Strange Revisionist History

You can almost call it a conspiracy.   The right and the left have decided to rewrite the history of the last election in remarkably similar ways:

The Right:  The election was a thumping rejection of everything liberals stand for.  The public was finally given the opportunity to say so, and it rejected the administrative state and all its policies, both foreign and domestic.

The Left:  The election was a thumping rejection of centrism and its coddling of the right.  Trump’s core voted for him, because the Democrats have become too close to Republicans in outlook.  Other traditionally Democratic constituencies either went to Trump or didn’t vote for the same reason.   The only way to save the country is for the party is to return to its ideological roots on the left.

For starters, one of the most outrageous events in the history of the United States has disappeared from the narrative—the FBI’s deliberate effort to throw the election.   They got away with it, and we may never know what was behind it.   What’s more, of all the elections in recent history, this has got to be the one least fought on the issues.   By all reports, Hillary Clinton’s emails were the only subject on the news for the last two weeks prior to voting.  In fact one of the many national myths that died in this election was the place of truth in our much-vaunted free press.  Finally the Trump phenomenon itself has been whitewashed out of existence.

This is not a trivial matter, because it affects where we as a country go from here.  What follows is a quick summary (from the outside) of what the election was about and what conclusions should be drawn from it.

 

The basic story of this election was simple.  The Clinton campaign tried to make Trump’s character the major issue in hopes of attracting bipartisan support.  Other specific issues came out primarily during the debates, where she was successful (Clinton won the first and third, and tied the second), but not so often after the debates were over.  The focus on character seemed to work well at first, in particular with the discovery of the Trump sex tape.  But it was undermined by the (unsupported) innuendo of the first FBI letter—she was just another crook.  By then it was too late to change tactics, because the press was obsessed with her emails.  More innuendo in the second FBI letter sealed the deal.

For Trump voters this election was a religious experience.  For the rest Clinton’s emails were the issue.  Republicans now voted Republican, the effect of the Russian leaks was amplified, Sanders voters and misogynists had their fears confirmed, and the belief that Clinton would win made for general Democratic complacency.   With the character issue gone, too many people bought Trump’s simplistic economics—“he’s a businessman, I’ll make a buck” or else just didn’t vote.   One example statistic—at Penn State less than half of students registered prior to the election actually voted.  In swing states Clinton lost 4.5 percentage points of advantage in the two weeks following the FBI letter and lost the election by less than 200,000 total votes in four states.  This was so close that even Jill Stein was significant in most of them. (See here for a detailed discussion of factors influencing the election.)  Republican control of Congress was another side of the same coin.

It remains to talk about the Trump phenomenon.   Donald Trump is a demagogue outside the limits of what either party has produced in the recent past.   He is a professional huckster and promised salvation.  He created scapegoats and whipped up his audiences so that they were ready to kill. You can argue that Democrats should have done more for his target population (although the Republican Congress essentially shut down the government for six years), but in the election no honest proposal would have competed with Trump’s lies.  Demagogues are a real problem in a democracy.  A chilling thought is that in Athens, our original model for democracy, once they elected a demagogue it was never possible to go back.

 

This is not to deny that the Clinton campaign made mistakes, but that wasn’t why she lost.  This is my list, always easy after the fact:

– Excessive focus on Trump’s character.  I would have liked more issue-oriented ads.  People needed to fear Trump’s “change”.  (But that would have complicated a non-partisan appeal.)

– Handling the FBI letters.  Clinton should have taken the high ground—welcomed the examination of her letters as a way to settle the email issue once and for all.  Contrast with Trump’s taxes.  (But the innuendo was still there, and at the time no one could believe that the FBI itself was corrupt.)

– Despite Trump’s comment, Clinton wasn’t nasty enough.  She and the Obamas liked to say “when they go low, we go high”.  This was not a time for class.  She should have gone after Trump as a businessman, with testimonials from the people who denied him financing.  At the end of the campaign Clinton talked about bringing the country together; Trump talked about locking her up.

– Countering Trump’s tweets.  This is a strategy problem going forward.   Tweets seemed to keep Trump on people’s minds much better than traditional grass-roots organizing.

– Top-down campaign.   As canvassers we were told not to change a word of the canvassing scripts, and there was little interest in our impressions of the voters’ concerns.  Trump’s people had ears to the ground.

