The People Are Revolting: America on the Eve of Destruction?

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November 7, 2016 by brettdgale

At the end of one of the more extraordinary election campaigns in political history stock is taken of the journey followed, of the paths taken to arrive at election eve. Politicians of all stripes, and the nation itself, stand on the edge of a precipice.

In journalist Theodore White’s words, looking back on an election campaign is a study of, “the quarrels of the leaders, the rivalries of the group chieftains, the riots in the streets, the bitterness of race clash”.

An examination of the campaign must be made, one that encompasses the Republicans’ selection of a candidate wholly unfit for high office, whose views and behaviours stand so far outside what has always been considered as acceptable as to have been unthinkable in previous decades. An outsider selected in place of the obvious establishment candidates.

And yet the outsider candidate was chosen because his message resonated with the right delegates in the right places.

On the other hand a Democratic candidate with a lifetime of service, but with the battle scars, enemies and baggage to show for it.

This is a campaign of two candidates, one an outsider taping into a rich vein of discontent with Washington, the other a complete Washington insider for decades. A story of two candidates vying to succeed the most charismatic and youthful President in generation, a President who came to office promising a new vision of America, a new hope. A vision and hope that eventuated in some of the most revolutionary social policy in American history yet whose agenda too often got bogged down in petty procedural shenanigans on Capitol Hill.

As the campaign rolls on, the Republican candidate’s past words and deeds pile up, they cannot be escaped, they cannot be avoided, but they can be exploited by the Democrats. They are used as a cudgel by the media to beat the candidate and those GOP leaders who would support him. The Republican candidate turns on the media and his more extreme supporters threaten violence.

At the same time the impacts of the Democratic candidate’s decisions in the realm of foreign policy are questioned. The somewhat unsavoury behaviour of the chief aides to the Democratic standard bearer are revealed. A long history of antagonism between the Democrat and the media are stretched once more. The way the Democrat has conducted private and public business is a topic of vexed conversation.

Devastating election ads are made – they simply repeat the Republican’s words and have the desired effect of illustrating who the GOP standard bearer really is. Demographically, minority voters flock to the Democrats, and mainstream whites contemplate fleeing the Republicans – threatening either not to vote or to do the unthinkable and crossover and vote Democratic.

Newspapers that have always been reliably Republican sprout editorials urging a vote for the Democrat – some for the first time in their history.

The analysis above of course refers to the 1964 election as thoroughly documented by Theodore H White in his classic “The Making of the President 1964”. White’s reportage of the 1964 campaign was ground breaking in its approach. The “Making of the President” series went on to define what campaign books should be.

These past weeks I’ve thought a lot about the election of 1964 in the context of the rolling, thunderous shit storm that has been Election 2016. I’ve begun to see that rather than waiting for the books explaining this campaign to come out next year, they are already here. The inexplicable rise of Trump can actually be explained by a reading of some of the better political books that have come out in recent years.

In many respects these two elections, 52 years apart, share more in common than perhaps any two elections in common memory. The similarities don’t stop at the decision by The Atlantic magazine to endorse a Presidential candidate for only the third time in history and by doing so reject Donald J Trump in almost the exact words with which it rejected Barry W Goldwater.

A few short weeks ago it was even possible to imagine a Hillary Clinton landslide victory (perhaps not in the same terms as Lyndon Johnson’s history defining sweep – but strong and substantial nevertheless).

Of course there are obvious differences too. White points out that “the campaign of 1964 was that rare thing in American political history, a campaign based on issues”. Whatever the 2016 election has been about it has been hard to say it’s been based on issues (the Democratic primaries being the possible exception).

And then there is this, (again from White), “it should be recorded that it was Barry Goldwater who, on his own initiative… volunteered to eliminate entirely any appeal to passion of race in the fall campaign”.

That may well be the biggest change since 1964.

