Those on the left have been making fun of those on the right since all those town hall meetings during the August 2009 congressional recess, when, as the Affordable Care Act and Death Panels were the big issue, it seemed that every Republican congressman or senator had some weeping woman rise and cry out, from her heart, that she wanted her country back. Sometimes it was an angry old white man, and of course this was about the impending complete government takeover of the entire healthcare system – there would be no more family doctors, just brutal and heartless bureaucrats – or else it was about Obama being black, or about Mexicans wherever you looked, or icky gay people, or it was about smug losers picking on people who had made something of their lives – the rich, who were rich for a reason, for their wonderfulness. Maybe it was all of that, a sort of generalized nostalgia for what sort of seemed like the fifties. What did these people want back? The fifties weren’t all that great.
Those on the left like to call themselves progressives and progressives are for progress, after all. They found all this absurd. There’s no going back. Nostalgia is not only stupid, it’s dangerous – we’ve moved on – and these people were longing for a past that was never all that good in the first place. They wanted their country back – which seemed to have something to do with Ozzie and Harriet and poodle skirts, and wholesome movies and blacks knowing their place, and gay folks hidden away, and the only Hispanics and Asians being the harmless and amusing Ricky Ricardo and the inscrutable and clever but totally asexual Charlie Chan, a world of back-alley coat-hanger abortions only, where if the women died they got what they deserved, with Jesus everywhere.
The counterargument was that those days weren’t the good old days for everyone. All the civil rights stuff from the 1954 Brown decision desegregating schools to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, and all the turmoil of the sixties followed by the women’s rights movement in the seventies, happened for a reason. That past had been a cruel and stupid place for far too many people.
Those who are nostalgic about those days, however, talked about them as if they were the golden age of self-reliance, the days before the government was always trying to fix things. Back then, the government didn’t take all your money and hand it out to those Welfare Queens that Ronald Reagan was always talking about. Neighbors helped neighbors. Churches fed the poor. That’s why, a few years later, using the threat of crippling the economy, or even destroying it, to make sure thirty or forty million Americans don’t gain access to affordable healthcare, was about more than health care. This was that forty-seven percent thing long before Mitt Romney said a word, and it was not just about making it hard for the forty-seven percent to buy health insurance, because there was a parallel effort to pretty much end the food stamps program – Obama was the Food Stamp President, as Newt Gingrich was saying each time he decided he should be president. We were told that ending that program is necessary – others agreed, but health care was the main issue, even if, as the Affordable Care Act was finally implemented, a number of private parties started to make big bucks providing what many desperately needed – as planned. It wasn’t socialized medicine, not that it mattered. Sure, healthcare costs for everyone will slowly come down, and the economy will perk up as those worried sick about getting sick can get back to doing work and getting ahead – and those are fine things – but will any of that make the working poor better people? No, the golden age of self-reliance was over.
Those on the left had all along seen that as utter nonsense – nostalgia for what never was – and somehow got the Affordable Care Act passed and signed into law. Those on the right are still working to make it go away – all of it – but that seems unlikely now. In this one case, America got itself unstuck from the fifties – but there’s no going back, generally. Yes, our president is black, and our next president will likely be a woman, and those who think gays are really icky can no longer use the law to make their lives miserable, and more and more of our citizens will be folks who started out south of the border, or from even stranger places, and they’ll be fine citizens – and some of them will be Muslims or Buddhists or something else that has nothing to do with Jesus – and we’ll be fine. Deal with it.
These matters are settled, or maybe those who wanted their country back had no compelling champion. Mitt Romney was hopeless – he was the clueless rich guy with the heart of an accountant. Paul Ryan was even more heartless, although he was quite good at looking thoughtful, as he still is. But now they have their champion. That would be Donald Trump, and a few months ago, Marc Fisher in the Washington Post showed how Donald Trump pulled that off:
The way Joe McCoy sees it, the last time America was great was when Ronald Reagan was president, when people played by the rules. No, it was in the ’70s, Holly Martin says, when you could depend on Americans to work hard. No, to find true American greatness, Steve Trivett contends, you need to go back to before the Vietnam War, “when you could still own a home and have a good job even if you didn’t have a college education.”
