Trump’s Culture War

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Shameless, thy name be Trump

W.J. Astore

President Trump’s strategy for winning in 2020 is to fan the flames of culture war, including blatant references to white power.  Even some Republicans seem embarrassed, though not enough to make any difference in Trump’s reprehensible tactics.  Trump’s emptiness is incalculable — this and his cult-like “base” make him a dangerous man indeed.  He needs to be denounced and voted out of office; how disappointing is it that the Democratic alternative is Joe Biden, a man with his own record of lies, a man with little going for him except that he’s not Donald Trump.

Along with culture war, Republicans are also doing their best to discourage voting.  The tactics here are many: fewer polling stations, meaning longer lines and wait times; voter ID laws to counter non-existent voter fraud; disenfranchisement of voters through purges of rolls; opposition to mail-in ballots and other efforts to make voting easier and safer in the age of Covid-19; the presence of “monitors” at polling sites as a form of intimidation.

Rally the base while suppressing the overall vote: this, apparently, is what Trump is counting on this November.

Why?  Because Trump has nothing real to run on.  His biggest “accomplishment” was a tax break for corporations and for the richest Americans.  When asked by Fox News about what he wanted to accomplish in his second term, Trump had nothing specific to say.  No policy goals.  Nothing.  The one thing he seems determined to do, besides building his wall, is eliminating Obamacare, which would throw tens of millions off their health care plans during a pandemic.

If cynicism has a bottom, Trump hasn’t found it yet, though not for want of trying.

Of course, Trump’s culture war is as ugly as it is racist.  It’s also a distraction from rampant and blatant kleptocracy.  For example, the latest “defense” budget calls for $740 billion in spending, yet the key issue for Trump is to defend military posts that are named for Confederate officers.  Trump, a New York City trust fund baby, as Yankee as a Yankee can be, poses as a principled defender of Confederate leaders and the Confederate battle flag, in the name of “respecting our past.”  Consider him the quintessential con man as cultural carpetbagger, cynically adopting any position that he can use to inflame his base and drive them to the polls this November.

Truly, these are bizarre times.  Trump, the Vietnam draft dodger, the man of heel spurs infamy, celebrates Generals George Patton and Douglas MacArthur as his ideals.  As military leaders, both were deeply flawed; both were vainglorious; both were over-celebrated and overrated.  Small wonder that Trump sees something in them that he sees in himself: overweening egotism, the quest for victory at any cost, including the deaths of their own troops.

Trump wants America to turn on itself, to consume itself, and as long as he wins another term, he couldn’t care less about the cost.  Why?  Because he doesn’t see us as his fellow citizens — he sees us as his subjects.  And even if you count yourself in his “base,” he likely sees you as nothing more than a patsy.  A sucker.  And, based on his total lack of leadership when it comes to Covid-19, he literally doesn’t care if you live or die.

Trump is a wannabe king, and he will say or do most anything to keep his grip on power.  Having just marked another July 4th celebration of America’s independence from a capricious monarch, King George III, it doesn’t make any sense to re-empower another mad king.

Don’t be distracted by Trump’s culture wars and his incessant divisiveness, America.  Remember its intent: to divide is the way to conquer.  Trump doesn’t want “to keep America great.”  He wants to keep it servile to him.  He wants you under his spell, shouting his name, laughing at his cruel jokes.

Is that what you want for yourself and for our country?

Quick Thoughts on the Coronavirus Crisis

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W.J. Astore

As millions of Americans are laid off or lose their jobs due to the coronavirus crisis, they often also lose their employer-provided health care.  You think maybe it’s finally time for Medicare For All?

Americans will have to rely increasingly on credit cards, which charge usurious interest rates of 25% or higher, even as the Fed has lowered the prime rate nearly to zero for banks.  Any chance that banks and credit card companies will dramatically lower their rates to help Americans in this time of crisis?

Speaking of credit card companies and high interest rates, guess who their greatest friend was in the U.S. Senate.  Yes, Joe Biden, Senator from Delaware, where laws favor banks and credit card companies.

Speaking of Joe Biden, guess who’s been virtually invisible during the coronavirus crisis.  His handlers apparently think Joe isn’t ready for prime time.  Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders has been raising millions for charity and promoting sensible ideas that are later adopted by the Trump administration.

The DNC, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer don’t know what to think or do until their corporate masters provide guidance or give them permission.  Meanwhile, the Trump administration and the Republicans are filling the vacuum, even as they push legislation that supports their pet ideas and programs (restrictions on immigration, further attacks on public education, and the like).

