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Donald Trump keeps winning primaries and caucuses. That’s awkward. The man everyone laughed at last summer, dismissed last fall and said would soon reach his ceiling and peter out over the winter is still chugging along quite nicely. It’s still possible that Cruz, Rubio and/or Kasich all figure out how to stop him – maybe a grand bargain in which they all throw their support behind Rubio – but it’s folly to say that Trump isn’t the frontrunner right now. It’s folly to say that his decline is inevitable.
How did this come to be? And what does it mean? I’ve read a lot about this in the past couple of weeks from several sources. My friend Colin wrote up a long thing on it late last night which makes a ton of excellent points. Now I’m going to take a stab.
Until pretty recently I have been content to go along with a lot of people and simply dismiss Trump and his supporters as morons, nativists, xenophobes and racists. And to be sure, there is certainly data out there which shows that the racial attitudes of many Trump supporters are degenerate. It’s fair, then, to say that a lot of people who support Trump, based on the polls, are in fact racists. It’s likewise the case that Trump has, many times, thrown them red meat, so he is happy to use racism to his advantage.
But I do not think that his appeal is simply based on racism. I don’t think his or any viable candidate’s appeal can be just on that. Even 50 years ago the arch segregationist George Wallace had a ceiling below that of Trump’s and racial attitudes in general were way worse then. No, if Trump’s support could be explained entirely by his attracting of racist rubes he’d have topped out already and maybe slipped back. There’s more going on here.
What is going on here, I think, is that there is a genuine exasperation and even fear on the part of a big swath of Americans about how the deal has changed for them. About how there once was an American Dream that surrounded employment, security, home ownership and stuff like that and that changes in industrialization and international commerce have utterly screwed over a huge number of people who used to depend on the broader post-World War II social bargain. Colin’s essay is excellent in this regard, and contains a lot of good data to this effect. But you don’t need too much data and too much convincing, I’d hope, to accept that the idea of secure employment, affordable college and health care that does not bankrupt people is no longer as common as it once was.
While it may be harder to see if you happen to have a great job in a progressive and prosperous coastal city, the degradation and increasing impossibility of the American Dream has hit certain people far harder than others. It’s easy to stereotype these people or to say that they’re just southerners or rednecks, but that’s not that simple. People in southern and rural areas make up a great deal of this group, but there are likewise people in urban areas for whom the American Dream is similarly impossible. People who do not have access to a good education or who grew up in poverty or abusive situations and who don’t have the family or community resources others have. People who have simply been overlooked and ignored. People who are, to so many who set the national agenda and program our great outlets of pop culture, invisible.
The overlooked and invisible are suffering unemployment rates which are far higher than the nation at large and which are not captured in the typically-quoted unemployment statistics. As with many previous generations they are facing the prospect of leaving their communities and their families to find work, but they’re doing so in a much more hostile employment environment and with far fewer government and community-based support systems to help them survive away from their native homes. They are likewise literally dying young, either from gun violence, environmental neglect or by virtue of historic levels of drug addiction. It’s also worth noting that our nation has been at war for the last 14 years and that war has been fought, overwhelmingly, by these people, and they have come home to inadequate healthcare and job prospects, all while battling PTSD or depression.
Against that backdrop we are in year 36 of the Reagan Revolution which has carried on, nearly unabated, despite Reagan being dead and gone. We cut the social safety net of welfare and other services while demonizing those who need it. We cut government jobs while pretending that a government job is somehow less legitimate or beneficial to society than a private sector one. We cut spending on infrastructure and attendant infrastructure jobs. We’ve thrown people in prison at an alarming rate. We’ve stood idly by as healthcare costs have gone up and up and up, bankrupting people all while doing nothing to sever the link between employment and health insurance. At the same time there have been some forces beyond one country’s control – globalization, industrialization and automation – which have caused all of these things to cut far deeper than they would in their own right. To cut the overlooked and the invisible in ways so many in positions of power or influence are never cut and which they can’t or won’t see.
With all of that in mind – with all of that pressing hard on the overlooked and invisible – what have Republicans largely run on in the last several election cycles? Tax cuts and cultural and social issue bullshit with an overlay of religion. Income tax cuts don’t appeal that much to someone without a job. Inheritance tax cuts don’t appeal to people without a birthright. Capital gains tax cuts don’t appeal to people without capital. The cultural and social issue bullshit and the religion may hold people’s interest for a while – the overlooked and invisible have their own views too, many of which correlate with Republican views – but eventually you have to eat and wake up in the morning and feel like you have a future. Eventually, even if you are inclined to share certain cultural values and even if you’re inclined to believe that the wealth will trickle down like Reagan said it would, you realize that it hasn’t in nearly 40 years. Eventually, even if you’re inclined to throw in with the Republicans for a lot of reasons, you realize that they aren’t helping.