 

Some Conclusions

– This was not a campaign on the issues, and we shouldn’t pretend it was.  There was no mandate to take the country to the land of the alt-right, and also no proof that the Democratic Party does or doesn’t need ideological changes.

– A major influence on this election was corruption in the FBI—an unimaginable failure of our criminal justice system—and we had better worry about what that says.  If we don’t watch for it, it will happen again.   (Anyone who questions the corruption should reread the Comey letters. There have been many explanations of why the letters were written, but none explain the carefully crafted—and unsupported—”she’s a crook” innuendo.)

– The core Trump supporters are not going to change allegiance any time soon regardless of what we propose.  They’ve been promised salvation, and they’ll wait a long time for it.   As one book on group violence puts it, fanatical allegiance may grow out of economic issues, but once it gets going it has a life of its own.  We should understand their problems,  but they’re not going to help in 2018.

– Not all Trump voters are the same.  Those is a good chunk of traditional Republicans who were given a reason to ignore what he is.   Those people are harder to get now that they voted for Trump, but they’re not like the Trump core.  Even for 2018 if they are worried enough, they will come.

– Many things had to go wrong for Democrats to lose this election, starting with the FBI.  The election was so close, just about any one of them effectively decided the vote.   Here is one list:

– First FBI letter

– Russians and Wikileaks

– Misogyny

– Bitter Primary fight

– Second FBI letter

– Obama’s decision not to mention the Russian investigation of Trump

– Belief that Clinton would win (further suppressed vote)

There is no question that an inclusive Democratic party can win.  The biggest issues going forward are voter restrictions (Kobach) and gerrymandering.

– We should not take this election as proof that we need to remake the Democratic Party based on what made Trump successful.  Trump won by lying, not because he had a better solution.  What we do need to do is be preemptively sensitive to all constituencies who have problems.   By the time there is a Trump in the picture he will be hard to beat.

– We have a responsibility to address the problems of Trump core voters, and those problems are both hard and pervasive.   Trump’s win is clear evidence that this is fertile ground for demagogues (here and elsewhere).  It is a real challenge to develop workable, salable economic policy.

– Finally, on a more mundane level, there is clear evidence that campaigns have changed.  The effectiveness of Twitter shows we need to go back to first principles about what works.  This has become a scary, high-tech business, and we had better be sure we’re equipped for the fight.

Limits of Charlottesville

However depressing Trump’s Charlottesville comments may be, we should not delude ourselves into believing that Trump will be defeated by any matter of principle.

The current situation recalls the uproar over the video with Trump’s lewd comments on women—an uproar that dissipated to nothing.  It remains to be seen how long the new level of outrage will last.  We can’t dismiss Nazism, but we won’t win on outrage either.  We will get nothing but backlash if perceived bread-and-butter issues are left unaddressed.

The main issue has to be the economy–jobs and prosperity–where many myths are still widely-believed.

Too many people believe that giving businesses everything they want is the path to prosperity.  That is historically false and will come back to haunt us:

– The prosperity of this country cannot possibly be based on protected industries making stuff others make cheaper.   Tariffs are no silver bullet to bring back the days of good, union jobs.

– Education and research are primary engines of prosperity.   They are what supports our standard of living and cannot be treated as money stolen from the private sector.

– We are living in a period of extraordinary technology change.   That is altering the nature of work and affects increasingly many people.  It creates twin problems—preparing our population for success and helping people left behind.   Neither will be magically provided by the private sector alone.

Trump’s policies will defeat us as a country and impoverish us as individuals.  One entry got it right in the NY Times’ list of write-in slogans for the Democratic Party:

“Justice, Compassion and Jobs!”

It speaks to the core values and, in the end, it’s the economy, stupid!

(Wynn Schwartz, Boston)

Who Are the Scheming Elites?

As an insult “elitist” now ranks only just below “radical Islamic terrorist”.

The image it brings up is clear: rich, snobbish, nose-in-the-air, dismissive of the inferior beings below.  It works sort of like “welfare queens”—people you have no trouble hating.  Welfare queens, however, were a made-up campaign slogan—statistically they didn’t exist.    Elites do exist, but they don’t necessarily fit the image, and the term is so slippery in application that its usage rivals “welfare queens” in calculated dishonesty.

The snobbish elites are a fabricated diversion, while the real elites are emptying the till.