Even if they don’t have “Make America Great Again” campaign caps, Donald Trump’s supporters easily recite the signature slogan of the real estate developer’s insurgent presidential bid. And even if they don’t agree on exactly why the country lost its way, they do accept – give or take a few degrees of hyperbole – Trump’s contention that the United States has become, as he has put it, “an economic wasteland” that is “committing cultural suicide.”
All he had to do was go utterly negative with these folks, and he reinforced that with his new book – Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again – which opens with this:
Some readers may be wondering why the picture we used on the cover of this book is so angry and so mean looking. I had some beautiful pictures taken in which I had a big smile on my face. I looked happy, I looked content, I looked like a very nice person, which in theory I am. My family loved those pictures and wanted me to use one of them. The photographer did a great job. But I decided it wasn’t appropriate. In this book we’re talking about Crippled America – that’s a tough title. Unfortunately, there’s very little that’s nice about it. …
So I wanted a picture where I wasn’t happy, a picture that reflected the anger and unhappiness that I feel, rather than joy. There’s nothing to be joyful about. Because we are not in a joyous situation right now. We’re in a situation where we have to go back to work to make America great again. All of us. That’s why I’ve written this book. People say that I have self-confidence. Who knows? When I began speaking out, I was a realist. I knew the relentless and incompetent naysayers of the status quo would anxiously line up against me, and they have…
The politicians who talk a great game in campaigns – and play like total losers when they try to actually govern because they can’t govern; they don’t know how to govern. The lobbyists and special interests with their hands in our pockets on behalf of their clients or others. The members of the media who are so far lost when it comes to being fair that they have no concept of the difference between “fact” and “opinion.” The illegal immigrants who have taken jobs that should go to people here legally, while over 20 percent of Americans are currently unemployed or underemployed. Believe me, they’re all over the place…
And so on and so forth:
Congress, which has been deadlocked for years and virtually unable to deal with any of our most pressing domestic problems, or even the most basic ones, such as passing a budget. Think of it: a little thing like passing the budget. They don’t even have a clue. … As for the presidency and the executive branch, the incompetence is beyond belief.
When Trump’s book was published in November, Salon’s Simon Maloy was not impressed:
The book is an exhaustive exploration of the manic, uncontrollable pride Donald Trump feels for being himself. But if you’re looking for any sort of explanation for precisely how Trump will Make America Great Again, well, friends, I’m sad to say you’ll be disappointed. …
Rather than provide a coherent statement of ideology, Trump crafts hilariously simplified statements of principle that animate the Trump worldview. Foreign policy? “My approach to foreign policy is built on a strong foundation: Operate from strength.” What about jurisprudence? “If you have laws that you don’t enforce, then you don’t have laws. This leads to lawlessness.” And, my personal favorite, education: “There is one thing I know that even the professional politicians will support – education is good.”
And the Pope is Catholic, not that it matters:
The uncontested truth is that Trump does not deal in policy specifics. The healthcare reform plan he lays out is, quite literally, to cram smart people into a room and “not unlock the door until they’ve agreed on the steps we need to take.” The Trump budgeting plan is “to find the best people, including experts in various fields and economists, as well as congressional leaders to provide perspective and determine which programs are working and should be kept or expanded, which programs should be cut, and what new programs might be added to deal with the changing world.” The Trump plan for re-greatening America is to have some other people figure something out.
The book and his campaign assert the same thing. Things are awful right now. He’s a wonderful person – that’s why he’s so rich. That’s all you need to know. Put him in charge.
That may seem a logical sequence to some, but this week there was some disagreement with that logic:
Trump supporters at a rally in Lowell, Massachusetts harassed two protesters sitting quietly with signs that read “America Is Already Great” and “God Bless President Obama,” Boston.com reports.
The incident, captured on video, begins with a man in front of the protesters asking them if they’re at a Trump rally. “Are you at a Trump rally?” he asked, before demanding of their signs that they “Ditch them! Ditch them!”
Another man walks up from behind, and despite the fact that the protesters have only asked whether people disagree with his sign, yells “Shut your mouth!” The two men both make a grab for the protesters’ signs, while those surrounding yell “Trump! Trump! Trump!”
