The Two Disruptors

“I do, like many of you, appreciate the comforts of every day routine – the security of the familiar, the tranquility of repetition. I enjoy them as much as any bloke.”

That’s how the guy in the Guy Fawkes mask opens his address to the British people in that odd futuristic movie – and then he systematically brings down the nation’s neo-fascist government. He was asking for help. The security of the familiar was the problem. People had become resigned to their own repression, from the endless curfews to the neighbor suddenly being carried off in a black bag. It was time to rise up and do something about this – and yes, unlike in 1605, Parliament is actually blown up this time. It’s a fantasy. Liberals love the movie, and Natalie Portman is damned cute as the waif who gets caught up in all this. But it’s only a movie.

In real life people do like the security of the familiar and the tranquility of repetition. Everyone knows what’s what – Republicans act like Republicans, and Jeb Bush will be our next president, unless that’s Hillary Clinton. All the rest is noise, except that this year things are different. Donald Trump is running away with the Republican nomination and Hillary Clinton was just smoked in the New Hampshire primary – by Bernie Sanders, who likes to call himself a democratic socialist – a seventy-four-year-old Jew from Brooklyn who wasn’t even a Democrat before this year. He won in a landslide, and Donald Trump, who never before had much to do with the Republican Party before, had twice as many votes as the nearest lifelong Republican. Something is up. Nothing is what it’s supposed to be. Forget blowing up Parliament – these two have blown up our two political parties.

This has made many uncomfortable. There’s this from Janet Shan:

I will say it loud and clear, for now, I am a Hillary Clinton supporter but I would support John Kasich if he were to become the Republican presidential nominee over her. I am a moderate who leans left on some issues and right on others. What I cannot bring myself to do in good conscience is to support either Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders – a racist, sexist and xenophobe on the GOP side, and an avowed Socialist on the Democratic side. If both become the respective presidential nominees, then this is one election I may have to sit out and that would be a real shame.

Perhaps so, but she may have to sit out this election. John Cassidy, in the New Yorker, explains it all – Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump Ride the Populist Wave – a discussion of how these two are oddly alike, or at least riding the same wave, and Kenneth Walsh offers Trump, Sanders Ride Voter Anger to Victory:

Trump and Sanders, although they belong to different parties, possess different temperaments, and offer different policies, have much in common in their core appeal. They berate special interests, including the super-rich and big contributors; argue that the middle class has been getting a raw deal; say the Washington establishment doesn’t represent the people, and oppose the United States being the world’s policeman.

That makes them just alike – everyone seems to be saying that now – but the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent isn’t so sure about that:

On Morning Joe Wednesday morning, Donald Trump explained his – and Bernie Sanders’s – big wins in New Hampshire this way:

“We’re being ripped off by everybody. And I guess that’s the thing that Bernie Sanders and myself have in common. We know about the trade. But unfortunately he can’t do anything to fix it, whereas I will. I have the best people in the world. We’re losing hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars a year. And we will fix it. And we’ll make it good. And we’ll bring our jobs back. Bernie Sanders can’t even think in terms of that. The only thing he does know, and he’s right about, is that we’re being ripped off; he says that constantly; and I guess he and I are the only two that really say that.”

We’re being ripped off, and Trump and Sanders are the only two candidates who are really saying that. They are speaking to people’s sense that our economic and political systems are cheating them, that they are being failed because the underlying rules of those systems have themselves been rigged.

Well, that’s what Trump says, but what Sanders said in his victory speech Tuesday night isn’t that much different:

“Tonight, we served notice to the political and economic establishment of this country that the American people will not continue to accept a corrupt campaign finance system that is undermining American democracy, and we will not accept a rigged economy in which ordinary Americans work longer hours for lower wages, while almost all new income and wealth goes to the top one percent.”

In one sentence, Sanders blamed flat wages and soaring inequality on an economy whose rules have been written to benefit a tiny elite at the expense of everyone else, and tied this directly to a political system whose rules have been written to dis-empower the American people from doing anything about it.

It’s the same thing, but Sargent says it isn’t the same thing at all:

Trump says our elites are weak, stupid, and corrupt. Sanders says our elites are being corrupted. The difference between those two things is subtle, but important. Trump says the elites are cheating ordinary Americans by helping illegals, major corporations, and China, and vows to break this corrupt system over his knee and get it working again, because he’s not one of those elites. This is what Trump really means when he says he “can’t be bought”; Trump is not making a sustained argument for political and campaign finance reform; he’s just saying he’s not a member of the class that is cheating you, and he will come in and bust up that class’s party.