The story begins simply enough.  In his speeches Trump most often used “elites” in a very specific sense—to mean the political elite worldwide, for example:

“Hillary Clinton and her friends in global finance want to scare America into thinking small — and they want to scare the American people out of voting for a better future.  I want you to imagine how much better our future can be if we declare independence from the elites who’ve led us to one financial and foreign policy disaster after another.”

One can argue about what to think of that group, but you don’t run into those people every day—so they can’t have much to do with the image–and what is bad about them is not that they’re nasty to deal with.  But they sure are bad!

There are of course other groups that can be considered “elite,” most notably the super rich—who are beneficiaries of the policies Trump says he deplores.  No one knows them either, so they have no association with the derogatory image.  Since Trump and his cohorts are neither everyday people nor past politicians, they get a free ride.  They’re not elite!  That’s handy, since it enables people like Trump himself or someone like Bill O’Reilly (net worth $85M) to present themselves as the anti-elite “just like us.”

There is, however, a much larger group now considered “elite”.  That includes intellectuals and by extension just about anyone from the two coasts with a job that needs a college degree.   Since you do meet people like that, and there are some that meet the image—they’re all like that!  And by association they’re every bit as evil as the first group.   Furthermore, as Fox News tells people every day, “they hate us and think we’re stupid!”

It’s amazing the extent to which this sort of “cultural profiling” is accepted as fact–it’s okay to decide that how a person talks and dresses tells you all there is to know.  As a recent example, the CNN reporter at Trump’s hundred-days rally Harrisburg talked about the contrast between the “elite” participants at the Washington Correspondents’ Dinner and the real working people at Trump’s rally.  Also it seems to be enough to discredit climate change that the scientists behind it are “elite” and therefore self-interested.

Who are the people in this last group of elites?  To start with, the average salary for a scientific researcher last year was $76,341—not bad but not luxurious for a family in a metropolitan area with student loans to pay off.   They have not stolen jobs from the Trump base.  Further as a group this population has been supportive of government policies to benefit people less well off—medical care, education, day care.  They also tend to work many hours a week, because competition for advancement is intense, and because they believe in progress.

The “they hate us and think we’re stupid” charge deserves special mention.   You can find bad apples anywhere, but in this case even the most-repeated examples are not quite what they seem.   Hillary Clinton’s infamous “deplorables” speech (included at the end), was a badly-expressed plea to a group of anti-Trump donors to take the problems of Trump’s base seriously.

So the primary definition of “elite” these days is not money, influence, or actual behavior.  It is language, dress, or maybe the kind of music you listen to.  And there’s a reason why Trump, the Republican party, and Fox News like it that way.   They are pushing one of the most damaging, recurring myths of history:  “My people are not like that.”  For the Trump core:  “Trump and his people are like you, and their success is your success.  You don’t need to ask questions, because they’re yours.“

It’s a trick of language.  They are the elite.  This always plays out the same way–they will act for themselves and claim it is for everyone.  Trump has already announced three different tax cuts for the rich (Obamacare, corporate tax pass-through, personal income), with nothing more than perfunctory slogans to say it will help anyone else.

The last hundred years have shown unequivocally that broad-based prosperity requires all groups within society to recognize common interests and work together.  The Fox News version of “elite” is a divide and conquer strategy, splitting the broader population so that vast sums can move to the elites of money and power.

If we want to talk about elites, we should talk about the real ones.   The scheming elites are the ones we’ve got running things.

 

Here, for the record, is the relevant part of the “deplorables” speech:

“I know there are only 60 days left to make our case — and don’t get complacent, don’t see the latest outrageous, offensive, inappropriate comment and think, well, he’s done this time. We are living in a volatile political environment. You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people — now 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive hateful mean-spirited rhetoric. Now, some of those folks — they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America.”

“But the other basket — and I know this because I see friends from all over America here — I see friends from Florida and Georgia and South Carolina and Texas — as well as, you know, New York and California — but that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead-end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.”

Our So-Called Press

There is one subject on which Trump is quite right.   His response to any protest is always “That was an issue for the election.   If you didn’t like it you had your chance.”

If we had a real press in this country, they would recognize the irony of it.   In the two weeks leading up to the election none of the real issues faced by the country were covered.   The only thing in the news was the nonsense about Hillary Clinton’s emails–a joke compared to the daily behavior of Trump’s administration.

