TRUMP’S HOSTILE TAKEOVER OF THE REPUBLICAN PARTY GAINS PACE
[Notes by Tom Gross]
This is another dispatch about U.S. presidential election candidates, following the dispatch two weeks ago about Bernie Sanders’ attitude to his Jewishness and other American Jews.
Incidentally, yesterday The New York Times ran a long piece on the same topic titled “Bernie Sanders Is Jewish, but He Doesn’t Like to Talk About It”. (The author of that piece and its editor are both subscribers to this list.)
SANDERS REPORTEDLY PICKS A CONSPIRACY THEORIST
On Wednesday, the influential and well-informed Washington news outlet Politico ran an article titled “Exclusive: Bernie Sanders Begins Building Foreign Policy Team”.
The third person named in the team is former U.S. Army Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson (who is a Republican). This is very disturbing since Wilkerson has peddled anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
In 2013, after Western intelligence officials said there was no doubt that Bashar Assad had used chemical weapons on his own people, Wilkerson appeared on Current TV to suggest Assad’s gassing of his opponents and civilians “could’ve been an Israeli false flag operation.”
No one else has suggested this, not even Assad. But Wilkerson’s claim was then unsurprisingly repeated many times on anti-Semitic websites in the Arab world and elsewhere.
Does Sanders really want Wilkerson on his team of foreign policy advisors?
OFFENSIVE COMPARISON TO 1930s GERMANY
Most of the rest of this dispatch concerns Donald Trump. Trump may not be the best person to become America’s next president, but I certainly do not agree with the Harvard professor who, in an editorial in The Washington Post on Sunday, compared Trump’s rise to Hitler’s. Disagreeable though Trump may be, to compare his rise to that of Hitler (or to compare those Americans who vote for him to those pro-Nazi Austrians and Germans who supported Hitler) is a gross insult to all Hitler’s many victims.
Trump’s policies are in fact all over the place. Bill Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard, remarked a few days ago that on some issues “Trump is now way to the left of any Democrat”.
EVEN SET TO WIN MUCH OF THE HISPANIC VOTE IN FLORIDA
It looks increasingly likely that Trump may win the Republican nomination, and it is possible he may be the next president. New polls show that Trump is even leading Senator Marco Rubio by 16 points in Rubio’s home state of Florida.
As Trump himself claimed in his victory speech in Nevada on Tuesday, he won 56 percent with Hispanics. He didn’t need to point out that this was despite the fact that he had insulted Mexicans, and that the other two main Republican candidates, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, are both of Hispanic origin.
Trump even scored well among the more moderate so-called “McCain Romney vote”. And he took much of the evangelical vote from Cruz. He won over both older and younger voters.
“THAT WAS LAST YEAR’S QUESTION”
The third piece below, from the (London) Daily Telegraph says “Donald Trump cannot be stopped. Republicans need to prepare him for the White House. There is no longer any doubt about who will win the Republican nomination.
“There’s only one conversation among Republicans in Washington this week: how to stop Donald Trump. They are wrong. What they should be asking themselves – after his extraordinary victory on Tuesday in the Nevada caucus – is how they can learn to love him.
“The country has changed. Donald Trump offers the Republican Party a chance to change with it. This is no longer about whether he is the best candidate. That was last year’s question. He is simply the candidate.”
NOTHING IS DECIDED YET
Tom Gross adds:
Only four states have voted to date, so Trump’s victory is not, in fact, assured by any means.
However, if the other candidates wish to beat him they would do well to listen carefully to what the commentators in the first two pieces below write in explaining why so many people support Trump.
The first article is by Clive Crook, a former Washington-based commentator for the Financial Times, and the Economist, who now writes a column for Bloomberg.
The second article, which Crook refers to at the start of his, is by Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute, writing in the Wall Street Journal.
The fourth and final piece below, from Current Affairs, argues “Unless the Democrats choose Bernie Sanders, a Trump nomination means a Trump presidency” because (claims the author) Trump can beat Clinton.
I am not sure I agree with him. This election is very unpredictable.
Here, incidentally, is The Guardian’s prediction of “President Trump”’s first 100 days in office should he win.
