Okay, I’m not getting paid to follow campaigns or prognosticate, but to use that as an excuse would be really lame. I blew it, big time! Donald Trump whom I refused to take seriously will be the GOP nominee. The election is still almost six months away. Buckle up; things are likely to get even more poisonous and ugly.
Paul Krugman suggested in a recent column that the emergence of Trumpism reflects the fact that the GOP simply hasn’t delivered for its base. I don’t know if that’s really how they feel. It doesn’t much matter because what began in 2010 as the anti-establishment Tea Party rebellion has now reached a new, albeit counter intuitive, height: the crowning of a billionaire demagogic whom they have convinced themselves is just like them: a “true outsider”. Trump has been deft at understanding their frustration, at hitting all the right notes for his angry and frustrated prime audience. As I’ve written before the real issue for them — many in the Republican base — is feeling a loss of power, of disenfranchisement. Someone has usurped their rightful place and pushed them figuratively if not literally out of the homestead. The future is being written and they aren’t, or more to the point feel they aren’t, part of it. They aren’t responsible for the shift but feel individually and very personally victimized by it. Whether that’s the case, doesn’t really matter. They are mad as hell and are looking both for someone to blame — “the other” — and equally are desperate for someone to lead them back to their promised land. “Making American Great Again” translates simply into “bring back their good old days.”
Blaming the “other” started long before Trump escalated down from on high in his flagship Fifth Avenue namesake building. He played the “other card” to the hilt from his initial xenophobic portrayal of Mexicans through his suggesting on the eve of the Indiana vote that Cuban American Ted Cruz’s father was a JFK conspirator. Over and over we’ve heard supporters tell interviewers that Trump had the honesty to say out loud what “we’re all thinking”. If that’s the case, then a lot of Americans are having some terrible and distorted thoughts. It’s not a sign of leadership that Trump is giving them voice. Most assuredly, it’s not “honest”. Far from it! While I may have underestimated him from the start, I have not changed my view that his rhetoric is purely manipulative and opportunistic. There is nothing to suggest in either his record or utterances that he possesses an ounce of conviction other than seeking personal power and feeding his overblown ego.
In contrast to the GOP, Krugman suggests the Democrats have largely kept their promises. While I agree with him, especially with regard to the President who has by and large delivered on his campaign promises (including the ACA), how do you explain the rise and appeal of Bernie Sanders? Clearly the crowds who listen to him rail against the “millionaires and billionaires” seem to be expressing the same anti-establishment frustrations. Perhaps, but I think it is totally wrong to conflate Trump and Sanders supporters. Bernie’s followers are not so much opposed to the political establishment — they are more than likely to vote for Clinton in the fall — as they are frustrated by economic inequality. They are the logical next step of the short-lived “Occupy” effort spotlighting the 1% but more generally growing inequality. Their anger is decidedly not directed against others who, regardless of their background, ethnicity or gender, are suffering challenges equal to or greater than their own. Rather it is against a system that seems, and largely is, rigged in favor of the wealth class. It is unsurprising that so many of Sanders most dedicated supporters are young. This is after all a generation, probably the first since the Great Depression in the 1930s, who legitimately wonder if they can surpass or even match the income and lifestyle of their own parents. Many have pursued higher education and taken on massive debt with no guaranteed prospect for a return on their intellectual or financial investment. Instead they see a work world that no longer cares about their success, much less well being. The loyalty upon which their parents could count is gone; the prospect of doing better than living paycheck to paycheck is dimmed for the foreseeable future.
Superficially the two constituencies — Trump and Sanders — may seem aligned, but nothing could be further than the truth. Something fundamental separates them and that difference is profound. Unlike the Trump followers, those attracted to Bernie don’t see themselves as losing out to “people not like me”. Indeed, the very idea that any one is an “other” is alien to them. Xenophobia and prejudice of any kind is just “so yesterday”, so meaningless. They may be wary of trade, may attribute loss of jobs to manufacturing moving to Mexico or China, but they know that even if reopened today factories would employ only a fraction of their former pre-automation work forces. Intellectually they know that we are in a period of economic transition. What frustrates them is not that Pedro, Sally or Muhammad has taken “their” job, but like for them, good wage jobs remain in short supply.
