The Panic Begins

It was such a nice morning in May – no one was giving a thought to just how fascism comes to America – the sun was shining – but then there was Robert Kagan in the Washington Post:

Republican politicians marvel at how Donald Trump has “tapped into” a hitherto unknown swath of the voting public. But what he has tapped into is what the founders most feared when they established the democratic republic: the popular passions unleashed, the “mobocracy.” Conservatives have been warning for decades about government suffocating liberty. But here is the other threat to liberty that Alexis de Tocqueville and the ancient philosophers warned about: that the people in a democracy, excited, angry and unconstrained, might run roughshod over even the institutions created to preserve their freedoms. As Alexander Hamilton watched the French Revolution unfold, he feared in America what he saw play out in France – that the unleashing of popular passions would lead not to greater democracy but to the arrival of a tyrant, riding to power on the shoulders of the people.

Oh no! Mob rule, then Robespierre, then Napoleon, but Kagan refers to more recent history:

This phenomenon has arisen in other democratic and quasi-democratic countries over the past century, and it has generally been called “fascism.” Fascist movements, too, had no coherent ideology, no clear set of prescriptions for what ailed society. “National socialism” was a bundle of contradictions, united chiefly by what, and who, it opposed; fascism in Italy was anti-liberal, anti-democratic, anti-Marxist, anti-capitalist and anti-clerical. Successful fascism was not about policies but about the strongman, the leader (Il Duce, Der Fuhrer), in whom could be entrusted the fate of the nation. Whatever the problem, he could fix it. Whatever the threat, internal or external, he could vanquish it, and it was unnecessary for him to explain how. Today, there is Putinism, which also has nothing to do with belief or policy but is about the tough man who singlehandedly defends his people against all threats, foreign and domestic.

And we’re getting there:

To understand how such movements take over a democracy, one only has to watch the Republican Party today. These movements play on all the fears, vanities, ambitions and insecurities that make up the human psyche. In democracies, at least for politicians, the only thing that matters is what the voters say they want – vox populi vox dei.

A mass political movement is thus a powerful and, to those who would oppose it, frightening weapon. When controlled and directed by a single leader, it can be aimed at whomever the leader chooses. If someone criticizes or opposes the leader, it doesn’t matter how popular or admired that person has been. He might be a famous war hero, but if the leader derides and ridicules his heroism, the followers laugh and jeer. He might be the highest-ranking elected guardian of the party’s most cherished principles. But if he hesitates to support the leader, he faces political death.

And that would explain what everyone sees in the news:

In such an environment, every political figure confronts a stark choice: Get right with the leader and his mass following or get run over. The human race in such circumstances breaks down into predictable categories – and democratic politicians are the most predictable. There are those whose ambition leads them to jump on the bandwagon. They praise the leader’s incoherent speeches as the beginning of wisdom, hoping he will reward them with a plum post in the new order. There are those who merely hope to survive. Their consciences won’t let them curry favor so shamelessly, so they mumble their pledges of support, like the victims in Stalin’s show trials, perhaps not realizing that the leader and his followers will get them in the end anyway.

A great number will simply kid themselves, refusing to admit that something very different from the usual politics is afoot. Let the storm pass, they insist, and then we can pick up the pieces, rebuild and get back to normal. Meanwhile, don’t alienate the leader’s mass following. After all, they are voters and will need to be brought back into the fold. As for Trump himself, let’s shape him, advise him, steer him in the right direction and, not incidentally, save our political skins.

What these people do not or will not see is that, once in power, Trump will owe them and their party nothing.

There’s much more, but it’s enough to say that Kagan is not a happy camper:

This is how fascism comes to America, not with jackboots and salutes (although there have been salutes, and a whiff of violence) but with a television huckster, a phony billionaire, a textbook egomaniac “tapping into” popular resentments and insecurities, and with an entire national political party – out of ambition or blind party loyalty, or simply out of fear – falling into line behind him.

This has been said before. Three weeks earlier Andrew Sullivan made essentially the same argument – which is odd because Kagan was one of the original hardcore neocons that told us our military might would change the world and that would be the end of history and we would have that New American Century and everything would be wonderful, and Sullivan came to hate those guys for pretty much ruining the world. If the two of them agree, well, perhaps it is time to panic – but Donald Trump will lose the general election, right? Americans know better. There’s no need to panic.

