I know, everybody’s sick of this election, but it’s not over yet.
Remember when Trump was supposed to do The Pivot, and being a canny politician, he’d smarm his way past us? Instead he’s basically imploded, and as he’s going down he aims to take down as much of the country and democracy as he can.
Trump has always been ridiculous, but sometimes we can forget that ridiculous people can also be deeply frightening. Fascism was ridiculous too, and created dictatorships that led to world war and genocide. Watching Trump, you can perceive the close relationship between narcissism (or prolonged toddlerhood) and authoritarianism. He doesn’t seem particularly ideological, but he cannot bear disagreement. By his nature he doesn’t just want power, he wants absolute power.
- He’s presently attempting to destroy the norms of elections in a democracy, claiming that any result except his election is “rigged”. When dictatorships fall and there are elections, the key point is the transitions of power: you don’t have a democracy if people do not accept that they can lose elections. With our 200 years of experience we tend to look down on the noobs— only now we have a major party nominee declaring that he won’t accept the election results even before they happen.
- Along with this he has been encouraging his supporters to intimidate minority voters (which, needless to say, is illegal).
- The key phrase of the GOP political convention and Trump’s rallies is “Lock her up.” That is, when he’s not suggesting that gun nuts assassinate Hillary, he’s suggesting that the political opposition simply be made illegal.
- He’s promised to use the power of the presidency to shut down news organizations he doesn’t like. Or entertainment programs that dare to criticize him.
- He openly admires Vladimir Putin, asked Putin to conduct cyberterrorism against his opposition, and hopes to meet him before his inauguration. One of his campaign managers, Paul Manafort, worked for Putin’s stooge in Ukraine and actually inserted language in the GOP platform to lessen support for a free Ukraine.
- All along he has encouraged violence toward reporters and opponents at his rallies.
- His whole rise to fame is of course tied to demonizing ethnic minorities— Hispanics, blacks, and above all Muslims.
- He has the enthusiastic support of overt white supremacists.
I should add: if Trump loses, his calls for a coup will probably be ignored. (He called for one last time the GOP lost, too.) He doesn’t have the energy or skill to seize power by force— he can’t even run a political campaign. But if he wins, he doesn’t have to be personally competent to enact a fascist agenda. Hitler wasn’t particularly competent either. When you’re leader, people will enact your agenda for you. Hand the reins of power to this man, and bad things will happen.
And those are only the reasons he’s a fascist; there are other equally compelling reasons why he should be entirely disqualified to be president:
- He boasts of being a sexual predator. His own words are that he can “do anything”, including direct sexual assault, because he’s a “star”. And of course there is now a list of women coming forward to say that he behaves just as he said he does.
- His means of engaging with any opponent is toddler-level mockery and brazen lies. Someone so easy to rile up is also someone easy to manipulate. (Consider that his approach to Ted Cruz, a popular figure on his own side, was to insult his wife and to bizarrely insinuate that his father was involved with JFK’s assassination.
- As the only interaction he can handle is fawning servility, he cannot be told bad news, and he can barely maintain allies. He’s spent a good fraction of his candidacy feuding with his own party and media.
- He’s spectacularly uninformed about policy in any area (even areas he should know about as a businessman, like taxes).
- He’s just as spectacularly lazy— he barely prepared for the debates, he doesn’t bother to run an effective campaign, his proposals are never detailed, he doesn’t attempt to educate himself on any of the issues he would be facing as president.
- He has abandoned support for the US’s bedrock foreign policy achievement— NATO and our alliances with Japan and Korea.
- As a businessman, he relies on corrupt practices like simply not paying contractors, or shenanigans with a fake charity. He had to be sued to force him to rent to black customers.
- Trump’s rise to political prominence was due to his racist embrace of birtherism— which even he has now admitted is a lie.
Now, he’s gone so far that an unprecedented number of Republicans have repudiated him, from George Bush to Mitt Romney to Robert Gates to George Will to Glenn Beck. The conventional wisdom would be that you shouldn’t alienate your own party, and, well, the conventional wisdom is not wrong about this; by all accounts Trump is losing.
But the vast majority of Republicans still support Trump. Paul Ryan, Mitch McDonnell, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Mike Huckabee, Chris Christie, Rudolph Giuliani, Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich, Scott Walker, Sarah Palin, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Ralph Reed, James Dobson, Eric Cantor, Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, Orrin Hatch— they’re all on the Trump train. The fascist comments, the sexual predation, the lies and insults, the war on Muslims, the isolationism, it’s all perfectly fine with them. After all Trump has promised to address the most important problem they see in the world, which is that rich people don’t have enough money. He’ll shower them with it.
Now, in some ways this is just what a first-past-the-post election system does. It divides and polarizes the electorate into teams that will support The Candidate no matter what they do. (Is it better when a party questions and hobbles its own leader every chance they get? Ask John Boehner and Paul Ryan.) It’s very very hard for people in such a system to admit that their own party has produced a monster. A columnist like George Will can tear up his party membership card; an elected official rarely does so: they’ll lose their own supporters and the other side won’t trust them anyway.
Still, democracy is endangered when people no longer want it. Though this is a lesson taught by many an emerging country, it’s most familiar from Weimar Germany. It was relatively easy to abandon democracy, because only a minority actually supported it. The fascists and communists openly rejected it. The conservatives and socialists distrusted it and didn’t bother to support it. That left only a small minority of centrist politicians, trying to run a system that a majority of the population didn’t actually like. And of course whatever they did, or whatever happened to the country— reparations, the Depression— only delegitimized them, and democracy, even further.
So, even if Trump loses, it’s not encouraging that 40% of the population was willing to go along with a fascist and vote for him. Republicans evidently don’t value democracy very highly. Even someone like John McCain, who opposes Trump, made news this week by saying that the Senate should not accept any Supreme Court nominee from Hillary Clinton. And McCain is supposed to be a “moderate”. To simply not allow the government to work is now mainstream Republican doctrine.
