Toward a Unified Theory of Trump

Science fiction is cool. In 1946, Arthur C. Clarke published an article in Wireless World about what he saw as the world’s tallest transmitting tower – a hypothetical geosynchronous satellite that would orbit the earth at the same rate the earth turned, so it would always be over the same spot. That would make a great radio tower. He even worked out the celestial geometry – the speed and distance from the earth and all that – but it couldn’t be done – that was science fiction at the time. Sputnik, eleven years later, mankind’s first satellite, was a low-orbit nothing-much. Still, two guys from Hughes Aircraft out here in El Segundo, looked up Clarke and chatted him up about the original idea, and the first geostationary communication satellite, Syncom 3, was launched on August 19, 1964, and used to telecast the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo to the United States. Science fiction became real enough. Cool.

Then there’s The Foundation series by Isaac Asimov:

The premise of the series is that the mathematician Hari Seldon spent his life developing a branch of mathematics known as psychohistory, a concept of mathematical sociology. Using the laws of mass action, it can predict the future, but only on a large scale. Seldon foresees the imminent fall of the Galactic Empire, which encompasses the entire Milky Way, and a dark age lasting 30,000 years before a second great empire arises.

Yes, one day, statistical analysis will be so good that everything is predictable. Hari Seldon is Nate Silver – look at the data – we can see who the next president will be. Nate always gets it right – but in the Asimov books there’s the Mule – an unknown outsider who begins taking over planets belonging to the Foundation so quickly that no one knows what’s going on. He falls outside all the statistical models, until they look at the data more closely. Damn, they should have seen that coming. The appearance of the Mule was predictable after all. Oops.

So here we go again, and Donald Trump is the Mule – running away with the Republican nomination, and no one saw that coming. Jeb Bush had the big bucks and the big guns behind him. The Koch brothers were behind Scott Walker. Marco Rubio was the favorite of the party elders and younger wise men and all the pundits at the National Review and Weekly Standard and whatnot. Everyone had statistical models that showed their guy was it this year, and all that failed. Oops.

This cannot be, and Jonathan Chait delves into why Donald Trump is driving conservatives crazy:

People get worked up during presidential campaigns. But the rise of Donald Trump has provoked conservative intellectuals to express their dismay in existential tones. Conservative writers have used terms like unmitigated, unalloyed, potentially unsalvageable disaster to describe a Trump nomination and have declared that they are “fighting for our movement’s existence.” Marco Rubio has made this kind of talk the Lingua Franca of his once relentlessly chummy campaign, warning that the Republican Party “would split apart” were Trump to prevail. Trump’s opponents have planned for the kinds of dire, schismatic responses not seen in generations of American presidential politics: using the party’s summer convention, normally a scripted infomercial, to wrest the nomination from him – or even bolting the GOP to start a third party.

The fear inspired by Trump is not merely that he would blow the party’s chances of winning the presidency (though he probably would), or even that he would saddle it with long-term damage among the growing Latino bloc (though he would do that as well). It is that Trump would release the conservative movement’s policy hammerlock on the Republican Party.

That really shouldn’t have happened:

The ideological stakes in a fight between conservatives and Trump can be difficult for outsiders to fathom. After all, Trump endorsed Mitt Romney, loathes President Obama, favors a gigantic tax cut, denies global warming, issues ritual praise for Ronald Reagan, and so on. But one place to start – a mystery that reveals a clue – is a recent report in the Times describing frantic efforts to organize an intraparty opposition to Trump. At one meeting, advisers to the Koch brothers, who control a political organization much larger than the actual Republican Party, “characterized Mr. Trump’s record as utterly unacceptable, and highlighted his support for government-funded business subsidies and government-backed health care.”

That may seem odd – Trump’s position on health care is almost indistinguishable from that of the rest of the field. He calls Obamacare a disaster and promises to repeal it and replace it with a sketchily defined alternative that will take care of everybody without any trade-offs. But the basis for the suspicion lies in Trump’s long-ago-renounced support for single-payer health insurance and his more recent promises not to allow people to “die in the streets,” a line that provoked horror in Rubio and Ted Cruz at a February debate. Before Obamacare, those too poor or sick to afford insurance routinely died from illness or suffered horribly. By invoking their suffering, Trump implied that Obamacare did something good.