* Please “like” these dispatches on Facebook here www.facebook.com/TomGrossMedia, where you can also find other items that are not in these dispatches.
1. “Donald Trump, Class Warrior” (By Clive Crook, Bloomberg View, Feb. 19, 2016)
2. “There’s nothing irrational about Trump’s appeal” (By Charles Murray, Wall St Journal, Feb. 12, 2016)
3. “Trump cannot be stopped. Republicans need to prepare him for the White House” (By Rob Crilly, Daily Telegraph, Feb. 25, 2016)
4. “Unless the Democrats run Sanders, a Trump nomination means a Trump presidency” (By Nathan J. Robinson, Current Affairs, Feb. 23, 2016)
“THAT FRIEND WOULD BE ME. ALLOW ME TO ELABORATE.”
Donald Trump, Class Warrior
By Clive Crook
February 19, 2016
Charles Murray’s recent article for the Wall Street Journal on “Trump’s America” offers an interesting explanation of an initially inexplicable phenomenon. I think Murray’s right to see support for Trump as an act of protest that’s both understandable and even, on its own terms, rational.
The piece discusses economic pressures and cultural strains across the United States. The economic factor is familiar, but the salience of class and culture, which Murray emphasizes, is too little appreciated.
Even putting race to one side, America was never the classless society it has imagined itself to be. But tribute is still paid to the idea, and this has obscured the role of class in this strange election. Murray writes about a new merit-based upper class, comprising talented people, educated and socialized at college, and doing pretty well. They have a good opinion of themselves:
“Another characteristic of the new upper class – and something new under the American sun – is their easy acceptance of being members of an upper class and their condescension toward ordinary Americans. Try using “redneck” in a conversation with your highly educated friends and see if it triggers any of the nervousness that accompanies other ethnic slurs. Refer to “flyover country” and consider the implications when no one asks, “What does that mean?” Or I can send you to chat with a friend in Washington, D.C., who bought a weekend place in West Virginia. He will tell you about the contempt for his new neighbors that he has encountered in the elite precincts of the nation’s capital.”
That friend would be me. Allow me to elaborate.
I’m a British immigrant, and grew up in a northern English working-class town. Taking my regional accent to Oxford University and then the British civil service, I learned a certain amount about my own class consciousness and other people’s snobbery. But in London or Oxford from the 1970s onwards I never witnessed the naked disdain for the working class that much of America’s metropolitan elite finds permissible in 2016.
When my wife and I bought some land in West Virginia and built a house there, many friends in Washington asked why we would ever do that. Jokes about guns, banjo music, in-breeding, people without teeth and so forth often followed. These Washington friends, in case you were wondering, are good people. They’d be offended by crass, cruel jokes about any other group. They deplore prejudice and keep an eye out for unconscious bias. More than a few object to the term, “illegal immigrant.” Yet somehow they feel the white working class has it coming.
My neighbors in West Virginia are good people too. Hard to believe, since some work outside and not all have degrees, but trust me on this. They’re aware of how they’re seen by the upper orders. They understand the prevailing view that they’re bigots, too stupid to know what’s good for them, and they see that this contempt is reserved especially for them. The ones I know don’t seem all that angry or bitter – they find it funny more than infuriating – but they sure don’t like being looked down on.
Many of them are Trump supporters.
Granting the appeal of the straight-talking outsider, one still must ask, why Trump? I mean, he doesn’t actually talk straight: In his own inimitable way, he panders like a pro. Shouldn’t it matter to someone who usually votes Republican that Trump isn’t a conservative – that, in policy terms, he isn’t really anything? He’s a liar and proud of it, transparently cynical and will say whatever comes into his head. How could anybody trust this man?
Yet, contrary to reports, the Trump supporters I’m talking about aren’t fools. They aren’t racists either. They don’t think much would change one way or the other if Trump were elected. The political system has failed them so badly that they think it can’t be repaired and little’s at stake. The election therefore reduces to an opportunity to express disgust. And that’s where Trump’s defects come in: They’re what make him such an effective messenger.
