William Voegeli, writing in the Claremont Review of Books recently, had a very important article regarding Donald Trump, “The Reason I’m Anti-Anti-Trump.” I immediately liked the title. I am someone who is temperamentally disinclined to like Trump. However, there’s a certain sort of group political behavior which has always given me pause. It seems almost de riguer these days for everyone to write a piece decrying, in terms louder and more hysterical than the last person, how thoroughly awful Donald Trump is. Many of these writers must have read the previous pieces, so I’m not quite sure what they think they are bringing to the conversation. Therefore, I’ve been pleased to see a small number of people writing about the subject in a more serious way.
Voegeli begins his article quoting several of those breathless denunciations including Damon Linker of the Week.
Trump’s supporters are the “culturally alienated, conservative white male voters” who have “been manipulated … into a perpetual state of aggrieved indignation” by right-wing talk-radio…
Voegeli responds to that characterization by noting that:
To say, however, that Trump’s voters have been manipulated into aggrievement implies that their dissatisfactions are either spurious or, if genuine, illegitimate and indecent.
It should be noted that trying to understand political opponents is not a new subject for Voegeli. In and interview, explaining why he wrote about the politics of compassion, in Salon in 2014 he said:
I thought for a conservative trying to understand liberals as they understand themselves it seemed necessary to go there, because it’s a big part of the liberal self-identity.
From the liberal side of things, I have long argued for the same behavior on our part. It is of little theoretical utility to simply mock and castigate people who advocate policies different from one’s own. It is intellectually lazy to presume negative motivations on the part of people with whom one disagrees. It helps in both developing better positions and better persuasion. I believe Voegeli is quite right to say:
The fact that Trump has become a credible contender despite, or even because of, his obvious faults argues, however, for taking his followers’ concerns seriously rather than dismissing them. It is not, in fact, particularly difficult to explain the emergence of Trumpismo in terms of legitimate concerns not addressed, and important duties not discharged. That such a flawed contender could be a front-runner tells us more about what’s wrong with the country than about what’s wrong with his followers.
If you are a Democratic politician, work for one or are employed by the Democratic Party, then you may find the chaos into which Trump has thrown the Republican Party something to mine for your own personal advantages and shouting about how awful Trump is might make some sense. However, if you are a private citizen who happens to find himself or herself aligning more frequently with Democrats because you think they advocate better policies, then looking at what concerns Trump’s supporters have is something we should do.
The strange thing about the fact that the leftist and liberal pundits’ inability to take the concerns of Trumps supporters seriously is that some of their concerns align with the concerns that the left claims to represent. A year or two ago, a study came out from two professors showing that rich individuals and large businesses drive public policy and the views of ordinary citizens have no influence at all. From The Hill:
The analysts found that rich individuals and business-controlled interest groups largely shape policy outcomes in the United States.
The study also debunks the notion that the policy preferences of business and the rich reflect the views of common citizens. They found to the contrary that such preferences often sharply diverge and when they do, the economic elites and business interests almost always win and the ordinary Americans lose.
This study was widely reported in the progressive press at the time. It should be noted, however, that this is a bi-partisan indictment. The Republican Party has been less shy about its support of big business, but a recent headline in the Washington Examiner read, “2015: The year the Democrats fully embraced corporatism.”
Democrats have long been purveyors of patronage and corporate welfare, but forever they’ve gotten away with pretending to be populists.
The article goes on to assert that for decades the Republicans have done the Democrats’ “dirty work.” “Democrats have always relied on corporte welfare,” it says.
But as long as Republicans were willing to take the lead on “pro-business” policies, Democrats were happy to play a mere supporting role. This always gave Barney Frank and Obama great ammunition with which to attack Republicans as hypocrites — opposing welfare for the poor, but favoring it for corporate America.
The article then goes on to credit, incorrectly I believe, the end of the charade to the rise of the Tea Party and an “anti-cronyism movement” on the Right. I say incorrectly, because if the population felt that elected Republican politicians were responding to the needs of the people we wouldn’t have Trump. Trump’s supporters would be thronging Senators Rubio or Cruz.
The Examiner article mentions the Import-Export bank and the financial troubles of health insurers. It specifically mentions Marco Rubio.
In late 2014, Marco Rubio passed a measure capping Risk Corridor payouts to struggling insurers, thus protecting taxpayers.
Marco Rubio is not at the top of the polls because most people don’t see him as fighting for the average American due to his position on immigration. It’s no secret what issue catapulted Trump to the front of the Republican field. It’s immigration.
Writing in The Atlantic, David Frum analyzes the “internal class war” taking place in the Republican Party.