The GOP frontrunner apparently noticed the fracas, and asked the crowd whether it involved “friend or foe.” He continued, saying “sometimes I’ll tell people ‘Get ’em out of here,’ and the press will go, ‘He’s so mean.'”
Having washed his hands of any responsibility for what happens at a campaign event, he continued to speak about how he will make America great again, while security removed the protesters from the premises.
That was followed by the usual cheers – USA! USA! That always happens when protesters at Trump rallies are roughed up and forced out of the room, but what were they chanting about this time? America is NOT great, damn it? That seems to be the case here, but Michael Grunwald offers Everything Is (Even More) Awesome!
The subhead is this – “Ignore the downers. America is already great, and it’s getting greater.” But there are the downers:
Only one-fourth of the public believes the United States is heading in the right direction. The Republican presidential debates have been malaise-a-thons, competitions to portray American decline in the most apocalyptic terms possible, while Bernie Sanders is pursuing the Democratic nomination with a message so depressing that professional curmudgeon Larry David has basically played him straight.
Grunwald thinks this is nonsense:
America is already great, and it’s getting greater. Not everything is awesome, but in general, things are even more awesome than they were a year ago. The rest of the world can only wish it had our problems.
Start with the economy, which, if you listen to Sanders or the Republicans, is a garbage dump of existential despair. Actually, it’s doing quite well. Unemployment has dropped from 10 percent during the worst of the Great Recession to 5 percent today, thanks to a record 69 consecutive months of private-sector employment growth that has produced 13.7 million new jobs. The past two years have been the best two years for job creation in the 21st century. After a near-death experience during the financial meltdown of 2008, the U.S. auto industry enjoyed record sales in 2015. The housing market has also rebounded from the crisis, and after-tax corporate profits are at an all-time high. It can sound partisan to mention those facts when a Democrat is in the White House, but they’re facts; it ought to be possible to acknowledge them without necessarily giving President Obama too much credit for them.
In any case, the oft-predicted doomsday scenarios of the post-crisis era – double-dip recession, runaway inflation, runaway interest rates, out-of-control energy prices, a health insurance death spiral, a Greek-style debt crisis, a run on the dollar – are still stubbornly refusing to materialize. Growth is modest but steady. Inflation is low. Interest rates are very low, although the Fed felt confident enough about the recovery to raise them last month for the first time since the global financial meltdown. Gas is barely $2 a gallon. About 17 million uninsured Americans have gotten [healthcare] coverage in the past few years. The federal deficit has plunged from $1.4 trillion in 2009 to under $500 billion, while the dollar has gained strength against foreign currencies. That’s a reflection of the relative strength of the U.S. economy – European unemployment is still in double digits, while Latin America and Asia are reeling – but it’s also an obstacle to even better growth, making our exports more expensive. In that sense, we’re victims of our own success, although it is way better to be us than them.
We are doing fine – Grunwald goes into detail – but he doesn’t stop there:
In non-economic news, despite a year of furor over mass shootings and urban unrest, crime in big cities dropped about 5 percent in 2015, and has been cut in half since 1990. The teen birth rate is down more than 60 percent since 1990, and that’s not because of increasing abortions, because they’ve fallen by more than a third. U.S. oil imports are at their lowest level in nearly three decades, while wind generation is up more than threefold and solar generation is up 25-fold since 2008. Carbon emissions have dropped 10 percent from 2005 levels. High school graduation rates are at an all-time high, with the most striking gains for minorities and the poor. The financial sector is much safer, with much more capital to absorb banking losses, much less of the risky overnight funding that fuels panics, and much broader regulation of Wall Street institutions that once operated in the shadows. And despite all the rhetoric about border crises and wall-building, America’s population of undocumented immigrants has remained stable for the past five years.
That’s not exactly chopped liver, and there’s also this:
Legislative gridlock in Washington eased significantly in 2015. After four years of divided-government paralysis, President Obama signed a slew of major bipartisan laws last year, including a bizarrely responsible reform of a long-standing Medicare funding problem and a sensible overhaul of the unpopular No Child Left Behind education law. Republicans and Democrats also came together to pass some more dubious laws, like a long-term highway bill that will use budget gimmicks to finance America’s unsustainable addiction to asphalt. The point is, for better or for worse, Congress is doing stuff again.
