From Homer to Hamlet to Faulkner to half the James Bond movies, stories are best told in medias res – start in the mysterious dramatic hot middle of the story then, later, use brief flashbacks to make all the frenetic action suddenly comprehensible, and then move forward from that initial climax to the inevitable denouement – things had to work out this way. Hamlet (and everyone else) dies. Make the inevitable a surprise. It works every time – but of course in real life that sort of thing is really irritating. We want life to be linear – it all started here, which led to this happening, and then this other thing, and finally Donald Trump is the Republican nominee for president, Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, and then Hillary is our president, or that other guy is.
It should be that simple, but it never is. We’re always in the middle of the story, looking back and looking forward, trying to make sense, rather unsuccessfully, of what’s happening at the moment. Actually, that pretty much describes the human condition, but epistemology aside, the immediate problem is political. What the hell is going on in the country? Why aren’t things linear and logical? Why are we always in the incomprehensible middle of the story?
Yeah, that just happened again:
Senator Bernie Sanders scored an upset win in the Michigan Democratic primary, according to the Associated Press, threatening to prolong a Democratic campaign that Hillary Clinton appeared to have all but locked up last week.
While strengthening Mr. Sanders’s hand as the race turns to a series of large states next week, his victory in Michigan did not drastically alter Mrs. Clinton’s delegate lead, as she won overwhelmingly in Mississippi, crushing Mr. Sanders among African-American voters.
Ah, this was big news that changed nothing, but it was that kind of night:
On the Republican side, Donald J. Trump easily dispatched his rivals in Michigan and Mississippi, regaining momentum in the face of intensifying resistance to his campaign among party leaders.
After losing to Senator Ted Cruz on Saturday in Kansas and Maine, Mr. Trump needed one of his biggest performances of the campaign to tamp down doubts about his popularity after a week of gaffes, missteps and questions about the strength of his political organization.
And he got one, demonstrating his appeal with working-class white voters in Michigan, an important battleground state, while beating back especially stiff challenges from Gov. John Kasich of Ohio there and from Mr. Cruz in Mississippi.
“There’s only one person who did well tonight: Donald Trump,” he said in Jupiter, Fla., at one of his golf resorts. He also mocked Mr. Cruz. “He’s always saying, ‘I’m the only one that can beat Trump,’ ” Mr. Trump said, imitating his rival, but adding: “He rarely beats me.”
So the story continues as before:
Mrs. Clinton, addressing supporters in Cleveland, did not mention the Mississippi or Michigan results, instead alluding to the vitriol in the Republican field. “As the rhetoric keeps sinking lower, the stakes in this election keep rising higher,” she said. Running for president, she said, “shouldn’t be about delivering insults; it should be about delivering results.”
But it was almost as if her speech did not happen: Not one of the major cable news networks carried her remarks, which came as Mr. Trump was speaking.
Yeah, well, the only news was this:
If Tuesday offered a reminder of Mr. Trump’s enduring appeal, it was nothing short of devastating for Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. After slipping to third or fourth place in the states that voted Saturday, Mr. Rubio collapsed on Tuesday, finishing well behind his three rivals in Michigan and Mississippi and calling into question how much longer he will be able to stay in the race.
And then there were three, but this isn’t over:
Mr. Trump’s clear victory in Mississippi, one of four states voting Tuesday, showed that he remains the Republican favorite for the nomination and enjoys a fiercely loyal core of support. But the Republican opposition to Mr. Trump’s candidacy is just as sturdy, and there are signs that it is widening…
Even before the votes were counted, there were new signs that resistance to Mr. Trump’s candidacy within his own party was growing. The number of Republicans viewing him unfavorably spiked to 46 percent in a Washington Post-ABC poll released Tuesday – the highest figure recorded in that survey since Mr. Trump entered the race last year.
He has been hurt by what has effectively been the first sustained assault from his rivals and third-party groups about his business dealings as well as by self-inflicted wounds – notably his initial hesitation to disavow the support of a white supremacist figure, David Duke, and his boasting about his sexual endowment at last week’s debate.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before. You have. Ted Cruz won Idaho and Hawaii. This may go to the Republican convention in Cleveland where, if Trump doesn’t have enough delegates to win the nomination outright, all hell breaks loose and the Republican Party spits in two and effectively disappears. We’re in the middle of a hot mess, but at least some of it was amusing:
Seemingly wounded by Mitt Romney’s critiques of his business acumen, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump put some of his Trump products on display for a national TV audience in what was supposed to be a victory press conference.
Trump spoke from the Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter, Florida after he was projected to win primaries in Michigan and Mississippi on Tuesday.
Romney questioned the success of Trump’s businesses in a speech last week. But Trump rejected that notion, bringing his own steaks, water, and wine to his press conference in an attempt to prove himself.
“I have very successful companies,” Trump said, knocking Romney’s critiques. “He really shouldn’t have done it. It wasn’t becoming.”
He brought Trump magazines – one of which he tossed to the crowd, “Here take one,” he said.