Sanders may reflect establishment wariness in the land, but Hillary Clinton’s record as a progressive (albeit more hawkish on foreign affairs) makes her acceptable. Indeed, the Sanders success is seen as a positive nudge to the left that I remain confident she will take to heart and adopt as her own. Indeed the best thing that’s happened to the Democrats and to her is Bernie’s full-throated campaign. He has focused attention on the issues that a vast number of Americans, including Republicans, face in this period of extended and painful transition from the economy that was to the one that is still in formation. What bothers many Democratic voters is not so much the so-called establishment per se, but that they have been unable to catch up to the economic change.
It is a transition that has concentrated wealth on the fewer than ever before and kept so many treading water or losing ground. This process may simplistically be blamed on NAFTA and trade in general — and there are reasons to fault specifics in such agreements — but it has much more to do with technology and automation. Moreover, low worker pay in a number of mostly Southern states that boast automobile plants (for among others Toyota and Nissan), has been impacted by Republican enacted “right to work” laws aimed at keeping unions out and worker rights at bay. Today, you may be fortunate enough to work in an automobile factory, but it’s not the job or the security your father knew. Workers who considered themselves highly skilled find themselves replaced by machine, out of sync and at sea. Conversely, politicians whose jobs and incomes have not been even slightly impacted by this fundamental change, and who reside in a bubble of partisanship, posturing and safe districts, are mostly out of touch with this pain. Is it any wonder that constituents in both parties have had it and are in an angry rebellious mood?
In his first and very thoughtful article for New York Magazine, Andrew Sullivan writes about the dangers we face in an election whose backdrop is wide scale discontent. It has produced the unexpected strength of Sanders and the very alarming ascendency of Donald Trump. Sullivan warns us not to underestimate the potential of this figure at a moment when our democracy is fragile. While this general discontent is widespread, it is particularly strong among those, many of them blue collar workers, who feel themselves increasingly disenfranchised from what has largely become the American Pipe Dream. Trump is capitalizing on this discontent, an unnerving mix of economic distress and loss of political power in the works. He promises to protect them from both in part by keeping “the other” from taking their jobs and place at the table. As the son of Hitler refugees, and an “anchor baby” to boot, I can’t help but be particularly unnerved by a sense of déjà vu. In the 1930s, the man with the funny mustache was dismissed and looked on as a buffoon before manipulating his adopted country into a living hell. This is said only to suggest is that the man who others and I dismissed as a blowhard theatrical act has emerged as a frightening potential that we dare not underestimate.
And central to that danger of underestimation is the notion that the coming election will surely end in a Democratic landslide. That won’t happen unless we vote. In his Saturday Howard University’s commencement speech, President Obama pointedly told graduates:
Your plan better include voting — not just some of the time, but all the time. It is absolutely true that…there are still too many barriers in this country to vote. This is the only advanced democracy on Earth that goes out of its way to make it difficult for people to vote. But let me say this: Even if we dismantled every barrier to voting, that alone would not change the fact that America has some of the lowest voting rates in the free world. In 2014, only 36 percent of Americans turned out to vote in the midterms -- the second lowest participation rate on record. Youth turnout — that would be you — was less than 20 percent. Four out of five did not vote. In 2012, nearly two in three African Americans turned out. And then, in 2014, only two in five turned out. You don’t think that made a difference in terms of the Congress I've got to deal with? What would have happened if you had turned out at 50, 60, 70 percent, all across this country? People try to make this political thing really complicated. You know what, just vote. It's math. If you have more votes than the other guy, you get to do what you want. It's not that complicated. And you don’t have excuses. So you got to vote all the time, not just when it’s cool, not just when it's time to elect a President, not just when you’re inspired. It's your duty.
His message (excerpted with above) was to young people, but it was equally directed at all of us. If we’re our usually lazy selves this November first we may wake up to a President Trump. That will be on all of us, and we can’t let that nightmare day happen. Could you have any greater clarity than that?