[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]
Yes, I know the election was a month ago. What can I say; I needed time to recover from getting everything entirely wrong, didn’t I?
1) Except, maybe I didn’t quite get everything entirely wrong. I mean, all my predictions were wrong insofar as the national contest was concerned, but here is in Kansas it was a different matter. Governor Brownback’s financially blinkered conservative Republican majority in the legislature continued the shrinkage which worried Kansas Republicans began to deliver in the August primaries, with over a dozen new Democratic faces elected, and leaving him overall with perhaps 30 fewer reliable votes in Topeka–not enough to overcome any vetoes he may issue, but enough to cause him serious (and much deserved) headaches. Solidly partisan states like Kansas go through periodic corrections in their dominant parties slowly, so I didn’t really expect for much more than than what we saw, but that didn’t stop me from being pleased. Certainly, for myself at least, it was a bright spot in an otherwise perplexing night.
2) Bright not simply because, as much as I’m willing to grant validity to the populist concerns that Trump and his followers crudely and clumsily piggy-backed upon, Trump himself–a self-aggrandizing tycoon and political neophyte with a history of narcissistic, undisciplined, self-serving, and sexist behavior– is an appalling person to be installed in the White House. No, bright also because it provides a small bit of counter-evidence to the depressing reality that many political scientists and journalists coming to document: that local and state politics are driven by national concerns and trends, and not just in terms of the partisan incentives which guide so many seeking office, but also in the awareness of voters themselves. As Craig Ferhman observed “state races correlate largely with presidential politics–whether the voter approves of the president and whether the legislator belongs to the president’s party.” So the fact that in a state where registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats two-to-one, in an election where Trump won beat Clinton by over 20 percentage, we could still see the largest swing against the supporters of an incumbent Republican governor in 25 years, suggests that there still can be circumstances where local and state politics are not entirely dependent upon what party leaders and media bigwigs cook up in Washington D.C.
3) All of which, unfortunately, doesn’t change the fact that a clown car is going to arrive in the nation’s capital on Friday, January 20, 2017. We’ve seen indications of what we can expect already–some smart promised appointments, some predictable ones, and others that range from goofy to sleazy to frightening. Tweeting falsehoods late at night, foreign leaders buttering-up to the president-elect’s real estate holdings, and trumpeting state-provided tax-breaks as part of his plan to defend the working class (a prospect frustrating to both the left and the right): this is what the election of 2016 has brought us. One of my fellow Front Porch Republic scribes see Trump’s victory as signaling, to at least some limited degree, the triumph of “Buchananism,” which strikes me as a pleasing prospect only if one is confident that plenty of troops exist to support one’s side in the culture war Buchanan so defiantly diagnosed decades ago; furthermore, the notion that Trump’s election expresses the Buchananesque, populist, working-class, rural and isolationist sentiment that “our country is a real thing, not just an administrative unit and place holder until the global superstate can unite us all in perpetual peace and harmony” seems to me at least a little like the weird expression of top-down nationalist, patriotic, communitarian optimism that I remember many of us (myself included) being swept up in after 9/11, as President George W. Bush took us on a well-intentioned but atrociously planned and essentially unjustified pious crusade down a Middle Eastern rabbit hole. Under Trump, maybe it’ll be East Asia? He’s got a head start…
4) The arguments over the flawed political science and predictions (my own most definitely included) which left so many flustered that night and somewhat hysterical in the month since are far from resolved, and academic arguments being what they are, probably won’t be for years to come. Obviously race and gender played a role in Trump’s election, but what role and to what extent remains a source of dispute. Given Trump’s harsh words for undocumented (and, it can’t be denied, invariably non-white or non-Christian) residents of the United States, and given Trump’s history of words and actions that often appeared to be anything but respectful of women as sexual equals, the assumption that this election would see a massive doubling-down of the coalition (African-Americans, Hispanics, single women, college-educated urban cosmopolitans, etc.) that had a lot of us, eight years ago, thinking about the emergence of a new “liberal America.” Well, that didn’t happen (though to what degree it didn’t happen remains a matter of much dispute). The Obama coalition, for better or worse, didn’t show up for his anointed successor, now matter how strongly he pushed for her. Misogyny? Voter restrictions? A case for the explanatory power of both exists, and I don’t dismiss them; I want to remain conscious of my own blindness when it comes to evidence for certain explanations that I don’t at first see.
