The Elusive Root Cause of Trump

Donald Trump has kept the media busy. Every four to six hours he says something offensive to someone – to women, to minorities, to economic and foreign-policy experts, and often to fellow Republicans. These are mostly naughty-schoolboy insults – intended to sting and embarrass others. He needles people – friends and foes alike – in what many see as a game of dominance. Others will whimper and fold if he keeps up the name-calling, and thus everyone will see his alpha-male awesomeness, and that’s worked for him. He could win this election – and when someone calls him out for the stupid thing he just said – Obama founded ISIS or whatever – he’ll say he was only kidding. The next day he’ll say he hadn’t been kidding at all. It’s exhausting, and every few hours it’s something else, and that’s on purpose. He can’t be touched if he keeps moving on, and there’s no point in anyone making a list of the outrages. Only the last three or four have everyone upset. The others have been forgotten.

The latest, as if it will matter in another twelve hours, seems to be this:

He’s called for a ban on Muslims entering the country.

So on Wednesday, when Donald Trump – jokingly – asked supporters whether he should give the boot to non-Christians at his rally in Iowa, it raised some concerns from, among others, Muslim groups.

“Raise your hand if you’re not a Christian conservative. There’s a couple of people,” he said at a rally in Council Bluffs. “… Should we keep them in the room? I think so.”

Trump proposed a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. last December following terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. His comments have been assailed by Democrats and Republicans alike.

His statements Wednesday were castigated by some on social media, who didn’t seem to care they were apparently made in jest and that Trump did not ask for the non-Christians to leave the room.

Yeah, but what a man jokes about is who he is. Even as a joke this is alarming, but it too will be forgotten. There’s no way to keep up with it all.

How did it come to this? Why is this insult-machine with no knowledge of public policy – and not much interest in it either – one of the two realistic choices for president? How did this happen?

Those who are tired of listing the outrages have decided to step back and think about that. One of those is Heather Parton, and she thinks this all started in 2008:

As the vehicle for social progress and the home of most racial minorities and women, the Democratic Party was naturally the institution that would advance two breakthrough leaders in succession. The time had come, the country had changed and I naively thought it would be easy.

As it turned out, there was an immediate, fierce backlash against the ascendancy of Barack Obama to the presidency, called the Tea Party. It was portrayed as a revolutionary anti-government movement but when scholars studied these folks, it turned out that they were simply garden-variety conservatives after all – and they were very, very angry.

But that may have been wrong. Parton cites Harvard’s Theda Skocpol, the co-author of The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, explaining that something deeper was going on here:

There’s no question that at the grass roots, approximately half of all Republican-identifiers who think of themselves as Tea Partyers are a very conservative-minded old group of white people, some of whom do go all the way back to [Barry] Goldwater and the [John] Birch Society. They are skeptical of the Republican Party as it has been run in recent years. But they both hate and fear the Democratic Party and Obama. We argued in many ways that anger comes from alarm on the part of these older conservatives that they’re losing their country – that’s what they say – that they’re the true Americans, and they’re losing control of American politics.

Parton runs with that:

Nothing symbolized that “loss of control” more than the African-American president sitting in the White House. Sadly, it turns out that these older, more affluent conservatives weren’t the only ones who felt that way. White working-class Americans, particularly men, were growing more and more angry about losing their place in the hierarchy of privilege. These two groups make up the Republican coalition that is now expressing the right-wing backlash in the form of explicit white nationalism.

After dealing with a black president and his family occupying the White House for eight long years, accepting a woman taking the job immediately thereafter is more than they can bear. As the National Rifle Association’s president, Wayne LaPierre, quipped, “I have to tell you, eight years of one demographically symbolic president is enough.”

The right-wing opposition’s response to the “demographically symbolic” female candidate has been to nominate a famously crude misogynist to restore white male authority once and for all.

That explains Trump, or Rebecca Traister explains Trump:

Of course Hillary Clinton is going to have to run against a man who seems both to embody and have attracted the support of everything male, white and angry about the ascension of women and black people in America. … Of course a woman who wants to land in the Oval Office is going to have to get past an aggressive reality-TV star who has literally talked about his penis in a debate.

Parton sees how that hobbles Hillary:

This explains to some extent why we don’t see the kind of rapturous excitement at this “first” that we saw in 2008 for Obama. The sense of violence and hostility that was bubbling just under the surface then, and that churned throughout the Obama years, has now exploded. It’s frightening and disorienting and it forces optimism to the down-low. The atmosphere is more like a war than a movement.

