Another day when nothing much will change in America – Obama announced that he will enforce our existing gun control laws in a way that redefines just who is a gun dealer and who is not, closing the loophole that had previously been open for guns shows and internet sales. The details are here – it wasn’t much, but what he could do, as it’s his job to implement the laws that Congress passes as efficiently as possible. He seems to be on firm legal ground – he’s not changing the law at all – but each and every Republican and Republican candidate was hopping mad about this.
It’s an election year. They had to be – even if all the polling shows that ninety percent of the American public, and a majority of Republicans, have no problem with more background checks to keep jerks from grabbing heavy weapons and firing away. Even the NRA once said that was a good thing. The general idea is that fewer people should die needlessly, in grade-school classrooms or movies theaters or in Wednesday night prayer meetings at the local church. There should have been no controversy at all, but we were told that Obama was coming for our guns and we’d all be defenseless, presumably because cops are useless, never around at the moment you need them, or they’re spooked by having to wear body cameras and by having to account for shooting unarmed young black kids dead on the spot, no questions asked, so they won’t shoot anyone dead these days. And anyone could be an ISIS terrorist, right? That greeter at Wal-Mart might be a suicide bomber. You never know.
None of this new anger made much sense, but everyone is angry these days, and the Republicans know it. It doesn’t have to make sense. Rage is politically useful, because it’s fungible, and it’s certainly pervasive. A new survey by NBC News and Esquire documents that – American Rage (with a wonderful masthead graphic, the word RAGE in big flaming letters) – and the most enraged Americans are white middle-class Americans, as one might expect. Donald Trump is running away with the Republican nomination for a reason.
The New York Times summarizes what the survey showed:
Half of Americans say they are more angry than they were a year ago, and a plurality of them say they get mad at least once every day at something they hear or read in the news. They say that they’re living in a less-powerful America, that life hasn’t turned out the way they had hoped, and that for them, the American dream has died.
That’s on both sides, and used by both sides:
More than three-quarters of Republicans and two-thirds of Democrats surveyed feel this way. Two presidential candidates have positioned themselves to ride this discontent: Donald Trump, who is seeking the Republican nomination, and Bernie Sanders, who wants the Democratic nomination. Their appeals couldn’t be more different.
In his pledges to banish undocumented Mexican immigrants, Muslims and most foreign competition from the American landscape, Mr. Trump plays on what the survey’s authors call “the anger of perceived disenfranchisement – a sense that the majority has become a persecuted minority.” These people could be Republicans or Democrats; they don’t agree that immigration strengthens the nation and are “significantly” more likely to say the American dream is dead and twice as likely to say “white men are struggling to keep up in today’s world.”
Mr. Sanders, meanwhile, taps into voters who say their American dream is ending because hard work doesn’t pay off like it used to. Even as his fellow candidates have emphasized national security issues, Mr. Sanders has stubbornly stuck to a domestic message: The richest Americans are getting richer while the poor get poorer.
So everyone is angry, but Sanders has numbers to back him up:
For almost four decades, inflation-adjusted wage increases have not kept pace with American workers’ increased productivity, nor with the rate of economic growth. Middle-class Americans who are the muscle behind the nation’s economy are basically working harder for less. To boot, the only Americans who saw their incomes rise between 2006 and 2014 were those at or near the top of the income scale.
The rage survey suggests that people with a household income of $50,000 to $75,000 are the angriest of all. That’s Middle America.
The Times sees Sanders being the more sensible about that:
History shows that public outrage can be misdirected against people and institutions that aren’t the cause of the discontent, or harnessed to drive corrective policy. Mr. Trump has chosen the first course, Mr. Sanders the second. Mr. Sanders’s challenge now is to show angry Americans a realistic path out of their predicament – and then get them to the polls.
But what if they sense, perhaps rightly, that there really is no realistic path out of their predicament? Trump wins that one. Be angry at your Mexican gardener or Bill Clinton, who is not running for anything, or Barack Obama, who will be gone soon enough. Just be angry. Anger is quite fungible, really, although in the Washington Post Fareed Zakaria sees a special case:
The United States is going through a great power shift. Working-class whites don’t think of themselves as an elite group. But, in a sense, they have been, certainly compared with blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans and most immigrants. They were central to America’s economy, its society, indeed its very identity. They are not anymore. Donald Trump has promised that he will change this and make them win again. But he can’t. No one can. And deep down, they know it.
