Sunday, June 12, 2016

Trump Was Inevitable, But Why? What Does His Candidacy Mean?

Donald Trump has now been selected by the voters in the Republican Party as their candidate for president.  There are those in the party who still hope and lobby for another candidate, but any other outcome is highly unlikely.  What is of note is that this result was deemed so improbable by media reporters and political pundits—those who claimed to know what was going on.  So what happened?

Ronald B. Rapoport, Alan I. Abramowitz, and Walter J. Stone produced an article in the New York Review of Books titled Why Trump Was Inevitable.  They make a compelling argument that Trump’s victory would have been obvious early on if only people had thought to ask the right questions—and believe the answers they received.

The authors commissioned a poll designed to assess the attitudes of people expected to vote in the Republican primaries.  The poll was taken way back at the time of the Iowa caucuses.

“In order to understand the Trump phenomenon, we commissioned YouGov to carry out a Web-based survey of a national sample of 1,000 Republicans and independents. Of this initial sample, 688 respondents identified themselves as certain to vote in a Republican primary.”

Using their polling data, the authors were able to deduce the results of hypothetical one-on-one contests and discovered that Trump would have emerged victorious against all other candidates.

“….no candidate finished ahead of Trump, and only one, Cruz, even came within 10 percentage points of Trump.”

While Trump was viewed in horror as “unelectable” by Republican Party leaders, their voters had come to a different conclusion.

“Notwithstanding the concerns of Republican elites, Trump was the only candidate a majority of GOP primary voters saw as “very likely” or “likely” to win the general election. Cruz and Rubio were the only other candidates that even a third of Republicans viewed as likely winners in November.”

What was most important about what emerged from the authors polling related to what Republican voters thought about Trump’s most controversial proposals.  Controversial, in particular, refers to identifying and deporting illegal immigrants, building a wall between the US and Mexico, and banning Muslims from entering the US.  Consider this chart provided by the authors.

While Trump supporters were most in favor of his policies, they were popular with a large majority of all Republican voters.

“On all three issues overwhelming majorities of likely Republican voters supported his positions: almost three quarters (73 percent) favored banning Muslims from entering the US, 90 percent favored identifying and deporting illegal immigrants as quickly as possible, and 85 percent favored building a wall on the Mexican border.”

Given the results the authors have presented, how could one be surprised that Trump went on to win the nomination in the primaries? 

It was as if the non-Republican voters and pundits were in a state of denial.  “How could the members of a major political party in our nation hold these beliefs?”

It is time to ask the question: “Given that Trump has succeeded, not in spite of his controversial proposals, but because of them, what does that say about our nation and its future?”

Mark Danner provides some interesting and relevant insights into the Trump phenomenon in The Magic of Donald Trump which also appeared in the New York Review of Books.  Danner suggests we immediately underestimate Trump if we label him merely another billionaire, or just a business tycoon.  His familiarity with the public is much more intimate than that.  He is better known to his followers as the character on the TV show The Apprentice.

“Observe the celebrity known as Donald Trump saunter onto the stage at Boca Raton, twenty minutes after his helicopter swoops in. The slow and ponderous walk, the extended chin, the pursed mouth, the slowly swiveling head, the exaggerated look of knowing authority: with the exception of the red “Make America Great Again” ball cap perched atop his interesting hair the entire passage is quoted whole cloth from the patented boardroom entrance of The Apprentice, something that does not escape the delirious fans, even if it does most journalists.”

“….The Apprentice debuted on NBC in 2004 with 20.7 million viewers, ranking it seventh among all primetime programs. Twenty-eight million people tuned in to watch the season finale. The numbers went down from there but still in today’s “fragmented entertainment marketplace” those numbers are, well, huge. Week after week for a dozen years millions of Americans saw Donald J. Trump portraying the business magus, the grand vizier of capitalism, the wise man of the boardroom, a living confection whose every step and word bespoke gravitas and experience and power and authority and…money. Endless amounts of money.”

Danner suggests that this TV image of Trump is what moves his supporters.  He then reminds us that when the first Republican debate was televised over 20 million viewers showed up—about the same as for Trump’s television show.

“We are told again and again: his is the most improbable political story in decades, perhaps in history. And yet that a reality television megastar, as Trump might put it, could outpoll sixteen dimly to barely known politicians, some new faces, many also-rans, seems less than shocking. Did tens of millions ever cast their eyes on the junior senators from Florida or Kentucky or Texas, or the governor of Ohio, not to mention the ex-governors of Arkansas or Florida, or the ex-CEO of Hewlett Packard, before they chanced to mount the stage for a debate with Donald J. Trump last August, a television event that drew the unheard-of viewership of 24 million? Those 24 million tuned in to see Trump. Only one man on stage had a name as famous and by then it was in such disrepute that he had seen fit to replace it with an exclamation point on his campaign posters.”