Clinton’s ad campaign shows the terrain on which this war is being fought. There have been plenty of standard issues ads and character studies, but her most effective spots are those that simply use Donald Trump’s own words against him, showing him insulting people and expressing himself in crude, bullying fashion. They’re presented from the point of view of kids, veterans, seniors, individuals with disabilities, people of color and women who can see how this man who tells his voters “I am your voice” talks about them.

The ads are not about Clinton and they aren’t really about Trump. They are about us and what Trump’s followers really think of us.

There’s no hiding that, so the lines have been drawn:

Many fathers who see the ads are appalled that their daughters have to live in a world where someone like Donald Trump is an acceptable leader. That’s why the experience of Alicia Machado, the former Miss Universe who has come forward with her story of being humiliated at Trump’s hands, has such resonance with women and Latinos.

It’s why people with disabilities and their families are frightened by Trump’s cruel mockery of a reporter. It’s the reason that African-Americans feel a chill down their spines when they hear Trump say that the way to achieve racial healing is “law and order” and “stop-and-frisk.” It’s why millions of Americans of all races and creeds were stunned at his blithe dismissal of Khan family members and their sacrifice. These are the people on the other side of all that angry white grievance.

So here’s the theory:

It’s not a coincidence that the first African-American president may be followed by the first woman president… But it also shouldn’t be a surprise that the first would enter office on a high note of inspiration and the second would face the inevitable backlash. We should have seen it coming. I get the feeling that Hillary Clinton did.

Perhaps Clinton did, but Slate’s Will Saletan has another theory. We got Trump because of the Iraq war:

In 1995, the Republican Party had occupied the White House for all but two of the previous 14 years. The Soviet Union was dead. Foreign policy was a national afterthought. Violent crime was at a peak, a staple of Republican campaigns. The country had just suffered its worst terror attack, a bombing in Oklahoma City by white extremists. In the 1994 elections, the GOP had picked up 10 governorships, eight Senate seats, and 54 House seats, seizing control of Congress. When people talked about a war in Iraq, they meant the Persian Gulf War of 1990–91, led by President George H. W. Bush and hailed as a triumph of international law enforcement.

Two decades later, that landscape is unrecognizable. Democrats are likely to retain the presidency for a third consecutive term, a feat unseen since the GOP reign of 1981 to 1993. Russia is a resurgent predator. Republicans in Congress talk more about criminal justice reform than they do about crime. Several of this year’s Republican presidential candidates campaigned against the National Security Agency, and most recoiled from the idea of sending troops to the Middle East. The party’s nominee, Donald Trump, brags that he opposed the Iraq war, a lie that reflects how far the political winds have shifted.

That damned Iraq war changed everything:

The war left two political vacuums. One is in Iraq, where the post-Saddam government can barely hold its own against ISIS and other sectarian forces. The other is in the United States. The war discredited Republican management of the presidency. George W. Bush devoted six years to a massive policing and nation-building project, and he failed. His failure destroyed the GOP’s self-confidence and led many Americans to turn away, embracing alternatives on the left and right.

And one of those alternatives was Trump, the alternative to this:

Not many people, even on the right, praise Bush today. Budget hawks wince at the deficits he piled up by cutting taxes while failing to tackle entitlements. Republican politicians pretend their party had nothing to do with the financial crash. Conservatives are still choking on the bailouts. But the party’s biggest black eye is Iraq. In every Gallup Poll for the past 10 years, most Americans have said the war was a mistake. Two years ago, in an Economist/YouGov survey, 69 percent of Republicans said Iraq probably would never become a stable democracy. A plurality of Republicans, 47 percent to 34 percent, said the United States had failed to accomplish its objectives. 

That hurts, but that was inevitable:

Bush and Cheney made the 2004 election a referendum on Iraq. They attacked the patriotism of anyone who criticized their conduct of the war. This ruthless strategy secured their re-election, but it came at a price. As the occupation soured and the body bags piled up, public unease turned to unrest and anger. Were Iraqis better off than they had been under Saddam? Was America safer? Where were the weapons of mass destruction? Why had we invaded a country that had nothing to do with 9/11? How had a party that ridiculed the competence of government at home led us into a bloody, multi-trillion-dollar nation-building project abroad? In 2006, voters stripped the Republican Party of its majorities in Congress. In 2008, they evicted it from the White House.

Today, the GOP is a failed state.