Party-line Democrats want payments to Americans to be means-tested.  Yet help to corporations is never means-tested.  What gives?  In the spirit of trickle-down economics, expect a few drops of assistance to the poor and buckets-full of support for the rich.

Huge crises don’t always produce good leaders.  The Great Depression exposed Herbert Hoover and his small-minded thinking.  COVID-19 is exposing Trump for what he is: ignorant, lazy, incurious, incapable of empathy, petulant, and vain.  Meanwhile, as an alternative, the DNC puts forward Joe Biden, a corporate tool in his late seventies showing signs of confusion and cognitive decline.  Sadly, it’s not true that strong leaders arise to meet the moment — not in this White House, not in this corrupt political system.

Americans have been told for decades “You can have it all.”  To have “No Fear.”  To take selfies of ourselves and revel in our own individualism.  Even after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, our leaders told us to go shopping and visit Disney, to consume and party.  Now we’re being encouraged to come together, to help one another, to be unselfish, to live a life that’s not self-centered.  But in many cases it’s too late.  People aren’t listening.  They’ve been told forever to focus on themselves and their own self-actualization.  And you just don’t flip a propaganda/conditioning switch that easily.

That said, I salute our doctors, nurses, other medical personnel, and first responders.  I salute everyone working at supermarkets and hardware stores and the like, serving us all despite the risks.  I meet my neighbors on walks and I admire the spirit of friendliness and our collective willingness to help one another.  We’re going to need this spirit to get through the weeks and months ahead.

“Keep calm and wash your hands” is a sign I saw at my local bank.  It’s not the worst advice.  Be safe out there.

Update (3/23): To no surprise, a deeply corrupt and compromised political system is responding to this crisis in a deeply corrupt and compromised way.  Truly, this is a national emergency. And what is Congress doing to help ordinary people? Virtually nothing. The Senate’s “relief” package is relief for the rich and corporations and industries.

In this immense crisis, we are seeing the sheer awfulness of the religion of American capitalism.

As Trump has dithered and Biden has remained invisible, Bernie Sanders has led the charge, raising millions for charity and fighting for workers.  Why can’t people see this?

 

The Republican Party of Wreckers

W.J. Astore

I used to think the Republican party had principles of substance.  I supported Gerald Ford in 1976 and found common cause with Ronald Reagan during the early ’80s.  Ford was a decent man, a moderate Republican (imagine such a thing in 2017!), and people forget that Reagan worked with Gorbachev on the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Today’s Republican Party?  The only “principles” they seem to have are driven by profit and power.  When you sell people’s privacy, conspire to deny them health care, and authorize projects that threaten the very air they breathe and the water they drink, you are the antithesis of public servants.

President Trump, of course, is partly to blame, but he’s often little more than a blustering figurehead.  Republicans in 2017 would be seeking to gut Obamacare, rape the earth, and sell everything in and out of sight regardless of which of their candidates had won the presidency.  Would it really be much different under President Ted Cruz or Ben Carson or Jeb! Bush?

Who’s to blame?  It sure isn’t the Russians or Comey at the FBI.  You might blame Hillary Clinton in part for running a horrible campaign. And surely the Democratic Party for favoring her over Bernie Sanders.  I’d also blame all those who voted for Trump and who were driven to do so for their own unprincipled reasons.

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We can’t say we weren’t warned

America is already paying a high cost for Republican rule.  Lindy West at the Guardian puts it well: “America has never seen a party less caring than 21st-century Republicans.”

As she explains:

I don’t know that America has ever seen a political party so divested of care. Since Trump took office, Republicans have proposed legislation to destroy unions, the healthcare system, the education system and the Environmental Protection Agency; to defund the reproductive health charity Planned Parenthood and restrict abortion; to stifle public protest and decimate arts funding; to increase the risk of violence against trans people and roll back anti-discrimination laws; and to funnel more and more wealth from the poorest to the richest. Every executive order and piece of GOP legislation is destructive, aimed at dismantling something else, never creating anything new, never in the service of improving the care of the nation.

Contemporary American conservatism is not a political philosophy so much as the roiling negative space around Barack Obama’s legacy. Can you imagine being that insecure? Can you imagine not wanting children to have healthcare because you’re embarrassed a black guy was your boss? It would be sad if it wasn’t so dangerous.

A close friend put it well: “I think much of it is about spite — let’s take away whatever Obama did just because we hate him and because we CAN. Whatever he did must be wrong. Have they [the Republicans] done anything or passed any regulation since they took office that actually benefits anyone other than big business (and maybe coal miners)?  I honestly can’t think of anything!  Isn’t [Steve] Bannon’s philosophy to deconstruct and destroy the government? I’d say he’s succeeding.”

