No Matter What Happens To Trump, Trumpism Is Here To Stay

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally, Wednesday, April 6, 2016, in Bethpage, N.Y. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
(AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

The one thing that the Donald Trump candidacy has dispelled is the notion that the people who typically turn out to vote for the GOP are fundamentally different than those who vote for Democrats. We’ve always held this conceit that the GOP was the party of tradition and conservatism. We were for free markets, or individual responsibility, for a smaller government, for a federalist approach to governance. The Democrats, on the other hand, were the party animated by race, class, sex (pick one of the nearly 5 dozen possibilities) grievance and the desire for the nanny state to wipe their bottoms and tuck them in bed at night. We were wrong. A plurality of GOP voters are motivated by the same anger and feeling of detachment from American politics as #BlackLivesMatter or any Bernie Sanders voter. From Ben Domenech writing in The Federalist back in August:

Dismiss Donald Trump if you will, but tonight in Alabama he is expected to draw 35,000 people. Try to do that with any other presidential candidate. The phenomenon is real, and the danger Trump presents for the Republican Party is real. Even without winning the GOP nomination, which is still a remote possibility at best, his statements have tapped into a widespread anger that has the potential to transform the Republican Party in significant ways. Ultimately, Trump presents a choice for the Republican Party about which path to follow: a path toward a coalition that is broad, classically liberal, and consistent with the party’s history, or a path toward a coalition that is reduced to the narrow interests of identity politics for white people.

What Trump represents is the potential for a significant shift in the Republican Party toward white identity politics for the American right.

“Identity politics for white people” is not the same thing as “racism”, nor are the people who advocate for it necessarily racist, though of course the categories overlap. In fact, white identity politics was at one point the underlying trend for the majoritarian American cultural mainstream. But since the late 1960s, it has been transitioning in fits and starts into something more insular and distinct. Now, half a century later, the Trump moment very much illuminates its function as one interest group among many, as opposed to the background context for everything the nation does. The white American with the high-school education who works at the duck-feed factory in northern Indiana has as much right to advance his interest as anyone else. But that interest is now being redefined in very narrow terms, in opposition to the interests of other ethnic groups, and in a marked departure from the expansive view of the freedoms of a common humanity advanced by the Founders and Abraham Lincoln.

The quibble I would have with this analysis is that the self-defeating and counter-productive strain of America-first populism, the idea that the working man is getting rogered by the political class, has deep roots in American politics. And with good reason. It isn’t hard to run a straight line from Trump back through the New Deal and Huey Long and Bob LaFollette to William Jennings Bryant carrying the anger of middle America over the “cross of gold.”

I’m not bright enough to do the analysis but, it seems to me, that while conservatism is a philosophy that will do the most good for the most people, the good it does often seems rather abstract if you are part of that 45% of America that does NOT pay federal income tax. Free trade may, objectively, be the best way to go. But which is more apparent to you, the factory that just shutdown and moved 300 or so jobs to another country or the tens of thousands of jobs, scattered around the nation, that were created because of free trade? The same people who want Trump-esque trade barriers are the same people who would not have flat screen television or iPhones if they were in place. The people who want the tariffs on foreign goods are dependent upon those cheap goods to sustain the appearance of a middle class lifestyle.

We’ve complained for years about the political difficulty of cutting government programs and now we see just how wide and deep the support is for all manner of government “safety nets” no matter the cost to individual autonomy. For a broad swath of America, life relies upon a web of subsidized child care, either via “programs” such as Headstart or by “before and after school” programs. Their children get breakfast and lunch, free or at reduced price, at school. Long periods of unemployment and periodic use of food stamps and Medicare are a fact of life. Getting certified as “disabled” close to Social Security eligibility makes a huge difference in life style. Unlike what we’ve led ourselves to believe, GOP voters are just as addicted to free stuff as Democrats.

And Ben has a great point about “identity politics for white people.” I’m not a fan of identity politics. I think if you really believe that there is “strength through diversity” you should examine the history of multi-national/cultural polities and you will find that Yugoslavias and Rwandas are much more common than Switzerlands. Even rather civilized nations like Czechoslovakia found that a hundred years could not bring those two nationalities together. Belgium’s future is likewise doubtful. We are all in this together whether we like it or not. Having said that, it is difficult to expect one racial or ethnic group to submit to ritualized humiliation and de facto discrimination to make other groups feel good about themselves. And when the President of the United States takes on the role of race-baiter and grievance-monger it doesn’t take much imagination to see how that is going to work out. It takes no more effort to convince whites that Mexicans are the source of their problems than it takes to convince blacks that white racism or the Korean grocery store owner is to blame for their difficulties.

I don’t have a crystal ball. I don’t know who will get the GOP nomination. But I feel pretty safe saying that no matter what happens, we’d better get used to the idea of Trumpism. Because it is going to be around for a good long while. The fault lines in America, lines cultivated by Democrats and GOP establishment types alike, have been widened to chasms under Obama. They may be beyond fixing. America may very well have ceased to exist as an ideal and have become a veritable Balkans of racial, ethnic, and economic groups who loathe one another and are unable to physically separate.

Whether Trump wins or loses the nomination, whether he wins the White House or is rightfully repudiated by America, there will be more just like him coming along. And they may not be batsh** crazy.

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