It failed at fiscal management, economic stewardship, and military judgment. Then, when sectarian forces rose up on the right, GOP leaders failed to confront them. Anti-government, anti–gun control, and anti-immigrant zealots seized control of Republican primaries and cowed Republican lawmakers. Now these militants have put their own warlord, Trump, on the throne. He spurns everything the establishment stood for: internationalism, free trade, migrant labor, decorum, expertise. To his critics in the Republican elite, Trump has a one-word answer: Iraq. These are the geniuses who wrecked our country, he says. Ignore them.

Voters are ignoring them, and ignoring Hillary Clinton too – she voted for the war. Bernie Sanders kept reminding her of that, until she won the nomination, because she said, repeatedly, that she regrets that vote, and most Democrats believe she does. No Republicans can bring themselves to say that they now regret their own vote for the war. They got Trump instead – at least that’s the theory.

George Will, however, says no. The problem is that Donald Trump’s rise reflects American conservatism’s decay:

His trade policy is liberalism’s “industrial policy” repackaged for faux conservatives comfortable with presidents dictating what Americans can import and purchase at what prices, and where U.S. corporations can operate. Trump “wouldn’t approve” Ford manufacturing cars in Mexico. He would create a federal police force to deport 450,000 illegal immigrants a month, including 6.4 percent of America’s workforce in two years. Yet the 25 million jobs he promises to create would require more than doubling the current rate of legal immigration to fill them, according to economist Mark Zandi. Of the Supreme Court’s 2005 Kelo decision diluting property rights by vastly expanding government’s powers of eminent domain, Trump says, “I happen to agree with it 100 percent.” Even Bernie Sanders rejects Kelo.

When Trump says “people are not making it on Social Security,” he implies that people should be able to “make it” on Social Security for a third or more of their lives, and that he, like Clinton, is for enriching this entitlement’s benefits. He will “save” the system by eliminating – wait for it – “waste, fraud and abuse.” Trump is as parsimonious with specifics regarding health care (“Plans you don’t even know about will be devised because we’re going to come up with plans – health-care plans – that will be so good”) as regarding foreign policy (“I would get China, and I would say, ‘Get in [North Korea], and straighten it out.’ ”).

“Charismatic authority,” wrote Max Weber in 1915, seven years before Mussolini’s march on Rome, causes the governed to submit “because of their belief in the extraordinary quality of the specific person… Charismatic rule thus rests upon the belief in magical powers, revelations and hero worship.” A demagogue’s success requires a receptive demos and Trump’s ascendancy reflects progressivism’s success in changing America’s social norms and national character by de-stigmatizing dependency.

Ah, that’s the problem. Ever since FDR came up with Social Security people have decided that the government could do something useful for everyone – and that created a culture of dependency, said the man who never walked on a government sidewalk. So, Trump is as bad as FDR, or worse:

Urban without a trace of urbanity, Trump has surrounded himself with star-struck acolytes (Mike Pence marvels at Trump’s anatomical – “broad-shouldered” – foreign policy) and hysterics (Rudy Giuliani: “There is no next election! This is it!”). When Ferdinand VII regained Spain’s throne in 1813, he vowed to end “the disastrous mania of thinking.” Trump is America’s Ferdinand.

And thus this stupid country lost its way:

The American project was to construct a constitutional regime whose institutional architecture would guarantee the limited government implied by the Founders’ philosophy: Government is instituted to “secure” (the Declaration of Independence) preexisting natural rights. Today, however, neither the executive nor legislative branches take this seriously, the judiciary has forsworn enforcing it, and neither political party represents it because no substantial constituency supports it.

What explains Trump? That would be a nation that refuses to stigmatize dependency and thinks its government can do lots of good things. George Will knows why Trump – stupid people who don’t see the obvious virtues of real conservatism.

Well, that’s a theory, but Dana Milbank covers the Greatest Generation’s rebuke of Trump:

John Warner, veteran of World War II and Korea, speechwriter in the Eisenhower White House, secretary of the Navy in the Nixon Pentagon, Republican senator from Virginia and longtime chairman and ranking member of the Armed Services Committee before his retirement in 2009, performed one more act of public service Wednesday.

He urged those who love the military and care about American leadership to defeat Donald Trump.

Warner – endorsing the Democratic ticket while standing in Alexandria, Va., with fellow Virginian Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s running mate – spoke bitterly of Trump’s description of the military as a “disaster” and a “shambles” with the generals reduced to “rubble.”

“We have today the strongest military in the world; no one can compare with us,” Warner said. Though the military needs to be modernized, he added, “no one should have the audacity to stand up and degrade the Purple Heart, degrade military families or talk about the military being in a state of disaster. That’s wrong!”