Slate’s Isaac Chotiner then pointed out that Americans don’t know better:

On Wednesday afternoon, Fox News released a new national poll showing Donald Trump leading Hillary Clinton, 45 to 42 percent, a 10-point swing since the previous Fox survey a month ago. The poll sparked a discussion on social media, which included the usual caveats: It’s just one poll (true); Trump is almost certainly not leading Clinton by three points (also true: thepollster.com average has her up three points); professional Democrats enjoy freaking out (undeniably true); and we still have months of campaigning (sadly true). Trump got a bump for essentially wrapping up the Republican nomination; Clinton, meanwhile, is still battling Bernie Sanders, even if her eventual triumph – and a subsequent boost in the polls – is inevitable.

Okay, relax, but just don’t relax too much:

What can a single poll tell us in a long election cycle that itself has become an unpredictable freak show? Nothing – but it can serve as a much-needed reminder that this election is closer than it has any right to be. And the proper response to that fact – to Trump’s almost incomprehensible rise from birther-conspiracist celebrity half-wit to presumptive nominee sitting within striking distance of a former secretary of state – is fear. A bigoted know-nothing could truly be our next president. To argue that Americans should be anything less than terrified is itself irresponsible.

And don’t listen to people trying to calm you down: 

Trump isn’t so scary, the first argument goes. Isn’t he just an actor and buffoon rather than a dangerous demagogue? Put aside the issue of how we should feel about someone who doesn’t believe racist and Islamophobic rhetoric but uses it for political expediency. (How confident are you that such a person would not do absolutely anything if it became politically expedient?) Everyone who has been paying more than limited attention to the presidential race is aware by now that Trump’s personality is not a put-on. He is a misogynist. He has genuine affection for autocracy and brute force. He is pettily invested in going after perceived enemies, in the press or in business. It once seemed possible that Trump was a moderate businessman pretending to be a nasty right-winger. No longer.

And don’t listen to the second argument, that Trump can’t win because of all the demographic factors and whatnot:

For the sake of conversation, let’s grant Trump only a 20 percent chance of defeating Clinton in November. This is the reason we should be freaking out! Imagine if I told you that there was a 1-in-5 possibility that something awful would happen to your spouse or your child by November. Would you spend the next six months merrily repeating that there was an 80 percent chance your loved one would be fine? Of course not. Americans should consider the possibility of a Trump presidency similarly.

That’s a chance you don’t want to take:

Trump has gotten as far as he has after running a campaign most notable for its complete lack of policy substance and a media strategy that consists of pathological lying. He has exposed giant chunks of the press corps as craven and pathetic. He has shown that 45 percent of the voting public – give or take – is willing to elect someone who has spent the past year campaigning openly as a crass bigot who hates the women he’s not having sex with (and he probably hates them, too). He has proved that running as a white nationalist is not an immediate disqualifier for the presidency of the United States in 20–freaking–16. Politicians have always run “against” institutions or people, whether they are insurance companies or government bureaucrats. But never in modern history has someone gotten this far in political life by running an entire campaign based on grievance and rage, and against society’s less fortunate.

The argument here is that far too many Americans simply don’t know better:

Whatever you think about Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, there are quite clearly millions of people in this country (many of them very progressive) who have not wrestled with who Donald Trump is and what he represents. (Even scarier is the fact that so many Americans have wrestled with Trump to some degree, and find him palatable enough.) It’s certainly possible that if the election is close in October, the country will witness a belated freak-out, followed by a huge Democratic turnout wave. But it would also be nice not to wager our future on people becoming appropriately serious only as the clock ticks down.

A bit of panic, then might be appropriate, but Slate’s Josh Voorhees isn’t so sure about that: 

The new survey suggests Clinton is seen as “more corrupt,” less “honest and trustworthy,” and more likely to “say anything to get elected” than the Republican reality television star she’ll face off with in the general election. Even more troubling, Hillary’s net-favorability rating in the survey has dipped 5 points in the past two months, from negative-19 to negative-24. Over that same stretch, Trump’s rating has soared 19 points, from negative-34 in March to negative-15 on Thursday. Those numbers would still make Trump and Clinton the most disliked major nominees in modern history, but the “least-popular” superlative would go to Hillary, not Donald. The fancy political science term for that is: Not Good.

