Here’s something that seems obvious to me: the starting point for any consideration of Donald Trump’s success is the Republican party’s long history of appealing to white racial anxiety. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that, starting with Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy and associated political initiatives, those appeals have been a core part of the GOP’s electoral success.
From Ronald Reagan’s states rights signalling and demonizing imagery of welfare queens and strapping young bucks, to George H. W. Bush’s strategic use of a notorious race baiter, and so on all the way up to The Donald, it’s impossible to take an even cursory look at the contemporary Republican party without accounting for it. They have made it a point to stoke fear and grievance, and have frequently prospered by doing so.
Emotional appeals like that are aimed at the lizard brain, at our primitive areas that activate well before reason kicks in. And, it should go without saying, activate much more powerfully. Sometimes, as Lee Atwater acknowledged, they would use high minded ideas like limited government to put a shiny edge on their blunt instrument. Or they’d decorate it with unrelated items so they could look at it and say (to themselves at least) “nope, no racism here!”
But when the chips were down they knew they could count on bowel-voiding terror or seething resentment to activate the base. They’re coming to rape and kill you, they’re playing you for a chump, etc. The big con for many years was to pretend that the racial component was actually the principled-sounding fig leaf, or that the ornaments were the real selling point.
Trump dispensed with all that, and revealed what should now be blandly accepted conventional wisdom: the one necessary and sufficient quality in a candidate for a critical mass of the Republican base is racism. Used to be, the conservative establishment could say that the base was attracted to the party’s well-balanced ideological diet of international engagement (i.e. a bellicose and swaggering foreign policy), low taxes combined with a drown-the-government-in-the-bathtub belief in cutting nonmilitary spending, and playing up social issues like abortion and marriage equality. And a discreet helping of that other stuff for dessert.
Trump came along and basically said: have all the dessert you want, motherfuckers. He dispensed completely with the conservative claptrap and spent all his time stimulating the lizard brain. Some on the right tried to diminish the magnitude of his win by comparing his delegate percentages with Mitt Romney’s at comparable points in 2012. But what Trump did what actually much more impressive. He had the entire political establishment against him and, incidentally, he didn’t know the first goddamn thing about running for president.
He didn’t have any internal polling or consultants. He didn’t have any infrastructure - no one assembling call lists and phone banks, no one organizing “get out the vote” efforts, nothing. He didn’t even know how the process worked; Ted Cruz completely outhustled him for unpledged delegates, and Trump barely knew it was happening. He ceded every known advantage to his opponents and still won.
The right wing commentariat has responded to all of this by literally ignoring it. Look at the columns by George Will (who, to borrow a phrase, is now sulking in his tent), Ross Douthat and Max Boot to get an idea. He’s unelectable, they say. Boorish, immodest, not a conservative, doesn’t support traditionally conservative principals, and so on. All true, but irrelevant. They’re basically saying they’re mad at the voters, which, who cares? Work that out with your therapist, not your audience.
What’s relevant is what they literally cannot bring themselves to look at how a Republican party that prioritizes their ideals could nominate Donald Trump. I understand why they can’t bear to grapple with it, because the answer is a very unhappy one for them: The party, as represented by its base, does not actually prioritize any of those things. Perhaps it hasn’t for a long time; Donald Trump is just the first to test the hypothesis.
That obviously leads to other unhappy considerations. The people they suppose control the party actually don’t. There’s no use pretending a sensible center exists (not at the head of a large enough constituency, anyway). So do you ditch Trump or throw in with him? If the former, keep advertising those principles and see if they plus the dog whistle can compete with Trump’s foghorn. Alternately, they could (with noses pinched I’m sure) reluctantly support Trump - in which case they show that don’t believe any of those principles either.
Either way, the most consequential immediate result of Trump’s ascendance is that he puts the lie to story that the Republican party is fundamentally conservative. It is, in fact, fundamentally reactionary. Those who’d like the rest of us to believe otherwise will literally not allow themselves to see that. So they focus instead on their loathing for the man himself. That’s not a political strategy, though. It’s a coping mechanism.
Neal Pollack has written a follow up to his 2003 essay “Just Shut Up,” this one focused on the 2016 elections. Apparently he’s still proud of the original, proud enough to reprise its tone and link back to it anyway, but dear God it hasn’t held up well. Let’s review shall we?
It was written in the run up to the Iraq war and it has the kind of “pox on both houses” faux-evenhandedness more commonly associated with the DC press corps. Pollack looked around, saw people in favor of the war, others opposed and tensions running high. Worst of all some people were rude, and that was terribly upsetting. So instead of trying to think through the pros and cons, he declares himself 70% anti-war and 30% pro-war and then deplores the noise from both camps.
