Aging baby boomers – many of us are pushing seventy now – know only one thing about American politics. Republicans run on anger and fear. We remember Richard Nixon in 1968 talking about law and order and that “silent majority” no one ever heard – they may have been imaginary – who even then wanted their country back. It was the damned hippies, and the uppity blacks. America, love it or leave it. And Democrats ran on hope and optimism. Bobby Kennedy imagined a far better world, as had Martin Luther King, but they were each assassinated early in that year. That left Hubert Humphrey, who called himself the “happy warrior” – yes, we all laughed – and he got trounced. He got off easy, but it’s been that way ever since – 2008 was no surprise. There were all the Obama “Hope” posters and his slogan – “Yes, we can!”
Maybe we could, but McCain and Palin talked about how scary Obama was – he had palled around with terrorists and was into income redistribution – he’d take your stuff and give it to lazy low-life types who’d sneer at you and eat steak and lobster every night. McCain and Palin hardly needed to say that Obama was black. Cultural conditioning took care of that, with a bit of help from Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. This was a scary black man who was really angry under all the pretty words, but the anger and fear was on the other side. McCain and Palin would lay into Obama at rallies and now and then someone out there would shout “Kill Him!” McCain and Palin would have to scale it back. The forces of hope and optimism won that one, although the basic dynamic hadn’t changed – four years later Mitt Romney failed to convince voters that things were awful and it was all Obama’s fault and the world as we knew it was going to come to an end if Obama had four more scary years to destroy America.
Things just weren’t that awful. Mitt went home. Anger and fear weren’t that politically useful after all. It was time to rethink things, but Republicans are who they are, and this time it’s Donald Trump and Ted Cruz back at it, even if things aren’t that awful at the moment. We did get something like universal health care. Iran just shipped its enriched uranium back to Russia. We’re no longer in Iraq, for better or worse. We’ll talk with Cuba now, rather than pout, and the economy has recovered as much as it could recover, given its current structure and our current politics. What’s the dire problem only Republicans can solve? The flow of Mexicans and Central Americans sneaking in to find work and a bit of peace and calm has gone net-negative given our still sluggish economy – the jobs just aren’t here for them – and ISIS isn’t going to kill you in your bed. The awful things they do here are few and far between. They’re not going to take over America. We can take care of them, over time.
What is there to be angry about – Obamacare and slightly higher taxes on the very rich? Paul Krugman, the economist with the Nobel Prize to prove it, has written yet another column explaining that Obamacare has not destroyed jobs, and neither have those slightly higher taxes on the few very rich, and there was no run-away inflation either. He has all the facts and figures and ends with this:
From a conservative point of view, Mr. Obama did everything wrong, afflicting the comfortable (slightly) and comforting the afflicted (a lot), and nothing bad happened. We can, it turns out, make our society better after all.
Oops. If people realize that, Republicans will have to rethink how they plan to win elections, as many are beginning to notice:
Ted Cruz may have made great inroads with Christian evangelicals, but conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks isn’t buying the candidate’s “dark and satanic tones.”
In an interview this weekend with PBS, Brooks tells host Judy Woodruff that Cruz’s world is “combative,” “angry,” and “apocalyptic.” And while he continues to rise in state and national polls, Brooks said other candidates, like Marco Rubio, are starting to use similar rhetoric.
“If you watch a Cruz speech, it’s like, we have got this enemy, we have got that enemy, we’re going to stomp on this person, we’re going to crush that person, we’re going to destroy that person.”
Brooks thinks that’s a losing approach, and Marco Rubio has a much better approach, although he worries that Rubio is mirroring Cruz:
It’s dark and combative, and, frankly, harsh. It’s a harsh – [Cruz] gets some jokes in the beginning, but then it’s just, we have enemies. We’re in an apocalyptic situation. We’re on the edge of the abyss. You need a tough guy to beat that back. And that’s his personality. That’s not Marco Rubio’s personality. He’s a sunny – he’s been running the youthful optimism campaign, but he’s beginning, to prevent Cruz from getting liftoff, to mimic sort of that, get a piece of that. I personally think it’s a mistake.
Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog wonders about that:
We’ve heard similar things about Donald Trump – that he has a “dark view of the nation” and all that. Conventional wisdom says that optimists succeed in presidential races. And yet it’s Trump and Cruz who are winning on the Republican side.