More important, his history of liberalism and his aversion to letting the uninsured die in the streets imply that Trump lies outside the anti-government consensus that has ruled the party for decades.

That is heresy:

Among major conservative parties in the democratic world, the U.S. Republican Party is unique in its ideological anti-statism. Conservative parties elsewhere accept universal health insurance and the idea that government might play a role in weaning an economy off fossil fuels, and the general budgetary principle that tax revenue needs to bear some long-term relation to expenditures. Trump does not challenge anti-government orthodoxy frontally. Instead, he evades it. He denounces government for being not too big but too dumb, and his solution frequently involves not shrinking it but putting a smart person in charge (himself). Trump’s cult of personality implies the heretical possibility that government could be made to work.

No one believes that anymore, according to conservatives and a whole lot of polling, but Trump seems to believe it, and sells it. How could this be? They got it wrong:

The Republican Party has, for decades, been organized around a stable hierarchy of priorities, the highest of which is to reduce taxes for the wealthiest Americans, i.e., “job creators,” and loosen regulation of business. As long as their party is anchored by its economic consensus, conservatives tolerate wide disagreement on social issues. Some Republicans want to expand the party’s coalition by taking more liberal stances on issues like gay marriage, immigration, and racism in the criminal-justice system. Other Republicans still rail against gays and immigrants. Representative Steve Scalise, the House majority whip, has ties to the white-supremacist movement and once described himself as “David Duke without the baggage.” Nothing Trump has said about immigrants, the Ku Klux Klan, or anything else violates the GOP’s baseline standards. The problem is that he implicitly proposes to invert the party’s hierarchy, prioritizing its right-wing social resentments while tolerating ambiguity on economics. And his popularity suggests that maybe average Republicans aren’t maniacally obsessed with shrinking government after all.

They were wrong all along:

By making race and nationalism the text rather than the subtext of Republican politics, Trump threatens not only the party’s agenda but the self-conception of its intellectual class. The conservative movement seized control of the Republican Party momentarily in 1964 during Barry Goldwater’s candidacy, and completely in the decades to come. It succeeded in large part because many whites, especially in the working class, identified the GOP as the party that would protect their security and tax dollars from black people. Conservatives prefer to deny this history. “Liberals may have been fond of claiming that Republicans were all closet bigots and that tax cuts were a form of racial prejudice, but the accusation rang hollow because the evidence for it was so tendentious,” wrote The Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens recently, citing as counter­evidence William F. Buckley’s break with a small sect of anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists to help found the modern conservative movement. “Not anymore.” Now, he said, Trump had besmirched the movement’s long record of racial innocence. In a similar spirit, the Republican consultant Rick Wilson, who has spearheaded the party’s anti-Trump backlash, recently lamented Trump’s refusal to immediately disavow the Klan: “A generation of work with African-Americans, slow, patient work … we’ve pissed that away because of Donald Trump in one day.” In reality, Buckley spent the civil-rights movement mocking Martin Luther King Jr. and defending white supremacy and spent the ’80s defending apartheid in South Africa. The Republican Party’s “work with ­African-Americans” is mostly focused on making it harder for them to vote, and Republican presidential candidates’ share of the black vote has declined from the mid-teens in the ’70s to the mid–single digits in the last couple of elections.

Trump has also exposed another, equally deep insecurity among right-wing intellectuals: the fear that their movement appeals to rubes. The conservative movement’s tightening grip over the Republican Party has coincided with its elevation of leaders incapable of explaining their policies cogently. Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Sarah Palin all drew the disdain of liberal elites for their reliance on simplistic aphorisms and poor grasp of detail, humiliating conservative intellectuals, who defended the keen minds of their heroes. Whether or not Donald Trump the human being is intelligent, there’s no question that “Donald Trump,” presidential candidate, is not. His entire campaign operates well below the level of rational thought – it’s all boasting, absurd promises, repetitive sloganeering, and abuse. Just as email scammers intentionally salt their messages with typos in order to weed out anyone educated enough to see through their swindle, allowing them to focus on the most gullible, Trump seems to consciously repel anyone possessed of a brain. When he says he could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and not lose any support, or that he appeals to “the poorly educated,” he is broadcasting his contempt for his supporters.