It really was two sides of the same coin. In the pro-war camp were the president, big Congressional majorities, the entire right wing media and internet infrastructure, pretty much all news outlets not named Knight-Ridder, nominally leftish publications that were eager to show off their big boy pants, and hand-wringing liberals like Bill Keller who, as Pollack notes, were members of the “I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-A-Hawk Club” (and included “op-ed regulars at this newspaper and The Washington Post, the editors of The New Yorker, The New Republic and Slate, columnists in Time and Newsweek.”) On the other side: Phil Donahue (pre-cancellation), Michael Moore, Lewis Lapham at Harper’s, Anne Lamott, and contributors to the e-book 100 Poets Against the War (per Neal, “available on the Internet”).
So he hears is this terrible cacophony from equally matched sides and just wants it all to stop. Did anyone really think all that shouting would change anyone’s mind, anyway? Well, considering that protest can ripple outward in completely unknowable ways, and shaming and coercion are more likely to do the trick than logic and persuasion, sure! Sadly, it didn’t in this case. The war began as scheduled, thousands of Americans died and something in the low hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed as well. But at least all that terrible shouting quieted down, in America anyway.
I’d have thought if Pollack wanted to remind everyone of his little exercise in mental masturbation he’d have first looked at how well it held up. If it wasn’t obvious at the time(!) perhaps now it’s clear that the two sides weren’t evenly matched, and only an exceptionally lazy or simple mind could accept such a framing. Maybe the powerful were launching a war of aggression resting on a bed of lies and a certain amount of yelling at them was justified. With hindsight we might note that those protesting the march to war, who by and large were on the outside looking in, were correct. Maybe they should have been heeded even if it disturbed Neal’s beautiful, tranquil mind.
Well that’s all water under the bridge now, except of course in the region our war destabilized and plunged into a horrific and bloody chaos that continues to this day. It’s a new day and Pollack is once again ready to apply his penetrating insight to the political landscape. Here it is, and you might want to hold on to your hat first: Everyone is being loud again. He goes on and on about how bad Bernie Sanders’ supporters are, and Trump’s are even worse. And while he’s a Hillary supporter, this is an All Sides Do It special so he even includes a vague half sentence insult for her fans too!
I guess it’s fine to adopt a hipper-than-thou pose - to pretend to be floating over it all and not subject to getting caught up in the day-to-day whirl of big, important issues slowly unfolding. Do what you need to do to convince yourself you’re a cut above. But God damn is it irritating for someone who has a platform to use it to preach that gospel to those who aren’t so happily placed.
Sure, social media can be a tough slog. Things go viral, people swarm to hashtags, I get the frustration that can go with getting caught up in that. Not everyone is good at watching what they say, so you have to watch what you hear. Over time you’ll find voices you trust. Turn the volume up on those. Mr. Egg Avatar with eleven total tweets? Feel free to ignore him! If that doesn’t work, here’s a thought: Step the fuck away for a bit until you feel a little more composed. For some people, the only real voice they’ve got to the wider world is a Twitter or Facebook account. It’s not up to Neal Pollack or anyone else to tell them when they’re allowed to speak.
“Shut up” is the status quo talking. It’s the voice of of complacency, acquiescence and resignation, a way of saying: just let everything keep going as is. In 2003 it was an implicit endorsement of the Iraq war. Today, with Hillary Clinton the likely Democratic nominee and general election winner, it’s an endorsement of her. Pollack’s a Clinton supporter so “shut up” is as natural a position for him now as it was then, and I’m sure he has lots of Shut Uppy-related thoughts on how those columns might relate to the ongoing nightmare in the Mideast.
Fortunately, no one has to heed that message, and I hope no one does - not now, not when the nation contemplates war, not ever. If you don’t like the way things are, speak out. Some folks will do so on issues that cry out for justice. Others will make it all about themselves. Listeners need to develop the skill of discerning the good ones from the bad ones, and crediting each accordingly. But don’t shut up, don’t ever shut up. There are places that are nice and quiet just like Pollock likes, and they aren’t democracies. Make precisely the amount of noise you feel inspired to create.
Nicholas Confessore’s article on how the Republican establishment lost influence over its base keeps an important point just barely offstage: this election cycle we are seeing the death throes of bedrock conservative orthodoxies like trickle down economics. Think about it: Ever since Ronald Reagan sold it as a magic elixir the Republican party has invoked it at all times and in all conditions. If the economy is booming, cut taxes - it’s your money and you should get to keep it. If the economy is down, cut taxes - it’s just what the doctor ordered for a jump start.