The fact that he’s outrageous is essential. (Ask yourself, what would he be without his outrageousness? Take that away and nothing remains.) Trump delights mainly in offending the people who think they’re superior – the people who radiate contempt for his supporters. The more he offends the superior people, the more his supporters like it. Trump wages war on political correctness. Political correctness requires more than ordinary courtesy: It’s a ritual, like knowing which fork to use, by which superior people recognize each other.
This isn’t the whole explanation of Trumpism, by any means, but I think it’s part of the explanation. Supporting Trump is an act of class protest – not just over hard economic times, the effect of immigration on wages or the depredations of Wall Street, but also, and perhaps most of all, over lack of respect. That’s something no American, with or without a college degree, will stand for.
“THE WHITE WORKING CLASS HAVE EVERY REASON TO BE ANGRY”
There’s nothing irrational about Donald Trump’s appeal to the white working class, writes Charles Murray: they have every reason to be angry
By Charles Murray
The Wall Street Journal
February 12, 2016
If you are dismayed by Trumpism, don’t kid yourself that it will fade away if Donald Trump fails to win the Republican nomination. Trumpism is an expression of the legitimate anger that many Americans feel about the course that the country has taken, and its appearance was predictable. It is the endgame of a process that has been going on for a half-century: America’s divestment of its historic national identity.
For the eminent political scientist Samuel Huntington, writing in his last book, “Who Are We?” (2004), two components of that national identity stand out. One is our Anglo-Protestant heritage, which has inevitably faded in an America that is now home to many cultural and religious traditions. The other is the very idea of America, something unique to us. As the historian Richard Hofstadter once said, “It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies but to be one.”
What does this ideology – Huntington called it the “American creed” – consist of? Its three core values may be summarized as egalitarianism, liberty and individualism. From these flow other familiar aspects of the national creed that observers have long identified: equality before the law, equality of opportunity, freedom of speech and association, self-reliance, limited government, free-market economics, decentralized and devolved political authority.
As recently as 1960, the creed was our national consensus. Running that year for the Democratic nomination, candidates like John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Hubert Humphrey genuinely embraced the creed, differing from Republicans only in how its elements should be realized.
Today, the creed has lost its authority and its substance. What happened? Many of the dynamics of the reversal can be found in developments across the whole of American society: in the emergence of a new upper class and a new lower class, and in the plight of the working class caught in between.
In my 2012 book “Coming Apart,” I discussed these new classes at length. The new upper class consists of the people who shape the country’s economy, politics and culture. The new lower class consists of people who have dropped out of some of the most basic institutions of American civic culture, especially work and marriage. Both of these new classes have repudiated the American creed in practice, whatever lip service they may still pay to it. Trumpism is the voice of a beleaguered working class telling us that it too is falling away.
Historically, one of the most widely acknowledged aspects of American exceptionalism was our lack of class consciousness. Even Marx and Engels recognized it. This was egalitarianism American style. Yes, America had rich people and poor people, but that didn’t mean that the rich were better than anyone else.
Successful Americans stubbornly refused to accept the mantle of an upper class, typically presenting themselves to their fellow countrymen as regular guys. And they usually were, in the sense that most of them had grown up in modest circumstances, or even in poverty, and carried the habits and standards of their youths into their successful later lives.
America also retained a high degree of social and cultural heterogeneity in its communities. Tocqueville wrote of America in the 1830s as a place where “the more opulent citizens take great care not to stand aloof from the people.” That continued well into the 20th century, even in America’s elite neighborhoods. In the 1960 census, the median income along Philadelphia’s Main Line was just $90,000 in today’s dollars. In Boston’s Brookline, it was $75,000; on New York’s Upper East Side, just $60,000. At a typical dinner party in those neighborhoods, many guests would have had no more than a high-school diploma.
In the years since, the new upper class has evolved a distinctive culture. For a half-century, America’s elite universities have drawn the most talented people from all over the country, socialized them and often married them off to each other. Brains have become radically more valuable in the marketplace. In 2016, a dinner party in those same elite neighborhoods consists almost wholly of people with college degrees, even advanced degrees. They are much more uniformly affluent. The current median family incomes for the Main Line, Brookline and the Upper East Side are about $150,000, $151,000 and $203,000, respectively.