That might explain their special rage, and Nick O’Malley suggests this:
The anger in America has been palpable for years, and for a long time it has appeared the angriest Americans were conservative ones, in particular, conservative white Americans.
You can hear it in tirades on talkback radio and in snarling cable news editorials.
It is the dominant characteristic of a new industry of online news providers, and of the commentary of the bloggers and social media hawks who are informed by it.
You can detect white conservative anger in the militia takeover of a federal government office in Oregon this past weekend, in the constant passage of ever-freer gun laws in Texas, in resentment towards the Black Lives Matter Movement, in Fox News’s endless war against the imaginary war on Christmas.
Most obviously you can hear it in the cheering at the rallies of conservative outsiders running for the White House, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.
Norm Ornstein thinks we should have seen this coming:
The disdain for the status quo, for authority figures of both parties and other institutions, and the anger at inexorable changes in society, are real, enduring, and especially deep on the Republican side. Ideology forms a significant part of that anger, but it transcends much of the predictable divide between liberals and conservatives. And even if neither Trump nor Cruz – who also channels much of the Trumpist message and approach -win a presidential nomination, it will persist, and contend for primacy in the GOP, well beyond 2016.
Just look around:
For the past several months, every poll has shown outsider candidates, either those vigorously attacking their own leaders and other societal elites or those having no experience at all in politics or governance, garnering over 60 percent support from Republican voters. The main insider, establishment figures hover at around 20 percent support. And of course, the most outsider, populist, and bombastic among them, Donald Trump, has led the field in the vast majority of national polls – and in most state polls, as well.
At the same time, Freedom Caucus members, the most conservative in Congress, were attacked from the right for supporting Paul Ryan as speaker – a man who is by far the most conservative speaker of the House in history. And probably the second most conservative speaker, John Boehner, was hounded from office for not being radical and tough enough. …
What caused the crippling migraine headaches now afflicting the toughly pragmatic conservative-establishment wing of the GOP?
He has some ideas about that, starting way back with Newt Gingrich:
From the day he arrived in Washington following his election to the House in 1978, Newt Gingrich had a strategy to create a Republican majority in the House – something that had not happened since 1954. His strategy eventually worked. Unfortunately, it also wrought immense collateral damage. Newt worked to nationalize congressional elections to reduce the advantage enjoyed by individual incumbents – and to create a climate in which Americans would be so disgusted with Congress that they would say, collectively, “Anything would be better than this.” He wanted them to throw the In Party out and bring the Out Party in.
That meant a long campaign to delegitimize Congress, politics, and politicians, and to provoke the Democratic majority to overreact, thereby alienating even moderate Republicans in Congress and uniting them against the evil Democrats. A series of scandals, real and not-so-real, including the House Bank and post office, helped. His campaign included using ethics charges as a political weapon, resulting in the resignation of Speaker Jim Wright, reinforcing the image of a scandal-ridden, insular and out-of-touch majority.
That eventually worked just fine:
A Democratic president provided his key. For Bill Clinton’s first two years, Gingrich and his allies worked to demonize and delegitimize Clinton, and at the same time helped House Republicans coalesce into a unified opposition from the beginning to the Clinton agenda. That made Clinton’s policy efforts a huge strain, eventually killing his signature health-reform plan. The bitter messiness – government as a scandal-plagued partisan mud battle – set up Republicans for a huge midterm election in 1994. Newt won and became speaker, although Democrats almost brought him down with a set of ethics charges that evoked those he had used against Jim Wright. Along the way, his strategy also brought with it a deeply damaged image of Congress and alienation from government, sharply enhanced partisan enmity and rancor, and tribalized politics. Gingrich assumed that when he became speaker, he could co-opt the radical outsiders he brought with him to Washington. It never happened. Their disdain for Washington, government, and Congress continued, even during their majority status.
But there was even more:
One of Newt’s first acts as speaker was to get rid of the highly professional, nonpartisan Office of Technology Assessment, Congress’s scientists who could use their expertise to inform lawmakers and adjudicate differences based on scientific fact and data. The elimination of OTA was the death knell for nonpartisan respect for science in the political arena, both changing the debate and discourse on issues like climate change, and also helping show in the contemporary era of “truthiness,” in which repeated assertion trumps facts.