These populists seek to defend what the French call “acquired rights”—health care, pensions, and other programs that benefit older people—against bankers and technocrats who endlessly demand austerity; against migrants who make new claims and challenge accustomed ways; against a globalized market that depresses wages and benefits. In the United States, they lean Republican because they fear the Democrats want to take from them and redistribute to Americans who are newer, poorer, and in their view less deserving—to “spread the wealth around,” in candidate Barack Obama’s words to “Joe the Plumber” back in 2008. Yet they have come to fear more and more strongly that their party does not have their best interests at heart.
In this context, immigration is representative. The oligarchs and their elite mouthpieces in the media characterize the populace they rule in this undemocratic democracy as racist or xenophobic. Yet, no one is fooled about why the oligarchs want a high level of immigration. They want cheap labor. We all know this and no one is fooled. Those accusations of xenophobia are just a smoke screen to avoid talking about the real problem, summarized in Fiscal Times headline from last September, “For Most Americans, Wages Aren’t Just Stagnating — They’re Falling.”
The people working in the oligarch’s think tanks often point to studies that are reported to show that immigration does not reduce the average wages of or U.S. born workers. I don’t think the average person trusts these studies. I’m not particularly paranoid and don’t subscribe to conspiracy theories. I think bias exists, but it is the result of more subtle forces, not grand conspiracies. Still, I, along with large portions of the American people, have difficulty swallowing the argument that large-scale immigration somehow helps the living standards of people who are already U.S. citizens.
Secondly, there is the question of democracy. If voters time and time again vote for a lower level of immigration, and their elected officials continue to advocate policies that are the direct opposite of the wishes of the voters, and in line with the wishes of the wealthy and big business, then this is an excellent example of that very lack of democracy noted in that study about how the wishes of ordinary citizens have zero effect on the actions of politicians. In that regard, it should be unsurprising that immigration has become a flash point.
As David Frum relates the disconnect between the Republican Party and the people the purport to represent:
As a class, big Republican donors could not see any of this, or would not. So neither did the politicians who depend upon them. Against all evidence, both groups interpreted the Tea Party as a mass movement in favor of the agenda of the Wall Street Journal editorial page. One of the more dangerous pleasures of great wealth is that you never have to hear anyone tell you that you are completely wrong.
During the 2012 Republican primary, Mitt Romney supported the interests of big business.
The rank and file did not like it. But they could not stop it. The base kept elevating “not Romneys” into first place, and each rapidly failed or fizzled; Romney, supported by a cumulative total of $139 million in primary funds by March 2012, trundled on.
Frum explains how immigration fits into the picture:
Owners of capital assets, employers of low-skill laborers, and highly compensated professionals tend to benefit economically from the arrival of immigrants. They are better positioned to enjoy the attractive cultural and social results of migration (more-interesting food!) and to protect themselves against the burdensome impacts (surges in non-English-proficient pupils in public schools). A pro-immigration policy shift was one more assertion of class interest in a party program already brimful of them.
According to Frum, Trump promised the working class supporters of the Republican Party four things on which they felt betrayed by the rich: to protect their pensions from austerity, to avoid another war in the Middle East, to campaign without the influence of monied interests and to “protect their wages from being undercut by Republican immigration policy.”
What happens to an elite whose followers withdraw their assent? Does it self-examine? Or does it take refuge in denial? Does it change? Or does it try to prevent change? Does it challenge itself to build a new political majority? Or does it seize the opportunities the American political system offers to compact and purposeful minorities? When its old answers fail, will it think anew? Or will it simply repeat louder the dogmas that enthralled supporters in the past?
“What happens to an elite whose followers withdraw their assent?” Indeed. This is what I believe fuels the hysterical denunciations of Trump.
The anti-democratic tone of many of the anti-Trump articles disturbs me as a person without connections or influence. In this context, I couldn’t help but take note of a Vox article which said that “most millenials don’t think it’s essential to live in a democracy.” An interesting detail was that support for authoritarian government was growing most quickly among the wealthy.
As inequality is rising, and the wealthy have more to lose from economic policies that would favor the bulk of the population, they are growing increasingly impatient with democratic institutions. The number of wealthy Americans who want a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with Congress or elections, for example, has sharply increased since 1995.
People who are against Trump should not view him as a cause, but as a symptom. For decades, people have been voting for mainstream candidates in hopes that they would represent their interests. Time and time again, they have been betrayed. The concerns of the citizenry are well-known. The fact that our politicians are entirely incapable of even beginning to address those concerns shows how beholden they are to the wealthy who pull the strings. I believe it is disingenuous to get all riled up over Trump if you are not even more riled up over the moral corruption that pervades our political class.