Everything Trump has done was known but ignored.   With no coverage, voters assumed he wasn’t serious, even his deliberate hiding of tax returns was somehow not serious.  And on the subject of Hillary Clinton’s emails they all missed the big story—the FBI was deliberately throwing the election, and no one even whimpered.

After the election, when the big push to create a horserace was done, some of the press has developed a conscience.    But as Trump has aptly pointed out, it’s too late.

This election has exposed the emptiness of a lot of our mythology.  One obvious example is the “checks and balances” in government that are supposed to protect against tyranny.  However, the scariest of all is the hollowness of our “independent free press”.  The only press we have is an ongoing form of entertainment called “news.”  Nothing other than ratings governs its content.

This election was a referendum on democracy; that much was always clear.   The alt-right was there from the beginning.  The FBI was committing electoral fraud.  But none of that was important enough to make the news when it mattered.

The FBI is Still There

Recent articles (e.g. 12, 3) have pointed out the real danger that Trump can use a terrorist attack as a pretext to seize extra-legal power.  This has been mentioned as theory before, but the current fight with the courts over the Muslim immigrant ban makes it an immediate issue.

There are several points to make:

  1. As many have noted, Hitler used the Reichstag fire to seize power in precisely that way.  In that case, many historians believe it was a Nazi-staged event that convinced Germany to give in to fascism.  It is chilling to realize that Hitler’s  “emergency measure” to suspend civil liberties came less than 30 days after he became Chancellor.
  2. We have already seen that scaring the US population works. George Bush carried it off for years with his security color codes.
  3. Most importantly, the media seem to have forgotten that the FBI is still there. They deliberately subverted the electoral process to elect Trump.   That was a phenomenally undemocratic act for which no investigation was initiated and no one was punished.

There is no reason to believe that the FBI won’t do it again, most probably by announcing they have foiled a horrendous plot with convenient suspects.

We should remember this has happened before.

Trump, the Democrats, and “Trump’s People”

We begin with a sidebar on the fuss about the Russians and Trump.  While Trump’s denials of fact are outrageous, it also seems we are getting distracted in the same way as with terrorists–worrying about foreigners while forgetting the real examples are domestic.

The real story about the election is still homegrown—the successful coup exercised by the FBI on behalf of Trump.  All you have to do is read Comey’s letters—I emphasize both of them—to realize this was conscious policy.  There was no democratic change of government; there was a coup organized by the federal police.  It is a monumental failure of the media that the behavior of the FBI was never considered as suspect prior to the election, and even now we seem blind to the danger posed by an FBI willing to provide Trump with ongoing extra-legal support.

That being said, we return to the main story:  Trump, the Democrats, and “Trump’s people”—the white ex-middle class.

There seems to be a piling-on of people eager to see this screwed-up election as a morality play:

– Democrats have deserted the working class.  They didn’t deliver what they should have and have paid the price.

– Why have they done nothing to help middle America?

– Why has it taken Trump to discover what needs to be done?

The fact is that virtually any economist will support some version of the following:

– Most of the job loss in Trump’s heartland was technological.  Further, with current progress in robotics and artificial intelligence, that trend is actually accelerating.

– While there is an urgent need to mitigate its effects, globalization as general trend is not simply reversible.

In this environment Hilary Clinton proposed retraining, incentives for employers, and support during transition.

Trump as well-oiled salesman and demagogue instead proposed salvation:

– The problems are just waiting to be solved.  All it takes is removing the evil people who caused them, and we’ll be back where things were good.

– Those demons should be attacked for the evil they have done and are continuing to do.

– “We” are the true Americans, but the country is being taken over by “others” who will destroy it.

– Only Trump can deliver us.

That excited religious fervor to the point where people were ready for mob violence.  In this picture Hilary Clinton’s proposals, however packaged, never represented anything more than impediments.  Anything else Obama could have done—against a Republican Congress bent on blocking all social welfare spending (or any Democratic trade policy)—is in the same category.  One thinks, for example, of the community college and the early childhood education initiatives from successive State of the Union speeches–those never even reached the floor in Congress.   Mitch McConnell’s famous quote on cooperation was still operative: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” (a point of view currently called “gridlock.”)

The first conclusion to be drawn here is that very little could have been done about the core Trump voters in this election.  But without the FBI the basic Democratic strategy would still have been successful.   The FBI manipulations were if anything more significant than has been discussed, in that they affected both voting and non-voting behavior.   There have been many analyses of voting behavior.   I’ve seen no estimates of people who just didn’t vote, but one imagines at least the same–“two crooks, why bother?”  (The prominence given to Clinton’s emails after the FBI announcement was actually quite incredible.)    Since Clinton would have won decisively, it is just plain wrong to react to the election by bemoaning the failures of the Democratic party.