Sanders, by contrast, is making a sustained argument for political and campaign finance reform. For him, the culprit is not an elite that is actively trying to help illegals and China and allowing the country to slide into ruin out of national security weakness and ineffectiveness. Rather, it’s an oligarchy that has enriched itself by rigging the economy to effect a massive transfer of wealth upwards and to paralyze our political system from doing anything about it, thus corrupting our political classes. Sanders’s whole policy agenda is framed around this idea. While [Hillary] Clinton tends to focus on incremental solutions aimed at boosting wages and opportunity, and mitigating people’s economic difficulties on the margins, Sanders wants to rid the system entirely of its dependence on big money in order to actively reverse the upward redistribution of wealth that, he says, poses an existential threat to our economy and middle class.

Those are two different things and Hillary mistakenly confuses them:

In her concession speech, Clinton tried to get back to a more reform-oriented posture by alluding to the very good campaign finance and voting reform proposals she’s rolled out. But Clinton continued to describe Sanders’s success in limited emotional terms – as if he is merely speaking to people’s anger and frustration. Some pundits similarly describe Trump’s appeal as an ability to harness “anger.” Yet there’s more to it than this. What both Trump and Sanders share is that they treat the problem as one of political economy, in which both the economic and political systems are rigged in intertwined ways, thus speaking directly to people’s understandable intellectual assessment of what is deeply wrong with our system and why it no longer works for them.

The long term danger for Clinton is that Sanders has framed the whole race in a way that will make it very hard for her to counter this argument. If the Democratic establishment steps in to rally for Clinton, that risks making her look more like an old-guard political creature of the very establishment that Sanders is indicting, only now it will be rigging the system on her behalf.

She’s trapped. Bernie Sanders wins this one, or Donald Trump does. Either of their views of what has gone terribly wrong trumps the tranquility of repetition. Stephen Rose, the labor economist, discusses this in The Triumph of the Untested:

While not unexpected, the results of primary election in New Hampshire provide an interesting reading of how a lot of Americans are feeling.

Let’s start with where the election took place: New Hampshire is an overwhelming white state with a highly educated population, an extremely low unemployment rate, and incomes that are 20 percent higher than the national average. If any group of people has reason to be confident about their economic future, it is the people of this state.

Yet the two anti-establishment winners base their appeal on what is wrong with America today. And they couldn’t be more different. One is super-rich and is running on a platform of reducing taxes and regulations. The other is a self-proclaimed democratic socialist running on increasing taxes, providing more services, and increasing regulations on business. One never ran for elective office and touts his qualifications as a successful businessman; the other is a career politician but of a very unique sort – officially an independent who is gadfly with little legislative clout. Yet media reports found a number of people in the days before the elections who were trying to decide which one of these two to vote for.

What Sanders and Trump share is a commitment to major changes and a passionate style which is interpreted as “authenticity.”

But there’s nothing new there:

Running on change has been a prominent theme in many recent elections. Obama’s original campaign slogans were “yes we can” and “hope.” Tea Party and other strongly conservative Republicans have promised going to Washington and shaking things up. Yet the last five years in Washington have been mostly characterized by major confrontations that have led to last minute compromises that pleased no one.

Looking objectively at the Obama record, we see a modest rebound from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. The passing of the Affordable Care Act was the major early accomplishment followed by managing the recovery of the financial system while enacting the Dodd-Frank regulatory framework meant to ensure that there wouldn’t be another financial meltdown. While these are modest achievements, they look very good in comparison to what has happened in Japan, most countries in Western Europe, Russia, and Brazil.

Sure, but people are angry anyway, and Rose sees several reasons for that:

A key difference today is change in how the news is reported. On the one hand, the mass media went from neutral reporter of major events to specialized channels and talk shows on radio and TV that were advocates of extreme positions. On the other hand, the huge presence of hyper-partisan internet blogs and sites has made people choose sides. And once they have chosen a side, they tend to hear lots of self-reinforcing commentaries and tune out other narratives (what behavioral scientists call confirmation and inattention biases).

But it’s more than that:

First, all sides agree that our political system is failing us without realizing that their partisanship is one of the basic reasons for this gridlock. Conservatives have a visceral dislike of Obama and accuse of him of being a socialist tyrant (and were even worried that war games in the US might be a plan to take over Texas). In contrast, liberals repeatedly complain about the corrosive effects of big money in politics in rigging the game in favor of the super-rich. Note the chasm between these two arguments.

Second, conservatives feel that they have lost the cultural wars and that their beliefs are under attack, e.g. same sex marriage, out of wedlock sex and births, secularism, and militant Islam. They rail against the mass media, political correctness, and a welfare state that is too generous to immigrants and people of color. As Stan Greenberg documents in his book America Ascendant, these people are desperate to defend their way of life against long-term demographic and cultural trends.