That man has a lot to answer for, but so do others:
Newt’s effort got a big boost in 1988 and 1989. Outgoing President Ronald Reagan, incoming President George H. W. Bush, every congressional leader (including Jim Wright and Newt Gingrich), and the leaders of the judiciary, including Chief Justice William Rehnquist, supported a sizable pay raise for lawmakers, top executive officials, and judges. The raise was recommended by a blue-ribbon panel to make up for a long period with no pay increase, but it came at a time of economic stagnation and enraged the public.
The pay raise brought a populist uprising, from Ralph Nader on the left to Pat Buchanan on the right, covered amply by press outlets like Newsweek, which portrayed Congress as a collection of pampered and rich elites more like Marie Antoinette than working Americans, with chandeliered dining rooms providing posh free meals, a first-class spa, and other services, all available to lawmakers at taxpayers’ expense.
Rush Limbaugh had been a minor talk radio host in Sacramento, just moved to New York before the pay raise brouhaha and ready to establish a bigger career thanks to the demise, a short while beforehand, of the FCC’s fairness doctrine. No doubt, Limbaugh, an immensely talented entertainer, would have been a success regardless. But the pay raise gave him a huge boost. He jumped on it, and it became the vehicle for his national rise and celebrity – and the blossoming of conservative talk radio as a major political phenomenon.
And then one thing led to another:
Limbaugh, of course, has been joined by Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin, and a host of others who have built huge audiences by attacking not just evil Democrats but their own establishment leaders. Among them is Alex Jones, whose wild conspiracy theories, including that the U.S. government was involved in both the Oklahoma City bombing and the 9/11 attacks, and that the president, the military, and others are conspiring to take people’s guns and property and create a dictatorship, have helped generate an atmosphere of distrust that plays right into the hands of Trump. Trump, of course, went on Jones’s show and praised his “amazing reputation,” while Jones said his listeners agreed with 90 percent of what Trump stands for.
Trump didn’t come from nowhere, and then there’s Roger Ailes:
For years following its creation in 1980, CNN dominated cable news. Sixteen years later, Rupert Murdoch created Fox News Channel and named Roger Ailes as its head. It started with a tiny fraction of households, with no outlets in New York or Los Angeles. But Ailes transformed it into the overwhelming leader in the cable news world and the most profitable element of the vast Murdoch empire. Along the way, Ailes changed the worlds of news and politics. He did so by creating a new business model, using fast pacing and graphics, and charismatic and talented hosts. But mostly it was a model based on luring an audience of staunch conservatives who felt neglected by other television news outlets, treated with contempt for their views by a liberal mainstream media. Ailes used the slogan “Fair and Balanced” to appeal to this audience, but of course the content was neither; Fox adopted a sharp partisan and ideological viewpoint, and attracted a consistently robust audience of more than 2 million viewers of the right demographic for advertisers at any given time, which made it a highly profitable operation.
But Fox’s impact went way beyond its core audience. It became an opinion leader and agenda setter for conservatives and Republicans. It is a core source of news for Republicans. Much of the anger at Barack Obama, at Obamacare, at attempts to deal with climate change and the scientists supporting them, and even at immigration, has been fueled by Fox shows and Fox hosts.
That’s been said before, but it’s still true, and that changed everything:
MSNBC has tried to emulate Fox on the left, but has adjusted to doing so only in prime time hours, trying straight news during the day. CNN has tried, without notable success, to hold to a middle ground. But both have seized on Trumpmania as a way of luring viewers. Nearly every Trump rally is covered in real time; every outrageous Trump statement or action gets blanket attention. Meanwhile, equally outrageous statements by other candidates – Ben Carson saying a Muslim shouldn’t be president, Mike Huckabee saying God’s law trumps the Constitution, Chris Christie threatening to go to Defcon 1 against Russia – barely get mentioned. Trump thrives on attention, good or bad.
And add this detail:
CNN has had another, broader impact on discourse. Its longstanding attempt to be straightforward has meant that its shows either follow the Crossfire model – someone from the left edge of the spectrum yelling at someone from the right edge, or a spinner from the Democratic side facing off against a GOP spinner – or insist on bringing in “experts” from both sides to discuss or debate issues. By creating a sense that discourse is all one extreme against the other or one cynic against another, CNN has added to the corrosive cynicism that permeates politics, fertile ground for a Trump. And by having every discussion of climate change include one scientist who says it is real and manmade against another who denies it, CNN has contributed to an atmosphere where “facts” are not real – you can find an expert anywhere to deny them.
