This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
The rise of Donald Trump as a national political force has taken pundits on all sides by surprise. His continued popularity (or notoriety) has forced these pundits to find a reasonable explanation. Some have suggested that he has become the voice of the angry populace, frustrated by shifting notions about race, identity, security and the role of the U.S. in the world. While his supporters have expressed anger towards President Obama and his policies, I believe the deeper emotion arises from widespread cynicism.
As a young person in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I was part of an optimistic generation who campaigned against the Vietnam War, fought for gender and racial equality and supported environmentalism. The optimism was founded on knowing that many others also wanted to make a positive change in our society.
We felt empowered by being in favor of significant change that could lead to a better society. Essentially, we had hope in the belief that tomorrow would be better than today. This period seems naive from where we are today. But this was the Age of Idealism.
Unfortunately, this idealism has been replaced by bitterness, anger and cynicism. Cynicism is the general distrust of people, ideas, laws and institutions, and it derives from a sense of disillusionment and disappointment. In the Age of the Idealism, when people became disappointed, they generally would optimistically work to improve the laws, policies, and institutions. Today, in this Age of Cynicism, people are more likely to oppose others, distrust others' intentions, purposively ignore facts and work to ensure that nothing changes. These cynics are angry and lack hope. Instead of working to create positive change, they insist on keeping the negative status quo.
Too many examples exist that highlight the cynicism of this age. Some people distrust the government so much that they fervently believe our government intentionally is poisoning our air through "chemtrails." Others have claimed that the U.S. government had planned a military take over of Texas. The governor in fact ordered the Texas State Guard to monitor the U.S. military. In Utah, some politicians recently asserted that the EPA deliberately leaked three million gallons of contaminated water into our rivers.
The cynical distrust of intentions has led to a deep disbelief in science and, in particular, in climate change. These cynics not only are distrustful of scientific facts, they are angry and bitter even in the face of widespread and legitimate factual understanding about climate change.
Another example concerns medical research. During the Planned Parenthood controversy, the host of a local talk show claimed that no credible evidence exists linking the use of tissue from aborted fetuses to the development of vaccines and treatments for a host of ailments including vision loss and neurological disorders to cancer and AIDS.
During a less cynical era, facts remained facts while people could have differing interpretations about them; that is, people were willing to "agree to disagree." Today, in this Age of Cynicism, facts are not facts. Adherents of cynicism no longer accept widely confirmed facts. They creatively establish new and original "facts" and they create a new (and false) reality for these cynics.
It is in this twisted and cynical political environment, in which so many people have lost hope and optimism, that Trump finds his support and which Trump exploits.
Examples abound of Trump's negative and divisive language. The indiscriminate use of "anchor babies," his public claim that Obama's birth certificate was a "fraud," his assertion that he will force Mexico's government to pay for the border wall, and his misogynistic interaction with many women.
Trump has successfully captured and exploited the mood of many in this country. He offers simple solutions for complex issues and he wraps them in raw emotional layers.
Trump's form of political discourse, as epitomized by his attacks on "political correctness," in actuality highlights the degree of incivility and lack of respect shown towards others and his disregard for facts. His divisive and misleading rhetoric only leads to increased cynicism. In some ways, Trump is the ideal candidate for cynical people.
However, young people today deserve better. It may be impossible to return to the Age of Idealism, but surely our political leaders can provide a more optimistic and hopeful environment for them as a way to reject this Age of Cynicism.
Howard Lehman is a professor of political science at the University of Utah.