The secret fear lying beneath Rubio’s accurate depiction of Trump as a “con artist” is that Republican voters are easy marks.

Republican voters don’t read Edmund Burke and the tax code and think deeply about original intent in subordinate clauses in the Constitution. They are easy marks, but Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo sees something else:

When people try to make sense of this topsy-turvy, norm-busting election year, one of the key mistakes they make is to assume that the dynamics that operate for Donald Trump in the Republican primary will operate in a general election. They won’t. I’m not saying Trump can’t win a national election. In a Clinton v Trump match-up I think anything from a shattering Trump defeat to a narrow Trump victory is possible. But many people now believe that Trump can defy political gravity – flouting conventions of propriety, embracing extremist positions, casually changing positions, all with no penalty. That won’t work in a general election.

Still, Trump has his appeal:

First is simple political substance. TPM Readers are entirely familiar with that the fact that a large segment of the American right is animated by a belief that ‘their’ world, their America is being taken away from them – this includes everything from declining white racial dominance, having to choose whether you want to hear the phone tree message in English or Spanish, changing cultural mores – the whole package. This is the essence of Trump’s campaign – beating back the external threat – the harsh anti-immigrant policies, Muslim bans, flirting with white supremacists, etc. This is the most visible and literal part of Trump’s appeal.

Second is the appeal to power and force. Trump is the master of GOP ‘dominance politics’ – the inherent appeal of power and the ability to dominate others. All of this has a deep appeal to America’s authoritarian right, especially in a climate of perceived threat, which has been growing over the last two decades – something political scientists are now catching on to.

And these two things are linked:

The phenomenon of the imperiled, resentment right is something you’re well familiar with if you’re a close observer of American politics… in December that we were seeing this show up in the demographic data in the unprecedented rising mortality rates of middle-aged whites – from chronic substance abuse, overdose and suicide. And as the Washington Post’s Jeff Guo noted last week, the states where middle-aged whites are dying fastest heavily correlate with the states where Trump has had his highest margins.

Think about that for a second. Trump’s message and policy agenda hits every dimension of threat and change.

And then there’s what everyone missed: 

On the radicalized, revanchist right, provocation and transgression of norms isn’t simply indulged. It functions as a positive good. It is a feature, not a bug, to use the tech phrase. What the mainstream electorate might view as an ‘outrage’ is actually signal of the willingness to tear down a corrupt order that is unwilling (Democrats and elites) or unable (RINOs, mainstream GOP) to turn back the tide of threat. So whether or not you think it’s a good idea to kill terrorists families, saying you will is a signal that you won’t accept limits. How can Trump break all the rules and pay no price? What’s his magic? Changing your positions, obviously lying, taunting enemies – none of these hurt Trump because his core supporters are not seeing them through the same prism you likely are. They’re not signs of deception, bad character or untrustworthiness. They all signal a refusal to accept the norms of the threatening order and thus a willingness to overturn it.

To put this more simply, you’re being too literal. While the Trump movement is heavily tinged by racial backlash, it’s not like all Trump backers would embrace outright white nationalists. But that’s not the point. Provocation is a feature, not a bug.

Not everyone feels that way, but that’s the problem:

Indeed, the divide is what’s tearing the GOP in half at the moment – because it’s a very big chunk of the Republican Party. To put this concretely, most Democrats will never support Trump for simple policy reasons, even if there are segments of the Democratic coalition that might. But what we are talking about here is a distinction between policy and political mentality, specifically a view of politics based on resentment and desire for revenge. And that operates with a large minority but not close to a majority of the electorate.

That is, however, a comfort:

What all of this means is that a Trump v Clinton general election will be fought over the roughly 10% of the electorate which is not firmly anchored in the right/center-right or left/center-left blocs of American politics. It will likely be fought out over the distinction between Trump’s policies and the Democrat’s. But it will be fought out on conventional political norms – not ones in which rule-breaking and transgressive behaviors are positive good in themselves.