That must mean that we’re returning to the old dynamic:
I’ve been reading about the 1960s counterculture recently, and today we all woke up to learn that David Bowie is dead. It’s all reminding me of growing up in the 1970s, as one of the kids who were effectively the younger siblings of the sixties generation. We picked up sixties politics, but before we could do anything politically, we saw a lot of hope crashing and burning. We came of age in a time of energy crisis and stagflation and Nixon and the botched activism of Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army.
Our era was post-Altamont more than it was post-Woodstock. We had the first wave of satanic metal, and we had Bowie invoking suicide, dystopia, apocalypse, fascism, and genocide.
So perhaps we’re back in the seventies:
Cruz and Trump are candidates for a country without a lot of hope. I don’t know if this means they’ll win – the dark, satanic Richard Nixon won in 1968 and 1972, then we elected a hopeful candidate, Jimmy Carter, in 1976 – but the two merchants of gloom really seem to reflect the zeitgeist. I wish one of the Democratic contenders had the inclination to address this aspect of the national mood; in that case, I might feel more confident in November’s outcome. For now, I think Cruz and Trump have a better sense of how Americans feel right now.
Martin Longman isn’t so sure of that:
I am not really sure if I agree with Steve M that Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have a better understanding than the Democratic candidates of how the electorate feels right now. He could be right, but I don’t see the evidence for it in my personal life.
It’s true that you can find evidence that the electorate is angry and frustrated and filled with anxiety. But that doesn’t mean that either Trump or Cruz have even a puncher’s chance of winning the Electoral College. In fact, it’s quite possible that they’d lose worse than anyone is even imagining right now. Certainly, the GOP elites are feeling apocalyptic about their party’s chances if they go into the general with Trump or Cruz as their champion. It’s possible that they should be even more concerned than they are.
Or course, it’s also possible that they’re as wrong about this as they’ve been about nearly everything else in recent years.
But something is up:
When I talk to people I know or come into contact with in my daily life, the predominant attitude toward government isn’t anger exactly, but something closer to resignation and disgust. People don’t want to talk about politics. They don’t want to even think about politics.
It used to be that people would be intrigued to learn that I write about politics for a living and would seize the opportunity to talk my ear off. These days, I’m more likely to be pitied for having to focus on something as messy and pathetic as our national discourse.
If I had to describe the disposition, it’s apathy.
It’s not that people don’t care about political things anymore, but they’ve given up hope in the system.
That, in turn, is bad for the Democrats:
In my circles, which tend to be more liberal and activist than most, this isn’t so much a pox on both their houses type of thing, although I see that attitude displayed with disturbing frequency from less committed folks that I know. Among liberal activists, the apathy comes from a sense that they can’t win big. All they can do is prevent the worst and perhaps make some incremental progress that doesn’t inspire much of anyone to drop what they’re doing and get engaged.
If you asked these folks if they’re angry, I suppose a lot of them would say that they are, but they’re really more frustrated and hopeless than they are seething with some desire to make their enemies pay.
Where hope still resides, it’s with a subset of people who are truly excited about the prospect of a woman president and see this as a potentially validating thing that will be quite fulfilling, quite apart of any laws that might be passed as a result. Or, it’s with the Sanders brigades who seem to, in my opinion, bring a little (perhaps, much needed) irrational exuberance to the campaign. They believe their champion can shake things up – that he can bring the big win.
If that is what they think, though, I believe they would be disappointed to discover that this country’s will cannot be bent so easily. Our gridlock is structural at this point, and not subject to strategy or rhetoric.
And it’s all small beans anyway:
Politics isn’t exciting anymore because it doesn’t offer a big pay off, and who wants to celebrate a successful defense?
This apathy and hopelessness may be justified, and it does help the party that doesn’t believe in government. But I don’t think it means that the Electoral College is winnable for Trump or Cruz. And, if it’s not winnable for them, then I don’t think they’ve got their finger on the pulse of the (general) electorate in any meaningful way.
Who does? Slate’s John Dickerson reports on how the Republicans are still trying to figure this out:
Last Friday, I attended a Donald Trump rally in Rock Hill, South Carolina. More than 6,000 people filled a basketball arena at Winthrop University, right up to those last seats obscured by championship banners. It was a like a revival, but the outbursts from the crowd were not the sounds of new conversions. They were denunciations of the heretics – the weak, the politically correct, the Chinese, those with low poll numbers, Hillary Clinton, and hecklers who had interrupted and were removed like ticks. Saturday, I attended the Jack Kemp Foundation poverty summit in Columbia, 70 miles to the south. It was hosted by House Speaker Paul Ryan and Republican South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott. The crowd filled the neatly arranged ballroom seats and listened patiently as GOP presidential candidates offered their ideas about how conservative principles could help those most in need.