No matter the circumstance, always and forever cut taxes. And Republicans have been very clever in their nomenclature: they always say taxes. Just taxes. But they are almost invariably referring to taxes that have a bigger impact higher up the economic scale. When they say they favor cutting taxes, what they mean is that they favor cutting income or estate taxes. They’ll cheerfully raise, say, sales taxes without blinking an eye.
They’ve been able to try this governing philosophy in Kansas, where they slashed income taxes and privatized formerly public functions (the market is always, in every circumstance, more efficient). Revenue plummeted, services were gutted and (naturally) sales taxes went up to cover the shortfall. Louisiana tried the same thing and got the same results. Yet no one expects the party to explain how it all went so wrong. It will certainly make for a harder sell in the future for those who aren’t already true believers, though.
Another sacred cow being led to the slaughter is that government shouldn’t do anything, ever. Republicans are too smart to state as much plainly, of course, but that’s their domestic governing philosophy. They hate the IRS, hate regulations (hence regulatory agencies), hate income and estate taxes, resent even having to keep the lights on, and basically hate any sign of government life. Except for wars. In the past generation Republicans have passionately, affirmatively lobbied for the federal government to take big action exactly one time. That was for Iraq, which even they are finally admitting was an unmitigated disaster.
So this whole philosophy - laissez faire capitalism with a side of imperial adventure - has collapsed. But since the party refuses to acknowledge it, and the Beltway media that chooses to devote itself to access journalism requires the GOP’s ongoing goodwill, no one is allowed to talk about it. No one can say, wow that whole supply side thing really was voodoo economics all along wasn’t it - and that bellicose foreign policy sure didn’t produce a flowering democracy, did it? We can’t say that because we have to hear both sides. It would be biased to privilege objective reality over fairy tales.
Into all this stomps Donald Trump. He’s a rampaging idiot running less of a campaign than a live action road show of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. He’s angry and bigoted and incoherent, he’s incapable of articulating even one sensible position - and the Republican party has absolutely no answer to him. That’s not because he’s such a gifted politician but because their ideology is entirely discredited. Here’s the modern GOP’s flow chart for governance: Is the issue domestic? [Yes] - cut (income and estate) taxes. [No] - launch a war.
What was the last big achievement for them here at home? The interstate highway project in the 50s? For decades now they have espoused policies that almost exclusively benefitted the wealthy. There are plenty of things they could have done that wouldn’t have run afoul of their cherished principles. In the wake of the 2008 economic meltdown, for instance, they could have lobbied hard for a massive infrastructure project. Lord knows the country could use one, and it’s the classic example of government doing something that the private sector won’t. But as far as I know they never even entertained it. If it doesn’t involve cutting (income and estate) taxes then their entire platform can be boiled down to: Do nothing.
The Republican Party literally - literally - cannot answer the following question for the overwhelming majority of Americans: How have you made my life better? Democrats can at least say something like: “Hey, remember how insurance companies used to be able to deny you coverage because of a pre-existing condition? And they can’t anymore? Pretty big deal right? Yeah that’s us.”
There’s nothing comparable on the other side. Unless you feel particularly aggrieved by (income and estate) taxes, the Republican party has done a whole lot of nothing for you. They haven’t lost voters as much as made themselves vulnerable to a more stimulating version of their neglect. Throw in the fact that the social issues they made hay with for so long are either stalemates (abortion) or outright losses (marriage equality) and you’re left with a body that cannot muster a robust response to an opportunistic attack - an attack that was invited through long years of bad habits.
The Republican establishment is learning to its horror that Donald Trump’s candidacy is for real. They kept expecting him to fade away or implode, and he kept not doing either. To be fair pretty much everyone expected that. If I were an MSM thought leader I’d have dismissed him as Herman Cain 2.0, and would also have egg on my face right now as well. He has defied the known laws of the political universe. It’s like we’re in a classical Newtonian world and Trump just dropped some quantum physics on us: what is this thing?
I don’t mean his positions, which range from Beltway apostasy on trade and entitlements to slightly more poorly concealed dog whistles about scary non-white people. I mean the fact that, as Chris Cillizza noted, his success in inexplicaple. Traditionally, high negatives combined with high name recognition doomed a candidate to failure. If few know you, but those who do dislike you, that can be overcome. If lots of people know of you, but haven’t formed a definite opinion, that can be changed. But if lots of people know and very specifically dislike you, forget it.