So what do you do? You give up supporting the jerks who took your vote for granted for the last 40 years. Guys who say that if we give just a bit more to the wealthy and make trade even freer with fewer strings attached, things will get better. Actually, they’re not even saying it’ll get better. They’re saying it’s not bad in the first place. After all, these are the guys who insist that it’s practically treason to say that America isn’t the greatest country in the world when, from where you’re sitting, it sure as shit isn’t. You decide not to listen to them anymore and you look for the guy who says that America was once great and that it isn’t anymore but he’d like it to make it great again.
Donald Trump is a blunt instrument and, as I’ll argue below, likely a false prophet for the overlooked and invisible. But he’s the first candidate anyone who has been voting for or leaning towards the GOP for the past several cycles has heard say this stuff in living memory. He’s impossibly light on specifics of how he’ll fix anything – or, alternatively, he’s saying that one or two simple things like a border wall and keeping out Muslims will fix EVERYTHING – but he’s talking about the things which matter to the overlooked and invisible. He’s openly saying that good healthcare should be a right which should not bankrupt people. He’s talking about how immigration and industrialization have hurt his supporters more than they’ve hurt others. He’s talking about how things they once had or were once promised were taken away from them. No one in the Republican party is doing that or can do that because, despite the Clinton and Obama administrations, Republican ideas about smaller government and the importance of business interests have held sway for decades. They’re not part of the solution. They’re part of the problem.
This is where it all breaks down, of course. Donald Trump has the attention of the overlooked and invisible, but he doesn’t have a second act. There is almost no evidence that Trump has spent any time in his very long life in the public eye caring about these issues. He has not set forth any specific proposals which will remedy the problems his supporters feel in very real ways. He has correctly identified a base of support – a base, I might add, that would probably be much larger if it were not for his appeals to racism and xenophobia which turn off so many – but he shares no characteristics with them and has not shown the ability to help them.
Even if he did, the insurgent nature of his campaign means that he’d have zero chance to actually do anything once in office. His success has angered established Republicans. His rhetoric and ugly nativist appeals have alienated non-Republicans, including those who might otherwise be sympathetic to his supporters’ needs. Even if he’s not a racist and even if we, as I argued above, should not dismiss his supporters as racist idiots, Trump is pretty happy to dabble in some casual racist talking points to get a crowd to cheer. That seriously bothers me and should bother everyone.
Moreover, while his habits of using rhetorical bullying have gotten him and his supporters attention they may not have otherwise gotten, he hasn’t let up on that since becoming the front runner. It’s gotten to the point where talking tough and brash seems to be the end for Donald Trump, not the means of serving a worthy cause. Indeed, anyone who paid a lot of attention to Trump in the 1980s and 90s can only be further convinced of this. The upshot of all of that is that, even if Trump is giving voice to real people with real concerns, that voice has likely poisoned any opportunity to serve them in anything approaching an effective manner. Even if he somehow got elected, no one would help him get a thing done. A friend of mine suggested that, at best, he’d be some go-along-get-along do little celebrity figurehead president like Arnold Schwarzenegger was as governor of California. I could actually see that. Again, at best.
Where does that leave Donald Trump? As a lightning rod. Or a megaphone. A very useful one who has, for the first time, given some voice to what these people are feeling and wanting, but he’s the embodiment of primal scream, not a solution.
But who cares about Donald Trump? When this is all over he’ll go back to being a rich person with a pithy Twitter account. The biggest question is where does that leave the overlooked and he invisible?
I lean pretty hard to the left, so my ideas may not surprise you. I think we’re in pretty deep shit as a country, but I still have some hope that, eventually, we can go back to the mindset we had in the 1930s and 40s when we were in even deeper shit than we are now but nonetheless made it out somehow. The mindset that, despite the alarming rise of hard social and economic class barriers, we’re all in this together and that giving people who are hopeless a good job and some dignity will go a long way toward restoring the country. I don’t think you can reverse trends of globalization and automation, but you can establish national goals that are not in lockstep with the goals of corporations and banks, rendering those trends less harmful and significant. I’d pour money into infrastructure projects that would both modernize our decaying country AND put a lot of people to work, yes, for its own sake. I’d expand the social safety net so people who can’t work will be taken care of and I’d make healthcare freely available irrespective of a person’s employment status or their income.
