I cannot get my political bearings. There is little analysis of the current moment that I have not read, and read with appetite. Although much of it is deeply informative and often reiterates my own thoughts — always good to feel less lonely if less original — nothing I have read has really assuaged my political anxiety. The source of my anxiety is, of course, Donald Trump. Well, not Trump in isolation but Trump and Trumpism, or Trump and what his enthusiasts seem to believe. We can solve our unemployment and wealth inequality issues by deporting Mexicans and rounding up Muslims; we can default on our debt as a negotiating tactic; we can carpet bomb Syria and ISIS will get the message, etc. The Donald has been rightly called pretty much everything from a visitor from the dystopian future, our post-truth world, evidence of a campy decadence and a self-indulgent nihilism, the foil to Bernie Sanders, proof that Congressional Republicans, and perhaps the party more generally, stand for nothing, and indicative also of a lack of real muscle on the left. There is little I can add the rounded discussion and derision of Trump’s demagoguery and authoritarian appeal.
I have been hesitant to write anything at all about Trump because we are perhaps paying him too much attention, but, at this point, the more pressing question is how can we double down on the attention? He could win and even if he does not win, the damage is in the process of being done. Donald incites violence and alludes to borderline crazy destruction of institutions and international relationships. He capitalizes on a terrifying trend toward (seemingly anomic) violence against brown people and women — and the trend may not be reversible. If nothing else — and there is a lot more to it — Brexit tells us that there is a boatload of angry people out there who may just make (self) destructive decisions. Look at the swing states. Trump is their hero. So, as long as Trump is in the game, and takes to the microphone, he is as dangerous as hell.
Trump is as terrifying as he is because Hillary has yet to really back him down. I will return to Hillary. Let’s start with Trump’s charisma. Wherein lies his charm? People identify with him and if we look at the ways in which people identify with Trump, we’ll better understand the hold he has on the public imagination. The most recent precedent is “Dubya,” who was born into American royalty and earned two Ivy League degrees. But people loved him, because to them, he was a regular guy. Many people — working, middle and upper class and, of course, the super rich — believed that Bush was one of them in that he was plainspoken and went after bad guys. Again, Americans identify as middle class, and it does not matter that this identification is a misidentification. The fantasy that we are all just hardworking people looking to get ahead and upended by illegals, Muslims, liberal elites and young women looking to get an abortion, seems to have us by the short hairs. Never mind the Bush tax cuts, the war run for profit that bankrupted the country or the mortgage heist, many people wanted to have a beer with Bush. He was in AA.
Trump is all of what Bush was and then some. He is to the manor born but he speaks the language of the working and middle class — and when I say this I am saying that he speaks our language, the dominant fantasy that we are all really working class Joe-the-plumbers. Trump wears the hat; he hates elites, illegals, and women who threaten him. He will bomb anyone who dares to talk back and he will right the economy by showing Washington and Beijing how it is done. He is unhinged; no one can control him. He has money, power and women. He is male fantasy writ large and the people who pack the audience and cheer him on believe that he is like them and that they can be like him.
He is not just speaking our national truth, he is also helping to shape and stoke it. You have no job? You feel useless? Your masculinity/feminity has been hit? Trump knows whom to blame. But none of this is new to Republican politics — from Reagan’s “welfare queens” and homeless to Trumps Muslims and Mexicans — this is the underbelly or even the foundation of the Republican fantasy. What was once a bit hidden or oblique Trump has outed and shouted.
Here is the hard part: The rage is valid and the left has little idea of what to do with it. Andrew Sullivan wrote a piece months ago about the anger of the white men left out the economic wealth and the political process. Just this week, Matt Taibbi published a piece letting us know that democracies often deliver dudes like Trump and Trumps lead to disaster. Both pieces were intended to shake us (liberals) from our complacency. Liberals were uncomfortable with Sullivan’s piece and I have repeatedly heard Trump’s supporters called stupid, losers and “the comments section.” I am not justifying or rationalizing the racism or misogyny of Trump’s campaign. I am saying only that Hillary seems unable to dampen it and we need someone who can all but drown it.
Hillary plays to many people as smug, elitist and disconnected. She is about as inspiring as a bad church schoolteacher. She is smart and she is tough and she has solid policy ideas but she has no charisma and she has been dealt a very tough hand because Bernie Sanders framed the debate and, to a large extent, still controls the optics.
Once Sanders effectively hammered home (and he said it again in an op-ed in the New York Times) the insidious and increasing gap between rich and poor, the funneling of money from poor and middle and working class people to the top 1%, the inaccessibility of the political process to voters — Congress is owned and political players are bought so they politic only for their donors — Hillary has been unable to shake Bernie’s message.
Hillary cannot run as herself and profess to share Bernie’s economic agenda, or what was his vision of a better society. She is Wall Street’s candidate. The money will follow her. She cannot then tax them (and international corporations) aggressively. Warren is her gesture to Bernie voters but Warren’s presence makes me wonder if she is defanging Warren, or Warren is defanging herself. How can she campaign alongside Hillary and take on shadow banking or work toward changing the tax code so wealthy individuals and international corporations pay their fair share? She cannot; many people see Hillary as part of the problem. And for another double movement, Warren lends Hillary some credibility but — again the pesky optics — Warren, by virtue of having a Sandersesque authenticity, leaves Hillary looking even more wooden and dull by comparison.
Trump and Sanders have had a lot of control over how Hillary is perceived. Trump is obviously not invested in losing that control and Bernie cannot sincerely rewrite his narrative and his platform to help Clinton. What happened — or what Bernie brought out and coalesced — is a shift in the accepted norm. Regardless of the growing outrage over income inequality and the welfare state for the wealthy, just a year ago, Hillary was operating within the accepted norm and that norm was overrun. I am not arguing the ethics of the norm, I am just stating that it was the accepted norm. Speaking at Goldman Sachs is what politicians did. Ben Bernanke worked directly with big banks to make them money and then went to work for one of them when he left the Fed. The timing is bad for Hillary but the timing is never right.
My political anxiety won’t go away anytime soon. What should be a no-brainer — Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton — is anything but a no-brainer for many people. So, all anyone can do is work hard to make it a no-brainer knowing that we will have minimal impact. And hope that that impact is enough because, needless to say, Trump would be an act of self-immolation for most of the people who love him. But again, Brexit. The anger is real and if we don’t give it political voice and body fast enough, we run the risk of it running ever more wild.