All of this made Trump inevitable, as did the internet, with everyone spouting off and filtering out what they don’t want to hear, and then the economy collapsed:
There is no doubt that without direct and swift government intervention, the financial crisis in the fall of 2008 would very likely have led to a global credit freeze, and a resulting depression that would have eclipsed the 1930s. To their great credit, George W. Bush, Hank Paulson, congressional leaders of both parties, and the two presidential candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama, endorsed that swift action. But in a major warning sign, their package created a populist backlash among House Republicans, who at first rejected the package, before a precipitous drop in the Dow brought enough around to get it passed.
The effect of the bailout package was huge and still reverberates today – even more because of the actions and inactions of the Obama administration’s economic team in the still-shaky economic turmoil that followed Obama’s inauguration in January 2009. Both Paulson and his successor, Tim Geithner, focused on saving major agents in the financial system, but refused to countenance any actions to punish, or at least bring to the dock, any of the miscreants who had caused the collapse. What Americans saw was elites conspiring to protect their fellow elites – who got off scot-free, along with bonuses, while the rest of the country suffered, losing homes or seeing their home values drop precipitously, losing jobs and nest-eggs. No one went to jail.
A “huge populist surge” was inevitable. Trump was waiting for that, and there was always Obama himself:
Obama as an illegitimate president was a theme pursued from the moment of his inauguration by ruthlessly pragmatic Republican leaders, much as they had done against Bill Clinton, as a tactical maneuver. But reinforced by tribal and social media, from Fox to Glenn Beck and Alex Jones, by “birthers” in Congress and around the country – including, famously, Donald Trump – the campaign to delegitimize Obama as a Kenyan-born socialist was more relentless and widespread. Campaigns that suggested Obama was going to seize Americans’ guns, reinforced on social media and talk radio, or plotting to advance a military coup to remain as president, advanced by Alex Jones and others as the Jade Helm conspiracy, and not repudiated by Texas Governor Greg Abbott or Senator Ted Cruz, added to the fire.
There’s that, and that which Republicans deny:
Race was not all of it, but it was undeniably a part, including comments like Ted Nugent’s that Obama is a “half-breed mongrel,” and Ann Coulter’s, on Fox News’s Sean Hannity Show, that the president was a “monkey” for Vladimir Putin.
Obama’s race, in many respects, became a symbol for a range of changes occurring in American society. Large numbers of working-class white Americans felt deeply unsettled as they struggled through a sluggish economy and the continuing aftereffects of the 2008 collapse – even as the 1 percent thrived more than ever. As social mores changed rapidly, including acceptance of same-sex marriage and the protests against police killings of unarmed civilians, and as social movements like Black Lives Matter emerged, the sense of frustration over a world where the social order was turning upside down became ripe for exploitation by Trump, Cruz, Huckabee, and others.
The immigration issue has been a symbol of all this change. Trump exploded as a factor on the scene when he adopted a position on immigration more extreme than other candidates – and in sharp contrast to the efforts by the Republican establishment, from Reince Priebus on down, to try to find a way to soften the rhetoric on the issue, and find a legislative solution that would give their party traction with Hispanic voters.
These are just some of the highlights of Ornstein’s much longer piece – but it’s obvious that this anger, what the survey called our American Rage, has been building, and in many cases been intentionally built, for many years. Donald Trump is now the point of that spear. It is a weapon.
The only thing missing is the matching element, fear, and the Washington Post’s Matea Gold reports on that:
Scenes of masked men toting guns and waving black Islamic State flags. Refugees scrambling across the border. Fires and explosions.
It’s not just a Donald Trump ad. Most of the Republican presidential contenders and their allies are now waging campaigns focused on fear… Former Florida governor Jeb Bush delivers a similar message in a new spot that begins airing in New Hampshire this week. “We are at war with radical Islamic terrorism,” he declares… And in Iowa, a new ad by a super PAC supporting Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas features a frightening montage of Islamic State militants, refugees on the run and rolling tanks before mocking Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida as a lightweight.
That’s the opening of an extensive survey of the ads all these guys are running. Eight years ago, Obama ran on one word – hope. Times change.