Not for Donald though. He’s unpopular, he’s had month after month of overwhelmingly negative saturation coverage, and yet he keeps rolling on. And so we’re hearing various officials and spokespeople for respectable conservatism make delightfully word-esque noises with their mouths about how they are not going to stand for this. They’ll form a third party, or even better, pull the rug out from under him on the convention floor. Which of course is nonsense.
They won’t form a third party because there is no substantive constituency for respectable conservatism, and if you’d like proof of that please follow the ongoing follies of Michael Bloomberg. If they try to throw the nomination to someone else there will be a floor fight that’ll make Chicago 1968 look like a croquet party. (With the following likely contrast: Chicago was covered as rabid, unwashed hippies threatening to plunge the country into anarchy. Cleveland 2016 would be upstanding patriots rising up against a corrupt and insulated elite.)
Neither of those things will happen. If Trump becomes the nominee, the rest of the party will fall into line. Shocked and uncomprehending, with enthusiasm ranging from sullen resignation to feigned enchantment, but they’ll go along. To avoid a similarly unpleasant surprise there are two things I think the Democratic nominee, who I’m assuming will be Clinton at this point, should account for.
First, going negative is ineffective on Trump. His candidacy is a giant middle finger to all of Washington. There is nothing that can come out of there, no media critique, no unattributed 30 second ad, no ringing “at long last sir” denunciation, nothing, absolutely nothing, that can sink him with his supporters. The whole point of his candidacy is to be upsetting to the people who are right now most upset by him. It’s Cleek’s Law applied to all of DC.
Second, it would be dangerous to think of Trump vs. Clinton as basically bigots and racists versus everyone else. There is an honest to God anti-establishment sentiment in the country this year. On the right a good part of it has been ginned up by racial fearmongering and the uncertainties of a changing social landscape (black president, marriage equality, etc). Democrats obviously shouldn’t cater to that - but neither should they think those beliefs are the whole picture.
The unexpected success of Bernie Sanders shows that economic anxiety is a huge driver of anti-establishment feeling. A capital that can even contemplate a term like secular stagnation is one that has basically given up on making any kind of vigorous effort to improve the lives of most citizens. Sanders has tapped into that very effectively. Proposals like Medicare For All are big and bold, and people don’t need an explainer to know what it means or how it would benefit them. Clinton has been far more lackluster on economic issues. Instead of leadership (fight for 15!) we’ve been getting a kind of synthetic leadership-like polymer (I do not oppose you people fighting for 15!)
A Democratic candidate that does not put concrete, substantive and ambitious economic policies front and center will cede a huge amount of territory to Donald Trump. And a party that fails to generate enough enthusiasm would be delusional not to blame itself first. Democrats are notorious for their contempt for their base, and should they kick this one away I can already hear the recriminations: shallow Millenials treated it like a fad and lost interest before voting, or disgruntled Bernie Bros refused to vote for a girl, or the stupid base once again took a cycle off (why do they keep doing that?!?!) So in advance: if you aren’t seeing winning numbers, up your game.
The revolt against the powers that be is, in part, a plea from those who keep slipping farther and farther behind.1 They are begging for someone to put their concerns front and center. The current level of economic distress is the result of conscious policy choices, not an act of God. If the Democratic answer to that is demonizing Republicans (“the rhetoric we’re hearing on the other side has never been lower”) and specifics-free pabulum (“build ladders of opportunity and empowerment”), then a pretty good number of folks might decide that a blind howl of rage is the better alternative.
1. Comments tend to disappear over time, so I’ve copied and pasted the following one in full. It’s a response to one of Paul Krugman’s posts, but it’s also a very heartfelt example of the kind of pressure people have been put under:
Paul, please consider that your side of the conversation is in response to a different conversation than you think you are contributing to, that you’re not talking to the left’s counterpart to those buying in to Trump, the stupid, ignorant, angry an uncouth of the left.
This is what happened to me this week:
Fell off of unemployment for the third time having taken any job I can get which have been uncannily like Orange is the New Black, over qualified and working coworkers who really do like Trump for pay so low debt still accrues despite working full-time.
Interviewed for a job that pays leading children’s educational events at a major national level institution, seasonal, PRN, no benefits that pay’s $9.75in a market Babysitting pays $14 but as a 50ish woman won’t get either.
Interviewed for a customer service job at a financial institution I won’t get due to what poverty has done to my credit rating no matter how right for the job I am. Note, going into the recession my only debt was one credit card with a low balance & student loans.
My car horn does not work, need of an oil change and a plate sticker that’s expired this week but I can’t fix any of these because I have no cash at all, just food stamps.
