Another 9/11 rolled around. The high-powered Wall Street attorney, who knows more about securities law than anyone in their right mind should know – insert your own joke about lawyers’ odd minds here – called to chat. He was there on 9/11 – he lost friends – he still remembers the smell of death in the air. And he said, back there, everyone has moved on. They all remember everything, but he had turned off all the cable news stuff about that awful day long ago. That was the rest of the country wallowing in rather useless anger and rather repulsive whining – not his exact words but close enough. Never forget? Of course, never forget any of it, but look forward. What now? He was doing that Francis Bacon thing – “A man that studieth revenge keeps his own wounds green.”
There are better things to do. He’s running for Congress – someone sensible has to help shape policy so these thing don’t happen again, and common sense and common decency and cooperation and sensible compromise are all good things too, no matter what Donald Trump and Steve Bannon say.
Move on. The concept is simple. Perpetual anger is stupid, and it renders those who are perpetually angry stupid – perhaps permanently stupid. There’s always a new enemy of everything that is good and decent and American – Mexicans, Muslims, gays and transgender folks, young black thugs and the Black Lives Matter terrorists, international bankers (Jews) – or those inscrutable Asians who run all our high tech companies (even if Bill Gates is hardly Asian) – or atheists, or urban hipsters, or the Germans, or Rosy O’Donnell and Meryl Streep – and if Obama was for it, that too is that enemy of everything that is good and decent and American. The targets keep shifting. It takes time to build a detailed case against each target. It takes time to hammer that case home to the public. All resources are directed to keeping old wounds green. Nothing gets done. America ends up with a stupid government – or no real government.
That might describe the Trump administration, and he can’t help himself:
President Donald Trump marked the 16th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on Monday, honoring victims, first responders and the military in remarks at the Pentagon and pledging resolve to keep the U.S. safe from future attacks.
“The terrorists who attacked us thought they could incite fear and weaken our spirit. But America cannot be intimidated, and those who try will soon join the long list of vanquished enemies who dared to test our mettle,” Trump said Monday morning.
The president, who recently announced his administration’s strategy for the long-running conflict in Afghanistan, which began in 2001 as a hunt for the organizers of the Sept. 11 attacks, warned that “we are making plain to these savage killers that there is no dark corner beyond our reach. No sanctuary beyond our grasp, and nowhere to hide anywhere on this very large Earth.”
He’s a little late to the game. Obama took care of Osama bin Laden – quietly and efficiently. Donald Trump didn’t lead Navy Seal Team Six and pull the trigger – he was hosting Celebrity Apprentice at the time – but this was an angry message of defiance and dominance. Unlike Obama, he’d get the bad guys – and no one would ever mess with America ever again, and no one would make fun of America ever again, and no one would ever make fun of his tiny hands ever again. The world would FEAR America again. They would fear our wrath.
The speech was sixteen years too late. He was keeping old wounds green and festering. There would be no moving on.
This is the kind of thing that seems stupid to that high-powered Wall Street attorney, who is not alone. It also may be dangerous. Conor Friedersdorf addresses that – that odd staff writer at The Atlantic who says he has right-leaning views but does not consider himself to be a doctrinal conservative or a member of the conservative movement – if there is such a thing. He’s a Gary Johnson Libertarian – and he now lives out here in Venice – the center of Los Angeles’ counterculture, and counter-everything.
Conor Friedersdorf is outside the system, but he sees the danger here:
The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks struck an unprepared America mere months into President George W. Bush’s first term. Nothing in his tenure to that point was particularly memorable. Nothing he had ever faced in life was remotely comparable. And the United States was forever shaped by the strengths and weaknesses exhibited by the Bush administration as its officials decided how to respond.
For the couple of weeks preceding the anniversary of 9/11, I’ve been fretting about what would happen if Donald Trump, who has reached the same point in his first term, is still president if and when this country next faces a challenge as significant.
There’s reason to worry:
I do not think that the United States has ever elected anyone less suited than Trump to lead it through a major terrorist attack, a war, or a challenge of similar scale.
