I’ve said for years that President Obama — the quasi-monarchical head of a selectively but systematically lawless regime — is more of a symptom than the disease. I think the same of Donald Trump. I don’t mean Donald Trump the person; I mean Donald Trump the Republican front runner. Donald Trump of reality television (pardon the oxymoron). Donald Trump the foul-mouthed verbal bully. Donald Trump, the least convincing conservative impersonator we’ve seen at the head of the pack in a long time. (Rabid right-wingers will insert their own snide Mitt Romney joke here, I suspect. But he would have been a great president, even if he’s not conservative enough for you and you and you and you and maybe me.)
Meanwhile, with a less partisan Department of Justice the Democratic front runner, Hillary Clinton, would probably be facing — and in fact may yet face — federal indictment on many counts of knowingly treating classified and secret materials with all the seriousness due to recipes published in the food section of last week’s Sunday Times. And she’s losing states to Bernie Sanders, an avowed socialist whose appeal crosses demographic lines, but is particularly strong among young adults who have not yet been required by curriculum or circumstances to learn how the world works.
The symmetry here is that millions of voters are so hostile to establishment candidates on both sides of the aisle that they are voting for Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. It is a remarkable time in our politics, though not a particularly encouraging time.
There are some very smart people (among many others) thinking and writing about this. Here I’ll offer some highlights from the best recent explanations I’ve seen. Peggy Noonan looms large here; she’s a perennial favorite of mine. I’ll also throw in some George Will, some Charles Krauthammer, some (American-turned-Brit) Janey Daley, a bit of Mark Steyn (an Aussie), and even some David Brooks (who sometimes plays a conservative on television but must, in general, be embraced with particular caution).
In each case I am excerpting longer essays or columns which you should read in their entirety. I offer the excerpts as much to persuade you of that as to offer an explanation of the Trump/Sanders phenomenon here. (Note: The fact that I have called the phenomenon after its most prominent current symptoms does not mean they are the only symptoms, or that the disease is not rampant at other levels of government. We’ve been fighting it locally in my city, American Fork, Utah, for some time in our own quirky way.)
We begin with David Brooks.
Over the past generation we have seen the rise of a group of people who are against politics. These groups — best exemplified by the Tea Party but not exclusive to the right — want to elect people who have no political experience. They want “outsiders.” They delegitimize compromise and deal-making. They’re willing to trample the customs and rules that give legitimacy to legislative decision-making if it helps them gain power.
Ultimately, they don’t recognize other people. They suffer from a form of political narcissism, in which they don’t accept the legitimacy of other interests and opinions. They don’t recognize restraints. They want total victories for themselves and their doctrine.
This antipolitics tendency has had a wretched effect on our democracy. It has led to a series of overlapping downward spirals. . . .
The antipolitics people don’t accept that politics is a limited activity. They make soaring promises and raise ridiculous expectations. When those expectations are not met, voters grow cynical and, disgusted, turn even further in the direction of antipolitics.
The antipolitics people refuse compromise and so block the legislative process. . . .
We’re now at a point in which politicians live in fear if they try to compromise and legislate. We’re now at a point in which normal political conversation has broken down. People feel unheard, which makes them shout even louder, which further destroys conversation.
And in walks Donald Trump. . . . Trump is the culmination of the trends we have been seeing for the last 30 years: the desire for outsiders; the bashing style of rhetoric that makes conversation impossible; the decline of coherent political parties; the declining importance of policy; the tendency to fight cultural battles and identity wars through political means. . . .
There is a hint of violence undergirding his campaign. . . .
Trump’s style is bashing and pummeling. Everyone who opposes or disagrees with him is an idiot, a moron or a loser. The implied promise of his campaign is that he will come to Washington and bully his way through.
Trump’s supporters aren’t looking for a political process to address their needs. They are looking for a superhero. As the political scientist Matthew MacWilliams found, the one trait that best predicts whether you’re a Trump supporter is how high you score on tests that measure authoritarianism.
This isn’t just an American phenomenon. Politics is in retreat and authoritarianism is on the rise worldwide. The answer to Trump is politics. It’s acknowledging other people exist. It’s taking pleasure in that difference and hammering out workable arrangements. As Harold Laski put it, “We shall make the basis of our state consent to disagreement. Therein shall we ensure its deepest harmony.”
Harold Laski isn’t on my list of favorite political thinkers to quote, but those two sentences are sound enough.
Now here are parts of three columns by Peggy Noonan, who I very much like to quote. As a rule I resist convenient class-based arguments, having seen them terribly overused in my studies and observations of socialism and communism. Ms. Noonan is making such an argument here, and I can’t say it doesn’t fit the data.