Glass-half-empty types, especially Republican glass-half-empty types, argue that none of this really matters when Americans don’t feel safe from jihadists. And yes, the attack in San Bernardino was horrible. But only 45 Americans have been killed by jihadists since 2001, fewer than the death count from lightning or toddlers with guns or just about any disease you can imagine. If Americans are freaking out anyway, well, maybe they shouldn’t. And incidentally, American soldiers are dramatically safer now that so many of them have come home from war zones. Last year, only eight were killed in Iraq and 27 in Afghanistan, after more than 8,000 casualties in the previous 12 years.
In general, this is an exciting time to be a human being. We’re living longer. There’s less war, less infant mortality, less abject poverty. … And there is still no better place to live in that world than the United States of America, which still has the most powerful military, the most dynamic economy, the best action movies.
Okay, forget that last claim, but the rest can be verified easily enough. If you’re going to claim that America is crippled – a word meant to shock – shouldn’t you be required to verify that? It only feels that way to some, but then, in an election year, the party out of power has to claim that things are awful. Each party tells America how we should feel about ourselves. Are we total losers living in a total hell on earth, who should now be angry enough to do something about it?
Ask Donald Trump about that. You know the answer, and the counter to that is Grunwald with The Nation He Built: A Politico Review of Barack Obama’s Domestic Policy Legacy and the Changes He Made While Nobody Was Paying Attention – where the problem is Obama:
Obama blamed this on bad salesmanship, saying he wished he had communicated better early in his presidency. “I think a certain arrogance crept in, in the sense of thinking as long as we get the policy ready, we didn’t have to sell it,” Obama said. “One thing I learned through some tough election cycles: You can’t separate good policy from the need to bring the American people along and make sure that they know why you’re doing what you’re doing.”
Yes, bring the American people along and make sure that they know why you’re doing what you’re doing – otherwise the bastards on the other side will explain it all – you’re ruining America forever.
It’s too late to do anything about that now, but the New York Times’ Gail Collins sees how this is playing out now:
Bernie Sanders wants the country to rise up against the special privileges that keep making the richest 1 percent richer. Trump rocketed to the top of the polls by railing about illegal immigrants. The saddest thing about this presidential race so far is that the Trump approach has gotten way more attention.
There is, however, a reason for that:
To be honest, Donald Trump as a presidential candidate is fascinating, in a perverse way. The effect is sort of like being at a cocktail party listening while a half-tipsy celebrity blathers on about his stupid co-star and the way the Academy Awards are fixed. Trump doesn’t drink, but his speeches do have that sloppy off-the-cuff quality. He’ll start to talk about an issue and then abruptly announce: “So who knows? It’s a theory.” Then he boasts about his polls. (“I could talk about these suckers all night long.”)
There’s something a little refreshing in a candidate who does all his bragging up front. And let’s acknowledge that the number of typical American voters who want to listen to a call for the return of the Glass-Steagall Act is not as large as the number who wants to hear Trump rant against environmental regulations by describing his affinity for hair spray.
Luckily, Sanders has better villains:
In his Wall Street speech, he talked about businessmen who get away with the financial equivalent of murder. Wachovia, an American bank later acquired by Wells Fargo, “aided Mexican drug cartels,” Sanders said, by laundering billions of dollars in their cash. “Yet the total fine for this offense was less than 2 percent of the bank’s $12.3 billion profit … and no one went to jail. No one went to jail.”
That seems a lot more outrageous than Mexican workers sneaking across the border – even the ones who are portrayed, in Trump’s TV ad, by a film clip of Africans trying to fling themselves across a fence out of Morocco.
So, if you’re going to tell America how awful things are, don’t make stuff up – but now that doesn’t seem to matter. We’re a nation of losers, led by total losers – and Donald Trump will make us winners again, led by the one remaining winner in this sorry world. It would be nice if there were proof of any of that – the facts suggest otherwise – but Donald Trump has told us how we actually feel about ourselves. Some believe him. Others have less fragile ego structures, and more sense – they like to look at the facts of the matter. It’s going to be a strange election year.