On the one hand you had a rally filled with anger and laced with fear, with those dark satanic tones, and on the other hand you had a summit on hope and improvement, and both events were thoroughly Republican, which is, as they say, inherently unstable:
The noisy part of the party and the governing part of the party are far apart on fundamental issues like trade, national security, budgeting, and immigration. And the loud voices supporting Trump are suspicious and angry about just the kind of compromises, temporizing, and patience that the joining of two halves requires.
Dickerson sees this as the difference between Trump and Ryan:
Trump is the phenomenon of the grassroots, and Ryan is the best hope of the GOP’s governing wing. Ryan believes in public service. He has been involved in public affairs essentially his entire adult life. The Kemp forum opened up with Jimmy Kemp, the son of the late congressman, talking about public service as a calling. This year in the GOP presidential race, anyone who has devoted his or her life to public service in politics is at a serious disadvantage. Trump has leveraged the disappointment with the elected class into a huge lead in the polls.
But there’s more:
Ryan also believes in quiet work to understand a problem. As he said during the afternoon, “I learned from my mentor Jack Kemp and my other mentor Bob Woodson … that the only way to really know poverty is to try and walk it through people’s footsteps, to learn from people struggling.” The poverty summit was the product of weeks Ryan spent traveling the country after the 2012 election learning more about the issue. He did it quietly. No one knew what he was doing until he’d completed the tour. When he quizzed the candidates, he wanted to know if they’d done this kind of homework.
Trump is the opposite. He is proud of his outsized personality and public relations stature – he’s not going to go off and toil in anonymity. He eschews the kind of detailed experience-based study Ryan was talking about. He believes he can get up to speed quickly on issues.
That leads to two different ways of thinking:
The conversation at the poverty summit was at times quite detailed. Ben Carson talked easily about literacy rates and the reading programs he’d set up across the country. Several candidates praised the educational improvement tax credit program and talked about its expansion. Ideas for the best tax rates, incentives, and work requirements were discussed.
There wasn’t much policy at the Trump gathering other than his call and response with the crowd about making the Mexican government pay for the wall he’s going to build on the southern border.
And that wasn’t pretty:
There was a physical aspect to this hunger in the Trump crowd. Protesters rose and were ejected to the rising roar of the crowd. Some were aggressive and seemed to be asking to create a spectacle. Others were not, such as one woman wearing a hijab who simply stood there but was shouted down and manhandled out of the room. After a few ejections, Trump expressed nostalgia for the way protesters used to be able to be handled – much more roughly. “I like the old days better,” he said. That could be a tag line of his campaign as he promises a return to the days before political correctness and elites fouled up the country everyone was promised.
Meanwhile, back at the Kemp forum, the closest it got to confrontation was when Arthur Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, talked about using free enterprise to be “warriors for the poor.” Progressive poverty experts have plenty of criticisms of Ryan’s free-market approach to poverty and those the GOP candidates put forward: They say conservatives’ excessive reliance on the states will lead to unequal treatment of the poor; the budget cuts proposed by candidates will devastate programs that are actually helping the poor; and the GOP work requirements are useless if there aren’t also policies to help the millions of working poor who have jobs but need the protections of a consistent schedule, paid sick days, and paid family and medical leave. Is the existing welfare system really a trap if food stamp assistance is being shown to improve educational outcomes in the next generation?
Those are the kinds of debates that can take place if Ryan is successful in putting poverty on the agenda.
That seems unlikely now, and then on Face the Nation, which Dickerson now moderates, Ryan said this:
We have got to go and compete for the minds and the hearts and the votes of everybody in this country no matter who they are. … I think our presidentials need to do this. It’s one thing I regret having not done like I wanted to in 2012. … Typically what these consultants tell you is, “Well, this is where our voters are. And these are the precincts and the counties that we have to maximize turnouts. So go there.” And then you go there, and then you go there, and you go there. This is a national election. The stakes of this election are the highest in our lifetimes, in our generation. And everybody needs to be involved in this election. So we need to go and compete for the hearts and the minds and the votes of everybody. No matter if we get 2 percent of the vote, we should be there showing that our ideas are better.