There are the protected and the unprotected. The protected make public policy. The unprotected live in it. The unprotected are starting to push back, powerfully.
The protected are the accomplished, the secure, the successful—those who have power or access to it. They are protected from much of the roughness of the world. More to the point, they are protected from the world they have created. . . .
They are figures in government, politics and media. They live in nice neighborhoods, safe ones. Their families function, their kids go to good schools, they’ve got some money. All of these things tend to isolate them, or provide buffers. . . .
Because they are protected they feel they can do pretty much anything, impose any reality. They’re insulated from many of the effects of their own decisions. . . .
The unprotected came to think they owed the establishment — another word for the protected — nothing, no particular loyalty, no old allegiance. . . .
Mr. Trump came from that. . . .
What marks this political moment, in Europe and the U.S., is the rise of the unprotected. It is the rise of people who don’t have all that much against those who’ve been given many blessings and seem to believe they have them not because they’re fortunate but because they’re better.
You see the dynamic in many spheres. In Hollywood . . . where they make our rough culture, they are careful to protect their own children from its ill effects. In places with failing schools, they choose not to help them through the school liberation movement — charter schools, choice, etc. — because they fear to go up against the most reactionary professional group in America, the teachers unions. They let the public schools flounder. But their children go to the best private schools.
This is a terrible feature of our age — that we are governed by protected people who don’t seem to care that much about their unprotected fellow citizens.
And a country really can’t continue this way.
I mentioned above Bernie Sanders’ appeal to the young — a socialist stereotype justified literally by centuries of socialist movements primarily staffed by the young. One of the next essay’s interesting features is its explanation of Sanders’ appeal among older voters.
The rejection of the establishment’s preferred candidates in both major parties is a big moment. It is also understandable, the result of 15 years of failed presidencies. It is a gesture of rebuke toward the political class — move aside.
It’s said this is the year of anger but there’s a kind of grim practicality to Trump and Sanders supporters. They’re thinking: Let’s take a chance. Washington is incapable of reform or progress; it’s time to reach outside. Let’s take a chance on an old Brooklyn socialist. Let’s take a chance on the casino developer who talks on TV.
In doing so, they accept a decline in traditional political standards. You don’t have to have a history of political effectiveness anymore; you don’t even have to have run for office! “You’re so weirdly outside the system, you may be what the system needs.”
They are pouring their hope into uncertain vessels, and surely know it. . . .
It is middle-aged Sanders supporters who are more interesting. They know what they’re turning their backs on. They know they’re throwing in the towel. My guess is they’re thinking something like: Don’t aim for great now, aim for safe. Terrorism, a world turning upside down, my kids won’t have it better — let’s just try to be safe, more communal.
A shrewdness in Sanders and Trump backers: They share one faith in Washington, and that is in its ability to wear anything down. They think it will moderate Bernie, take the edges off Trump. For thus reason they don’t see their choices as so radical. . . .
Mr. Trump is a clever man with his finger on the pulse, but his political future depends on two big questions. The first is: Is he at all a good man? Underneath the foul mouthed flamboyance is he in it for America? The second: Is he fully stable? He acts like a nut, calling people bimbos, flying off the handle with grievances. Is he mature, reliable? Is he at all a steady hand? . . .
Anyway, we are in some kind of moment. Congratulations to the establishments of both parties for getting us here. They are the authors of the rebellion; they are a prime thing being rebelled against.
The third Peggy Noonan essay quoted here is mostly about US Supreme Court Justice the late Antonin Scalia, a personal favorite of mine, who passed away recently and may or may not be replaced anytime soon. It’s very good reading, but this excerpt is more general.
There is something increasingly unappeasable in the left. This is something conservatives and others have come to fear, that progressives now accept no limits. We can’t just have court-ordered legalized abortion across the land, we have to have it up to the point of birth, and taxpayers have to pay for it. It’s not enough to win same-sex marriage, you’ve got to personally approve of it and if you publicly resist you’ll be ruined. It’s not enough that we have publicly funded contraceptives, the nuns have to provide them.
This unappeasable spirit always turns to the courts to have its way.
If progressives were wise they would step back, accept their victories, take a breath and turn to the idea of solidifying gains, of heroic patience, of being peaceable.
Don’t make them bake the cake. Don’t make them accept the progressive replacement for Scalia. Leave the nuns alone.
Progressives have no idea how fragile it all is. That’s why they feel free to be unappeasable. They don’t know what they’re grinding down.