And you don’t want to argue with a man who was once married to Elizabeth Taylor, although this was about the basics:

Warner is a throwback to a different time, one of unflinching patriotism, civility, of recognition that your political opponent is not your enemy, and a dedication to consensus for the good of country.

These were the hallmarks of Warner’s generation, the Greatest Generation, “tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace,” as John F. Kennedy put it in 1961.

“I look back with deep respect for those who taught me the fundamentals of duty and honor and country at the age of 17” when he enlisted, Warner said. “I’m here solely because of what I learned then.”

Everyone has forgotten about duty and honor and country. That’s the problem, and this old man is a reminder of that:

Warner, in his decency, is everything that Trump is not.

He governed by consensus. “I had partners in Barry Goldwater and Sam Nunn and John Stennis and John Tower… old Scoop Jackson, and I learned from those men,” Warner said Wednesday. “That’s why I feel distressed about some of the comments made by the opponent to this ticket.”

He was unfailingly civil. “Candidate Clinton maintained [her] composure throughout the debate; the other candidate, in my judgment, did not,” Warner said. “She was firm but fair and, underline, respectful. That’s one word that’s totally lacking on the other side of this ticket.” Warner hailed Kaine, a longtime friend, as a “beautiful man” of “unquestioned integrity.”

And Warner was diligent. “We are, like it or not, the leader of the free world,” he said, and the president must “have a very firm and fundamental understanding” about America’s role and responsibility. “You don’t pull up a quick text like National Security for Dummies,” he said. Presidents “have got to understand there are times they don’t know everything, but they can learn, and particularly they can learn if they’ve got a foundation of their own experience to build upon – not go out and try to create it out of whole cloth after you read two or three brief sheets. Ridiculous.”

Has everyone forgotten about duty and honor and country, and decency? If so, you get Trump.

Of course there are the Republican enablers. E. J. Dionne discusses those folks:

Let it be said that at least some in the party will be able to stand proudly after this god-awful election is over. We’re witnessing real courage among those members of the party of Lincoln willing to say openly how genuinely dangerous a Trump presidency would be.

For those whose livelihoods depend on building big audiences among pro-Trump rank-and-file conservatives (think radio talk-show hosts and commentators of various kinds), joining the Never Trump camp carries real risks. For liberals, opposing Trump is about the easiest thing in the world, so we should honor the daring of our temporary comrades.

Sure, but there aren’t enough of those:

Unfortunately, the Never Trumpers are a minority on the right. More typical are House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), the most prominent among the GOP contortionists who are hedging their bets.

They send signals that they know how ridiculous and bigoted Trump is, calling out this or that statement when it’s convenient to do so. But they endorse him anyway to save their down-ticket candidates while hoping that, should he lose, they can curry favor with the now-large Trump wing of the party after November.

They have made another bet as well: They believe Trump has so little interest in policy that if he were to win he would sign whatever bills a conservative Congress put before him. Trump, they hope, would be quite content just occupying a nice piece of real estate on Pennsylvania Avenue to go with the one, as he mentioned on Monday, that he’s presiding over just down the street.

Trump has encouraged this view. He may be unpresidential but he is conversant in making deals and finding the other side’s weak spot. He knows that the only thing that many conservative politicians and interest groups truly care about are big tax cuts for the rich. So he let supply-side conservatives write him a tax plan…  Besides, he’s now told us that he thinks it is “smart” for wealthy people like him not to pay taxes.

He’s played them for suckers:

It’s a cozy arrangement – and entirely rational as far as it goes. But for it to work, Trump has to keep himself under some control, becoming sufficiently conventional not to cause too much heartburn to the establishmentarians. If he did it right, he might even win. But at the least, his job is to run well enough to give the Republicans a chance to hold the Senate as well as the House.

Trump showed on Monday that he may not keep his part of the deal, either because he doesn’t want to or because he’s incapable of it. And the risk for the party is high. A Trump who exudes sexism, traffics in racism, exhibits a resolute indifference to facts and demonstrates an inability to do his homework will turn off better-educated suburban voters without whom Republicans cannot build their majorities. If more normal Republican politicians continue to collude with Trump, these voters could turn against the whole ticket.

The theory here is that these coldly-calculating Republican enablers gave us Trump, and they badly miscalculated. That may be so, but the other Theories of Trump are just as plausible.

Maybe they’re all true. That’s a depressing thought.

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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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