On the other hand, however, we can’t dismiss this election as an anomaly, since the dangers exposed by Trump are real and growing.

Despite the proliferating studies of “Trump’s people”, the white ex-middle class may not be as different from the rest of us as we are led to believe.  Easterly’s recent article is worth reading on that point.  What we do know is that they were whipped into hysteria by an intelligent, well-funded professional who knew exactly what he wanted to achieve.   That is no isolated phenomenon.

Demagogues are an ever-present danger in democracy, and currently we are living in a great time for demagogues.   Globalization, technology change, mixing of populations are well-established trends, and every one of them is getting worse.   As just one example, the much-discussed “self-driving” cars and trucks apparently promise to shut down a major non-skilled job category long before most of us thought there was even a threat.  It is no accident that there are Trump-like movements popping up everywhere.

All these changes put added weight behind the Democratic emphasis on education, health care, and a safety net.  But it is also possible that we are moving into an era where there may not be enough good jobs for everyone.  It’s not clear we have an answer for that, and probably we should be thinking about it.  It may be a more than a matter of exceptions. Any group left behind is fodder for demagogues.

What makes matters worse is that Trump the politician was only a front-man.  His populism, like the populism of the Tea Party, is just a nice face to put on the real aims of the Republican party.  Any illusions about that have been dispelled by Trump’s cabinet and infrastructure program–we now all know the word “kleptocracy.”

The real sea change in US politics is the emergence of a small elite class that feels it has no common enterprise with the rest of the population.  (One indication of the change is the old movie French Connection.   Looking from today’s perspective it seems rather quaint that the evil European drug lords actually take the subway!)  That class has funded a Republican party with only one objective—cut taxes for the rich.  All social services are fair game—education, medical care, retirement, environment, even police (Who needs them?  Let’s all have guns!).  Trump and the Tea Party have been smashing successes (along with the classic divide and conquer of ethnic groups and social classes), so there will always be money–and media support–for the next populist front.    A recent New York Time article traces the corresponding evolution of the anti-democratic strain in the Republican party.

It’s an open question how we are going to deal with all of that, but there had better be a program and we had better find a way to get all strands of the population to understand that there are no exceptions from what is going to happen otherwise.  As in the past, “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”

The Media and the Problem

The problem with the media, both during the election and now, grows out of a general unwillingness to acknowledge the reality of where we stand today.   What we have witnessed is a takeover of the country by a fascist demagogue through the offices of the FBI.  There is a correct word for this–had it happened anywhere else we would have recognized it as a coup.  It has been accompanied by the usual fascist rabble-rousing and scapegoating of minorities, together with a suppression of dissent that is already unmistakable and poised to get much worse.   The media have been a conveniently passive accomplice—“we just report what we think people want to see.”

There is a real worry we may not be able to go back.  Certainly the Germans never got a second chance, and the Athenian Greeks were never able to free themselves from demagogues once that got going. The danger to dissent is immediate.  Not only has Trump been able to use social media to incite his supporters to acts of violence, but the FBI represents an underemphasized threat.   They have already demonstrated their willingness to support Trump by extra-legal means, and the history of J. Edgar Hoover has shown that it can happen here.

The Supreme Court makes this a perfect storm.  As we know Trump gets at least one nominee and perhaps one or two more.  The Constitution is only a piece of paper; its meaning is expressed by the Court’s interpretation.  The Court was the Founding Fathers’ greatest risk–despite our much-vaunted checks and balances, the Court’s power is absolute.  There is no recourse either for individual issues or for the makeup of the Court itself.  Together with Congress a Trump court can do anything it wants, through legalized suppression of dissent or even controlling the country by manipulating who can vote–following the attempts to do that at the state level.

For now both the media and the mainstream politicians are trying to behave as if this is business as usual.  While one can respect their desire the keep things calm, there is a corresponding responsibility to defend our democracy.  At the very least there must be a commitment of the media in particular to actively defend dissent.   That isn’t a given, since Trump as President will have even more power to control the public dialog than he did during the campaign.  But with Trump holding all the cards, without dissent the democracy game may be lost for good.