He brought Trump steaks: “And if you want to take one we’ll charge 50 bucks a steak,” he said.
He also brought wine which came from “the largest winery on the East Coast.”
One might ask what any of that has to do with being president, but it’s best not to ask. It’s not supposed to make sense. You’re in the middle of the story, right? Star Wars opened with Episode IV – all the movies that followed were context. Context is necessary here, and in the Guardian, Thomas Frank provides that:
It’s the greatest American mystery at the moment: what motivates the supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump?
I call it a “mystery” because the working-class white people who make up the bulk of Trump’s fan base show up in amazing numbers for the candidate, filling stadiums and airport hangars, but their views, by and large, do not appear in our prestige newspapers. On their opinion pages, these publications take care to represent demographic categories of nearly every kind, but “blue-collar” is one they persistently overlook. The views of working-class people are so foreign to that universe that when New York Times columnist Nick Kristof wanted to “engage” a Trump supporter last week, he made one up, along with this imaginary person’s responses to his questions.
Yes, that went like this:
Me: How can you possibly support a demagogue with less experience than any president in history?
Voter: You media know-it-alls are so patronizing! Trump has experience where it matters, making things happen in the business world. Anyway, what have experienced politicians brought us? A corrupt and broken system. Let’s try something new – and at least he’s a straight shooter.
Okay, Kristof likes to talk to imaginary people, and it seems all of them are hapless racists:
Only racism, they tell us, is capable of powering a movement like Trump’s, which is blowing through the inherited structure of the Republican Party like a tornado through a cluster of McMansions.
Trump himself provides rather excellent evidence for this finding. The man is an insult clown who has systematically gone down the list of American ethnic groups and offended them each in turn. He wants to deport millions upon millions of undocumented immigrants. He wants to bar Muslims from visiting the United States. He admires various foreign strongmen and dictators, and has even retweeted a quote from Mussolini. This gold-plated buffoon has in turn drawn the enthusiastic endorsement of leading racists from across the spectrum of intolerance, a gorgeous mosaic of haters, each of them quivering excitedly at the prospect of getting a real, honest-to-god bigot in the White House.
All this stuff is so insane, so wildly outrageous, that the commentariat has deemed it to be the entirety of the Trump campaign. Trump appears to be a racist, so racism must be what motivates his armies of followers…
Stories marveling at the stupidity of Trump voters are published nearly every day. Articles that accuse Trump’s followers of being bigots have appeared by the hundreds, if not the thousands. Conservatives have written them; liberals have written them; impartial professionals have written them. The headline of a recent Huffington Post column announced, bluntly, that “Trump Won Super Tuesday Because America is Racist.” A New York Times reporter proved that Trump’s followers were bigots by coordinating a map of Trump support with a map of racist Google searches. Everyone knows it: Trump’s followers’ passions are nothing more than the ignorant blurtings of the white American id, driven to madness by the presence of a black man in the White House. The Trump movement is a one-note phenomenon, a vast surge of race-hate. Its partisans are not only incomprehensible they are not really worth comprehending.
Frank calls bullshit on that:
Last week, I decided to watch several hours of Trump speeches for myself. I saw the man ramble and boast and threaten and even seem to gloat when protesters were ejected from the arenas in which he spoke. I was disgusted by these things, as I have been disgusted by Trump for 20 years. But I also noticed something surprising.
In each of the speeches I watched, Trump spent a good part of his time talking about an entirely legitimate issue, one that could even be called leftwing. Yes, Donald Trump talked about trade. In fact, to judge by how much time he spent talking about it, trade may be his single biggest concern – not white supremacy. Not even his plan to build a wall along the Mexican border, the issue that first won him political fame. He did it again during the debate on 3 March: asked about his political excommunication by Mitt Romney, he chose to pivot and talk about… trade.
It seems to obsess him: the destructive free-trade deals our leaders have made, the many companies that have moved their production facilities to other lands, the phone calls he will make to those companies’ CEOs in order to threaten them with steep tariffs unless they move back to the US.
That may be the missing context here, the backstory:
Trump embellished this vision with another favorite leftwing idea: under his leadership, the government would “start competitive bidding in the drug industry”. (“We don’t competitively bid!” he marveled – another true fact, a legendary boondoggle brought to you by the George W Bush administration.) Trump extended the critique to the military-industrial complex, describing how the government is forced to buy lousy but expensive airplanes thanks to the power of industry lobbyists.
Thus did he hint at his curious selling proposition: because he is personally so wealthy, a fact about which he loves to boast, Trump himself is unaffected by business lobbyists and donations. And because he is free from the corrupting power of modern campaign finance, famous deal-maker Trump can make deals on our behalf that are “good” instead of “bad”. The chance that he will actually do so, of course, is small. He appears to be a hypocrite on this issue as well as so many other things. But at least Trump is saying this stuff.