And the conversation at that dinner party is likely to be completely unlike the conversations at get-togethers in mainstream America. The members of the new upper class are seldom attracted to the films, TV shows and music that are most popular in mainstream America. They have a distinctive culture in the food they eat, the way they take care of their health, their child-rearing practices, the vacations they take, the books they read, the websites they visit and their taste in beer. You name it, the new upper class has its own way of doing it.
Another characteristic of the new upper class – and something new under the American sun – is their easy acceptance of being members of an upper class and their condescension toward ordinary Americans. Try using “redneck” in a conversation with your highly educated friends and see if it triggers any of the nervousness that accompanies other ethnic slurs. Refer to “flyover country” and consider the implications when no one asks, “What does that mean?” Or I can send you to chat with a friend in Washington, D.C., who bought a weekend place in West Virginia. He will tell you about the contempt for his new neighbors that he has encountered in the elite precincts of the nation’s capital.
For its part, mainstream America is fully aware of this condescension and contempt and is understandably irritated by it. American egalitarianism is on its last legs.
While the new upper class was seceding from the mainstream, a new lower class was emerging from within the white working class, and it has played a key role in creating the environment in which Trumpism has flourished.
Work and marriage have been central to American civic culture since the founding, and this held true for the white working class into the 1960s. Almost all of the adult men were working or looking for work, and almost all of them were married.
Then things started to change. For white working-class men in their 30s and 40s – what should be the prime decades for working and raising a family – participation in the labor force dropped from 96% in 1968 to 79% in 2015. Over that same period, the portion of these men who were married dropped from 86% to 52%. (The numbers for nonwhite working-class males show declines as well, though not as steep and not as continuous.)
These are stunning changes, and they are visible across the country. In today’s average white working-class neighborhood, about one out of five men in the prime of life isn’t even looking for work; they are living off girlfriends, siblings or parents, on disability, or else subsisting on off-the-books or criminal income. Almost half aren’t married, with all the collateral social problems that go with large numbers of unattached males.
In these communities, about half the children are born to unmarried women, with all the problems that go with growing up without fathers, especially for boys. Drugs also have become a major problem, in small towns as well as in urban areas.
Consider how these trends have affected life in working-class communities for everyone, including those who are still playing by the old rules. They find themselves working and raising their families in neighborhoods where the old civic culture is gone – neighborhoods that are no longer friendly or pleasant or even safe.
These major changes in American class structure were taking place alongside another sea change: large-scale ideological defection from the principles of liberty and individualism, two of the pillars of the American creed. This came about in large measure because of the civil rights and feminist movements, both of which began as classic invocations of the creed, rightly demanding that America make good on its ideals for blacks and women.
But the success of both movements soon produced policies that directly contradicted the creed. Affirmative action demanded that people be treated as groups. Equality of outcome trumped equality before the law. Group-based policies continued to multiply, with ever more policies embracing ever more groups.
By the beginning of the 1980s, Democratic elites overwhelmingly subscribed to an ideology in open conflict with liberty and individualism as traditionally understood. This consolidated the Democratic Party’s longtime popularity with ethnic minorities, single women and low-income women, but it alienated another key Democratic constituency: the white working class.
White working-class males were the archetypal “Reagan Democrats” in the early 1980s and are often described as the core of support for Mr. Trump. But the grievances of this group are often misunderstood. It is a mistake to suggest that they are lashing out irrationally against people who don’t look like themselves. There are certainly elements of racism and xenophobia in Trumpism, as I myself have discovered on Twitter and Facebook after writing critically about Mr. Trump.
But the central truth of Trumpism as a phenomenon is that the entire American working class has legitimate reasons to be angry at the ruling class. During the past half-century of economic growth, virtually none of the rewards have gone to the working class. The economists can supply caveats and refinements to that statement, but the bottom line is stark: The real family income of people in the bottom half of the income distribution hasn’t increased since the late 1960s.
During the same half-century, American corporations exported millions of manufacturing jobs, which were among the best-paying working-class jobs. They were and are predominantly men’s jobs. In both 1968 and 2015, 70% of manufacturing jobs were held by males.
During the same half-century, the federal government allowed the immigration, legal and illegal, of tens of millions of competitors for the remaining working-class jobs. Apart from agriculture, many of those jobs involve the construction trades or crafts. They too were and are predominantly men’s jobs: 77% in 1968 and 84% in 2015.