Yes, it’s always easier to destroy than to create.  And when you destroy, there’s money to be made from the wreckage.

Behold, I give you today’s Republican Party, a party of wreckers.

Trump Wins! A Few Thoughts on Why

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“I won’t play the sap for you.”

W.J. Astore

In my last post, I predicted Trump would lose.  I thought his declinist message and his blatant vulgarity would ultimately cost him too many votes.  As Trump would say, “wrong.”

What are we to take from Trump’s stunning upset?  Here are a few quick thoughts:

  1.  The Democrats ran the wrong candidate.  Remember when Bernie Sanders was saying he had the best chance to defeat Trump?  That the polls favored him and not Hillary? Turns out Bernie was right. People were looking for a candidate who represented change. Real change.  Bernie had that. So too did Trump.  But Hillary was the establishment personified. Not only that, but she had extensive baggage that led to high negatives. Too many people just didn’t like her. Or they simply wanted a fresh face and a new approach — even if that face was Trump.
  2. The October surprise.  Does Trump win without the last minute intervention of the FBI in the email follies? We’ll never know, but Hillary had the momentum prior to the letter issued by the FBI. That letter may have slowed her momentum just enough to allow Trump to win.
  3. All politics is local — or, at least, personal.  The Democrats addressed global issues like climate change.  The Republicans basically denied it’s happening.  The Democrats talked about embracing immigrants and tolerating Muslims.  The Republicans did neither.  What the Republicans did was to emphasize personal pain. The pain of those who’ve seen their jobs disappear and their way of life suffer.  The Republicans also played to nostalgia.  Yes, America is in decline, they said, but we can make the country great again (by making it less inclusive, by keeping out the “bad” people, by being tough).  That message proved appealing to so many Americans who see in Trump the possibility of returning to “the good old days” (whatever that may mean).
  4. I won’t play the sap for you.”  That’s a Humphrey Bogart line from “The Maltese Falcon.”  Many Americans believe they are being played for saps by foreign powers. Trump recognized this.  He called for tougher trade deals.  He called for NATO and other U.S. allies to pay their way.  He promised a new approach to foreign policy, one where enemies would be smashed even as Americans would avoid dumb wars like Iraq.  Basically, Trump promised that America would no longer play the sap for the rest of the world.  And the American people liked what they heard.

That’s my quick take.  Lots of Americans truly wanted a change in course — a sort of reactionary revolution.  That desire led them to downplay Trump’s sexism, ignorance, incivility, and vulgarity.  (Of course, there were some who embraced Trump precisely for these qualities.)  In essence, they simply had no patience for Hillary’s “politics as usual” message.

Finally, let’s not forget that Trump said the election is “rigged.”  He was a sore loser even before the results were in.  What kind of winner will he be?  Much will depend on the answer to that question.

Clinton, Trump, and the Cynicism of American Politics

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The best we can do?

Chris Hedges.  From Truthdig.

Editor’s Note: I’ve been reading Chris Hedges since his fine book, “War Is A Force that Gives Us Meaning.”  In this article, Hedges explains the cynicism of the U.S. political process, pinning the tail on the Democratic donkey even as the Republican elephant remains looming in the room.  The Democrats, by moving to the right and by encouraging the rise of “fringe” candidates like Trump, have created a system that has alienated large swathes of the American electorate.  Many of these people have embraced Trump, a political outsider with major, probably fatal, flaws.  It’s what happens in the aftermath of Trump’s probable defeat that worries Hedges — as should it worry all of us.  

Americans are not offered major-party candidates who have opposing political ideologies or ideas. We are presented only with manufactured political personalities. We vote for the candidate who makes us “feel” good about him or her. Campaigns are entertainment and commercial vehicles to raise billions in advertising revenue for corporations. The candidate who can provide the best show gets the most coverage. The personal brand is paramount. It takes precedence over ideas, truth, integrity and the common good. This cult of the self, which defines our politics and our culture, contains the classic traits of psychopaths: superficial charm, grandiosity, self-importance, a need for constant stimulation, a penchant for lying, deception and manipulation, and incapacity for remorse or guilt. Donald Trump has these characteristics. So does Hillary Clinton.

Our system of inverted totalitarianism has within it the seeds of an overt or classical fascism. The more that political discourse becomes exclusively bombastic and a form of spectacle, the more that emotional euphoria is substituted for political thought and the more that violence is the primary form of social control, the more we move toward a Christianized fascism.

