Will You Still Trump Me Tomorrow?
Yesterday, we discussed the idea that, despite all their baying at the moon over the presence of the Great Usurper, Republicans are going to line up behind spoiled condiment receptacle Donald Trump if he manages to garner enough delegates for the G.O.P. nomination. (The frequently excellent Hamilton Nolan explains why in a more lively forum.) Today, lacking anything better to do, we’re going to look at the reason that Trump — a boob who inherited his fortune from his father and his intelligence from the back of a cereal box — has risen to such astonishing prominence in the American political process, and what can be done about it.
Trump certainly isn’t the first half-witted, bossy plutocrat to run for high office. He’s not even a particularly exceptional specimen of the breed, his main advantage being the fact that he’s even richer than most bored executives who think they can run the country, and the fact that he’s already famous for being on the tee vee all the time. The difference is his success; this sort of martinet mogul usually polls well in the early goings and then flames out when it becomes clear to even the biggest dullards in the electorate that everybody hates them and they are manifestly unqualified to lead a government. So what happened? Why has a significant and surprisingly unpredictable portion of the voting public suddenly decided that they want a runny pile of chili grease with a bad toupée to represent them in a national election?
The question has vexed everyone from the New York Times to Vox, a.k.a. the New York Times for internet semi-literates. It is not surprising that big-media elites are stymied by the rise of Trump, because they aren’t going to vote for him and don’t know anyone who is. That’s because they all have good jobs. It is difficult for them to conceive of the existential dread that comes from worrying that you will become homeless, or of the sheer terror of wondering where your next meal is coming from, or of the kind of soul-crushing depression that comes from knowing that nobody gives a shit about you or listens to you or acts on your behalf. It is possible that they believe such people exist, but they are all uneducated minorities who they will no more stand a chance of meeting than they will a Trump voter. The combination of their own success and a fashionable irony leads them to disdain the Marxist analysis, so they do not give much credence to the idea of false consciousness; nonetheless, they have a sneaking suspicion that this is some sinister cabal of dumb white people. They trot out a lot of seemingly deep analysis of the situation, and they come to the conclusion that what we are seeing is the creeping in of authoritarianism.
Of course, there is no disputing that Trump is an authoritarian sort. I won’t go into whether or not he is a fascist, because I’ve already had my say on the subject; but he’s clearly the same kind of pushy dick with a deep dislike of democracy and self-determination that characterizes the entire American corporate class. The category error is assigning blame for the rise of this type entirely on the Republican right. While it’s certainly undeniable that it’s hugely disingenuous of the G.O.P. to pretend they haven’t been pushing a Trump-lite ideology for decades, it’s not really their fault that people are starting to take it a bit more seriously than they would like. Even the most authoritarian leaders have found a way to work with traditional elites on both the right and the left; from the way the big corporate interests conspired with Hitler and Mussolini to the way the communists sold out the left in the ’68 revolts to the way nationalism and Maoism stroll hand-in-hand with globalist capitalism in the air-conditioned malls of China, there’s nothing new about a populism that doesn’t represent the people or citizens with suffrage willingly voting an antidemocratic element to public office in a free election.
But to suggest this is nothing more than the gurgling forth from our national swamp an ugly strain of authoritarianism is to ignore the real economic factors at work in the Year of the Trump. When there are massive upheavals in the traditional ways people have come to think of their government and its responsibility to them, people get panicked, and this can make for some very strange political bedfellows. Historically, this has happened over and over: in the pre-Civil War era, the inability of abolitionists to find purchase with the mainstream political parties of the time led many of them to join up with the Know-Nothings, whose nativist poison they found generally unpalatable, but who at least were amenable to the idea that slavery was bad. The general liberalism of the women’s suffrage movement lent its power soon after to the much more conservative Prohibitionists. A wave of socialists were elected to office in the Gilded Age when it became clear immigrants and working people weren’t sharing in the wealth of the grandees; southern Democrats became Republicans because of their opposition to the civil rights movement; and Reagan’s transformation of the electorate saw some former Democrats, spooked by social changes and yearning for a simpler time, vote for the animating spirit of the Republican Party, while some Joe Lunchpail right-wingers, terrified at how he seemed determined to annihilate the unions, started listening to liberals for the first time in their lives.
These changes happen constantly, and to chalk them up to ignorance and the need for a Big Daddy authoritarian leader is historically naïve. Most tellingly, we must remember the growth of militias, “Angry White Males”, and the radical right in the 1990s, when Bill Clinton — representing the rise of the neo-liberal, technocratic left-center wing of the Democrats — crossed party lines by taking aggressive foreign policy positions, dismantling public welfare, endorsing mass incarceration and the War on Drugs, and pushing forward the NAFTA and GATT “free trade” agreements that were so devastating for American labor. Though this discontent didn’t cost Clinton the election, it set the tone for the disastrous Bush Administration; and now, in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse and the subsequent failure of the Democratic Party to abandon neoliberal politics, it’s happening again. It is frankly bewildering to hear party liberals hold the ideas of Bernie Sanders in such utter contempt and then wonder how on Earth people could be excited about Donald Trump, because when the people who have traditionally listened to you stop listening — and worse, start laughing at you and calling you a whiner and telling you to get with the program — you will start paying attention to anyone who listens. And Donald Trump is listening. He doesn’t plan on doing anything, but at least he’s listening.
Are the Democrats listening? Facing an unexpected challenge from semi-socialist Bernie Sanders, they’re pretending to; Hillary Clinton’s speeches have been peppered with a few more references to helping what she’s still too afraid to call the working class than usual lately. But reading articles about how the party plans to counter Trump is not inspiring: former DNC chair Ed Rendell still talks the same tired game of triangulation, of relying on the nervous bourgeoise of the suburbs to counter an ever-growing mass of people who can’t ever seem to make ends meet. This is a losing strategy for dozens of reasons, especially as the poor are not and have never been restricted to white men, and as their numbers are growing every day.
The situation is not simple, and merely moving to the left will not solve everything. A lot of Americans will still be lazy or racist or stupid or some combination of the three. But for over fifty years of this country’s existence, there was a liberal consensus, because even the most put-upon had reason to believe that the Democratic Party was listening to them and at least trying to do something for them. That party has now starting doing things mostly for the people who can already do plenty for themselves. If they want to beat Trump — or whatever third-rate bag of shit attracts Trump’s constituency in 2020 — they must do something to position themselves as a party that can credibly claim not to be beholden to the same corporate interests as their opponents. If they don’t, the authoritarian instinct will continue to grow and fester, and it’ll be too late to find someone harmless to blame.