That book would be America Ascendant: A Revolutionary Nation’s Path to Addressing Its Deepest Problems and Leading the 21st Century – explained here:

Bill Clinton’s former pollster thinks it’s a mistake for Democratic presidential candidates to essentially run for President Barack Obama’s “third term.”

“That’s not what the country wants. It’s not what the base of the Democratic Party wants,” said longtime Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg, whose past clients include Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. “The Democratic Party is waiting for a president who will articulate the scale of the problems we face and challenge them to address it.”

Greenberg thinks it’s time to go bigger.

Enter Bernie Sanders, stage left, of course, but Rose is more interested in the economic dread out there:

On the one hand, a 2015 poll by the Pew Research Center found that: 40 percent say that the big recession didn’t negatively affect them; 30 percent said that recession hurt them but that they have now recovered; and 30 percent were negatively affected and haven’t recovered. With 30 percent losing ground, this provides a pool of angry people and another group who worry some untoward event could happen to them. Overall, there is economic anxiety about a globalized world in which things changing too fast and too unpredictably. In a couple of stories before the election about NH voters saying that “I’m doing okay now but…”

In this environment, the untested – Trump, Sanders, Cruz, and Rubio – have flourished with big promises and great bombast. Because the economy isn’t in disastrous state, people seem willing to give these candidates the benefit of the doubt

They were waiting for someone to show up in a Guy Fawkes mask – the movie was V for Vendetta by the way – but vendettas are scary. Bernie Sanders is a fine fellow – decent and generous and kind – but Donald Trump is a different matter. In fact, Ezra Klein says that the rise of Donald Trump is a terrifying moment in American politics:

On Monday, Donald Trump held a rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, where he merrily repeated a woman in the crowd who called Ted Cruz a pussy. Twenty-four hours later, Donald Trump won the New Hampshire primary in a landslide.

I’m not here to clutch my pearls over Trump’s vulgarity; what was telling, rather, was the immaturity of the moment, the glee Trump took in his “she said it, I didn’t” game. The media, which has grown used to covering Trump as a sideshow, delighted in the moment along with him – it was funny, and it meant clicks, takes, traffic. But it was more than that. It was the frontrunner for the Republican nomination for president showing off the demagogue’s instinct for amplifying the angriest voice in the mob.

And yes, that’s seductive, and dangerously so:

It is undeniably enjoyable to watch Trump. He’s red-faced, discursive, funny, angry, strange, unpredictable, and real. He speaks without filter and tweets with reckless abandon. The Donald Trump phenomenon is a riotous union of candidate ego and voter id. America’s most skilled political entertainer is putting on the greatest show we’ve ever seen.

It’s so fun to watch that it’s easy to lose sight of how terrifying it really is.

Trump is the most dangerous major candidate for president in memory. He pairs terrible ideas with an alarming temperament; he’s a racist, a sexist, and a demagogue, but he’s also a narcissist, a bully, and a dilettante. He lies so constantly and so fluently that it’s hard to know if he even realizes he’s lying. He delights in schoolyard taunts and luxuriates in backlash.

No good will come of this:

His triumph in a general election is unlikely, but it is far from impossible. He’s not a joke and he’s not a clown. He’s a man who could soon be making decisions of war and peace, who would decide which regulations are enforced and which are lifted, who would be responsible for nominating Supreme Court justices and representing America in the community of nations. This is not political entertainment. This is politics.

And he’s no Bernie Sanders – mayor, congressman, senator:

Trump’s path to power has been unnerving. His business is licensing out his own name as a symbol of opulence. He has endured bankruptcies and scandal by bragging his way out of them. He rose to prominence in the Republican Party as a leader of the birther movement. He climbed to the top of the polls in this election by calling Mexicans rapists and killers. He defended a poor debate performance by accusing Megyn Kelly of being on her period. He responded to rival Ted Cruz’s surge by calling for a travel ban on Muslims. When two of his supporters attacked a homeless man and said they did it because “Donald Trump was right, all these illegals need to be deported,” he brushed off complaints that he’s inspiring violence by saying his supporters are “very passionate.”

Behind Trump’s success is an unerring instinct for harnessing anger, resentment, and fear. His view of the economy is entirely zero-sum – for Americans to win, others must lose. “We’re going to make America great again,” he said in his New Hampshire victory speech, “but we’re going to do it the old-fashioned way. We’re going to beat China, Japan, beat Mexico at trade. We’re going to beat all of these countries that are taking so much of our money away from us on a daily basis. It’s not going to happen anymore.”

Trump answers America’s rage with more rage… Trump doesn’t offer solutions so much as he offers villains. His message isn’t so much that he’ll help you as he’ll hurt them.