I don’t merely mean that President Trump has no governing experience, though he does not; or that his past bankruptcies make one wonder what Taj Mahal Casino-like ruins are in his future; or that I think poorly of his moral compass and his ability to master himself, though I find him unfit to lead in a nuclear age based on those traits alone.
Friedersdorf sees much more that worries him:
The White House is in constant disarray as key personnel are hired and fired at an unprecedented rate. One cost is that most basic measure of experience: days on the job. Another is an inability to forge sustained working relationships as colleagues are summarily dispatched in the manner of a reality-TV show. And how can those who remain do their best work when the boss at the top exhibits a management style that is as volatile and erratic as it is petty? Many dignified people have simply refused to consider working for him.
Huge numbers of important State Department positions are still unfilled, including key undersecretary positions; and the ability of the United States to conduct diplomacy or to draw on country-specific expertise seems to have atrophied.
The United States is as divided as it has been at any time in my life. And according to a recent Fox News poll, it isn’t just that a majority of Americans disapprove of the job Trump is doing—56 percent say that he is “tearing the country apart.”
The Trump Organization’s murky asset portfolio, with heavy investments in numerous foreign countries, and the Trump family’s refusal to divest from it, makes it impossible for congressional overseers or the public to adequately discern when the Trump family’s business interests diverge from America’s interests.
All of this, and more, seems dire to Friedersdorf:
Things could get much, much worse – and quickly. That is one of the lessons many in my generation absorbed most fully on September 11, 2001. So in a world that has neither certitude nor peace, my pain at the unpreparedness of my country and the needlessly weak position it occupies seems likely to persist until Trump, who stokes that weakness, is no longer president.
Okay, the guy has got to go away, but how does that happen? How does America move on?
Don’t look to the Democrats. Jonathan Chait says that the first order of business is to look at the pathologies of the Republican Party:
It is certainly true that the psychological relationship between the parties has a certain symmetry. Both fear each other will cheat to win and use their power to stack the voting deck. “If Republicans win in close elections, Democrats say it’s only because they cheated by making it harder for Democratic constituencies to vote; if Democrats win in close elections, Republicans say it’s only because they voted illegally.” But while it is not true that Democrats have allowed illegal voting in nontrivial levels, it is extremely true that Republicans have deliberately made voting inconvenient for Democratic-leaning constituencies. The psychology is parallel, but the underlying facts are not.
Likewise, there is a superficial similarity to the terror with which partisans now greet governments controlled by the opposing party. Obama’s presidency made Republicans terrified of rampant socialism and vengeful minority rule. (Rush Limbaugh in 2009 instructed his audience, “In Obama’s America the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering ‘Yeah, right on, right on, right on.’ Of course everybody said the white kid deserved it, he was born a racist – he’s white.”) Trump’s presidency has inspired a similar terror among liberals terrified that Trump would take their insurance and deport immigrants.
But that’s where the symmetry ends:
Liberal fears have had a much closer relationship to reality. The reason is that the Democratic Party is racially and economically heterogeneous. Even if he had wanted to take vengeance upon white America for its sins, Obama had far too many white supporters to make such a course of action remotely practical. (A majority of Obama’s voters were white, in fact.) On economic issues, the Democratic Party relies on support and input from business and labor alike. Whatever terrors of rampant Jacobinism may have gripped the economic elite, there are limits to the fiscal and regulatory pain Democrats can impose on a constituency that has a seat at the table (many seats, actually).
There is little such balance to be found in the Republican Party. Republicans concerned about their party’s future may blanch at Trump’s pardoning of the sadistic racist Joe Arpaio or his gleeful unleashing of law enforcement. In the short term, however, they have bottomed out on their minority support and proven able to win national power regardless, by using racial wedge issues to pry away blue-collar whites. Advocates for labor or the poor have no voice whatsoever in the Republican elite. It took a massive national mobilization to narrowly dissuade the party from snatching health insurance away from millions of people too poor or sick to afford it.
And then there’s the tribal stuff:
There is nothing on the left with the reach and scope of the conservative media universe defined by talk radio, Fox News, and other outlets that have functioned as state media. Certainly pockets of epistemological closure exist, especially in the way social media has allowed curated media streams that exclusively cater to one’s prejudices. But the fact is that the Democratic Party is fundamentally accountable to the mainstream news media. And that media try to follow rules of objectivity that the right-wing alternative media does not bother with.
