'Talking Bout a Revolution
I don't usually write about politics here. In large part, this is a function of the fact that my time writing this blog coincides with the low ebb of my interest in politics. Well, that low ebb is coming to an end here in 2016, mostly as a result of the fact that the country of my birth appears to be in danger of spiraling completely out of control and into a very scary place. I will say up front that I don't have any solutions to provide or profound insight to offer. This is going to be scatter shot and disorganized--some observations and thoughts that may not make much sense.
1. Legacy. It's really hard to talk about politics outside of your own circumstances, which is in large measure determined by where you come from. So, here's where I come from. My father comes from Northeastern Pennsylvania, in a town half-way between the small cities of Scranton (which became famous as the setting for the comedy show The Office) and Wilkes-Barre. It is a coal mining region, or at least it was, but that collapsed when Dad was a kid (seeking the last bit of coal to be had, they tunneled through the bottom of the Susquehanna River, flooding out the mines). It is a poor area, and it has been in decline since basically the 1950s. And, when my Dad was a kid at least, it was basically 100% white.
When people in the United States think of poor people, the reflexive move is to think of urban African-American poverty. And, indeed, there was and is a great deal of urban African-American poverty in the United States. But, the vast majority of America does not consist of urban areas, but instead consists of rural areas and small towns. And in those rural areas and small towns, you will find many poor people. And, in general, they are white.
My Dad's family growing up was solidly middle class--his father was an insurance agent, his mother was a teacher, and later a school principal. My Dad left the area in his 20s, but most of his family has stayed. And, when you visit and see the area and see his family, you can absolutely see that the fortunes of many of my family members are on the decline.
My Dad and his brothers and sisters represent the so-called "Reagan Democrats"--people whose parents once voted for the Democratic Party reflexively because the Democratic Party overtly represented the interests of working and middle class, white Catholics (and others, too, but definitely them), but who drifted away in the 70s and 80s as the focus and composition of the Democratic Party changed. Part of it was cultural--moral issues like abortion, but also things like support for Reagan's more aggressive, nationalist foreign policy. Part of it was that the Republican Party made the case that the old-line liberalism of the New Deal and the Great Society was not really helping folks like my Dad's family. And, some part of it involved race, about which more in the second part.
Anyway, these Reagan Democrats decided that the Democratic Party of Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy had abandoned them, and so they voted for Reagan in 1980 and the Republicans ever since. Except, despite the promises to the contrary, the Republican Party hasn't delivered on any of its promises to the Reagan Democrats. Northeastern Pennsylvania is still in the toilet economically. Nothing has come of the moral issues crusades of the last 40 years. And the aggressive foreign policy has resulted in 4500 dead American kids in Iraq and no appreciable benefit to anyone, especially here in this country.
This is the heart of Donald Trump's appeal. The mass of his supporters are white people, from rural areas and small towns, who have seen their economic fortunes decline for 40 years, and who believe themselves to have been abandoned in turn by both major political parties. And now here comes this improbable figure who seems to be advocating for their interests and tells them that Republican elites have been playing them for fools for 40 years. And they are believing him.
I live now in Ohio, a state next door to Pennsylvania and one that is 79% white. Trump significantly underperformed in the primary here as compared to other states. Why? Because the economy in Ohio is much better than it is in neighboring states, and there is a Republican governor who is seen (rightly or wrongly) as being responsible for delivering results to folks like my Dad's family. But John Kasich is the exception that proves the rule.
Meanwhile, the elite of the Republican Party is beginning to show their true colors. Democrats have been saying for 40 years that the establishment, business-oriented base of the Republican Party is secretly contemptuous of the Reagan Democrats (an example of this argument can be found here). And, well, the facade is starting to crack, as demonstrated by an unbelievable piece by Kevin Williamson of the conservative National Review (you can see the highlights in this rather thoughtful post by Rod Dreher). Williamson, in essence, takes the position that the decline in these poor white communities are the result of moral failings on the part of the the inhabitants. In other words, Williamson is in essence telling the people who live in Northeastern Pennsylvania to fuck off and die. And then they wonder why those same folks are voting for Trump.
The problem for folks like Williamson is that there are a whole lot more places like Northeastern Pennsylvania than there are places like Northern Virginia where National Review writers hang out. If the Republican Party establishment adopts this attitude, Trump and Trumpism will take over the party and the "conservative movement" will be about as relevant as the Green Party.