Other reporters might note that, if they didn’t take the easy way out – another nine-hundred-word column on the nasty racist underbelly of America – and they really are missing something:
Trade is an issue that polarizes Americans by socio-economic status. To the professional class, which encompasses the vast majority of our media figures, economists, Washington officials and Democratic powerbrokers, what they call “free trade” is something so obviously good and noble it doesn’t require explanation or inquiry or even thought. Republican and Democratic leaders alike agree on this, and no amount of facts can move them from their Econ 101 dream.
To the remaining 80 or 90% of America, trade means something very different.
And that calls for an anecdote:
There’s a video going around on the internet these days that shows a room full of workers at a Carrier air conditioning plant in Indiana being told by an officer of the company that the factory is being moved to Monterrey, Mexico, and that they’re all going to lose their jobs.
As I watched it, I thought of all the arguments over trade that we’ve had in this country since the early 1990s, all the sweet words from our economists about the scientifically proven benevolence of free trade, all the ways in which our newspapers mock people who say that treaties like the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement allow companies to move jobs to Mexico.
Well, here is a video of a company moving its jobs to Mexico, courtesy of NAFTA. This is what it looks like. The Carrier executive talks in that familiar and highly professional HR language about the need to “stay competitive” and “the extremely price-sensitive marketplace”. A worker shouts “Fuck you!” at the executive. The executive asks people to please be quiet so he can “share” his “information” – his information about all of them losing their jobs.
So forget the story you’re seeing from the middle of the story. That’s not what’s really happening:
I have no special reason to doubt the suspicion that Donald Trump is a racist. Either he is one, or (as the comedian John Oliver puts it) he is pretending to be one, which amounts to the same thing. But there is another way to interpret the Trump phenomenon. A map of his support may coordinate with racist Google searches, but it coordinates even better with deindustrialization and despair, with the zones of economic misery that 30 years of Washington’s free-market consensus have brought the rest of America.
It is worth noting that Trump is making a point of assailing that Indiana air conditioning company from the video in his speeches. What this suggests is that he’s telling a tale as much about economic outrage as it is tale of racism on the march. Many of Trump’s followers are bigots, no doubt, but many more are probably excited by the prospect of a president who seems to mean it when he denounces our trade agreements and promises to bring the hammer down on the CEO that fired you and wrecked your town, unlike Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
To support that contention Frank refers to a study by Working America, a political-action auxiliary of the AFL-CIO, which interviewed white working-class voters in the suburbs of Cleveland and Pittsburgh in December and January:
Support for Donald Trump, the group found, ran strong among these people, even among self-identified Democrats, but not because they are all pining for a racist in the White House. Their favorite aspect of Trump was his “attitude”, the blunt and forthright way he talks. As far as issues are concerned, “immigration” placed third among the matters such voters care about, far behind their number one concern: “good jobs / the economy”.
“People are much more frightened than they are bigoted,” is how the findings were described to me by Karen Nussbaum, the executive director of Working America. The survey “confirmed what we heard all the time: people are fed up, people are hurting, they are very distressed about the fact that their kids don’t have a future” and that “there still hasn’t been a recovery from the recession, that every family still suffers from it in one way or another.”
Frank has much more detail, but it comes down to this:
Left parties the world over were founded to advance the fortunes of working people. But our left party in America – one of our two monopoly parties – chose long ago to turn its back on these people’s concerns, making itself instead into the tribune of the enlightened professional class, a “creative class” that makes innovative things like derivative securities and smartphone apps. The working people that the party used to care about, Democrats figured, had nowhere else to go, in the famous Clinton-era expression. The party just didn’t need to listen to them any longer.
That was a mistake:
Ill-considered trade deals and generous bank bailouts and guaranteed profits for insurance companies but no recovery for average people, ever – these policies have taken their toll. As Trump says, “we have rebuilt China and yet our country is falling apart. Our infrastructure is falling apart … Our airports are, like, Third World.”
Trump’s words articulate the populist backlash against liberalism that has been building slowly for decades and may very well occupy the White House itself, whereupon the entire world will be required to take seriously its demented ideas.
Yeah, we’ll all have to buy fifty-buck Trump steaks, but Democrats have only themselves to blame for that:
We cannot admit that we liberals bear some of the blame for its emergence, for the frustration of the working-class millions, for their blighted cities and their downward spiraling lives. So much easier to scold them for their twisted racist souls, to close our eyes to the obvious reality of which Trumpism is just a crude and ugly expression: that neoliberalism has well and truly failed.
Yes, Hillary Clinton and her husband were the masters of neoliberalism – the idea that unregulated free-market capitalism can lead to a good life for everyone at all levels, that through deregulation, outsourcing, privatization and free trade one could reach traditional liberal ends through traditionally conservative means. Hey, there’d be money left over for all the good stuff! Yeah, sure.
Hillary Clinton has eased off that a bit, for now, thanks to Bernie Sanders making the same point as Donald Trump, about blind elitist trade policy, but were she elected we’d be back there soon enough, and on the Republican side it’s all Donald Trump, all the time. The middle of the story makes sense now. Now for the denouement. Does everyone die?