And then there’s Steve Bannon:
Bannon understood both the importance and the permeability of the mainstream news media to his ideas and messaging. Bannon knew that the right kind of research could influence the New York Times’ coverage of Hillary Clinton, and thereby deeply shape the views of Democratic voters.
Whether or not the New York Times was correct to use this research, and whether or not it treated Clinton fairly overall, is not the point. What matters is that Democratic politicians need to please a news media that is open to contrary facts and willing – and arguably eager – to hold them accountable. The mainstream media have had its liberal biases, but it also misses the other way – see the Times’ disastrously wrong report, a week before the election, that the FBI saw no links between the Trump campaign and Russia and no intention by Russia to help Trump. One cannot imagine Fox News publishing an equivalently wrong story against the Republican Party’s interests – its errors all run in the same direction.
Whatever interest liberals may have in finding congenial media, they don’t dismiss the mainstream media out of hand in the way conservatives have been trained over decades to do. When the conservative news media criticizes Republicans, it is almost always to play the role of ideological enforcer, attacking them for their lack of fervor. One party has a media ecosystem that serves as a guardrail, and the other has one that serves only as an accelerant.
That means that the Democrats are in a hopeless position:
The left has no equivalent to a Rush Limbaugh in influence and sheer lunacy. The conservative commentator – whose prestige on the right is such that, when Republicans won control of the House in 1994, they made him an honorary member – recently described Hurricane Irma as a story trumped up by the liberal media in order to foment climate-change hysteria and sell bottled water. There are figures just as crazy as Limbaugh on the left, but they are almost uniformly outside the Democratic Party coalition.
That means that Trump will stay, no matter what the Democrats do or who they run:
It is simply impossible to design any kind of a system that can withstand a stress test like a major party captured by a faction as radical as the conservative movement. Its absence of limiting principles to its ideology, indifference to empirical evidence, and inability to concede failings of its dogma lead to an endless succession of failures explained away to the base as faintheartedness…
Republicans are sealed off in a bubble of paranoia and rage, and Democrats are sealed off from that bubble. Democrats fear Republican government because it is dangerous and extreme. Republicans fear Democratic government because they are dangerous and extreme.
And thus Donald Trump stays just where he is, for two full terms.
Kevin Drum sees that too:
America is a democracy, and parties survive only if they gain popular support. Over the past couple of decades, we liberals have marveled at the steadily increasing lunacy of the Republican Party, confidently predicting at every turn that eventually the fever has to break. But it hasn’t. Republicans have won the presidency at the same rate as usual. They have won the House. They have won the Senate. They control state governments. They control county governments. There are still a few blue enclaves like California where Democrats truly control things, but not many. Generally speaking, the only thing Democrats truly control in America is its big cities. Urban mayors are almost uniformly Democratic.
In other words, the problem is not the Republican Party. The problem is that lots of people vote for the Republican Party. The lunacy will stop when that does.
There’s only one solution to that problem:
Roughly speaking, liberals would do well to forget the Republican Party even exists. Their focus should be almost exclusively on how and why conservatives continue to attract the support of half the American public no matter how crazy they seem to become. Until we figure this out, things are only going to get worse.
That might be hard to figure out. Winning the support of half of the American public, no matter how crazy they seem to have become, won’t be easy.
Josh Marshall discusses that:
Many Democrats (and a significant number of Republicans) came out of the 2012 election thinking that America’s non-white population was large enough that the calculus of racial appeals and raced politics had changed. Not that it had disappeared. No one believed that. But many believed that population demographics had reached a tipping power where at least in national elections they hurt more than they helped. There were no longer enough white people or white people open to racial backlash politics to win national elections. That was the premise of the fabled and now trashed RNC-authored post-2012 ‘autopsy’.
But that turned out not to be true. It turned out that you could run the most explicitly raced national campaign in at least forty years and perhaps ever and win.