This is not wishful thinking. It’s based on a clear understanding of the structure of contemporary politics – one backed up by Trump’s negative favorability ratings, which have never topped the mid-30s and are now trending down. So we should not expect that Trump will be able to easily switch gears to become a candidate of racial unity or that it won’t boomerang on him if we find him calling Clinton “Little Hillary” at a debate in October.

This doesn’t mean he can’t win. It means that we shouldn’t think his political magic is about him. It’s about his audience.

It’s not him, it’s them, and Martin Longman adds this:

Conditions for ordinary Americans have gotten more difficult and our government is squabbling about paying our bills on time and whether or not to keep the lights on in the Capitol building.

What makes Trump popular when he insults every major Republican politician, talking head, or news outlet is that the people are worse off, and any candid assessment of the folks in Washington DC gives them zero hope for near-term improvement.

We can argue about which side is more culpable, and in my opinion it is not even a close call – the Republicans are the main culprit – but Trump is popular on the right because their leaders are so unpopular. He’s getting support from the middle and even the left because (whoever is responsible) the result they’re seeing is gridlock and inaction and a deteriorating status quo.

Like Hari Seldon, Republicans read the data wrong:

For a while, the right thought they could break our government and get rewarded because their message is that government doesn’t work. Well, it didn’t work out that way for too long, because now they’ve got to contend with Trump. That’s their problem, but it could be our problem soon if our nominee isn’t tuned into the zeitgeist of the country.

That may not be fair, but politics is rarely fair. A good politician gets ahead of the zeitgeist. A bad one gets run over by it. Ask Jeb Bush.

And on the right, at PowerLine, Paul Mirengoff isn’t so sure about any of this:

I agree that, although a Trump victory in November is certainly possible, Hillary Clinton is likely to beat him because he probably won’t be able to “defy political gravity” in the general election. But why has he been able to defy it among so many of those who vote in Republican primaries and caucuses? Marshall argues that to answer this question we need to focus on “the portion of the electorate he is currently operating.”

I agree that we need to focus on the portion of the electorate that is supporting Trump. It won’t do, in my opinion, to blame the media. Yes, it has provided a massive amount of free air time to Trump. But if Trump didn’t have considerable appeal, that air time would have caused him to crash, not flourish.

It also won’t do to blame his opponents. Yes, they should have attacked him earlier and harder. But Trump’s non-conservative views, his authoritarian tendencies, and his deplorable personal qualities have been on display for many months. Why has he continued to flourish?

It must be because a sizable portion of those who vote in GOP primaries like what they have seen. The real question is whether they like the non-conservativism, authoritarianism, and/or viciousness and are supporting Trump precisely because of one or more of these attributes, or whether they supporting Trump for other reasons, in spite of these features.

And there are alternative explanations for Trump’s success:

The one that comes to my mind is this: when Trump says America will win non-stop under his leadership thanks to his ability to make deals and solve problems, lots of voters believe him. This has nothing to do with a desire to enhance “white racial dominance” or a craving for authoritarianism. It has little to do with a desire to tear down existing structures… Instead, it has to do with belief in the Trump brand. It’s the same faith exhibited by those who enrolled in Trump University.

Trump himself must believe that faith in his leadership and deal-making ability is what’s driving his support. Ordinarily, he talks about banning Muslims from entering America, for example, when he’s responding to questions or attacks. The rest of the time, he likes to speak of “winning,” of making “great deals” for America, and of the “tremendous company” he built.

Trump also emphasizes his ability to get along with everyone, albeit on his terms. If anything, he seems less like a destroyer of the existing order than Ted Cruz.

Many voters must simply think that Trump will be a more able executive than the two wet-behind-the-ears Senators and the squishy governor running against him, as well as the “low energy” ex-governor once considered by many the GOP frontrunner.