Last week’s presidential debate in St. Louis was only a few degrees removed from the Jerry Springer TV show—the angry row of women sexually abused or assaulted by Bill Clinton, the fuming Trump pacing the stage with a threatening posture, the sheeplike and carefully selected audience that provided the thin veneer of a democratic debate while four multimillionaires—Martha Raddatz, Anderson Cooper, Clinton and Trump—squabbled like spoiled schoolchildren.

The Clinton campaign, aware that the policy differences between her and a candidate such as Jeb Bush were minuscule, plotted during the primaries to elevate the fringe Republican candidates—especially Trump. To the Democratic strategists, a match between Clinton and Trump seemed made in heaven. Trump, with his “brain trust” of Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie, would make Clinton look like a savior.

A memo addressed to the Democratic National Committee under the heading “Our Goals & Strategy” was part of the trove of John Podesta emails released this month by WikiLeaks.

“Our hope is that the goal of a potential HRC [Hillary Rodham Clinton] campaign and the DNC would be one-in-the-same: to make whomever the Republicans nominate unpalatable to the majority of the electorate. We have outlined three strategies to obtain our goal …,” it reads.

The memo names Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and Ben Carson as candidates, or what the memo calls “Pied Piper” candidates who could push mainstream candidates closer to the positions embraced by the lunatic right. “We need to be elevating the Pied Piper candidates so that they are leaders of the pack and tell the press to [take] them seriously.”

The elites of the two ruling parties, who have united behind Clinton, are playing a very dangerous game. The intellectual and political vacuum caused by the United States’ species of anti-politics, or what the writer Benjamin DeMott called “junk politics,” leaves candidates, all of whom serve the interests of the corporate state, seeking to exaggerate what Sigmund Freud termed “the narcissism of small differences.”

However, this battle between small differences, largely defined by the culture wars, no longer works with large segments of the population. The insurgencies of Trump and Bernie Sanders are evidence of a breakdown of these forms of social control. There is a vague realization among Americans that we have undergone a corporate coup. People are angry about being lied to and fleeced by the elites. They are tired of being impotent. Trump, to many of his most fervent supporters, is a huge middle finger to a corporate establishment that has ruined their lives and the lives of their children. And if Trump, or some other bombastic idiot, is the only vehicle they have to defy the system, they will use him.

The elites, including many in the corporate press, must increasingly give political legitimacy to goons and imbeciles in a desperate battle to salvage their own legitimacy. But the more these elites pillage and loot, and the more they cast citizens aside as human refuse, the more the goons and imbeciles become actual alternatives. The corporate capitalists would prefer the civilized mask of a Hillary Clinton. But they also know that police states and fascist states will not impede their profits; indeed in such a state the capitalists will be more robust in breaking the attempts of the working class to organize for decent wages and working conditions. Citibank, Raytheon and Goldman Sachs will adapt. Capitalism functions very well without democracy.

In the 1990s I watched an impotent, nominally democratic liberal elite in the former Yugoslavia fail to understand and act against the population’s profound economic distress. The fringe demagogues whom the political and educated elites dismissed as buffoons—Radovan Karadzic, Slobodan Milosevic and Franjo Tudman—rode an anti-liberal tide to power.

The political elites in Yugoslavia at first thought the nationalist cranks and lunatics, who amassed enough support to be given secondary positions of power, could be contained. This mistake was as misguided as Franz von Papen’s assurances that when the uncouth Austrian Adolf Hitler was appointed the German chancellor in January 1933 the Nazi leader would be easily manipulated. Any system of prolonged political paralysis and failed liberalism vomits up monsters. And the longer we remain in a state of political paralysis—especially as we stumble toward another financial collapse—the more certain it becomes that these monsters will take power.

Fascism, at its core, is an amorphous and incoherent ideology that perpetuates itself by celebrating a grotesque hypermasculinity, elements of which are captured in Trump’s misogyny. It allows disenfranchised people to feel a sense of power and to have their rage sanctified. It takes a politically marginalized and depoliticized population and mobilizes it around a utopian vision of moral renewal and vengeance and an anointed political savior. It is always militaristic, anti-intellectual and contemptuous of democracy and replaces culture with nationalist and patriotic kitsch. It sees those outside the closed circle of the nation-state or the ethnic or religious group as diseased enemies that must be physically purged to restore the health of nation.

Many of these ideological elements are already part of our system of inverted totalitarianism. But inverted totalitarianism, as Sheldon Wolin wrote, disclaims its identity to pay homage to a democracy that in reality has ceased to function. It is characterized by the anonymity of the corporate centers of power. It seeks to keep the population passive and demobilized. I asked Wolin shortly before he died in 2015 that if the two major forms of social control he cited—access to easy and cheap credit and inexpensive, mass-produced consumer products—were no longer available would we see the rise of a more classical form of fascism. He said this would indeed become a possibility.

