Another Country Heard From
I've been talking about politics too much. Let's have someone else say something.
A reader sent me some stuff on the Trump candidacy and I figured I'd share it with you. It's a bit longer than a regular post, but also more thoughtful and coherent:
Trump won for three distinct reasons: issues, populism, and race. Too many commentators assume that only one of these factors was important. Some say it’s all about race – and yet exit polls show that 29% of Hispanics, 29% of Asians, 8% of blacks, and 24% of Jews voted for Trump. Some say it’s all about the issues – but many of Trump’s voters didn’t care how wildly inconsistent he has been on most of the issues.
During the campaign, most of the attention paid to Trump campaign focused on Trump himself and all the crazy things he does. But the campaign was also based on a quiver of positions that are often very different from the positions taken by Republican (and Democratic) candidates in the past generation. And even though I am skeptical that Trump himself is intellectually committed to any of these positions, that doesn't change the fact that many of his supporters care about them deeply. Even if he had lost, these positions would not have gone away.
Indeed, in a multi-party parliamentary system, the collection of positions associated with Trump would probably be a distinct party from the Republican/Conservative party, easily able to win 20% of the vote nationwide without Trump himself being involved.
- Free trade agreements help big
American corporations who want to outsource jobs, but they have devastated the
American working class. In two generations, the "rust belt" (especially
Detroit, Pittsburgh, and northern Ohio) have gone from booming cities where
blue-collar workers could buy houses to devastated wastelands.
- Tax cuts for millionaires don't
help the working class.
- We should not allow America to
become a post-industrial country, outsourcing all our manufacturing needs to
other countries. We need manufacturing here, not just white-collar jobs and a
- Collectively, these planks are sometimes called "economic nationalism".
- America should stop sending its
kids and its money to defend South Korea, the Philippines, Eastern Europe, and
so many other rich countries. They should defend themselves -- or, if they want
our troops, they should pay us for our expenses, just as a rich person pays a
private security firm.
- Our bellicosity towards Russia is
insane. Before 1991, the Soviet Union was sponsoring left-wing regimes in Cuba,
Central America, South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia, but those days are
over. Putin's Russia merely wants to dominate its immediate neighbors, as do
all regional powers. If we bring Poland and the Baltics into NATO, we are
required to start a nuclear war if Russia invades these places. “We nearly went
to war over Soviet Missiles in Cuba, but somehow we don’t understand that US
missiles in Estonia worry the Russians.”
- Our recent wars in the Middle East are a waste of time. Let's stop nation building. (With regard to Israel specifically, Trump and his supporters have a variety of views.)
- Immigrants from Latin America are taking jobs away from Americans. We need to stop the influx, and deport a lot of people. (Note that while the elites in both parties reject this view, virtually every American demographic supports a reduction in immigration numbers.)
But the issues listed in the bullets above are extremely different than what Republican presidential nominees and congressional leaders for the past fifteen years have stood for. So why have they suddenly gained traction in the Republican Party?
Answer: It wasn't really as sudden as it looked. These issues, or variations of them, have existed as a semi-cohesive political forcefor at least two decades, advocated by various people on on the outskirts of the Republican Party. Prior to 2016, the proponents of these issues had never been able to achieve power within the party due to the dominance of ideological conservatism among both the party leadership and rank-and-file.
The Republican party -- much more so than the Democrats -- has been dominated by an official ideology for the past generation (probably since the landslide of 1984). Talk radio hosts have millions of listeners, but most of these folks -- Limbaugh, etc. -- aren't actually deep thinkers. They get their ideas from conservative publications (National Review, Human Events, The American Spectator, and many more), and these publications are produced by a loose group of folks who, since 1955, have determined what counts as "conservative". Over the years, many alternative and variant views have been expelled from the conservative movement. In the 1960s, Buckley pushed the Birchers and the Wallace-ites out of the movement. In 1990, National Review condemned Pat Buchanan and its own Joe Sobran for not supporting the Gulf War. Sometime after Bush-41 broke his tax pledge, conservative orthodoxy changed from merely supporting the Laffer Curve (if tax rates are extremely high, cutting tax rates will increase revenue) to claiming that cutting the top tax rates will always increase revenue. In 2003, David Frum wrote an editorial in NR entitled "Unpatriotic Conservatives", declaring that those who didn't support the Iraq War weren't true conservatives -- going so far as to accuse them of "hating their country".
The result of all these "expulsions" was thousands of disgruntled folks who were no longer deemed truly "conservative" by the Conservative Movement. And of course, they resented having been excommunicated. (See, for example, these scathing comments from Jerry Pournelle on having been expelled from the movement for not supporting the Iraq War.)
Expelled people don't just vanish. When the Catholic Church declared some of Luther's and Calvin's teachings to be heresy, their followers established their own churches. At a meeting of the First International in 1872, Marx and his followers expelled all those who didn't agree that the future World Revolution must be followed by "the dictatorship of the proletariat"; the expelled faction became the anarchist movement that ended up assassinating scores of European royals and President McKinley.