It seems that Mirengoff doesn’t have a Unified Theory of Trump, but Marshall gives it a second try, suggesting that all of this is about betrayal:

The betrayal is that the GOP promised it would destroy Obama’s presidency (end it in 2012, defang it before and after) and turn back the various things he’s done to damage the country and ‘transform’ it. But let’s remember that Republicans played a high stakes game of brinksmanship in 2011, threatening to default on the national debt if President Obama didn’t comply with various demands, an event totally without precedent in more than two centuries of American history. There was the Cruz government shutdown in 2013 to attempt to force yet another showdown over Obamacare. There was the successful effort to kill immigration reform in 2013. There’s the current refusal to even receive the President’s nomination to fill a Supreme Court vacancy, at the beginning of the fourth year of his term – again, totally unprecedented in American history. (We had serial rejections in the mid-19th century, never a refusal even to consider a nomination.) And these are only some of the most high stakes examples.

I’ve never been terribly impressed when people note Mitch McConnell’s early declaration that his primary goal in opposition was to ensure that President Obama was a one term president. That’s almost always an opposition leader’s goal – the difference was that he said it out loud and how far he proved willing to take it. But by almost any objective standard, congressional Republicans have taken a long list of either rare or totally unprecedented actions to fight President Obama. And they’ve accomplished a fair amount – thought largely in negative terms – by doing so. This is the context for half the part feeling “betrayed” by the party establishment that opted for a get along and go along with President Obama.

The signs were there:

This was also, of course, the backdrop to the last intra-GOP blow-up before the primaries really got underway: the overthrow of Speaker John Boehner. He resigned somewhat on his own terms. But it was largely a matter of choosing his moment to jump. The move to overthrow Boehner was largely driven by the belief that with Boehner out of the way, the far right faction of the party (about half the GOP) would finally get a clean shot at Obama. No more pussy-footing around, no more betrayals, no more chickening out at the last minute just when the shutdown was starting to work.

You can say all sorts of things about these folks being crazy, or extremists or whatever else. But set aside all these evaluative or partisan interpretations and one thing is fairly clear in objective terms: a large portion of the GOP is not satisfied with what can realistically be achieved by conventional political means.

No one accounted for that:

Some of this is a product of “hate debt” and “nonsense debt” – building up wildly unrealistic expectations by over-promising and trading in an increasingly apocalyptic political rhetoric. But it’s not all that. Something this powerful isn’t just ginned up by political leaders. It runs much deeper. But again, the overreaching point is important: The narrative of ‘betrayal’ – at this volume and intensity – only makes sense if you are dealing with a chunk of the electorate with expectations that are deeply unrealistic in the context of conventional political action.

That is a volatile situation when you’re talking about at least a quarter of the national electorate.

That gets you Trump. It also gets you Ted Cruz. And it may get you worse still.

Yeah, you might get the Mule taking over one planet after another – but that’s science fiction. It’s more likely we’ll get Hillary Clinton and a Senate still in Republican hands, with more hardliners, a Senate that will refuse to confirm any of her appointments to anything, from the Supreme Court to secretary of state to the head of any agency at all, effectively shutting down the government, to punish the American people for electing another Democrat president. What are the odds of that happening? They’re pretty good. Psychohistory tells us that.

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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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2 Responses to Toward a Unified Theory of Trump

  1. Your last paragraph is depressingly realistic. Like all of us I come from “family”; like many of us, I have family, the oldest 52. And then there’s the friends, the folks I see in the coffee shop every day, at church…. Every behavior described I see in my own circles. I do what I can (which seems very little…but then it is at least a little.
    A difficult example: A good friend of mine had the unfortunate circumstance of being born in 1926 in Germany, in the worst of times,and living through the entirety of what turned out to be the Nazi’s 1000 year Reich – a dozen years. She’s written a popular book about it; even now she speaks often to groups, always well received. Even she, who knows what it was like from living it, and is a wonderful lady, succumbs to negative emotions, about immigrants overrunning Germany, about Hillary, who she confides she doesn’t trust, etc., etc.
    A good friend and former union colleague reminded me about an organizing axiom from the old days when we were involved in “bargaining elections” one union versus another for representation rights. It’s very simple “don’t peak too soon”. It’s useful to remember it, and other similar pieces of advice, during these crazy times. My blog for March 1 goes a little further, if you wish

  2. Jim Muir says:

    The Foundation series. My favorite of all time.

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