2. Race. The thing is, not all of the once solid Catholic working-class vote went the Reagan Democrat route. My mother's mother is a great example of the American Catholic left, which is not necessarily about internal Church issues (though, there is a correlation), but about where they fall on the fissure that split the old, solid Catholic block. Grandma stayed loyal to the party of her hero FDR down the line and embraced the leftward turn of the party in the 50s and 60s. Grandma loathed Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Words do not exist to express how much she would loathe this Trump campaign if she were still with us. The older I get, the more my politics bend away from those of my father's side and toward those of Grandma.
Why did she go that way and so many others who are basically in the same boat went the other way?
Grandma was from the same kind of big Irish family that you find on Dad's side. But, when Grandma was little, her family moved from Pittsburgh to cosmopolitan New York City. I've often wondered if that made the difference--being in a massive city surrounded by people from all parts of the world gave her a different and broader perspective on things. Even though she spent the majority of her life in much-less diverse central New Jersey, she never stopped being a New York City girl at heart.
Being a city girl made her different in a number of ways, but I think one difference stands out above the others. At her wake when she died, a delegation of the local chapter of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People--the oldest African-American civil rights organization in the US) arrived with a big flower arrangement. She had been supporting them since the 60s, sponsoring Freedom Riders to go down South to register African-Americans to vote. None of us had any idea she did that--she was of that old-school, "when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand was doing" type--but no one was completely surprised, knowing her general politics. Not many middle class white schoolteachers in central New Jersey were giving money to the NAACP in the 1960s. But Grandma was.
Race has always been the neuralgic point in US politics. Again and again throughout American history, economic and social anxiety has expressed itself in racial scapegoating--usually against African-Americans, though not always. In the 60s, the Democratic Party under the leadership of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson eventually embraced the Civil Rights Movement. In doing so, as Johnson correctly predicted, white Southerners went solidly for the Republican Party for a generation. But it also precipitated the Reagan Democratic split, as there was a segment of white, working class Catholics who were not too keen about African-American empowerment, either.
What happened, I think, is that for people like Grandma and others that stayed with the Democratic Party (and, I should say, me), racial justice and equality is a moral question; for many of the Reagan Democrats, it is a question of personal and collective interest. We see that now. Clinton and Sanders claim that singling out Latinos as criminals and "illegals" is immoral and violates the basic tenets of America; Trump claims that undocumented immigrants take away jobs from working class (often white, but not always) citizens and depresses wages. Both of these statements are basically true, but for the Democratic Party #2 must ultimately give way to the demands of #1, while for the core Trump voting base #2 makes #1 irrelevant.
That is not to say that there are not hardcore, dyed-in-the-wool racists among Trump's supporters--there are. It is not even to say that the position of the Reagan Democrats now Trumpists is not, in fact, racist--it basically is. But calling these folks racists and trying to shame them out of voting for Trump is likely going to make this worse, because it can easily be incorporated into this broader narrative of their own decline being the result of the Other. Trump, whether he fully understands what he is doing or not, is tapping into that pre-existing strain of white American fear, giving it a name, and using it fuel his campaign.
We should keep in mind how much the United States is a different country than it was 20 or 30 years ago. In 1988, George H.W. Bush won 60% of the white vote, which translated into 53% of the total vote and a big electoral win. In 2012, Mitt Romney won 59% of the white vote, which translated into 47% of the total vote and a significant loss. The clear demographic trend in the United States is towards more political power for minority groups, especially Latinos, and less for whites. Increasingly, the Democratic Party doesn't need to try to get these Reagan Democrats to vote for them in order to win elections. The Reagan Democrats are aging and increasingly marginalized, and they know it and the Democratic Party knows it. There is open talk in Democratic circles of just holding on until their opponents die off. Trump is the tool for Reagan Democrats to rage against the dying of the light.
We also should not discount the degree to which the election of Barack Obama brought this to a head. Contra Douthat, I don't think that the anger in the country is Obama's fault, in the sense that Obama should have done X but did Y and so this anger is here. Instead, Obama became the symbol of the notion that the United States is not the same country anymore. The old America would never have elected Barack Obama, which is true, but that America is manifestly no more.
Donald Trump's campaign slogan is "Make America Great Again." Implicit in this message are two ideas: (1) America was great in the past; and (2) it is not any more. The kind of America that some people want isn't there anymore, and they want to bring it back. And they are right that this old America is gone. And a big part of what is gone is the old structure related to race.
