The hogs seemed terrified that night. A few days after Christmas 2016, I decided to take an evening walk in the balmy December air that, for a few weeks a year, makes the state of Florida a bearable place to inhabit. The problem is that Wesley Chapel, the Pasco County census-designated place (CDP) where my in-laws live, isn’t especially hospitable to the notion of pedestrian traffic. There are some sidewalks, but not enough of them, and most of the time you’d be hard-pressed to see them populated by anything but the odd Acura RL piloted by one of the state’s billions of confused retirees.
Nevertheless, there’s a long stretch of sidewalk snaking alongside Wesley Chapel Blvd., the multi-lane thoroughfare that connects the town’s residents with their sacred auto dealerships, buffet chains, and a Wal-Mart Supercenter the size of Estonia. I decided to make use of this sidewalk for a bit of evening exercise. With my iPod blaring the synthwave sound of 80s retro-future act Gunship, I ambled along as the gas-guzzlers blew past until I arrived at a bridge that separated the marshy natural bushland from the seemingly endless sea of new pavement and big boxes. Suddenly, along the roadside where cement gave way to scrub grass and treeline, two wild hogs — a common wildlife sight in Florida and throughout the South — scurried from the roadside brush and disappeared back into the trees.
Those hogs were as lost, scared, and confused as America was in 2016.
The razor-thin majority of well-placed swing-state voters who put Donald J. Trump in the White House acted out of a maelstrom of fear, paranoia, resentment, and confusion. Like a pair of hogs roaming alongside the highway, blindsided by the chaos of traffic, pavement, lights, and oil fumes that replaced the hum of insects in the evening brush, Trump voters found themselves lost in an America that was no longer familiar to them. As a result, they scurried to the polls under the delusion that a Manhattan plutocrat — a guy born into wealth and privilege who literally lives in a gold-plated apartment at the top of a tower — could somehow be the voice of an aggrieved Middle America.
A good number of those Trump voters live in Wesley Chapel, Florida, a town that embodies the confused state of the modern world, a world in which capitalism’s success has outrun its capacity to recognize the needs of the human spirit.
Pasco County, Florida is a suburban bedroom county to neighboring Hillsborough and its major city, Tampa. Pasco voters supported the Angry Oompa-Loompa 58 percent to Hillary Clinton’s 37 percent of the vote. Municipalities like Wesley Chapel gave Trump his miniscule edge in the Sunshine State. Like areas across the country that went for The Donald, Wesley Chapel is largely devoid of melanin, with a population that’s 75 percent white. This is close to Pasco County’s overall demographic of 88 percent white people. Wesley Chapel itself, like so many other suburban and exurban American communities, serves as a safe space for white Americans looking to settle away from inner-city cores. Like may parts of Florida, the community has its fair share of retirees, but the median age of the population is about 35. Wesley Chapel’s demographics, as well as its physical design and layout, are a microcosm of the broader cultural transformation of the modern Western world, of which Donald Trump’s rise to the Presidency is a symptom, not the cause.
The worldwide economic crash of 2008 de-legitimized (in practice, if not in theory) the supposed ability of free-market, globalized capitalism to impose an organic order on a disorderly world. When Francis Fukuyama famously proclaimed “The End of History” in his 1989 essay, he postulated that Western liberal democracy and its attendant market-based economic system was the end-point in the long process of human societal development. Yet even Fukuyama resisted the urge to deify the market via the reduction of the human purpose to an endless series of commodity exchanges. Heck, Fukuyama outright chastised what he termed the “Wall Street Journal school of deterministic materialism,” that “discounts the importance of ideology and culture and sees man as essentially a rational, profit maximizing individual.” Unfortunately, that very simplistic idea — that human beings can best experience freedom by merely pursuing their “material self interests” within the boundless choice of the capitalist marketplace — is the idea that won out.
Donald Trump won the presidency by embracing this idealized image of capitalism, even as he simultaneously dashed it to pieces.