5) Beyond the arguments over voter suppression and Clinton’s lack of appeal as a candidate to a great many voters, though, there remains, I think, a key transformation in America’s political culture that the Democratic party, nationally at least, has still failed to connect with, and which Trump only accidentally benefited from this time around. Until there is a party platform that can really give it life on the national stage, we can’t know how pervasive the support for it may be, though the Sanders campaign obviously at least touched upon it. Two years ago, I mused that “There is a different mix of the progressive-libertarian and the populist-egalitarian out there, a different mix of what seems to be done best locally and what needs to happen universally.” Keep in mind that, at the very least, overlapping majorities of voters in various states (though not overall) chose embraced the Republican Trump for president, and embraced what most of us would presume to be decidedly non-Republican policy changes by referendum: effective minimum wage increases in five states, and marijuana decriminalization or legalization in eight more. Many people are frustrated by systems–global and governmental–that continue to empower the few and exploit the many; maybe not a majority of the people, at least not everywhere or all the time, but a solid and electorally significant number of people who want change nonetheless. So until such a time that these views can be articulated broadly–and that time may never come; maybe technology and economic stratification have just changed the structures of our political culture too much for parties to perform that work any longer–we just have to put together localist defenses of those programs and opportunities which can allow for those kinds of creative, cooperative changes as best we can. As I concluded my post a month ago: “The localist alternative to federal decline will exist whomever wins tomorrow.” Now that we know the winner, our angle of approach, as people concerned with building neighborhoods and communities of real mutual support, should change as needed–but not our direction. My old friend Matt Stannard put it well:
We have to keep building, building, building. Keep creating and converting worker-owned cooperatives. Keep creating and strengthening eco-villages, income-sharing communities, and community land trusts. Keep reminding cities and states that public banks offer independence from a federal government owned by Wall Street. Keep fighting every attempt to privatize the commons. Keep building cooperative culture, local currencies and time exchanges, strong social service networks and resource-sharing programs. Every time we demonstrate that cooperation works, the forces that gave us President-elect Trump lose.
Localists, unite! (I mean, what else can we do until the 2018 midterms, right?)
I suggest that if you think the story of this election is racism, sexism, vote suppression, and Trump randomly stumbling into a populist message, a bit more reflection is in order.
I suggest that if you think the story of this election is…
Well, let’s look at what I actually wrote.
I suppose you could attribute that to me on the basis of the (unspecified) link I put in to an article describing Senator Sessions’s long and well-documented hostility to amnesty for long-time illegal residents of the U.S. and his equally long but open-to-interpretation reputation for racist jokes, but the only thing I actually wrote that seems to fit this description is my statement: “Given Trump’s harsh words for undocumented (and, it can’t be denied, invariably non-white or non-Christian) residents of the United States…” Is there an inaccuracy there? If Trump has grumped on Twitter and ranted to campaign crowds about Irish judges and French Canadian criminals sneaking over the border, I haven’t heard about it, I’m afraid.
Again, my only statement here was an observation that “given Trump’s history of words and actions that often appeared to be anything but respectful of women as sexual equals,” and then a single-word open-ended question (“Misogyny?”) in regards to possible explanations that are floating around among those (myself included, as I think the post makes clear) who really did assume that the Obama coalition was going to carry Clinton easily over the finish line. I was wrong about that, obviously, but does that mean I’m blaming sexism for the results? Not that it matters in the present FPR context, but I’ve actually been arguing for much of the past month with friends who insist that this election was all about racial and (especially) sexual violence, a conclusion I think is quite wrong, though I don’t want to dismiss all such arguments as obviously irrational. Especially the sexual one, because it’s not like the evidence isn’t there. Or, do we want to go over Trump’s divorces, his affairs, his “locker room talk,” the allegations of sexual harassment made against him, etc., all over again? (Or maybe “Clinton’s husband did all that and worse!” gives him a permanent waiver from ever even looking in that explanatory direction?)