Other than that he’s fine fellow, except for his complete lack of shame:

It’s easy to underestimate how important shame is in American politics. But shame is our most powerful restraint on politicians who would find success through demagoguery. Most people feel shame when they’re exposed as liars, when they’re seen as uninformed, when their behavior is thought cruel, when respected figures in their party condemn their actions, when experts dismiss their proposals, when they are mocked and booed and protested.

Trump doesn’t. He has the reality television star’s ability to operate entirely without shame, and that permits him to operate entirely without restraint. It is the single scariest facet of his personality. It is the one that allows him to go where others won’t, to say what others can’t, to do what others wouldn’t.

Trump lives by the reality television trope that he’s not here to make friends. But the reason reality television villains always say they’re not there to make friends is because it sets them apart, makes them unpredictable and fun to watch. “I’m not here to make friends” is another way of saying, “I’m not bound by the social conventions of normal people.” The rest of us are here to make friends, and it makes us boring, gentle, kind.

That is what scares Klein:

There are places where I think his instincts are an improvement on the Republican field. He seems more dovish than neoconservatives like Marco Rubio and less dismissive of the social safety net than libertarians like Rand Paul. But those candidates are checked by institutions and incentives that hold no sway over Trump; his temperament is so immature, his narcissism so clear, his political base so unique, his reactions so strange, that I honestly have no idea what he would do – or what he wouldn’t do.

That’s not so with Sanders. Everyone knows exactly what Sanders would or would not do. You may hate his ideas, or merely think they’re just plain dumb, but you know. It would never be a reflexive vendetta. These two are not alike.

Anyone can see that, but Josh Keating says that’s not exactly so:

The people of New Hampshire, both Democrat and Republican, voiced their anger at the American political establishment last night, and they did it in a thick New York accent.

The two insurgent candidates shaking up the contest are a Jewish socialist from Flatbush and a Queens-bred Manhattan real estate developer, both typifying different strains of what one might call “New York values.” Yes, Sanders made his career in Vermont, but as his own brother puts it, “he is 100 percent Brooklyn,” which his attacks on the “millionayuhs and billionayuhs” make obvious. In his speech after his New Hampshire victory last night – a speech aimed at introducing himself to a national audience – Sanders didn’t once mention neighboring Vermont but instead touted his upbringing in a “small three and a half room, rent controlled apartment in Brooklyn, New York.”

As for Trump: I, a son of New York, had initially dismissed his electoral chances for the same reason I never really took Rudy Giuliani or Mike Bloomberg seriously as national candidates: too socially liberal, too secular, too brash, and too, well, New York to win over Republicans outside the Northeast. But primary voters throughout the country sure are taken with Trump’s tough guy, outer-borough, xenophobic shtick. You could call it Sal’s Pizzeria conservatism even though Trump’s famous “yuuuuges” and “fantaaastics” mask a privileged upbringing and Wharton education.

Keating is fine with that:

New York candidates have faced the attack that they’re not quite American enough since at least 1928, when Democrats nominated another guy with a thick New Yawk accent, the progressive governor Al Smith, to run against Herbert Hoover. Smith grew up in poverty on the Lower East Side and used “The Sidewalks of New York” as his campaign song but faced vicious attacks on his Irish heritage and Roman Catholicism and was tailed on the campaign trail by the Ku Klux Klan.

The last president from New York was the patrician Franklin Roosevelt of the Hudson Valley. Since then it’s been a rough ride. New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller tried unsuccessfully to win the nomination three times in the 1960s as a liberal Republican with a scandalous personal life in an era when his party was moving rapidly to the right. He eventually became Gerald Ford’s unelected vice president but was unceremoniously dropped from the ticket in 1976 when Ford needed to appeal to conservatives.

Prominent New York political figures including John Lindsay, Al Sharpton, George Pataki, and Giuliani, have made dismally unsuccessful runs for the presidency. Mario Cuomo, Colin Powell, and Bloomberg have managed to generate fevered media speculation without ever actually running.

Keating goes on with more examples, because he sees something has changed:

If Democrats ultimately reject Sanders, they’ll be backing a former New York senator who calls Chappaqua home. The specter of a third-party run by Bloomberg still hangs over the contest. The American electorate as a whole is becoming more urban, more socially liberal, and more culturally diverse – a source of hope for some and terror for others. In short, America is looking more like New York. New York values, of one brand or another, may be exactly what voters are looking for.

Does that explain everything that’s happening this year? Probably not – but that is one way these two are alike – and maybe the only way. Still, it is an odd year. The security of the familiar and the tranquility of repetition are long gone. So, let’s go blow up Parliament, shall we? Or maybe not… These two guys are really not alike at all.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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