They think America has endless give. But America is composed of humans, and they do not have endless give.
Isn’t that what we’re seeing this year in the political realm? That they don’t have endless give? And we’ll be seeing more of it.
George Will, a fine writer, is more combative and perhaps a bit less analytical than Peggy Noonan — and he uses bigger words, which doesn’t bother me — but I like to watch him think (through his words; I don’t hang out with him or anything). And I like what he does with words.
Again, as always, read the whole essay. My reason for including it is that even branches of the establishment are now pushing back against an establishment run amok.
Notice the Newtonian physics of America’s Madisonian system. Barack Obama’s Woodrow Wilsonian hostility to the separation of powers, expressed in his executive authoritarianism, is provoking equal and opposite reactions from the judicial and legislative branches.
The Supreme Court has inflicted on Obama a defeat accurately described as the court’s most severe rebuke of a president since it rejected Harry Truman’s claim that inherent presidential powers legitimated his seizure of the steel industry during the Korean War. The court has blocked Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which rests on the rickety premise that the Clean Air Act somehow, in a way unsuspected for four decades, empowers the Environmental Protection Agency to annihilate the right of states to regulate power generation.
It is unprecedented for the Supreme Court to stop a regulatory regime before a lower court has ruled on its merits. This is condign punishment for the EPA’s arrogance last year after the court held that it had no authority for a rule regulating fossil-fueled power plants in Michigan. The EPA snidely responded with a gloating statement that the court’s decision came too late to prevent it from imposing almost $10 billion in costs under the illegal rule.
The legislative branch, too, is retaliating against executive overreach. . . .
Charles Krauthammer considers the Trump/Sanders phenomenon in light of Super Tuesday’s primary results and against the backdrop of certain powers’ work at, and official US indifference to, the wholesale slaughter of Christians and other minority religions in certain parts of the world.
What happened to the evangelicals? They were supposed to be the bedrock of the Ted Cruz candidacy. Yet on Super Tuesday he lost them to Donald Trump. . . .
How could this have happened? A more scripturally, spiritually flawed man than Trump would be hard to find. As several anti-Trump evangelical voices have argued, Christian witness cannot possibly support a thrice-married man with such an impressive list of sins, featuring especially spectacular displays of the seven deadlys.
These theological arguments are both eloquent and impassioned but, in this season of fear and anxiety, beside the point. This time around, evangelicals are not looking for someone like them. They’re looking for someone who will protect them.
They’ve tried backing exemplary Scripture-quoting Christians — without result. After Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum and considerations of Cruz himself, they are increasingly reluctant to support like-minded candidates who are nonetheless incapable of advancing their cause in a hostile political arena so dominated by secularism.
They have no illusions about Trump. They have no expectations of religious uplift. What he offers them is not spirit but “muscle.”. . .
What Trump promises is to stand outside the churchyard gates and protect the faithful inside. He’s the Roman centurion standing between them and both barbarians abroad and aggressive secularists at home.
The message is clear: I may not be one of you. I can’t recite or even correctly cite Scripture. But I will patrol the borders of Christendom on your behalf. After all, who do you want out there — a choir boy or a tough guy with a loaded gun and a kick-ass demeanor?
Evangelicals answered resoundingly. They went for Trump in a rout.
Speaking of the aforementioned perishing Christians and other believers, I next quote the latter part of a column by Mark Steyn‘s. It begins by discussing the slaughter — and the USA’s uselessness as a ally against it. Read the article. Then he says . . .
Under the insanity of America’s hyper-regulatory tyranny, you now have to register musical instruments with the US Department of Fish & Wildlife.
And, even if you do, you still can’t drive that instrument over a US/Canadian land border. . . .
This is how liberty dies, with a thousand cuts, day after day after day. Bill Clinton famously said, “The age of Big Government is over”. And in a sense he’s right: This is an age of small, itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny government, in which nothing is too inconsequential and trivial not to command the attention of the federal enforcers — until, cumulatively, all the itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny government adds up to the biggest government ever seen.
Where is America’s so-called party of small government on this stuff? When are the Republican Party’s leaders going to pipe up?
Janet Daley sometimes analyzes British and American politics in parallel, as she does more in these two essays as a whole than in my selected excerpts. I hope this first column’s optimism about sensible voters is warranted in the US as well, but I have yet to be convinced by actual results.
This is the way to “win” in politics now: you just shout at your adversary until he falls silent in acquiescence or despair. The shouting . . . can take the form of a mass bellow on social media or a tidal wave of headline-grabbing outrageousness. This phenomenon, the ascendancy of noisemaking as an electoral tactic, is being used on both extreme ends of the political spectrum.