We no longer live in a world where the candidate who has the most to gain from exploiting racial divisions voluntarily eschews doing so. We no longer even live in the world of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan where coded dog whistles on “State’s rights” played to the racial fears of white southern Americans.

We now live in a world where it is not just okay to loudly announce your racism, you are actively encouraged to do so. Depressingly, polls show some 40% of American voters might be happy with that.

Trump is the first serious candidate for the Presidency to make race hate the central tenet of his campaign since arch-segregationist George Wallace’s insurgency in the 60s.

How then did we get to Trump? How did we get to the place where this sort of behaviour was acceptable and encouraged?

Despite the passions that the Civil Rights Act had opened during election year 1964, in the wake of Lyndon Johnson’s crushing victory it would have been easy to overlook the fact that the tectonic plates of American society had shifted. In the promises of Johnson, America stood on the verge of a remaking of the American dream, of a final living up to its credo of all men created equal, of the creation of a “Great Society”.

But a crack had opened in the very fabric of society. A crack that four short years later, after tumult and riot at home, and war and strife abroad, culminated in an election of violence and blood, a sitting President leaving in ignominy and the beginnings of an assault of the traditional American social compact.

This time it’s different. The crack may not have been audible or visible in 1964 or been drowned out by the hopes and dreams of a new New Deal but in 2016 we’ve heard the crack coming for years.

Thus we get back to where this article started – how we arrived at this point – with the United States of America faced with a Trumpocalypse – whether the candidate himself wins or loses.

The candidacy of Trump is the logical extension of the direction that the Republican Party has been taking since Nixon unleashed the hounds of racial division and hatred.

It is also the logical extension of the modus operandi of the modern Republican Party.

In their seminal study of the Tea Party revolution from 2011,The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism”, Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson made the point that most regular tea party voters had an incompatible and sometimes incoherent world view – on the one hand distrustful of “big Government” yet on the other happy to make use of its benefits.

As Skocpol and Williamson point out, the grassroots of the Tea Party “are not only collecting benefits from Social Security, Medicare, and veteran programs, but also think these are good programs that are legitimate. Grass-roots Tea Partiers make a real distinction between things that go to people like themselves, who have earned them, and the kinds of government spending…that [go] to low-income people or young people or immigrants”.

Trump therefore is the pure embodiment of these people’s hopes and fears. He is the pure embodiment of the Tea Party movement – not the ideological spear carriers who ended up representing the Tea Party in Congress – but those grassroots activists fed up with the growing strains in American life. Those Americans, who to paraphrase Shakespeare, have found their world out of joint.

Skopcal and Williamson don’t stop at analysing the grassroots though, their ground breaking book provided a fascinating study of how ideological, “no-government”, conservatives such as Fox News or the billionaire Koch brothers co-opted the Tea Party to their own ideological ends.

In What’s the Matter with Kansas” – social critic Thomas Frank pointed out the absurdity of the working class so often voting for the Republican party even though that party was destined to work against the very economic interests of that self-same working class. In Donald Trump however those same working class voters have actually found someone wearing the Republican label who at least articulates their concerns and who also (at least prior to becoming the nominee) believed in keeping Medicare and other social security programs.

On the other hand his potentially Budget busting tax cuts to the richest Americans fall squarely in line with the policy prescriptions of the co-opters of Tea Party angst.

It would however be too easy to say that the working and lower middle classes have simply been tricked by a manipulative plutocracy intent on exploiting them for their own ends.

Firstly it would be an insult to the intelligence of the working class. It would also be wrong.

Trump’s vicious message resonates for a reason.

The American middle and working classes are in trouble and they are angry that prior to this election season their elected politicians seem not to have noticed.
Even with a President destined to leave office with some of the highest approval ratings in decades, over 60% of Americans believe their country is heading in the wrong direction.

When then candidate Barack Obama attempted to explain the motivations of working-class voters in old industrial towns decimated by job losses by saying that, “they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations”, he was widely derided at the time, and still is, for having made both a political blunder and an insensitive out-of-touch rant.