Economists still argue about the net effect of these events on the American job market. But for someone living in a town where the big company has shut the factory and moved the jobs to China, or for a roofer who has watched a contractor hire illegal immigrants because they are cheaper, anger and frustration are rational.
Add to this the fact that white working-class men are looked down upon by the elites and get little validation in their own communities for being good providers, fathers and spouses – and that life in their communities is falling apart. To top it off, the party they have voted for in recent decades, the Republicans, hasn’t done a damn thing to help them. Who wouldn’t be angry?
There is nothing conservative about how they want to fix things. They want a now indifferent government to act on their behalf, big time. If Bernie Sanders were passionate about immigration, the rest of his ideology would have a lot more in common with Trumpism than conservatism does.
As a political matter, it is not a problem that Mr. Sanders doesn’t share the traditional American meanings of liberty and individualism. Neither does Mr. Trump. Neither, any longer, do many in the white working class. They have joined the other defectors from the American creed.
Who continues to embrace this creed in its entirety? Large portions of the middle class and upper middle class (especially those who run small businesses), many people in the corporate and financial worlds and much of the senior leadership of the Republican Party. They remain principled upholders of the ideals of egalitarianism, liberty and individualism.
And let’s not forget moderate Democrats, the spiritual legatees of the New Deal. They may advocate social democracy, but they are also unhappy about policies that treat Americans as members of groups and staunch in their support of freedom of speech, individual moral responsibility and the kind of egalitarianism that Tocqueville was talking about. They still exist in large numbers, though mostly in the political closet.
But these are fragments of the population, not the national consensus that bound the U.S. together for the first 175 years of the nation’s existence. And just as support for the American creed has shrunk, so has its correspondence to daily life. Our vaunted liberty is now constrained by thousands of petty restrictions that touch almost anything we want to do, individualism is routinely ignored in favor of group rights, and we have acquired an arrogant upper class. Operationally as well as ideologically, the American creed is shattered.
Our national identity is not altogether lost. Americans still have a vivid, distinctive national character in the eyes of the world. Historically, America has done a far better job than any other country of socializing people of many different ethnicities into displaying our national character. We will still be identifiably American for some time to come.
There’s irony in that. Much of the passion of Trumpism is directed against the threat to America’s national identity from an influx of immigrants. But the immigrants I actually encounter, of all ethnicities, typically come across as classically American – cheerful, hardworking, optimistic, ambitious. Keeping our national character seems to be the least of our problems.
Still, even that character is ultimately rooted in the American creed. When faith in that secular religion is held only by fragments of the American people, we will soon be just another nation – a very powerful one, a very rich one, still called the United States of America. But we will have detached ourselves from the bedrock that has made us unique in the history of the world.
“DONALD TRUMP CANNOT BE STOPPED… REPUBLICANS NEED TO LEARN TO LOVE HIM”
Donald Trump cannot be stopped. Republicans need to prepare him for the White House
By Rob Crilly
(London) Daily Telegraph
February 25, 2016
There’s only one conversation among Republicans in Washington this week: how to stop Donald Trump.
They are wrong.
What they should be asking themselves – after his extraordinary victory on Tuesday in the Nevada caucus – is how they can learn to love him.
Stopping him is not working. So far their strategy has developed from “hoping for the best” to “waiting for something to turn up”.
The remaining candidates seem terrified of going head to head with Mr Trump.
Consider this. Of the $215 million spent by Super Pacs – the cash-guzzling, arm’s-length organisations that do the dirty work of a campaign – so far only $9.2 million has been spent on attacking Mr Trump, according to The New York Times. Peanuts.
And that’s for the thinnest skinned candidate in the race. A glance at his Twitter feed is evidence enough of how badly he takes criticism. A toddler would be embarrassed.
Shock and awe attacks would be wasted now, however. The battleground is set. Super Tuesday looms next week and something more dramatic is needed.
Jeb Bush, once a presumed shoo-in for the job, offered a clue. As scion to the ultimate Republican dynasty, he fell on his sword after another thumping in South Carolina, the better for the anti-Trump vote to coalesce around a single standard bearer.