Is it time to freak out? The fact that Trump is where he is now is definitely cause for a certain type of panic, as my colleague Isaac Chotiner notes, but this poll itself should not terrify you.

For starters, this survey looks like an outlier. One potential reason for that, which several pollsters have noted, is that it foresees a 2016 electorate with a considerably higher share of self-identified Republicans than turned out four years ago, something that could be skewing the numbers in Trump’s favor.

More generally, this is a single poll taken six months before the general election. The rule of thumb among the data-first-last-and-always set is that this type of hypothetical polling isn’t all that predictive until after the national conventions, which are still two long months away. To the extent that these types of surveys matter, meanwhile, it’s best to focus on polling averages, not single polls. According to the Huffington Post’s tracker, Clinton’s average lead on Trump in recent national surveys has been 2.7 points, while according to RealClearPolitics, that number is 3.3 points. 

There really is no need to panic, and this had to happen:

Some of the change can be attributed to a combination of the media’s ongoing attempts to domesticate Trump in the name of political narrative, Trump’s Republican critics finally getting on board (however grudgingly) in the spirit of partisanship, and the fact Bernie Sanders is currently forcing Hillary to campaign on two different fronts. Those last two points could also help explain the shifts in Trump and Clinton’s favorability ratings. Former Ted Cruz or John Kasich voters are now coming to terms with Trump as their nominee, making him more palatable to their particular conservative tastes. Sanders supporters haven’t given up hope, and tensions between them and the Democratic Party are running particularly high, so it’s easy to imagine Bernie fans having a particularly dim view of Clinton right now. Assuming Bernie plays nice at some point, you’d expect Hillary to reap the rewards of party unification down the road.

Of course, the fact that Beltway conservatives and many down-the-middle media outlets have proved willing to pretend Trump is a run-of-the-mill nominee as opposed to an American demagogue is certainly a cause for concern. But there are limits to their ability to make Trump and his brand of belligerent bluster acceptable to the majority of the country. Team Hillary will have plenty of chances to roll the tape of Trump being Trump.

And there are the basics:

As has been well covered by now, most of the other signs we have point to a clear Hillary advantage come November. The unemployment rate is down from where it was four years ago, President Obama’s job approval and favorability ratings are both above water, and – perhaps most important of all – the electoral map looks particularly friendly to Democrats this cycle. There’s also the not-so-small matter that it’s far from clear where and how Trump can do better than Mitt Romney did four years ago given the shifting demographics of the country. 

So there’s no need to panic just yet, especially when you factor in party unity:

A year’s worth of talk about how Trump was blowing up the GOP clouded the reality that he faces a somewhat different – and in some ways easier – task of putting his party back together than Clinton will with hers once Sanders finally calls it a day. As an insurgent outsider, Trump needs the establishment – the people who care about party above all else – to fall in line, something much of it is already doing. As the consummate insider, though, Clinton needs to win over her party’s anti-establishment wing, something that clearly hasn’t happened yet and which poses its own unique challenges. I’d be shocked if the vast majority of Bernie supporters don’t ultimately learn to live with Hillary, but it’s certainly something to keep an eye on, particularly among white working-class voters in places like Pennsylvania.

In short, Clinton has a far harder task than Trump, but she can pull it off, with some possible exceptions, and the latest poll really doesn’t matter:

If Trump were to continue to climb in the national polls as the conventions get closer, or if there were signs he was making headway with the type of nonwhite voters he’s spent the past year offending, those would be reasons to sound the alarm. But for now, a survey or two, taken at a time when Trump is focused on the general while Clinton’s still distracted by the primary aren’t enough reason to panic.

Perhaps so, but polls aren’t the only reason to panic. Josh Marshall identifies another:

The New York Times posted an article late Wednesday evening which confirms and expands on much of what I’ve been hearing from within the Sanders campaign in recent weeks and days. The top leaders of the campaign are now saying openly that they are focused on dealing a crushing blow to Clinton in the California primary on June 7th and aren’t concerned whether it damages Clinton’s chances in the general election or not.

We need to be careful in reading the Times article because a good number of the key connecting points are not direct quotes but summaries of interviews conducted by the bylined reporters. That is a situation where nuance and ambiguity can be severely compressed. But the actual quotes seem clear enough to rule out much chance of that.