Still, in those comments, no matter how clumsily put politically, a deeper truth about the state of the American working class was revealed.

Those who are not offered hope see hope only in themselves and the things they hold dear.

And in the America of 2016 the old working class and the newly falling middle class see very little hope being given to them by anyone else.

Over four decades inequality has risen and continues to rise.

Real wages have been falling for decades. Jobs have been lost and not replaced.
The digital world might have connected people across the globe, but as it has hastened the collapse of old industries and the communities that depended on them, it has also sundered neighbours from each other.

All this is poignantly and articulately documented in George Packer’s “The Unwinding” – a chronicle of how ordinary Americans coped (or more accurately failed to cope) with the effects of the global financial crisis and the great recession that followed.

Whilst the book is centred in the shadow of the GFC its narrative arc takes a longer timeframe, The Unwinding traces the slow decline of the greatness of America – a decline that lies at the heart of so much of the bitterness and hatred fueling American political life.

“No one can say when the unwinding began—when the coil that held Americans together in its secure and sometimes stifling grip first gave way. Like any great change, the unwinding began at countless times, in countless ways—and at some moment the country, always the same country, crossed a line of history and became irretrievably different.”

A burning sense of outrage lies at the heart of “The Unwinding” and at the heart of those ordinary Americans Packer chooses to profile.

It should surprise no one reading “The Unwinding” that a sense of alienation has settled over pockets of the land. It should surprise no one that those left behind are crying out for something, anything, to be done.

The cruel realities of modern economic relations have left large sections of society behind.

These are fertile grounds for a message of change – no matter how repugnant the outer wrapper of that message is.

That’s why addressing that cry must be the number one priority of a Hillary Clinton Presidency.

However, it is precisely in addressing the plight of the industrial working class that social democracy has failed in recent decades. While the policies of social democrats have improved the country as a whole it is impossible to say that they’ve improved the lot of their original base.

The great social compact that allowed parties of the left to marry the concerns of an educated socially progressive strata of society with the material needs of the working poor at some point gave way as social democrats let themselves fall sway to the economic nostrums of the right.

Thus, Packer makes the point that, even the so-called people’s party of Democrats needs to be held responsible for America’s unwinding. As they have bought into the dominant economic paradigm.

For example Packer writes of the Democrats “most brilliant economic thinkers” (quote marks mine) – people such as Robert Rubin, Jacob Lew, Rahm Emanuel, Larry Summers, et al, “All at the top of their field, all brilliant and educated to within an inch of their lives, all Democrats, all implicated in an epic failure—now hired to sort out the ruins. How could they not see things the way of the bankers with whom they’d studied and worked and ate and drunk and gotten rich? Social promotion and conflict of interest were built into the soul of the meritocracy.”

This too is the trope of Thomas Frank’s latest screed – “Listen Liberal: or what happened to the party of the people”. According to Frank, the Democratic Party now caters to the interests of a ““professional-managerial class” consisting of lawyers, doctors, professors, scientists, programmers, even investment bankers. These affluent city dwellers and suburbanites believe firmly in meritocracy and individual opportunity, but shun the kind of social policies that once gave a real leg up to the working class”.

In Frank’s view the modern Democratic Party in its outlook and operations has come untethered from its founding base in the working class.

There is truth in these characterisations.

Since the 1980s on, social democrats have seemed happy to cede the field of economic reform to the neo-liberal right while progressing a much needed agenda of equality for those groups of citizens too long discriminated against by those with power in society.

It need not be so. This is not a zero-sum game.

That is why addressing the widening inequality gap is the great dilemma of the modern age for social democrats.

For all his faults, that may be the most important role that Bernie Sanders has played this election cycle – to remind Democrats that both things are possible – addressing the rights of the disenfranchised and remedying the inherent unfairness of much of modern capitalism.