Ryan obviously thinks he had taken the pulse of the nation, but Trump always points to his poll numbers and shrugs – everyone loves him – and Dickerson asks this:
Does the constituency Ryan wants to help find these ideas more appealing, or do they prefer the messenger who is giving the middle finger to the elites on their behalf? Trump doesn’t need policy to connect with his audience, which was undoubtedly of a lower socio-economic average than those at the Kemp poverty summit. They think their fortunes will be better served by what they were hearing from the man who flew there on his own private plane.
This will not end well:
For Trump, defining what it means to be a Republican means putting a finger in the eye of the Washington Republicans like Ryan. Trump received raucous cheers in opposition to the following policies: immigration reform, trade, the 2015 end-of-year budget, and entitlement reform. Ryan believes in all of those things. He also criticized Trump for his call to ban Muslims entering the United States.
If Trump doesn’t win, the candidate who does is almost certain to exacerbate the underlying disappointment and sense of betrayal that was evident at Trump’s rally. If Trump does win, how will he work with Ryan and others nodding thoughtfully to the ideas presented at the Kemp forum, without disappointing the people spilling their popcorn at Winthrop University?
Those two things are mutually exclusive. The Republican Party will soon be considerably smaller, but the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson has a warning for Democrats:
For Democrats who might be rooting for Donald Trump, thinking he would be easy to beat in November, I have some advice: Be careful what you wish for. …
When he announced his candidacy, no one outside of Trump’s household dreamed he would be dominating the Republican field with three weeks to go before the Iowa caucuses. Given the way he has set the agenda for the campaign, it’s tempting to call him a master strategist – except I don’t believe he has a strategy. Or needs one.
Instead, Trump is guided by instinct. The whole campaign has been like his stream-of-consciousness Twitter feed or his improvisational jazz-riff campaign speeches. He tests a new theme and gauges the response. If it’s working, he pushes harder; if not, he moves on. Kick out the illegal immigrants and build a wall on the border. Bar Muslims from entry because they might be terrorists. Abolish gun-free zones, even in schools.
Many of Trump’s positions are abhorrent. Many are inconsistent with traditional American values, Republican Party dogma, various articles of the Constitution and Trump’s own views in the past. But substance is, in a way, less important than style. Trump couldn’t possibly do half of what he promises, and probably doesn’t really want to do much of the rest.
But he has the pulse of the people:
The important thing is that Trump, by being transgressive in the way he speaks, gives listeners the license to be transgressive in the way they think. When he rails against “political correctness,” he’s talking about the manners and courtesies that many of us would call being “civil.” But his in-your-face bullying strikes a chord with the large segment of the Republican electorate that is tired of being polite: lower-middle-class, non-college-educated white voters who have not prospered over the past two decades and see demographic change as a threat.
Trump was quick to understand how angry the Republican base is with the party establishment. Vote for us, GOP leaders said, and we’ll stop illegal immigration, repeal the Affordable Care Act, slash spending to the bone, reduce the long-term federal debt and basically stop everything President Obama is trying to do. They failed to deliver – and now someone is calling them on it.
For Trump, saying outrageous things that would end any other politician’s campaign or career is no risk. On the contrary, it’s a necessity. His appeal to primary voters involves a bald-faced appeal to racial and ethnic animus; he gives his supporters permission to bemoan the fact that “they” – Mexicans and Muslims, primarily, but also African Americans and uppity women – are changing the nation.
That’s been said before, but it’s still true:
Trump’s arena-size rallies have become set pieces in which big, boisterous crowds get to act out their “Make America Great Again” fantasies. If protesters didn’t show up to advocate the Black Lives Matter movement or tolerance toward Muslims, Trump would have to hire actors to play those parts. Antagonists are necessary for the moments of catharsis when interlopers are identified, scorned and physically ejected. It is theater, not politics, a symbolic enactment of the grand purification Trump promises.
That’s heady stuff – like Richard Nixon promising peace with honor in Vietnam, which even he probably knew was utterly impossible, and promising law and order with no pesky protests about anything at all, ever again, and then there was Kent State. But he won, didn’t he? He had the pulse of the nation, or enough of the nation. There are election cycles where those dark satanic tones do resonate. Here we go again.