And here is one of those quotes:

While Mr. Sanders says he does not want Mr. Trump to win in November, his advisers and allies say he is willing to do some harm to Mrs. Clinton in the shorter term if it means he can capture a majority of the 475 pledged delegates at stake in California and arrive at the Philadelphia convention with maximum political power.

Tad Devine, a senior adviser to Mr. Sanders, said the campaign did not think its attacks would help Mr. Trump in the long run, but added that the senator’s team was “not thinking about” the possibility that they could help derail Mrs. Clinton from becoming the first woman elected president.

Marshall:

Much of this is consistent with what I hear myself, which is that this is being driven and fueled by Sanders himself, with two or three of his closest advisors in tow. They also seem to be making it up as they go along.

Consider a few points: Sanders has in the last three days essentially declared war on the institutional Democratic Party, giving it an ultimatum to open up its doors to people who want ‘real change’. Fair enough. But his entire stated strategy is to do well enough in the final run of primaries that super-delegates, the embodiment of the institutional party, decide to drop Clinton and switch their allegiance to Sanders.

That makes no sense.

You don’t gain the acceptance or support of people whose very legitimacy you are currently attacking. You also don’t gain trust by threatening a convention meltdown that these same people almost universally fear threatens to hand the election to Donald Trump. My point here isn’t even about who’s corrupt or ‘for the people’ or ‘against the people’ in Sanders’ increasingly Manichean worldview. It’s just logic. You don’t get party insiders to abandon their chosen candidate and embrace you by doing everything you can to demonstrate that you view them as your enemy.

They are making it up as they go along, with stuff like this:

Advisers to Mr. Sanders said on Wednesday that he was newly resolved to remain in the race, seeing an aggressive campaign as his only chance to pressure Democrats into making fundamental changes to how presidential primaries and debates are held in the future. They said he also held out hope of capitalizing on any late stumbles by Mrs. Clinton or any damage to her candidacy, whether by scandal or by the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald J. Trump.

Marshall:

This is almost comical. The Democratic Party and its Chicago convention were torn apart in 1968 over a fundamental cleavage over the Vietnam War. The Sanders camp is going to blow up the convention to push debate schedule reform? That’s amazing. Reform of the primary process is a much more substantive matter. But remember, the parts of the process most in need of reform (Caucuses and post-election day shenanigans) are the ones helping Sanders the most! Now his whole campaign is based on getting the superdelegates – which for most of the campaign he has said constitute the core anti-democratic aspect of the process – to hand him the nomination. Consistency is an overrated commodity in much of life, especially in politics. But you can’t make the logic of your arguments so structurally unsound that they collapse under the weight of their own ridiculousness.

He might want to pack this in. And then there’s the 2008 model, Clinton losing and throwing her weight behind Obama, but that might not apply now:

Both sides in the 2008 struggle had profound personal and professional connections to and investment in the Democratic Party. That put real limits on how far the acrimony would go. Even if you insist on seeing Clinton’s actions at the end of the 2008 primary process through the most cynical prism possible, it’s clear she was not willing to destroy her own future political relevance or her husband’s political legacy by not getting behind Obama in the general. Sanders and Jeff Weaver have no such investment on the line. Indeed, their own political background is one as dissidents whose political posture is one of resisting and opposing institutional politics. Dissident politics has a glorious history of its own. But it’s not one that leads to Kumbaya moments at national party conventions.

So even if the acrimony or darkness is comparable, indeed perhaps worse in 2008, the structural reality is a bit different.

Okay, panic:

From what I can tell, the current Sanders campaign is riven between people who are increasingly upset or bewildered by what we might call the resurgent “burn it down” turn of Sanders outlook and others who are fully immersed in the feedback loop of grievance and paranoia that sees all the political events of the last year as a series of large and small scale conspiracies to deny the rectitude and destiny of Bernie Sanders.

I’ve seen many, many campaigns. People put everything into it and losing is brutal and punishing. Folks on the losing side frequently go a little nuts, sometimes a lot nuts. The 2008 denouement really was pretty crazy. But it’s not clear that this time we have any countervailing force – adulthood, institutional buy-in, future careers, overriding pragmatism to rein things in.

Perhaps this is how fascism comes to America, not with jackboots and salutes but with a television huckster, a phony billionaire, a textbook egomaniac “tapping into” popular resentments and insecurities, and with an entire national political party falling into line behind him, and the other national party somehow unable to do anything about it. Okay, you can panic now.

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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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