Trump raises an interesting question— was he the worst of the candidates? Is he some kind of inexplicable disaster that’s befallen the Republican Party? I’ve said all along that he isn’t, and I’ll hold to that. As I noted in the spring, the typical attack on Trump from his rivals was from the right— that he wasn’t conservative enough, not tough enough on immigrants or the poor, a secret supporter of abortion and gun control and Obamacare. The real firebrands in the GOP preferred Ted Cruz, who is only better than Trump in the hair department.
Pretty much every objectionable trait of Donald Trump is something the Republican Party has encouraged for twenty years or more.
- The business of “rigging the election” is part of a long attempt to rewrite laws to disenfranchise the poor and minorities, based on a nonexistent threat of “voter fraud”. The previous manifestation of this campaign was slander about ACORN.
- Complaints about the “mainstream media” have been a staple of conservative outrage since the 1980s. What’s a wonder is that they still bother with it even though they now have their own powerful media.
- Hostility to women and feminism is as old as the anti-ERA movement, the nomination of Clarence Thomas, the Tea Party candidates who told us that rape never results in pregnancy, and attempts to defund Planned Parenthood.
- Trump hardly invented birtherism; for years GOP politicians refused to shut down the crazies on the issue. What’s new about Trump isn’t the racism; it’s the overtness of it. You were supposed to piously support diversity speaking to the New York Times, while dog-whistling to the base that you were against it.
- Hostility to immigration isn’t new either; the last attempt at immigration reform was shut down by the wingnuts with no help from Trump.
- The whole apparatus of functioning American democracy— horse-trading on the budget, court confirmations, restricted filibustering, bipartisan legislation— has been systematically dismantled by the GOP starting with Newt Gingrich. Rather than try to make government work, the goal has been to make democracy impossible.
- Dark mutterings about coups and rebellions are also not new; we have had armed militias, people taking federal land by force, domestic right-wing terrorism, elected GOP officials musing about the armed forces taking power.
- Even Trump’s ignorance and lies are simply the standard from talk radio and Sarah Palin.
The party establishment, such as it is, has been perfectly happy to keep the base riled up with hatred and a disdain for compromise: it delivered votes and the majority of state governments. Mitt Romney made a big deal of opposing Trump this year, but happily accepted his endorsement in 2012, and ran a campaign just as hostile to minorities and women. It’s hard not to feel a pang of sympathy for Paul Ryan, whose distaste for Trump is obvious— but it’s also obvious that Ryan’s disdain is mostly over Trump’s vulgarity. You’re not supposed to be blatant in your hatred of the majority of the population.
I should also say something about the faux-profound concern of some pundits that Trump happened because of economic anxiety. Ha, no, economic anxiety is not what makes people call Obama a foreigner, rough up journalists, attack Mexican judges, grope women, and admire Putin. Trump’s supporters are better off than the national average, and better off than the average for Democrats.
The “economic anxiety” story has to confront the fact that Trump does very badly among precisely the people who have most reason to be anxious: minorities, young people, and women. The best the pundits can do is talk about the anxiety of “white men” and glide over the facts that a) Trump’s white men are not actually badly off, and b) white men are a minority of the working class. The only age group that supports Trump is those 65 and over— that is, those who aren’t even part of the work force.
There’s a basic fact about American politics that you always have to keep in mind: the Republican Party is the Money Party. It’s been that way since the Civil War and it’s not changing soon. Its bedrock policies are the policies rich people like: low taxes, a weak safety net, few regulations, a strong foreign policy. Trump, Ryan, and the rest of them are absolutely agreed on these things.
The thing is, openly advocating for Money doesn’t go over well with the electorate— even in such a pro-capitalist country as the US. The Republicans thus have to either distract the voters, or lie to them. The usual distraction is cultural: harness the energy of Christian conservatives, or racists, to get out the vote. Then when you get power, you don’t actually do what they want.
Or you just lie; you tell the voters that government is bad and they don’t really need health insurance, Social Security, unemployment compensation, unions, food regulations, etc.
In 1980, the Republicans won the game: they were able to start dismantling liberalism, tearing apart the New Deal, destroying unions, sending the good jobs overseas, and sending all the economic gains to the rich rather than to the whole population. So it’s a bit provoking when conservative pundits offer this story that the Democrats abandoned the working class.
It’s true that Trump has appealed to economic anxiety— among other things. But his very framing of the issue shows that he doesn’t understand the issues or have any notion on how to solve them. He talks as if the problem is foreigners— either Mexicans coming to this country to steal jobs, or Chinese somehow taking advantage of us by selling us cheap things. He isn’t running for President of Mexico or China, so he can’t actually do anything about either problem, nor would building walls (whether made of bricks or tariffs) actually re-create manufacturing jobs.
The good factory jobs left because American manufacturers wanted them to. Union workers were expensive; Chinese ones were not. (Mexicans are not an issue— if anything it’s the other way around; cheap US imports have made it hard for the Mexican economy to improve.) You, the consumer, abetted the process with your tendency to prefer affordable cars, TV sets, and other goodies. (Also, US manufacturing never disappeared; it’s actually larger than ever. But automation means it employs far fewer workers.)
Could or should all this have been handled differently? Probably; but impeding productivity is rarely the best economic policy. Should we have prohibited industrial robots, or be content to pay more for everything? That’s just paying the price in another way. In any case, repudiating trade agreements now will not solve the problem. A better solution would be more liberalism: better wages to share the gains of productivity; education and generous unemployment benefits (or a universal basic income, if you like that) to move displaced workers into better jobs; unions to keep employers from exploiting distressed people.