Every four years the American people are persuaded that the United States faces a choice between a much brighter future and apocalyptic doom and devastation. Every four years the American people act accordingly. They become terrified that the other party’s candidate will win the election, and energized in support of the candidate who represents their own party. Given this pattern, it is perhaps naïve of me to suggest that the 2016 election will likely stand out in history as singularly important.
By way of full disclosure, I was born and raised in a deep blue state and am culturally a liberal. In 2008 or so the scales fell from my eyes and I finally recognized the extent of the corruption and collusion that exists in our nominal two-party system. And because of this cultural baggage, I can only say this with great hesitance and trepidation – but it seems to me that rank-and-file Republicans have shown a greater willingness to adopt their positions in response to changing political realities than rank-and-file democrats.
Mr. Trump is demonstrably a carnival barker who cannot be trusted on a single point. But what can we say about the strong support he receives from rank-and-file Republicans? The easy answer is to dismiss his supporters as misguided. But easy answers don’t bring us very far along the path to understanding.
Let’s consider the fact that the only means available to the ordinary citizen to express his or her political opinion is the vote. Ordinary citizens can’t form Super-PACs. They aren’t in a position to transform themselves into pundits with a national audience. They can’t rely on labor unions to speak on their behalf. And a vote is an inarticulate thing. It can only express the sentiments “for” or “against.”
When Senator Sessions endorsed Mr. Trump, this is what he had to say:
I am thrilled today to offer my endorsement of Donald J. Trump for President. This election is our last chance to save U.S. sovereignty and to end the domination of the political establishment over the interests of working Americans. Trump alone has rejected the donor class, defending America's jobs and wages from open borders, uncontrolled immigration and the massive Trans-Pacific Partnership that will cede U.S. authority to foreign powers. Trump's trade and immigration plans will revitalize our shrinking middle class, keeping jobs and wealth and income inside the United States of America. Trump understands that a nation must always place the interests of its own people first.
Mr. Trump is perceived to be a champion of this distinctive assessment of the current political situation. I won’t spend time demonstrating that the sentiments are insincere, other than to point out the role of Bush I and Bush II in advancing foreign trade agreements that have decimated the American working class. But, as I have said, a vote is an inarticulate thing. I will suggest, however, that this assessment is quite accurate.
In Mr. Sessions’ statement of Trump’s positions, we see concerns raised about immigration. Democrats have been taught to reflexively equate criticism of immigration with the ugly sentiments of racism and xenophobia. But suppose for a moment that immigrant labor is exploited by large corporations such as Wal-Mart. And it is. Shouldn’t that alter the democrats’ cart blanche acceptance of immigration as a virtuous thing? To his credit, Bernie Sanders has raised some concerns about immigration, but that’s only hurt his standing among democrats. To his discredit, Mr. Trump has clearly gone beyond a critique of the impact of immigration on the job market for native-born Americans, and has encouraged xenophobic sentiment.
The more educated and progressive supporters of the Democratic Party understand that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is harmful to poor and working class Americans, and is expressly designed to increase the political power and wealth of the large multinational corporations that pour vast sums of money into the coffers of American politicians. The talk of “undermining American sovereignty” smacks of old-fashioned conservative paranoia, but TPP does in fact undermine American sovereignty by ceding U.S. authority to international tribunals. And yet, many democrats appear to be willing to overlook Mrs. Clinton’s pre-campaign support for TPP and her subsequent equivocation on the issue.
Now, the reasons for this are fairly obvious. The Democratic Party of today is made up of three major overlapping constituencies: (1) affluent professionals who don’t need to worry about losing their jobs or don’t think they need to worry, (2) people who still believe that the Democrats are the party of FDR and JFK, or who place a lot of weight on the few issues where Democrats distinguish themselves from Republicans (God, guns, and gays; reproductive rights), and (3) African-Americans who still believe that the Democrats are more responsive than Republicans to their cries for social justice.
To simplify this further, we may say that some democrats are informed enough about current events that they would be deeply worried about their future – if not for the fact that they managed to ensconce themselves in secure occupational positions and are satisfied that they personally have nothing to fear from the relentless march of international neoliberalism in its campaign to eliminate jobs and reduce wages. They may even profit from it. It is a lamentable but unshakable truth that we tend to see the world through the lens of our own life circumstances. Those who are affluent believe that economic conditions are not so bad and are hopeful of a recovery. Those who are unemployed, in contrast, will have a very different perspective.
Mr. Trump has said that the level of unemployment in the U.S. is far higher than the official statistics would suggest. He is correct on this point. Official employment statistics overlook people who have been forced to leave the labor force, and labor participation is in fact at historically low levels. “One of the most horrific consequences of high unemployment is that employment is dispensed as an act of mercy. It’s like it used to be in the war, he who has the butter scorns the have-nots” (Ignaz Wrobel, a.k.a. Kurt Tucholsky, writing in 1930).
It is a fact that many African-Americans have been denied educational opportunities. And as such, it is not racist or patronizing to suggest that many African-Americans simply are not equipped to evaluate the merits of the neoliberal policies that have been advanced by Bill Clinton, the two Bush administrations, and the Obama administration, and are likely to be further advanced by a Hillary Clinton administration. Yet, it has always been African-Americans who have suffered the most from neoliberalism, as we see when we survey the blasted ruins of Detroit and Baltimore.
Let me reiterate that I am not advocating for Mr. Trump. He is a mainstream Republican who has a gift for recognizing what the American people want to hear, and as a human being he is disturbingly reminiscent of Benito Mussolini – and in fact, Trump has quoted Mussolini approvingly in his Twitter feed. My aim in this essay has been to understand his popular appeal.
My point is this: Mr. Trump has raised the profile of certain issues that are important to voters, and they're issues that haven't gotten much attention from the mainstream media in the past. And Mrs. Sanders has been saying, with considerably greater sincerity and credibility, some of the same things. Americans in increasing numbers are beginning to discern the realities of globalization and neoliberalism, and the word “oligarchy” is being spoken by increasing numbers. Yet, in throwing their support behind Mrs. Clinton, democrat-leaning Americans have revealed themselves to be hindrances to addressing these existential threats to American freedom and prosperity.
Finally, I will point out that even though extreme contrasts are being drawn between the politics of Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton, they have a lot in common. As shown in below, they both support policies that are detrimental to the environment. They are both militaristic. They are both advocates of walling off the Mexican border. They both favor the interests of Wall Street at the expense of Main Street. They both talk a good game about Social Security, but we know that folks on Wall Street are not fans of Social Security. Despite marketing himself as an anti-establishment figure, Mr. Trump is just the opposite. While democrats are able to scoff at Mr. Trump's proposal of building a wall, they ignore the fact that a very similar proposal came from Mrs. Clinton. Democrats, I'd suggest, are far too complacent in their party loyalty.