In places like Wesley Chapel, the contradictions inherent in highfalutin’ theories about materialism, economics, and human interest are born out in everyday life; where the ideological rubber meets the practical road. Capitalism’s final triumph is its replacing of all other human values with the totalizing value of market commodification. In Wesley Chapel, Florida, public space exists primarily to serve private interests. I mentioned above that sidewalks in the area are hard to find; this is because the primary means of transportation throughout the county is by personal automobile. Transportation infrastructure consists of ever-expanding multi-lane roadways designed to move the motorized chariots that carry citizen-consumers to worship at privately owned retail temples. Public transportation exists in the form of an abysmal bus system that serves the working poor who lack sufficient access to cars.
In effect, Wesley Chapel has no real “public space.” There are some very nice parks but they’re not well-integrated into the heart of the community. Indeed, the heart of the community consists of chain restaurants, big-box stores, and gigantic outdoor malls like Wiregrass, which aim to meld the feel of public space with the action of conspicuous consumption. Even many of the area’s Christian churches lie nestled amidst retail parks, a fitting development, so to speak, for a culture that sanctifies the material into the realm of the spiritual. Whatever their personal beliefs, residents of Wesley Chapel, like most Americans in the 21st-century, functionally live according to the values of the market: buy, sell, earn, repeat.
Where does America go from there? Where do you go once the values of capitalism simply aren’t enough? What do you do when capitalism, which is supposed to be functionally perfect and ideologically unassailable, fails to maintain order? Trump provided a simple answer to these complicated questions: you simply “Make America Great Again.”
But how exactly do you do that? Trump never really explained that part, but he promises to “run the country like a business,” and voters ate it up like catfish in a dough ball factory. Of course, the issues that drove voters to Trump — illegal immigration, fears of terrorism, a manufacturing sector in decline — are in some way the result of modern capitalism’s propensity for Creative Destruction. Immigrants come to America illegally because American businesses want to hire them. Terrorism is flourishing in the world because, for too many radicalized young men, the promise of bourgeois success can’t compete with the promise of a new Caliphate. Outsourcing, offshoring, and automation are eliminating once prominent manufacturing jobs, the “natural” collateral damage from the market’s unending quest for more efficiency at cheaper costs.
Yet Donald Trump came along and promised that he, as a successful businessman, would right the wrongs that other successful businessmen had wrought upon Middle America. Trump supporters welcomed this claim with open arms by echoing the idea that, “We need to run this country like a business.”
Nevermind that this notion is the single most destructive idea currently floating around the American political landscape. Never mind that the idea that the government, explicitly framed to “form a more perfect union” and to “promote the general welfare” should be run like one of the sleazy real-estate scams that Donald Trump used to claim bankruptcy and weasel out of obligations to clients and investors, is incalculably destructive. Never mind that the public sector, by definition, must benefit the entire citizenry, not just those who can pay. You know those high deductibles that Obamacare enrollees are complaining about? That’s what happens when you run what ought to be a public operation (healthcare) “like a business,” because profits always come before human well-being. Imagine your cable provider, your local used-car dealership, and the sociopathic hive-mind of Wall Street’s hedge-funders put in control of “the general welfare.”
But Trump supporters simply didn’t care. Whether many of them realized it or not, they wholeheartedly embrace the contradictory idea that only capitalism can fix the problems created by capitalism. Therein lies the evidence that, in America today, market values are the only values that matter; only the Devil can control his demons. If you’ve spent a lifetime being inculcated in the untouchable glories of the marketplace, why wouldn’t you vote for the “smart businessman?” The promise of capitalism as it’s practiced in America and the world today is now the only promise that much of America believes in. It’s the only promise many Americans know (even if there remains a nagging feeling, born out in the success of Trump’s protectionist rhetoric, that this promise can’t be entirely trusted).
Like the wild hogs in Wesley Chapel, Florida, who seemed shell-shocked by the swiftness and totality with which the concrete, black top, and fiberglass jungles devoured the foliage-covered world they once knew, Americans in 2016 found themselves adrift and shocked by the pace and totality with which global hyper-capitalism has overtaken human societies. But in a culture that touts the free market as the panacea for all ills, their only solace came in the form of an orange-toned, billionaire con-artist who doled out reactionary rage with the same feverish fervor that he’s now using to stock his presidential cabinet with plutocrats. This is no way to Make America Great Again.