Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Why Trump

Since it's Tuesday Night Debateball tonight, I thought I'd share a few items that may help answer the question, "Why Trump?" while that question is still our national obsession. Trump won't be the Republican nominee. But that doesn't his campaign has been irrelevant.  Far from it, in fact. In Trumpmania 2015, we can already see the contours of the 2016 election taking shape. It isn't going to be a pretty picture.  Anyway, here are some links and things.

First, is this NJ article from back in October by John Judis. Judis refers us to Donald Warren's The Rad­ic­al Cen­ter: Middle Amer­ic­ans and the Polit­ics of Ali­en­a­tion to explain what we might today describe as the angst of white middle class victimhood.
While con­duct­ing ex­tens­ive sur­veys of white voters in 1971 and again in 1975, War­ren iden­ti­fied a group who de­fied the usu­al par­tis­an and ideo­lo­gic­al di­vi­sions. These voters were not col­lege edu­cated; their in­come fell some­where in the middle or lower-middle range; and they primar­ily held skilled and semi-skilled blue-col­lar jobs or sales and cler­ic­al white-col­lar jobs. At the time, they made up about a quarter of the elect­or­ate. What dis­tin­guished them was their ideo­logy: It was neither con­ven­tion­ally lib­er­al nor con­ven­tion­ally con­ser­vat­ive, but in­stead re­volved around an in­tense con­vic­tion that the middle class was un­der siege from above and be­low.

War­ren called these voters Middle Amer­ic­an Rad­ic­als, or MARS. “MARS are dis­tinct in the depth of their feel­ing that the middle class has been ser­i­ously neg­lected,” War­ren wrote. They saw “gov­ern­ment as fa­vor­ing both the rich and the poor sim­ul­tan­eously.” Like many on the left, MARS were deeply sus­pi­cious of big busi­ness: Com­pared with the oth­er groups he sur­veyed—lower-in­come whites, middle-in­come whites who went to col­lege, and what War­ren called “af­flu­ents”—MARS were the most likely to be­lieve that cor­por­a­tions had “too much power,” “don’t pay at­ten­tion,” and were “too big.” MARS also backed many lib­er­al pro­grams: By a large per­cent­age, they favored gov­ern­ment guar­an­tee­ing jobs to every­one; and they sup­por­ted price con­trols, Medi­care, some kind of na­tion­al health in­sur­ance, fed­er­al aid to edu­ca­tion, and So­cial Se­cur­ity.

On the oth­er hand, they held very con­ser­vat­ive po­s­i­tions on poverty and race. They were the least likely to agree that whites had any re­spons­ib­il­ity “to make up for wrongs done to blacks in the past,” they were the most crit­ic­al of wel­fare agen­cies, they re­jec­ted ra­cial bus­ing, and they wanted to grant po­lice a “heav­ier hand” to “con­trol crime.” They were also the group most dis­trust­ful of the na­tion­al gov­ern­ment. And in a stand that wasn’t really lib­er­al or con­ser­vat­ive (and that ap­peared, at least on the sur­face, to be in ten­sion with their dis­like of the na­tion­al gov­ern­ment), MARS were more likely than any oth­er group to fa­vor strong lead­er­ship in Wash­ing­ton—to ad­voc­ate for a situ­ation “when one per­son is in charge.”

And so Judis goes on to explain that this year's Trumpmania fits well within the context of an established American political tradition.
AMER­IC­AN POP­U­LISTS have long con­foun­ded the di­vi­sion between left and right. Left pop­u­lists like Wil­li­am Jen­nings Bry­an and Huey Long sought to cham­pi­on “the people” against Wall Street or big busi­ness; right pop­u­lists like Pitch­fork Ben Till­man and Ger­ald L. K. Smith at­tacked wealthy elites but fo­cused their ire equally—or more so—on minor­it­ies and im­mig­rants. Yet all these pop­u­lists had something in com­mon: They saw them­selves as de­fend­ing the middle class against its en­emies.
And the American middle class is now more threatened than it has been in a very long time.  You may have seen this reported last week.
The nation's middle class, long a pillar of the U.S. economy and foundation of the American dream, has shrunk to the point where it no longer constitutes the majority of the adult population, according to a new major study.

The Pew Research Center report released Wednesday put in sharp relief the nation's increasing income divide, which is certain to be a central issue in the 2016 presidential race. It also highlights how various economic and demographic forces have eroded long-held ideals about maintaining a strong, majority middle class.