The increasing divide in the United States is not because of race, in the sense that it is the singular point of origin. But understanding the divide is impossible without taking it into account.
3. Fascism. Is Trump a fascist? Is he leading a fascist movement? I don't know. There are certainly some fascist dimensions in what is going on in connection with Trump.
Part of the problem with addressing this question is that Donald Trump, the person (as contrasted with "Donald Trump, avatar of anti-establishment resentment") is kind of a joke. There are lots of reasons to be skeptical that Trump believes even half of the crap he says; I suspect even many of his supporters don't believe he believes in many of the things he says. He's a carnival barker--he'll say whatever he thinks will help him today, or even whatever strikes his fancy. No one could seriously be surprised if he were to switch course on any of his positions. Plus, as Trump never tires of telling us, he is a deal-maker. He'd sell out his supporters in a nanosecond if it benefited him.
The concern, for me, is not so much Trump 1.0, but Trump 2.0. Everyone, except perhaps the ego-maniacal Trump himself, understands that Trump has caught lightning in a bottle. Trump is not a true believer. But the one that comes after Trump may be. It could be someone who is a deep down populist class- and race- warrior. That guy or gal very easily might be a fascist. And there will be people ready to listen to Trump 2.0's message.
4. Rage. So, Trump voters are angry. But they are not the only people that are angry. The left is angry, too. The great dream of '08 and of Obama. of a new America of progress and racial harmony, has gone down in flames. And they are looking for someone to blame, just as the Reagan Democrats are looking for scapegoats. So, they blame Trump, though Trump is obviously just the symptom and not the cause. And they blame the Republican Party, who they believe has scuttled the Obama presidency out of racial animus. And they blame the economic elite, personified in Wall Street. And they blame the moderate wing of their own party, for its fecklessness and perceived willingness to cave in the face of Republican pressure.
Bernie Sanders is the candidate of this rage. If you strip away his policy proposals, which are really standard-issue European social democratic ideas, his core message is "half measures will not fix things. Careful political maneuvering and triangulation will not fix things. We must burn it down." Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, is basically a technocratic centrist, albeit with a socially-liberal bent. Her message is that she is the most competent and experienced person to actually govern the country, of either party, and she is unquestionably right about that. But her own party is becoming increasingly less interested in controlling the beast as they are in shooting the beast in the head. Clinton is not temperamentally suited for this environment.
Clinton has several things going for her. First, she is much smarter and more experienced than the jokers the Republicans have run against Trump (all of the nasty things Trump has said about his opponents, by that way, are basically right. That's part of Trump's genius). Second, the anger is not at full boil on the left the way it is on parts of the right--it's eight years in the making as opposed to forty. Third, the symbolic power of being the first woman President is a real thing, and it works in her favor. Finally, Sanders is not really the right candidate to fully capture this rage--for one thing, he is way too old and way too isolated from the experiences of minority voters. So, I think Clinton is ultimately going to win the nomination, and the presidency. But this rage is not going away, and a reckoning is going to come one way or the other, sooner or later.
Part of the reason that the reckoning is coming is the overwhelming support Sanders has from left-leaning voters under 30. The brilliant commentor who posts as "Dick Nixon" mentioned something that I hadn't thought of that I think explains a big chunk of this. I'm 38. My high school and college years were in the care-free days of Bill Clinton. The Cold War was over, the economy was humming along, everything was swell. The folks 30 and under, like my sisters, know none of that. They know 9/11 and the Iraq War and the economic crisis of '08 and the debate over whether Obama is a secret foreign Muslim. As Dick Nixon says, both the Reagan Democrats and these young Sanders supporters are alike in that they "don’t want to restore order; they want to beat the bad guys to death and start again." They just disagree on who the bad guys are.
If Hillary is able to fend off Sanders, and the Republican Party falls into civil war over Trump, the left is going to demand that she salt the earth under their feet and try to do what she can to wipe them off the map. She might do that--after all, she has surely been nursing grudges against some of these Republicans for 20+ years, and she certainly is cold-blooded enough to pull off the political equivalent of the Michael Corleone baptism scene from the Godfather. But if she soft-pedals and goes for technocratic compromise, and we have a repeat of the paralysis of the last eight years, the left will revolt. And who they come up as an avatar is probably not going to be a curmudgeonly white grandpa from Vermont. It's going to look much more like those protesters outside the Trump rally in Chicago.