If parties of the left don’t undertake this challenge, those without a real interest in the lives and futures of the working class will continue to shape how people feel about economic inequality.

After all, they who shout loudest are heard most of all. Donald Trump can certainly shout.

This then is the answer to Trumpism and Brexit. Not flailing and wailing at the working class for their supposed “ignorance and racism” as so many left wingers have done, but addressing the real drivers of their fears and the real inhibitions to their aspirations.

While, Trump’s dystopian worldview taps into the fears and hatreds of the Republican base, (and to those who feel their world is no longer what it once was), economic failure alone is not the reason for the extraordinary longevity of the Trump phenomenon.

Trump is not just the embodiment of Tea Party rage and modern Republican policy cynicism.

He is the logical extension of a political system that has been wilfully broken by one side of politics in recent decades.

Trump the former Democrat has not just adopted the way of speaking of the modern Republican member of Congress he’s also adopted their way of operating.

Trump’s approach to campaigning is entirely consistent with those Republicans who ended up in Congress wearing the so-called “Tea Party” or “Freedom Caucus” labels.
Their nihilistic, take no prisoners approach has rendered them a sort of Taliban on the Potomac.

Trump’s destructive, tear it down approach to politics owes as much to the modern Republican party’s mode of operation as it does to his former profession of property developer with its winner takes all, crush your opposition at all costs dynamics.

Which begs the question, if Trump is happy to trash every convention and more of accepted political behaviour on the way to the election what is he going to do when he loses?

The simple truth is that America might well remain ungovernable. Not by popular will but by the sheer bloody mindedness of the losers.

Just as the losers attempted to disrupt and derail the Presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama they will do even worse to Hillary Clinton. Presuming Hillary does win narrowly, there will be more investigations, more demands for investigations, millions who’ve been told the election is rigged and who won’t accept the result.
In the very roots of the modern American political system then we can also see the roots of Trump.

The breaking of the U.S. political system is ably and clinically dissected by the scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein in “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism”.

Ornstein and Mann aren’t equal opportunity blamers however, they are clear at whom the finger of dysfunction should be squarely pointed – the Republican Party. In their words, “the Republican Party has become an insurgent outlier – ideologically extreme, contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition”.

The authors’ concomitant thesis is that the American political system has become increasingly polarized in recent years and that this polarization is at odds with the way the US political system was designed to operate. In their view the Parties have begun operating as if they were in a majoritarian parliamentary system rather than a finally balanced system with three separate loci of power. Essentially the system as it is set up can’t cope with the way it is being used.

It is indeed a curious fact of American political life that, as party loyalties fracture in most other western democracies, in the United States they grow stronger. Gerrymandering alone is not just responsible for this rise in partisan affiliation. As the Pew Research Center found in 2014, today 92% of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94% of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican.

These are extraordinary data points when one considers that disgust with major parties led to the highest vote for non-major parties in Australian history during the recent Australian election. By its very nature however, the American political system does not allow for the expression of third party grievance.

While the only people blindly loyal to the old political order in places like Australia and the UK are the rusted on supporters, in the United States voters are becoming increasingly super-glued to their party of choice.

But this is the very nature of the system. I’ve always found it a little ironic that the U.S. so proud of its commitment to individual liberty and privacy makes its citizens declare the way they’ll vote (either for a party or independent) before being allowed to register.

The rise of a belief in “my party right or wrong” in recent years explains why, except for the truly courageous, most Republicans are willing to vote for their big orange standard bearer no matter what he does. Its why when a candidate like Goldwater comes along he can be swept off the chessboard, winning only six states. Even in losing, Trump on the other hand, will almost certainly be guaranteed half the country.

But does the root of dysfunction in the American system lie not just in how politicians behave once they reach elective office, but in how they were selected to get there in the first place?