It’s here where someone usually says “but how do you pay for it?” Usually when they say that they mean “how do you pay for it without upsetting the status quo?” I don’t give a crap about the status quo. Slash defense spending and raise taxes on businesses and the very rich. Fundamentally reprioritize what we pay for now and put it toward things that actually and directly help people rather than directly help businesses or people intent on projecting American military power around the world with the hope that, eventually, some of that will trickle down. If the old deal Americans agreed to as a part of the American Dream is no longer effective, make a new deal. (gee, that sounds good; maybe that name will stick).
Who gets us there? Not Donald Trump for reasons stated. Not the current GOP, which has no interest in these matters. It’s likewise not establishment Democrats like Hillary Clinton. I believe some Democrats mean well and I suppose we can give them credit for at least entertaining the topics which are important to the overlooked and invisible, but both Clintons and even President Obama have far more often sided with corporate America, the military hawks and the status quo than common people. It’s not Chelsea Clinton or her husband or their friends who came back from Afghanistan or Iraq suffering from PTSD. It’s not the children of Clinton donors or members of the culturally left-leaning entertainment or techno-elite who are unable to find work or who are killing themselves on opioids. To the extent established Democrats turn their attention to the very real problems of the overlooked and invisible, it’s often condescending or patronizing. Meanwhile, there are a lot of people on the left – many of whom are my friends – who like to make fun of rednecks and the uneducated and mock the cultural and religious values to which they are naturally and understandably attached. With some it’s intentional, but there’s a passive disconnect all the same. It’s great to some people that Hillary Clinton will whip and nae nae on the Ellen show, and I’m sure she means well and I’m sure that appeals to some, but that doesn’t speak to a family in southeastern Ohio living in something close to poverty.
Many people will say that what I described is the Bernie Sanders platform. I’ll grant that. But he’s no panacea. Young people facing a bleak future are junior members of the overlooked and invisible and they are a big part of Sanders’ constituency, but the larger part of the overlooked and the invisible are not inclined to support an older northeast liberal who doesn’t mind if you call him a socialist. It’s one thing to abandon the GOP, but given how effectively the right has demonized old line liberals like Sanders over the past several decades, taking the leap to a Vermont social democrat is the kind of thing which will take most people who would be aided most by his policies a few election cycles to get their heads around. Sanders doesn’t have that kind of time.
He likewise would have the same problem Trump would have if he got elected: the inability to implement his platform. I know Sanders supporters hate to talk about practicalities like that and tell me that if I tap my heels together and think of Kansas that anything is possible, but no, it’s not. A Sanders presidency would meet gridlock and entrenchment for the same reasons a Trump presidency would and given how politics tends to work, any ineffectiveness on his part could, disastrously, serve to discredit his very good ideas.
No, what we need is someone who is willing to offer up bold and, in recent years, nearly heretical ideas like Sanders does but who has a stronger connection to a greater swath of the country. An economic populist who can speak to the overlooked and invisible without pandering to their worst tendencies and who can, over some time, build a coalition of like-minded politicians and activists who can help him or her implement changes and reforms which have broader buy-in over time. But it’s less important to think of any specific candidate who could do that than to think of it as a multi-election cycle movement aimed at winning people over to those ideas so that, once one is elected, he or she has broad support. Reagan didn’t show up over night to implement the ideas of the conservative movement. He was the culmination of a 15-year movement that, possibly, could’ve taken less time if it were not for (a) Barry Goldwater’s disastrous 1964 campaign; and (b) Watergate, but which still took time.
A new movement which helps the overlooked and the invisible in particular and the country as a whole may take many years to coalesce, especially given how strongly the Republican and Democratic establishment will fight against it. But I think it’s possible. At the moment the ground is being prepared for a push toward a society which does not overlook people who are not being served or who are being actively harmed by current realities and adherence to the status quo. A country which does not treat them as invisible. That ground is being prepared, perhaps unwittingly but far more usefully than some think, by Donald Trump. And, yes, by Bernie Sanders. Trump is frequently obnoxious, is appealing to some ugly sentiment and I don’t for one second want him to sniff elected office. Likewise, to the extent any of his supporters are on the Trump Train simply because they like that someone has made it socially acceptable to say bad things about immigrants and Muslims, well, they can fuck right off.
But we write off Trump’s supporters as only caring about the racism and bullying tone of his campaign at our peril. These are people who, for the first time in a long time, are hearing someone with at least a hint of viability acknowledging that they are getting utterly screwed by life in 21st century America. Trump is not going to solve any of their problems, but that doesn’t mean the problems aren’t real. After this election cycle is over and after Trump is either edged out in the GOP primaries or beaten soundly in the general election, we have a choice: we can pretend that his supporters were nothing but a bunch of rubes to whom no attention need be paid or we can acknowledge and accept that they flocked to Donald Trump for some very understandable reasons. If it’s the latter, we can decide how we can address their needs.