This is now what passes for conventional wisdom: Mr Trump leads because of the split vote against him so who is the next body to be thrown in front of the Trump juggernaut?
The liberal John Kasich? He has made clear he is not dropping out. He is going to run until he pockets the vice presidential position on the winner’s ticket.
Ben Carson? His conservative supporters are most likely to go to Ted Cruz, the unliked Texas senator, with little prospect of lifting his numbers to anything close to the front-runner.
The only calculation that works at this stage is for Mr Cruz to fall in behind his fellow Cuban-American senator, Marco Rubio.
It makes a certain superficial sense: one titillates the conservative base while the other reassures the party establishment.
Think Reagan-Bush of 1980.
But surely the Republican elite have woken up to the smell of coffee by now… if not something less pleasant. It is not 1980.
If voters in angry America are rejecting the political elite by flocking to a charismatic reality TV star, it seems unlikely that they are going to buy a stitch-up worked out over sparkling water in the smoke-free rooms of Washington.
And there’s the Trump card problem. When Mr Trump promised not to be a sore loser and opt for a third-party campaign in the event of rejection in the Republican primaries, he did so on the proviso that he was treated fairly by the Grand Old Party.
A backroom deal would provide him ample opportunity to cry foul, freeing him to run as an independent. He might not win, but he could make damn sure the Republican candidate didn’t either.
All of which shows that radical steps are certainly needed. But banging heads together to stop Donald Trump is simply not going to cut it.
A bolder strategy is needed. It’s time for the Republican party to start to love the Donald, to groom him as their candidate, rein in his excesses and curb his profanities.
It is not as crazy as it sounds.
In fact it has started. Rudolph Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, is among the establishment figures who have begun quietly advising Mr Trump in something of a kitchen cabinet.
Much of his platform is up for grabs anyway. Cut through the bluster and he has left plenty languishing in the long grass. Foreign policy is to be decided by rooms of experts; economic policy will be subject to his own, much vaunted negotiation skills.
The Mexico wall and a ban on Muslims entering the U.S., of course, can’t be finessed away.
But the rest is centrist, moderate – his admiration for single payer healthcare, for example – and a long way from the conservative, tea party wing of the party.
With his name recognition, forceful charisma and energy, there are worse candidates with which to fight a presidential election.
The country has changed. Donald Trump offers the Republican Party a chance to change with it.
This is no longer about whether he is the best candidate. That was last year’s question.
He is simply the candidate.
UNLESS THE DEMOCRATS RUN SANDERS, A TRUMP NOMINATION MEANS A TRUMP PRESIDENCY
Unless the Democrats Run Sanders, A Trump Nomination Means a Trump Presidency
Democrats need to seriously and pragmatically assess their strategy for defeating Trump. A Clinton run would be disastrous; Bernie Sanders is their only hope.
By Nathan J. Robinson
February 23, 2016
With Donald Trump looking increasingly likely to actually be the Republican nominee for President, it’s long past time for the Democrats to start working on a pragmatic strategy to defeat him. Months of complacent, wishful insistences that Trump will disappear have proven false, and with a firm commanding lead in polls and several major primary victories, predictions are increasingly favoring Trump to win the nomination. If Democrats honestly believe, as they say they do, that Trump poses a serious threat to the wellbeing of the country and the lives of minority citizens, that means doing everything possible to keep him out of office. To do that will require them to very quickly unite around a single goal, albeit a counterintuitive one: they must make absolutely sure that Bernie Sanders is the Democratic nominee for President.
The electability question should be at the center of the Democratic primary. After all, elections are about winning, and high-minded liberal principles mean nothing if one has no chance of actually triumphing in a general election. Hillary Clinton has been right to emphasize that the pragmatic achievement of goals should be the central concern of a presidential candidate, and that Bernie Sanders’s supporters often behave as if this is immaterial.
Instinctively, Hillary Clinton has long seemed by far the more electable of the two Democratic candidates. She is, after all, an experienced, pragmatic moderate, whereas Sanders is a raving, arm-flapping elderly Jewish socialist from Vermont. Clinton is simply closer to the American mainstream, thus she is more attractive to a broader swath of voters. Sanders campaigners have grown used to hearing the heavy-hearted lament “I like Bernie, I just don’t think he can win.” And in typical previous American elections, this would be perfectly accurate.