Take the American system of candidate selection for a start, and let’s start where the voting starts – in the mountains of New Hampshire. In “Granite Steps”, former NH GOP Chairman Fergus Cullen has written a very fine book about the unique place that the New Hampshire primary plays in the American political landscape.

Cullen makes a strong play for the important democratic nature of the New Hampshire Primary as “the last place where would-be presidents regularly interact with average Americans”. This writer can vouch for the veracity of that statement, having once had the fun of attending a house meeting for aspiring Presidential candidate John Kerry. There were about 30 people there at most, Kerry just chewing the fat more than making a pitch for the most important job on earth.

In the snows of a New Hampshire winter the voters get to poke and prod the views and characters of would-be Presidents. As Cullen’s book makes clear it is a truly unique experience and one only really enjoyed by the good folk of Iowa or New Hampshire. With every recent President having won either Iowa or New Hampshire the momentum and narrative created by these two electoral contests is incalculable – and decidedly undemocratic.

The New Hampshire primary is, on the one hand, both participatory democracy at its finest, (and one of the hardest tests of retail politics any serious politician will ever put themselves through), and, on the other hand, it is a perversion of the democratic process in a country of 320 million people.

Between the two big tests at the start of the actual presidential balloting the choice of President of the United States of America is decided by one half of one per cent of all registered voters in the U.S. and nearly all of them are white. A less representative sample of the American population it would be harder to find.

Donald Trump won in New Hampshire with 30 per cent of the vote in a field of a dozen candidates. I can’t even be bothered in doing the math on what a small percentage of the American population that accounts to. While we will never know if a smaller Republican field would have led to a better qualified candidate, what we do know is that by winning in New Hampshire Trump’s major rivals all began to falter leaving him the field of battle.

Perhaps it is time to return to the smoke filled rooms after all ….

It must be stated that Trump didn’t win with the support of Cullen. In fact, Cullen has done what most other Republicans, blinded by party loyalty have failed to do. He has repudiated his own party’s candidate as a leader of the #NeverTrump movement in New Hampshire. History will prove Cullen and his crew correct – the bigger question though is, will they have a party to inherit?

Perhaps a party that was willing to have Trump as its standard bearer is not one worth inheriting.

It has been a long slow descent for the party of Lincoln from appealing to the better angels of our natures to stoking the darkest demons of our fears.

Those in the Republican Party who did not oppose Trump but tolerated him as some sort of aberration worth the gamble are deluding themselves. For Trump is the modern Republican Party in all its grotesquery. He is the epitome of their values and the end point of a trajectory started long ago.

Is it any wonder that his greatest surrogates are those encompassing the truly ugly face of modern Republicanism.

Newt Gringrich, serial adulterer and the man who effectively broke the cooperative model of Congress.

Rudy Guiliani, serial adulterer and head cheer leader of racial profiling.

Chris Christie, adulterous status unknown but a blowhard and bully known to bend the political (and actual) laws to suit his own ends. Of course if Trump were to win, the bully in “bully pulpit” would have a whole new resonance.

In Trump these little men see everything they are and everything they want to be.
As one surveys the carcass of this most depressing election campaign it is impossible not to be too pessimistic.

Yet there is still cause for hope.

America as a great nation has always succeeded in spite of itself. It has faced existential political crises before, and fought back to overcome them, stronger than ever.

Thus, on probability and in the polls, in the very near future America is likely to wake up having elected its first female President. Following eight years of the Presidency of the first African American President this will be a remarkable achievement that says something wonderful about all that is good with America.

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2 thoughts on “The People Are Revolting: America on the Eve of Destruction?

  1. Good read mate. Check out this story which I found interesting on the subject of Trump’s supporter base http://www.cracked.com/blog/6-reasons-trumps-rise-that-no-one-talks-about/

  2. Nick says:

    Always love your posts, Brett. I’d filed this one to read on a day when I had the time to enjoy it, and today was that day. It was worth the wait. You make some interesting observations in the light of how things turned out!

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