That may be why the Democrats lost:
Sure, Trump lost the popular vote. But the Electoral College is a fact whether we like it or not. It’s not going anywhere. One part of the equation was that there were more whites in the Midwestern industrial states who had voted for Barack Obama than the 2012 exit polls suggested. Campaign operatives thought Romney had maxed out the white vote and lost. But he hadn’t…
There were more white voters than the political conventional wisdom suggested. A small but significant number of whites in the industrial Midwest who had voted for Barack Obama once or even twice were susceptible to being ‘activated’ by the politics of white backlash. I think political racism or white supremacy is best seen like a virus which can remain dormant only to be activated under certain conditions. We also learned that the increasing urban vs rural divide had grown over four years. Partisan polarization had continued to grow to the degree that a lot of more moderate Republicans many thought would abandon Trump didn’t.
What all of that comes down to is that we learned in 2016 that a white backlash campaign, which polarized the electorate on racial lines, was enough to win. So, yeah, it’s definitely about race on several different levels. But the reality is that simple math tells you that some significant number of white voters who were activated by racist appeals need to be won back to turn back the tide of Trumpism. This has the certainty of math.
So it does come down to winning the support of half of the American public, no matter how “crazy” they seem to have become about race, but Marshall sees no way to do that:
One theory, an old theory, is that Democrats have to refocus on the concerns of the ‘working class whites’. At least as broadly understood, this makes no sense either in political or moral terms. The Democratic Party is roughly half non-white. Good luck appealing to the cultural and racial anxieties of Trump voters and not blowing up the whole party or center-left political coalition.
This is a structural problem:
I never cease to be amazed, despite everything that has happened in the last 45 years, that people all across the political spectrum still see the Democratic party as fundamentally a white party which happens to get support from an outside group we call African-Americans. Whites still hold a disproportionate share of dominant positions. But African-Americans and a big majority of Hispanics and an even larger majority of Asians aren’t supporters of the Democratic Party. They ARE the Democratic Party. Even if you set aside the political and moral questions, it’s simply not possible for that party to pivot in that direction.
Maybe in 25 years demography will solve this problem. But what happens now? A big chunk of the left of the Democratic Party – a lot of labor liberals, a lot of people who supported Bernie Sanders, say you simply re-polarize the electorate around class and economic issues and gain back some of those Trump voters that way. In its crudest form (and there are less crude forms) this is the ‘ditch the identity politics and focus on unifying class issues’ argument. There are numerous problems with this argument, both moral and strategic.
What did Boromir say? “One does not simply walk into Mordor. Its black gates are guarded by more than just orcs. There is evil there that does not sleep. And the Great Eye is ever watchful. It is a barren wasteland, riddled with fire, ash and dust. The very air you breathe is a poisonous fume. Not with ten thousand men could you do this. It is folly!”
This too is folly:
For starters, I think it greatly overstates the appeal of social democratic economic policy to big chunks of the electorate. It also tells half the party’s voters that critical issues to them need to take a back seat to economic and class politics, with the implicit message that those are the ones that really matter. Enough of ‘identity politics’ – let’s focus on the real stuff.
That won’t fly:
What it all comes down to is that once you get beyond Trump’s hardcore racist revanchist base, there are a lot of voters who supported Trump. To the extent that a significant number of these are sometimes Democratic voters, we can say they are racists, people who can be activated to support white backlash politics under the right conditions or are at a minimum people who are ready to vote for a racist candidate even if that’s something they want to ignore rather than embrace. But however you define them, Democrats need to win some percentage of them back to win elections. And without winning elections, there’s no progress on voting rights, universal health care, wealth inequality, civil rights or anything else.
Identifying the roots of Trumpism doesn’t give you sufficient answers to how to combat it, especially if it’s true that there are enough white voters, susceptible to activation by white backlash politics, to win national elections.
In short, don’t look to the Democrats. There will be no moving on. There will always be a new enemy of everything that is good and decent and American – probably black, or brown, or slightly yellow. Old wounds will be kept green and festering. There will be lots of rather useless anger and rather repulsive whining. And next year’s 9/11 will be much like this year. Donald Trump will find and kill Osama bin Laden, and no one will ever mess with America ever again, and no one will make fun of America ever again, and no one will ever make fun of his tiny hands ever again. The world will FEAR America again.
Those who want to move beyond that, to just move on, have only one choice. Run for Congress. Nothing else is working.