In the US, the Great Noise is being made on the (sort of) Right by a hugely successful publicity machine run by Donald Trump. He has discovered that shouting louder – and more outrageously – than anyone else is the way to dominate the news. His new sidekick Sarah Palin has her own version of this, which consists of shrieking a stream of disconnected catchphrases thus creating a spectacle so startling that its very weirdness is of huge public interest. And in a celebrity culture, media coverage is everything. However absurd your belligerent mouthing-off may be, so long as it creates enough of a din, you will become the central fact around which everything must revolve – even if your position is politically so confused as to be unidentifiable. Noise wins, even when it makes no sense. . . .
Sensible choices and reasonable thought have not vanished: they have just gone underground. They are the democratic virtues that dare not speak their name. Lots of people can see what is wrong with the diatribes that confront them at London dinner parties, or in their workplaces (especially if they are employed in the public sector), or on their Facebook pages. But there is little point, they decide, in taking on the fulminating aggressors – who almost always travel in self-affirming packs – so they go silent. But then, when the time comes, they vote as they truly believe – just like they did in the last general election. In the sanctity of the secret ballot, they get their unexpected revenge. . . .
Noise can only get you so far. It might distort the public discourse. It might even succeed in steam-rolling the impressionable few. But the vast numbers who think their own thoughts and come to their own conclusions are not daunted. Which is not to say that this is a satisfactory situation. There is something very wrong when no rational argument can be conducted – even among friends or colleagues – about the major issues of the day. It degrades a nation when every public platform – every broadcast discussion in front of an audience, every community or workplace meeting – takes on the mores of a school playground: when the views of what are, in fact, the majority of voters cannot be uttered freely. (Never has the term “silent majority” been more apt.) . . .
That is another aspect of the mob-driven political mind-set: it is inevitably enclosed and self-referring. Because it does not engage in open debate, it is sealed off from the world beyond its peers.
Mobocracy, with its vocabulary of infantile insult, is ugly and demeaning, which is presumably why the sensible do not deign to take part in it. But think what we are losing. I realise that it takes preternatural social confidence to confront an antagonist whose accusations are so frenzied and implacable. . . .
Over in the US, the problem is rather different: there really are two American electorates who despise each other. Trump has unleashed the triumphal fury of the one to the despair of the other. This is a national identity crisis that is being carelessly whipped up by incoherent noise. That makes it even more dangerous than our passing political problem.
Socialism and class war have never been accepted features of the political mainstream in America.
What Sanders is appealing to, in his diatribes against Wall Street and the evil forces of capital who won’t pay enough tax to fund free universal healthcare and college tuition, are the voters who feel that the American Dream has let them down. The lower middle class and skilled working class (who are all called “middle class” in the US) used to believe that they lived in a country where you could start from the bottom and, through hard work and ability, move assuredly to the top.
Too many of them find that this is no longer the case. The diligent, ambitious poor can no longer climb the ladder. Even those who manage to get college degrees often end up in dead-end jobs, hopelessly encumbered with student loan debt. Social mobility and all that went with it – home ownership, career prospects, and financial security – are now out of reach for many of those who were taught to believe that America was the land of opportunity. And so they feel outraged and cheated, and resentful of the people who have managed to get what they thought everyone who worked hard had a right to expect. . . .
Meanwhile, in the US, Sanders looks recognisably human and as if he believes what he is saying (even if it is grotesquely naive). Hillary Clinton looks like a manic android who may or may not believe anything except that it is her turn this time. Again, the dearth of more appealing candidates is part of the story: if the very engaging Vice President, Joe Biden, had run for the Democratic nomination (which I gather he now regrets failing to do) – we probably wouldn’t be having this discussion, etc, etc. It is hugely important to bear in mind how important individual personalities are in modern democratic contests.
Which brings us to Donald Trump: the singular personality that threatens to put an end to all rational expectation in politics. He has no programme at all, and his only promises involve delivering heaven-on-earth (including a state-run cheap healthcare system) without costing anybody anything. It is too ridiculous to be within the bounds of common sense. But his one endlessly repeated, demagogic refrain about “making America great again” must sound like some sort of antidote to the helplessness and frustration of those voters who see the collapse of American leadership around the world as a personal humiliation.
That was a lot, I know — even before you read the entire essays, as you certainly should. But it is the season of many words, and these together are relatively few and uncommonly intelligent.
Be well, gentle reader. Vote well. Speak well. Influence well.