Bill Clinton transformed the Democratic Party into the Republican Party. He pushed the Republican Party so far to the right it became insane. Hillary Clinton is Mitt Romney in drag. She and the Democratic Party embrace policies—endless war, the security and surveillance state, neoliberalism, austerity, deregulation, new trade agreements and deindustrialization—that are embraced by the Republican elites. Clinton in office will continue the neoliberal assault on the poor and the working poor, and increasingly the middle class, that has defined the corporate state since the Reagan administration. She will do so while speaking in the cloying and hypocritical rhetoric of compassion that masks the cruelty of corporate capitalism.

The Democratic and Republican parties may be able to disappear Trump, but they won’t disappear the phenomena that gave rise to Trump. And unless the downward spiral is reversed—unless the half of the country now living in poverty is lifted out of poverty—the cynical game the elites are playing will backfire. Out of the morass will appear a genuine “Christian” fascist endowed with political skill, intelligence, self-discipline, ruthlessness and charisma. The monster the elites will again unwittingly elevate, as a foil to keep themselves in power, will consume them. There would be some justice in this if we did not all have to pay.

Do We Need More Candidates for the Presidency?

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton with medical professionals at Cooper University Hospital’s MD Anderson Cancer Center in Camden, New Jersey, May 11, 2016. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

W.J. Astore

Readers of this blog know I’m not enamored with either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump for the presidency.  Since both candidates have high negatives, I’m sure many Americans share my sentiments.  The question is: Do we need more “major” candidates for the presidency?  (Leaving aside Libertarian, Green, and similar “fringe” party candidates.)

Many Republicans would welcome an alternative candidate to Trump, a true establishment conservative, someone like House Speaker Paul Ryan.  Of course, Ryan has recently vowed to work together with Trump, so that option is out.  Similarly, many Democrats would welcome a more progressive alternative to Clinton, a principled liberal. someone like Bernie Sanders.  But Sanders has ruled out a third party run, so we’re back at square one with Trump versus Clinton.

But what would happen if more “big name” presidential candidates threw their hat in the ring?  In that event, I think the most likely ending is the election of Donald Trump.  Trump has succeeded in mobilizing new voters and rallying them to his cause.  He is, in short, a charisma candidate.  His supporters, I sense, are less likely to bolt to new candidates. Clinton, in contrast, is the very definition of the establishment.  Her support is broader than Trump’s but also weaker, and therefore more vulnerable to third- and fourth-party challengers.

It appears we’re stuck with Trump versus Clinton this fall since no new candidate, say one with name recognition and financial means like Michael Bloomberg, who’s already said no, wants to be branded as the spoiler who ensured a Trump victory.

According to the experts, who don’t have the greatest track record in this election, the electoral map is “completely daunting” for Trump.  Perhaps so.  But it would be foolish indeed to underestimate Trump’s chances against Hillary, given his gift for political posturing and her lack of appeal to independents and other fence-straddlers.

With nearly six months still to go between now and the election in November, almost anything could happen.  The smart money remains on Clinton.   My CNN Primary calendar gives her a two-in-three chance of victory, but that means Trump has a 1-in-3 chance, and who guessed that in 2015?

The question is: Will the smart money prevail?

Understanding Donald Trump’s Appeal

Trump runs over GOP

W.J. Astore

I lived and taught in a rural and conservative area in Pennsylvania for nine years, an area that’s “flyover country” for Beltway elites.  Back in 2008, I remember how the locals went gaga over Sarah Palin’s visit to the area, and how crestfallen so many people were when Barack Obama was elected president.  I remember how people sported Bush/Cheney stickers on their cars and trucks (even the faculty at the largely vocational college at which I taught), long after these men had left office.  Sadly, I also recall a lot of Confederate flag license plates, especially on trucks, but there were also people who flew them at home from their flagpoles.  This was not about “heritage,” since Pennsylvania was Union country in the Civil War.  No – it was about being a White “redneck” and taking the country back from, well, the “other” – Blacks, Muslims, immigrants, anyone considered to be an outsider, anyone part of the “influx,” a racially-loaded word that referred to outsiders (where I lived, mainly Blacks from Philadelphia and its environs).

Rural PA, previously Sarah Palin country, is now Trump country.  In the recent presidential primary, fifty thousand Democrats in PA changed party affiliation so they could vote Republican.  An educated guess: they weren’t switching parties to vote for Kasich or Cruz.  They were caught up in Trump hype about making America great again!

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It says so on his hat!