Danner also disabuses us of any notion that Trump is just a clever politician playing a role to please those who might vote for him.  He reminds us that Trump has been displaying his attitudes publicly for decades.  Consider one of his controversial policies that would require allies to reimburse the US for the protection it provides.

“Anyone tempted to regard these views as opportunistic might take a glance at a full-page advertisement that appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe in September 1987 entitled ‘An Open Letter from Donald J. Trump on Why America Should Stop Paying to Defend Countries That Can Afford to Defend Themselves’.”

Within two years of that article Trump returned again with his take on the treatment of those who might wish to harm us.

“Twenty months later, after the attack on the Central Park jogger, Trump was back with another full-page ad, this one entitled ‘Bring Back the Death Penalty. Bring Back Our Police’!”

Included was a claim that would foretell statements popping up in the current campaign.

“Trump tells us partly in all-caps: ‘Criminals must be told that their CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS!’ (As he declared last November about waterboarding terrorists, ‘You bet your ass I would!… It works…. If it doesn’t work they deserve it anyway for what they’re doing!’)….”

So we are left with the conclusion that the Trump we see is the real Trump—the one we would get if he were elected president.

Danner points out that Trump promises to solve all of our problems with simple solutions that he personally will implement.

“….the clear path to a restoration of greatness marked by simple, autocratic solutions (imposing tariffs, pulling out of NATO, bringing back torture, “bombing the shit” out of ISIS)—all of it springs from the populist toolbox, if not the fascist one, and the advertisements show that the roots of these positions and attitudes run very deep.”

“….as many have pointed out, he builds on and expresses loudly and clearly racist and nativist elements in Republican politics that have been central to the party’s appeal since at least the mid-1960s but that its leaders have preferred to signal rather than enunciate. Trump leaves the dog whistle behind, puts his fingers to his lips, and screeches.”

Danner resurrects a comment made by the philosopher Richard Rorty in 1997 concerning what can happen to a society in deep economic distress.

“….members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers—themselves desperately afraid of being downsized—are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.”

“At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots….”

“One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion…. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.”

Rorty’s comments were based on studies of past history.  The analogy with earlier rises of fascism is obvious—as is the correlation with Trump’s campaign.

Danner leaves his readers with an image of Trump as a terrible danger to the nation.  Another author, Adam Gopnik picks up that theme and proceeds to elaborate on just how dangerous Trump is.  He presents his thoughts in an article for The New Yorker: The Dangerous Acceptance of Donald Trump.

Gopnik does not mince words.

“One can argue about whether to call him a fascist or an authoritarian populist or a grotesque joke made in a nightmare shared between Philip K. Dick and Tom Wolfe, but under any label Trump is a declared enemy of the liberal constitutional order of the United States—the order that has made it, in fact, the great and plural country that it already is.”

Many of Trump’s policies have traditionally fallen under the rubric of “Un-American.”

“He announces his enmity to America by word and action every day. It is articulated in his insistence on the rightness of torture and the acceptable murder of noncombatants. It is self-evident in the threats he makes daily to destroy his political enemies, made only worse by the frivolity and transience of the tone of those threats. He makes his enmity to American values clear when he suggests that the Presidency holds absolute power, through which he will be able to end opposition….”

Gopnik heads directly to Hitler and the politics of his rise to power in Germany.  In so doing he forces us to recognize the frightening similarity to politics in the US today.  Too many people are willing to conclude he can’t be as bad as he seems to be, or that everyone in politics is terrible—a pox on all their houses.

“He’s not Hitler, as his wife recently said? Well, of course he isn’t. But then Hitler wasn’t Hitler—until he was. At each step of the way, the shock was tempered by acceptance. It depended on conservatives pretending he wasn’t so bad, compared with the Communists, while at the same time the militant left decided that their real enemies were the moderate leftists, who were really indistinguishable from the Nazis. The radical progressives decided that there was no difference between the democratic left and the totalitarian right and that an explosion of institutions was exactly the most thrilling thing imaginable.”

Gopnik then leaves us with this warning.

“If Trump came to power, there is a decent chance that the American experiment would be over. This is not a hyperbolic prediction; it is not a hysterical prediction; it is simply a candid reading of what history tells us happens in countries with leaders like Trump. Countries don’t really recover from being taken over by unstable authoritarian nationalists of any political bent, left or right—not by Peróns or Castros or Putins or Francos or Lenins or fill in the blanks. The nation may survive, but the wound to hope and order will never fully heal. Ask Argentinians or Chileans or Venezuelans or Russians or Italians—or Germans. The national psyche never gets over learning that its institutions are that fragile and their ability to resist a dictator that weak. If he can rout the Republican Party in a week by having effectively secured the nomination, ask yourself what Trump could do with the American government if he had a mandate.”

Trump’s candidacy provides us with the opportunity to think carefully about what the foundational principles of our nation are.  Let us hope that enough of us come to the appropriate conclusions.

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