Compared to other weeks, this one wasn’t too bad. No Paul, I’m not angry, stupid, or ignorant. I’m trying to not be homeless.
Paul Krugman writes that he has a unicorn problem: Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are promising things that won’t get passed by Congress, but he believes Clinton’s are backed up by realistic numbers and Sanders’ aren’t. So Hillary is promising unicorns and Bernie is promising magical unicorns, and that’s a problem for those like him who don’t believe in magic.
He arrives at this conclusion by only referencing those who agree with him, then conflates that with most liberal policy wonks. (He later writes that it’s based on the opinions of “I and most of my wonk friends.” Much better!) He apparently doesn’t think the analysis of economists who disagree with him are worth dignifying with a response. Nor does he address some more prosaic items - that, for instance, a sketched out proposal on the campaign trail is not a finalized document ready to be signed into law, or that single payer systems do actually exist in the world. The very idea that America could have it, under any circumstances, is something Krugman treats like another unicorn. (He’s smart enough to not come right out and say that though.)
In his words, “nothing like that is going to happen in America any time soon.” TINA - There Is No Alternative. But if something like that is going to happen, ever, how will it? The US has had a center-right paradigm for decades, which means the status quo provides, at best, highly complex technocratic modifications to the existing system. But what if, say, a presidential candidate made Medicare for all a central plank of his platform? Not just an endorsement of the idea somewhere deep in a policy paper but who highlighted it in stump speeches over and over?
And what if that candidate got a huge popular endorsement of the idea, won primaries based on the message and was even competitive for a major party nomination based on it? In that scenario it starts to become an alternative. In Krugman’s fatalistic view our current governing philosophy is preserved in amber for all time. Of course single payer is not realistic right now. A Sanders victory would be a big contributor to getting it there, though.1
As someone who leans Sanders, Krugman’s analysis falls flat. We already have a single payer system, other countries have universal single payer systems, this stuff can be worked out. And the process of doing so - even just having an extended discussion of it - helps change the discourse from hostility to the idea to consideration of it. I don’t see how that’s a bad thing, nor do I see how else he proposes to get to there from here.
Now, maybe he is only interested in preaching to the choir and doesn’t care about persuading anyone. Fair enough. But I have to say, anyone who wants to offer a sobering critique of Sanders from the left might want to look at something else: Sanders’ approach to politics. If there are things he does - and there are - that would work against the kind of changes he advocates, it would give pause to even his most ardent supporters. If he’s unwilling to share credit, doesn’t want to campaign with or otherwise boost candidates who embrace his vision, if he insists on getting 100% of his way and is a terrible negotiator - these things could sabotage a far less ambitious agenda.
It would also help Krugman’s case if he didn’t give Clinton a pass on everything. To take just one example from this week, she proposed a $2 billion program to address the school-to-prison pipeline. Which sounds great on its face, but then it turns out the key component involves flooding schools with social workers - presumably with the message “here’s how to stay out of trouble, kids.” In other words, a kinder and gentler version of bringing super predators to heel.
Her proposal essentially treats the root cause as pathology and not institutional racism. Might that money better be spent on criminal justice reform, de-militarizing police forces or ending ridiculously punitive teaching methods? The fact that Krugman is comfortable blandly asserting Clinton’s proposals are fine and good while giving unreasonable levels of scrutiny to Sanders’ makes it hard to view him as some kind of objective arbiter.
But anyway, Clinton’s proposal is in the end just another illusion, right? Krugman’s rather cynical subtext is that nothing can change so you may as well make peace with the way things are. Unicorns are everywhere, none of it is real, the best you can do is settle for the candidate offering the least outlandish lies. Here’s the thing though. Every last goddamn decent and humane thing America has ever done started out as a unicorn. And then enough people noticed it was really a horse with a papier-mâché horn.
1. Funny enough, Trump winning the nomination would contribute to it as well. This election season, more than any other in recent memory, is running not on the liberal/conservative axis but the insider/outsider one. In the former, social issues that Democrats and Republicans disagree on dominate. In the latter, economic policy that they largely agree on (in Washington anyway) but are broadly disliked elsewhere come front and center. Trump’s defense of Social Security and Medicare, his criticisms of trade deals, and so on are all heretical for Beltway Republicans - but it isn’t hurting him with voters. The GOP base is not as rigidly opposed to economic populism as many on the left suppose. If Republicans in Congress start hearing from constituents demanding they pass a Medicare expansion, they’ll pay attention. As the saying goes, Democrats hate their base, but Republicans fear theirs.