That’s a slogan to be reckoned with.  Some say it’s a racist dog whistle.  Those with ears attuned to the frequency hear the message as “making America great again by making it White again.”  There’s truth to this, but the message is also one of nostalgia.  Trump, like many of his followers, has recognized that the USA is no longer NUMBER ONE in all things, and he’s got the balls (as his followers might say) to say it plainly.  No BS about America being the exceptional nation, the bestest, the kind of nonsense that flows freely from the mouths of most U.S. politicians.  America is acting like a 99-pound weakling, Trump says, and he’s the Charles Atlas to whip us back into shape.

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Trump’s vulgarity, his elaborate comb over, his tackiness, the shallowness of his knowledge (especially on foreign affairs), have contributed to the establishment’s ongoing dismissal of him.  A recent article by Glenn Greenwald and Zaid Jilani documented the many dead certain (yet dead wrong) predictions of Trump’s imminent demise, even as he was winning primary after primary and gaining in the polls.  The establishment elites just couldn’t believe that a man not vetted by them – a man best known for bloated casinos and lowbrow reality TV – could be a viable candidate for the presidency.  And indeed they continue to predict his imminent demise at the hands of one of their own (Hillary Clinton) in the fall.  Yet as I wrote back in July 2015, Trump is not to be underestimated.

What exactly is the appeal of Trump?  Speaking his mind is one.  Yes, he’s vulgar, he’s boorish, he’s ignorant, he’s sexist.  Just like many of his followers.  In a way, Trump revels in his flaws.  He has the confidence to own them.  Many people are attracted to him simply because (like Sarah Palin) he’s not a typical mealy-mouthed politician.

Another obvious appeal: He’s a rich celebrity who acts like a rube.  Indeed, he acts like many regular folks would if they’d just won a Powerball jackpot.  He’s got the trophy wife.  He’s got a lot of pricey toys (How about that Trump jet?).  He doesn’t have much class, but so what?  Trump is Archie Bunker with money, a blowhard, an American classic.  What you see is pretty much what you get.  And that’s a refreshing feature for many of his followers, who have little use for complexity or nuance.

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Not presidential?  He already has his own “Trump Force One”

For all that, let’s not ignore Trump’s positions (such as they are) on the issues.  He’s against a lot of things that many Americans are also against.  He’s critical of immigration.  He’s more than wary of Muslims.  He despises “political correctness.”  He’s against trade deals (so he says).  The Chinese and Japanese come in for special opprobrium as trade cheaters.  “And China!  And China!” Trump declaims as he launches another round of attacks on the Chinese for stealing American jobs.  Trump’s followers believe they’ve finally found their man, someone who will stand up to the Chinese, the Mexicans, the Muslims, and all those other foreigners who are taking their jobs and hurting America.

Trump is a master of scapegoating.  But more than this, he takes positions that show a willingness to depart from Republican orthodoxy.  He’s expressed support for Planned Parenthood (except for its abortion services) because of the health care it provides to women.  He’s outspokenly critical of U.S. wars and nation-building (as well as Bush/Cheney and company).  He wants to rebuild America’s infrastructure.  He wants to force America’s allies to pay a greater share of their own defense costs.  He’s not slavishly pro-Israel.  He’s not enamored with neo-conservative principles and the status quo in U.S. foreign policy.  He wants to put “America first.”  As far as they go, these are respectable positions.

Yet I’ve not come to praise Trump but to explain, at least partially, his appeal and its persistence.  Trump’s negatives are well known, and indeed I’ve written articles that are highly critical of him (see here and here and here).  Most of Trump’s supporters are aware of the negatives yet plan to vote for him regardless.  Why?

Desperation, to start.  Americans are drowning in debt.  They’re scared.  Not just the lower classes but the middle classes as well.  Just consider the title of a recent article at The Atlantic: The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans: Nearly half of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to pay for an emergency.  Times are far tighter for ordinary Americans than Beltway elites know or are willing to admit.

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In tough times an unconventional candidate like Trump (or Bernie Sanders) offers hope – the promise of significant change.  What does Hillary Clinton offer?  So far, more of the same.  But scared or desperate people don’t want the same, with perhaps a few more crumbs thrown their way by establishment-types.  They want a political revolution, to quote Bernie Sanders.  They want freshness.  Authenticity.

Strangely, despite all his flaws and insults and bigotry, or rather in part because of them, Trump seems more genuine, more of a candidate of the people, than does Hillary.  Bernie Sanders, another genuine candidate with big ideas, beats him handily in the fall, I believe.  But Bernie is being elbowed out by the establishment powerbrokers in the Democratic Party.  The big money (of both parties) is pegging its hopes on Hillary.  It’s already predicted her sobriety and “experience” will triumph over Trump’s wildness and inexperience.

