in charge because of his strong personality and will. And he isn’t subtle. His campaign rallies are boisterous affairs where he promises to build a wall around the large island to keep its population from growing larger and to send away millions of undocumented people living there. Playing to emotion and adept at drawing attention to himself, he shocks the political world by securing the nomination of the small island party, but he does it by demonizing the people of the large island whose votes he will need to win the general election. His supporters love it; they feel someone is finally voicing what they privately say to each other. But he has riled the waters and in the process, the island he unwittingly has built a wall around is his own.

The saddest irony is that even if he were to win the election by convincing enough people on the big island to funnel their anger and frustration his way, he would never be able to fulfill the promises he made to the people of the small island. No one can. His promises are no different from those made by party leaders before him, promises to somehow marginalize a large and different population that inhabits its own island but is still part of the same nation. Nothing in the democratic process makes this possible. So assuming the small island party wants to continue operating within democratic processes, and assuming it would like to win national elections and be able to govern, it has to figure out how to appeal to some of those large island voters. In other words, it has to disavow the methods that for so long worked to motivate small island voters at the expense of large island voters, even if doing so alienates some of those voters in the short run. In other words, it has to begin building bridges.