Many analysts and policymakers regard the shift as worrisome for economic and social stability. Middle-income households have been the bedrock of consumer spending, and many liberals in particular view the declining middle as part of a troubling trend of skewed income gains among the nation's richest families.

Median-income voters, particularly non-college-educated men, are also at the core of billionaire Donald Trump's surprising surge in the Republican presidential campaign. His supporters' sense that their once-secure middle-class standing is in danger of slipping appears to be fueling much of the anger against the government and immigrant groups.

Here's a TPM feature article published this week by economist Jared Bernstein looking at the decades-long trend toward greater economic inequality. 
Political scientists have unearthed a toxic interaction between concentrated wealth and the unique extent to which money influences American politics. Comparisons of Americans’ expressed policy preferences with politicians’ voting records and eventual policy outcomes find that government is largely unresponsive to the opinions of low-income citizens yet highly responsive to those of wealthy constituents. While this dynamic has surely long been operative in American politics, increasing wealth concentration appears to be making this divide even more pronounced.

Interestingly, in the current election cycle, establishment Republican candidates have themselves arguably been hurt by these dynamics. To their credit, these candidates acknowledge the inequality trends documented above—it would, at this point, be hard not to—but so far, their prescriptions, as predicted by the political science findings just noted, have been those desired by the wealthy: tax cuts that lavish billions on the wealthiest households, deregulation of industry, and attacks on social insurance programs that serve as somewhat of a bulwark for the poor and middle class against the impact of market-driven inequalities. Beset by the negative impacts of inequality, many Republican constituents are rejecting these establishment candidates in favor of outsiders with more populist messages.

Now would be a good time to remind everyone of the Trump campaign's theme song.

So, why Trump? Or, more specifically, why is all the attention and energy of the 2016 Presidential campaign focused on the right wing populist rather than the left wing populist? (Yes, there is one. Did you forget?)  To answer that question we have to first understand that the emerging political crisis is as much a failure of the Democratic Party establishment as it is of the Republican establishment.

While the Republicans are having trouble keeping their own pitchfork carriers at bay, the Democrats have once again seem certain to successfully marginalize theirs. And the reason for this is American politics just doesn't do left wing populism very well anymore.  Here is a bit from the introduction to David Graeber's recently published The Utopia Of Rules.  Graeber argues that what passes for a left of center argument in our vernacular is necessarily a self-defeating absurdity.

Political catastrophe

Fewer Democrats are more steeped in this brand of  "least appealing possible" politics than Mayor Mitch Landrieu.  Last week, Mitch made certain to include himself among the many national and international tools of the political establishment issuing a coordinated condemnation of Trump. Ostensibly this came about in response to Trump's indefensible proposal (pretty much all Trump proposals are indefensible) to ban all Muslims from entering the country. But really this should be viewed as a convulsion of a political establishment still searching for a way to respond to the Trump phenomenon.   Obviously this online petition of theirs didn't work.  Trump continues to draw support, not so much because of the things he says, but because of how many respectable insiders he pisses off in the process.

There is one thing Mitch and Trump do have in common, though. They both understand that it doesn't even matter if you believe any of the crap that comes out of your mouth. It only matters that you connect with an audience and sell them what they like.

Josh Marshall has a pretty good handle on Trump in that regard.
Trump's genius — and I don't use that word loosely — is that he is an intuitive. He can feel the public mood in ways that none of these others can. I don't think Trump began his campaign with really any of this. "Mexicans" were his thing. But even that was I think largely shtick. Terrorism and Muslim-hating wasn't his thing. But like a gifted jazz musician, he can pick up the rhythms of whatever group he's sitting in with, adapt, improvise and take them further. Yes, he's almost a Coltrane of hate and incitement. But it's not about Trump. It's about his supporters. A big chunk of the Republican base is awash in racism and xenophobic hysteria. And this is the food that they feed on every day. It's a societal sickness and we can't ignore it.

Donald Trump will not be the Republican nominee.  But after he's gone his supporters, this "Radical Middle" will remain energized. Their anger will continue to be the dominant factor in the election.  And, since the Democrats are certain to nominate Hillary, we can all rest assured that the Trumpist anger will invigorate whichever less flamboyant but equally hard line Republican ends up winning the nomination.

Meanwhile, the establishment is already gravitating toward  its preferred candidate.

Given their astonishing success at containing the Trumpist revolution thus far, we can't wait to see how that works out for them.

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