Given the record of “expert” predictions so far in this election, as well as Trump’s own track record, I wouldn’t be too confident in betting against The Donald.

Hillary Clinton: The MOTS Candidate

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More of the same (MOTS) versus Feeling the Bern

W.J. Astore

With Trump now the presumptive nominee after his victory in Indiana and Ted Cruz’s withdrawal from the race, the Republican narrative seems clear.  Trump’s appeal is summed up nicely here by NBC:

Trump won by discovering a primal desire among GOP voters for a swaggering populist who would buck orthodoxy on trade, protect entitlements, build a border wall, deport all undocumented immigrants, and implement an “America First” foreign policy that demanded allies pay for U.S. protection or go it alone.

Millions of supporters, distrustful of their party’s leaders, rallied behind him as a unique figure whose personal fortune enabled him to spurn donors and say what he wanted with impunity.

His presumptive opponent: Hillary Clinton.  But not so fast!  Playing the spoiler, Bernie Sanders won in Indiana and has an outside chance of denying the nomination to Hillary. As Bernie pointed out in Indiana, he’s winning the vote of those 45 years of age and younger, and his appeal is strong among liberals and independents.

A large part of Bernie’s appeal is that he’s a man of principle with a clear message.  I can easily tell you what Bernie is for.  He’s for a political revolution.  He wants a single-payer health care system.  He wants free college tuition for students at state colleges.  He wants campaign finance reform.  He wants a $15 minimum wage.  He wants to break up big banks.  He was against the Iraq War and wants a less bellicose foreign policy.  The man knows how to take a stand and stick with it.

Now: What does Hillary Clinton want, besides the presidency of course?  It’s hard to say. For the last few months, she’s essentially been responding to Bernie.  As his progressive and idealistic message resonates with voters, Hillary cautiously adopts aspects of it.  For example, she was against a $15 minimum wage until she was for it.  She’s made noises about getting big money out of politics even as she’s siphoned up as many Benjamins as she could.  Lately, she’s pivoted and begun to run against Trump, as if Bernie has no chance at all to deny her the nomination.

Here’s the problem for Hillary: She’s a MOTS candidate, or more of the same.  She’s promised a continuation of President Obama’s policies, at least domestically, while in foreign policy she’s promised to take a harder line than Obama.  But I’m hard-pressed to name a single major policy initiative that’s uniquely hers, and I’ve watched virtually all of the Democratic debates and town halls.  She’s running as a technocrat, as an insider, as Obama in a pantsuit but with iron fists.

Assuming it’s Hillary versus Trump in the fall, it’ll be Trump who has the ideas, crazy or divisive or unsustainable as they may be.  And it’ll be Hillary who’ll be running as the “safe” candidate, the anti-Trump, the one whose motto might be, “the audacity of establishment incrementalism.”

Is that what American voters are looking for?  Establishment incrementalism?  More of the same?

Stay in the race, Bernie Sanders, and give us a real choice this fall.

Can Trump Beat Hillary?

trump
Who knew?

W.J. Astore

You’ve seen the headlines: Can Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton?

The short answer: Of course he can.  And so can she beat him.

It’s a long time until November, and so much can (and will) happen between now and then.  But some obvious points about the volatility of this year’s presidential race:

1. Both candidates have high negatives. An NBC/Wall Street Poll suggests that 68% of voters doubt whether they could vote for Trump – and 58% of voters doubt they could vote for Hillary.  High negatives suggest lack of enthusiasm as well as antipathy.  Turned off by the candidates, many voters may simply stay home in November.  And that makes for a volatile race.

2. Trump is prone to gaffes. The man will say almost anything: Women seeking an abortion deserve to be punished.  Women reporters who challenge him are cranky from their period.  Mexican immigrants are thugs and rapists.  Muslims must be banned from the U.S.  Terrorists’ families should be hunted down and killed.  Protesters at his rallies should be punched and thrown out.  And on and on.  So far, Trump has been a Teflon candidate: His outlandish statements have not harmed him appreciably.  But how long before he says something equally offensive, or worse, as we head toward the general election this fall?

3. Trump’s business record. Trump University, anyone?  That trial should be interesting.  As lawsuits stalk Trump, how long before some past deal, either dodgy or dishonest, blows up in his face?

4. Hillary’s political record. Benghazi, anyone?  But potentially worse than Libya is the ongoing FBI investigation into Hillary’s emails.  Perhaps she’ll be cleared of wrongdoing, but the taint of wrongdoing will remain.  Indeed, a hint of scandal has always surrounded the Clintons – and it’s not just because of a “vast right-wing conspiracy.”