One again, a solitary reference (though I guess you could say two references, if “voter restrictions” counts) to a possible explanatory factor which I don’t examine at all and pass over entirely on my way to laying out lengthier reflections about the harms I can see Trump causing and the as-yet unclarified type of populist mood that I think Trump piggy-backed on. Which brings up to the only part of your comment that really does seem to describe the position I take in this post quite well…
…and Trump randomly stumbling into a populist message…
I do think this is true, quite obviously in fact. At the very least, his crowing about the Carrier deal shows a very shallow and simple-minded sense of what populism (which I take to be, most fundamentally, a demand for a level of economic sovereignty over one’s own place and one’s livelihood) ought to mean, and he’s going to have a lot to learn to follow through on his own promises. At the most, he’s a braggart who occasionally brought a pseudo-populist tone into his rants about trade and as a result benefited from a general economic anxiety, the causes of which he happily exploited and benefited from back in his tycoon days. If you think I need more reflection on this point, I make a sincere request: please send me links to news and information that will help me better understand the actual, real populist Donald Trump. Because for where I stand, I don’t see much.
I see your piece as making a few throwaway comments about the deplorable motivations of Trump voters, and no real arguments about what you think motivated them. So those throwaway comments seem to be you trying to insinuate that those are the reasons they supported Trump, without having to come out and say it, because it’s pretty indefensible. Just out of curiousity, are you familiar at all with Chris Arnade and his work?
I’m not going to defend Trump the person. I said here before I was anti-Hillary and anti-anti-Trump. But I think he basically took Perot’s message of 25(!) years ago, turned it up to 11, and broadcast it in his own loudmouth package. I saw a recording of a speech he gave near me in upstate New York and it was 95% about trade policy and how it’s decimated American small towns. That’s not the message you’d get about his campaign from the media, but that’s what he was talking about. I have zero idea why no one serious from either party ran against free trade in the last several elections (hate to break it to you, but Bernie’s not serious, any more than say Kucinich was). I think he saw an obvious opportunity to exploit this cleavage between the GOP voter base and the GOP establishment, and I think he saw that Hillary was an incredibly weak candidate, and he went for it, and who’s laughing now? If there was a candidate with all of positions and his experience (it’s easy to mock his business acumen–I love the old comedy routine about how Trump is the hobo’s idea of a billionaire–but the fact is his image is of a success, and Image is Everything) without his personal, um, failings, it would have been a rout. I think it’s quite possible he can exploit similar faultlines in the Dem coalition, and if he can shift the upper industrial midwest from Dem to GOP–which is perhaps not likely, but entirely possible–the Dems will be in a world of hurt.
I disagree with lots of his positions, many vehemently, but I do think that while in comparison to Mitt Romney, say, he’s a loathesome individual, he’s far more likely to implement some policies that are quite necessary. America First populism seems like a fine direction to me. We should be on fierce guard it doesn’t descend into cronyism, but let’s not pretend we’re not in a world of hurt in that regard right now anyway. And if he’s going to inspire the left to have a Strange New Respect for localism, whether he succeeds or fails, that would be awesome. You’re awfully lonely in that regard.
I see your piece as making a few throwaway comments about the deplorable motivations of Trump voters…
Of course, I never used the word “deplorable,” and as I laid out in my previous response, those throwaway comments seem to amount to about twenty words in a 1300-word blog post. But you’re a smart and generous reader, so I’ll take your word for it: I suppose some people really could have read this and saw in it a Nancy Pelosi speech. I’d insist they’re wrong–but then, I’d also insist that you’re wrong in claiming that insinuations like that are utterly “indefensible.” Please note that Chris Arcade himself (and yes, I am familiar with some of his journalism) never goes that far: in his big think piece, “What I Learned After 100,000 On the Road Talking to Trump Supporters,” he does, I think correctly, identify the vaguely populist class/status/economic anxiety that working class Americans outside of large cities feel, and which they confusedly attached to Trump (I’m not sure I wrote anything which suggested otherwise in terms of my own take on the election), but neither does he paper over the arguably racist or xenophobic elements at play in this thinking. For example: “Those in town whose lives were not connected to the university lifeline were the Trump voters. Well, the white people in town.” “The once superior status [of early Trump voters]–based only on being white–was being dismantled, while their lack of education was also being punished.” “[Trump] has has come into these communities with white identity politics, a message that is both simple and loud: He will make America great again.” So, is Arcade saying that Trump won because he was a racist who appealed to racists? Of course not, and neither did I. But is he very much aware of how racial divisions and suspicions played into the class/status/economic anxieties that motivated poor rural white voters, as well as many others? Of course he is, and I would like to think my “few throwaway comments,” even if they came out clumsily, showed the same.
…if he’s going to inspire the left to have a Strange New Respect for localism, whether he succeeds or fails, that would be awesome.
In that regard, I can’t deny, you are correct: that really would be a marvelous silver lining to this depressing election.
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