Similarly, the issues above, although not deemed "conservative" and therefore incapable of animating the leaders of the Republican Party, didn't vanish. Many of these issues animated the presidential campaigns of Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan. Perot got 19% of the vote in 1992 and 8% in 1996. Buchanan got 23% of the Republican primary vote (against a sitting president!) in 1992 and 21% in 1996, and then succeeded Perot as the nominee of the Reform Party in 2000 -- although in 2000 he only drew 0.4% of the vote, and the Reform Party collapsed after that. But Perot and Buchanan were imperfect messengers -- Perot was crazy and Buchanan had made numerous antisemitic and racist comments -- so it was unclear after 2000 whether the collapse of the Reform Party after 2000 was due to its ideas being unpopular or due to the unpopularity of its leaders. When the Gulf War began, this faction strongly opposed it (unlike Trump, btw!), and the growing unpopularity of our various wars led to a resurgence in this faction. From 2002 until 2015, Buchanan was probably the most widely-read spokesman for the issues I've listed above. When mainstream conservatism (including some members of the G.W. Bush administration) became widely known as "neoconservative", the Buchanan wing ended up adopting the label "paleoconservative", but both labels seem rather silly to me, especially because they meant something else before 2002. Not surprisingly, Buchanan became an early Trump supporter, and remains one today.
One of the most interesting reports during the campaign came from a reporter who met with a lot of Trump supporters. He expected to hear a lot of "coded" and explicit racial language, but instead he concluded these voters were motivated primarily by the issues and by populism.
Populism can be roughly defined as the revolt of the “common people” against the “elites.” Trump has managed to harness massive populist sentiment – but in key ways he doesn’t fit the template.
America has seen two major populist movements: (1) The movement that created the People’s Party in 1891 and then took over the Democratic Party in 1896, nominating William Jennings Bryan. Despite his massive loss, the Democratic Party proceeded to re-nominate him in 1900 and again in 1908. (2) The George Wallace presidential campaign of 1968. Wallace had previously been known for his segregationist views, but his 1968 campaign focused more on attacking the rich liberal hippies rioting on college campuses, the Supreme Court that kept creating new rights for criminals at the expense of crime victims, the national media, and the “pointy-headed intellectuals.” Wallace loved to say that “there ain’t a dime’s worth of difference between the Republican and Democratic Parties.” He won 13.5% of the popular vote and 46 electoral votes.
Today the populist sentiment is rooted in "red state America" -- the region that those who live on the West Coast and on the East Coast north of central Virginia sneer at as “flyover country.”
For a taste of the righteous anger of the populists, take a look at this column by Rod Dreher. When 40,000 people in Louisiana lost their homes in this summer’s flood, after three times as much rain as Katrina, the national media treated it as a minor story. President Obama didn’t even bother to visit. Dreher points out that the city of Berkeley has 40,000 residents, and asks: "If Berkeley were wiped off the map, even with almost no loss of life, don’t you think the national networks would have been all over it from the beginning? Don’t you think the president would have found a way to get there, ASAP?" To add insult to injury, the Federal Government’s only response to the flood in the first few days was to send a memo warning disaster relief agencies in Louisiana that they were forbidden to racially discriminate in their disaster relief. Dreher asks, "Is that really what you think of us? That we’re just a bunch of rednecks dying to discriminate? It’s like: The people of your Louisiana are not our countrymen, they’re aliens whose bizarre emotions we must attempt occasionally to anticipate and manage. (N.B.: After much criticism, Obama did eventually visit, two weeks after the floods had begun.)
J. D. Vance, author of Hilbilly Elegy, describes the poverty and culture of the white working class: Deaths from drug addiction outnumber natural deaths. Some volunteer for the army, fight in the wars that our elites start, and return home where (despite Obama's promise to fix the V.A.) one out of three calls to the V.A. suicide hotline goes to voicemail. Al-Qaeda destroyed two buildings in New York, so to retaliate, we sent an army full of poor kids from flyover country. Not many folks from Manhattan volunteered.
Dreher's reaction to the Podesta emails is also worth reading. He doesn't care about specific scandals, pay-for-play, pay-for-access, or any of that stuff. His main concern is this: The emails show that the top players in the Democratic Party, Wall Street executives, Silicon Valley innovators, and major media figures are all on a first name basis. They send each other friendly emails asking favors for their kids, trading jobs, and even choosing President Obama's cabinet before he won the 2008 election. In other words, there really is an "elite" that runs the country -- and the folks in Louisiana aren't being invited. (The articles he links to in his own article are also worth reading.)
This is why the populists resent the "elites" and want to take their power away.
However, while Trump's movement is populist to a large degree, Trump himself is not a true populist leader.
Watch the following two videos of George Wallace and look at how his behavior changes depending on the setting:
- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=247iW_J_mb4 At his rallies, Wallace loved to mock the hippies who showed up to protest him: “There’s nothin’ wrong with you that a haircut and a good bath woudn’t fix.” (Aside: is there a more perfect hippie expression than the guy at 0:28 ?)
- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_zpJDLkNIpQ But when he sits down in a civil environment with a true elitist – William F. Buckley – he is visibly nervous. Buckley knows that he belongs in that chair, and Wallace is totally out of his element.*
Trump isn’t like this. Trump wouldn’t have let Buckley talk for two minutes straight: he would have interrupted him (“You’re wrong!”) in the first few seconds! Trump may be the leader of a populist movement, but he is not one of the "people". He’s a wealthy New Yorker who owns who-knows-how-many tuxedos, and so he’s not intimidated by the elites the way that real populists are.
Trump is a celebrity politician, not a populist. I have noticed that people who used to watch Trump’s reality shows actually feel they know him. This is absurd, of course. But this is America. Celebrities who commit murder are not conviced by juries. Since California became a solid blue state, the only Republican to be elected governor was Schwartzenegger. Ross Perot’s Reform Party was a populist enterprise, but their only electoral victory was Jesse Ventura’s election.
What we have is a populist movement whose leader is a rich celebrity politician.