5. Hillary’s lack of political acumen: It’s hard to get enthusiastic about Clinton. Other than the fact she’d be the first female president (a big milestone, of course), there’s nothing new about her.  Consider her race against Bernie Sanders.  It was Bernie who drove the narrative.  It was Bernie who won the vote among the young, both male and female. Hillary is the staid old establishment.  When she raves, it’s about continuity.  But who wants continuity in America today?  What American is truly happy with the status quo (besides members of the establishment, of course)?

6. Wildcard events: Another 9/11-like attack. A bear market on Wall Street.  Wider conflict in the Middle East.  An incident with China in the Pacific.  A Russian move against Ukraine.  Will a crisis favor the “experience” of Clinton, or will people prefer Trump because “he gets things done” or “puts America first”?  As Yoda the Jedi Master says, “Difficult to see.  Always in motion the future.”

7. Finally, consider the fact that Bernie Sanders has run an issues-oriented campaign against Clinton. He hasn’t attacked her on her emails.  He’s left Bill Clinton’s past behavior out of the mix.  But just wait until the fall when the Republican attack dogs are unleashed.  Hillary is fond of saying she’s seen it all from Republicans, but with the stakes this high, I’m guessing there’s much she hasn’t seen.

So, yes, Trump can beat Clinton, and vice-versa.  The sorry fact is that regardless of which candidate wins, the country will be left with a deeply flawed leader who’ll be despised or disliked by more than half the electorate.

Clinton versus Trump this fall?

trump
Good chums back in 2005

W.J. Astore

Last night’s primary results suggest it’s Hillary Clinton versus Donald Trump come this fall.  What does this mean for America?

Hillary is the easiest to gauge.  She’s been in politics for a long time and possesses a lengthy and controversial record.  She is of course a transformative candidate, the first female candidate for president from a major party.  That’s where the revolution begins — and ends.  Hillary is a pragmatist who promises a continuation of Obama’s policies.  Even more so than Obama, she is an establishment candidate, well ensconced among Wall Street financiers, K Street lobbyists, and all the other special interests that rule America today through money and power.  If this were 1976, you could well imagine her running as a moderate Republican against a Democratic candidate like Jimmy Carter (or Bernie Sanders).  With respect to foreign policy, she promises a hard line and the continuation of perpetual wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

Many liberal Democrats, and more than a few Republicans, will likely vote for her with noses held and fingers crossed.  Mainline Democrats will vote for her based on certain issues, such as Supreme Court vacancies, her pro-choice stance on abortion, and so on.  In a normal election year, an establishment Republican would have a good shot at beating her since Hillary’s negatives are so high.  But this is not a normal year.

Enter Donald Trump.  If Hillary promises more of the same, Trump promises unpredictability.  His simplistic rhetoric about making America great again has obviously resonated, just as Obama’s similarly simplistic message of “hope” and “change” did in 2008.  Trump is a man of (certain) people: unlike Hillary, he’s not a career politician. Unlike Hillary, he’s not tied to the political establishment.  In essence, he’s part wild card, part joker, and his outlandish statements on Muslims and Mexicans and walls and women suggest he’s not playing with a full deck.

No one really knows what a Trump presidency would look like.  I don’t think even Trump knows.  Trump has a habit of speaking off the cuff, of making statements that are more than a little grandiose, partly because he loves to grandstand.  He’s easy to dismiss — all too easy — yet look where he is now, closing in on the Republican nomination despite long odds.

Trump, as I wrote back in July 2015, likes to pose as a proto-fascist.  He likes to boast that the military will follow his orders even if they’re illegal.  (He backed off that statement, but the fact he made it speaks loudly about his judgement.)  On occasion he says something insightful and honest, as when he insisted the Iraq war was a mistake, costing the nation trillions of dollars, or when he attacks poorly negotiated trade deals as hurting working-class Americans.  But with the good comes lots of bad.

A big challenge for Trump this fall will be appearing presidential.  So far his policy knowledge in debates has been a mile wide and an inch deep.  He’s gotten away with this because of the size of the Republican field, but Hillary, the consummate policy wonk, will make mincemeat of him in the fall debates if he continues to speak off the cuff and glide over specifics.

Clinton versus Trump: it’s a grim choice for America.  An establishment oligarch versus a quixotic autocrat.  More of the same versus God knows what.  What they collectively represent is both the decline of progressivism and of conservatism in America.

For now I’m putting my crystal ball aside, except to say that one day (perhaps very soon) Americans may look back with fondness on the eight years Obama was president.