But this is far from a typical previous American election. And recently, everything about the electability calculus has changed, due to one simple fact: Donald Trump is likely to be the Republican nominee for President. Given this reality, every Democratic strategic question must operate not on the basis of abstract electability against a hypothetical candidate, but specific electability against the actual Republican nominee, Donald Trump.
Here, a Clinton match-up is highly likely to be an unmitigated electoral disaster, whereas a Sanders candidacy stands a far better chance. Every one of Clinton’s (considerable) weaknesses plays to every one of Trump’s strengths, whereas every one of Trump’s (few) weaknesses plays to every one of Sanders’s strengths. From a purely pragmatic standpoint, running Clinton against Trump is a disastrous, suicidal proposition.
Sanders supporters have lately been arguing that their candidate is more electable than people think, and they have some support from the available polling. In a number of hypotheticals, Sanders does better than Clinton at beating Trump, and his “unfavorable” ratings among voters are a good deal lower than Clinton’s. In response to this, however, Clinton supporters insist that polling at this stage means very little, and since Bernie is not well known and there has not been a national attack campaign directed at him from the right yet, his supporters do not account for the drop in support that will occur when voters realize he is on the fringes. Imagine, they say, how viciously the right will attack Sanders’s liberal record.
Clinton’s people are right to point out that these polls mean very little; after all, Sanders’s entire campaign success is a caution against placing too much weight on early polling. And they are especially right to emphasize that we should visualize how the campaign by conservatives will realistically play out, rather than attempting to divine the future from highly fallible polling numbers. But it’s precisely when we try to envision how the real dynamics of the campaign will transpire that we see just how disastrous a Clinton-Trump fight will be for Clinton.
Her supporters insist that she has already been “tried and tested” against all the attacks that can be thrown at her. But this is not the case; she has never been subjected to the full brunt of attacks that come in a general presidential election. Bernie Sanders has ignored most tabloid dirt, treating it as a sensationalist distraction from real issues (“Enough with the damned emails!”) But for Donald Trump, sensationalist distractions are the whole game. He will attempt to crucify her. And it is very, very likely that he will succeed.
Trump’s political dominance is highly dependent on his idiosyncratic, audacious method of campaigning. He deals almost entirely in amusing, outrageous, below-the-belt personal attacks, and is skilled at turning public discussions away from the issues and toward personalities (He/she’s a “loser,” “phony,” “nervous,” “hypocrite,” “incompetent.”) If Trump does have to speak about the issues, he makes himself sound foolish, because he doesn’t know very much. Thus he requires the media not to ask him difficult questions, and depends on his opponents’ having personal weaknesses and scandals that he can merrily, mercilessly exploit.
This campaigning style makes Hillary Clinton Donald Trump’s dream opponent. She gives him an endless amount to work with. The emails, Benghazi, Whitewater, Iraq, the Lewinsky scandal, Chinagate, Travelgate, the missing law firm records, Jeffrey Epstein, Kissinger, Marc Rich, Haiti, Clinton Foundation tax errors, Clinton Foundation conflicts of interest, “We were broke when we left the White House,” Goldman Sachs… There is enough material in Hillary Clinton’s background for Donald Trump to run with six times over.
The defense offered by Clinton supporters is that none of these issues actually amount to anything once you look at them carefully. But this is completely irrelevant; all that matters is the fodder they would provide for the Trump machine. Who is going to be looking carefully? In the time you spend trying to clear up the basic facts of Whitewater, Trump will have made five more allegations.
Even a skilled campaigner would have a very difficult time parrying such endless attacks by Trump. Even the best campaigner would find it impossible to draw attention back to actual substantive policy issues, and would spend their every moment on the defensive. But Hillary Clinton is neither the best campaigner nor even a skilled one. In fact, she is a dreadful campaigner. She may be a skilled policymaker, but on the campaign trail she makes constant missteps and never realizes things have gone wrong until it’s too late.
Everyone knows this. Even among Democratic party operatives, she’s acknowledged as “awkward and uninspiring on the stump,” carrying “Bill’s baggage with none of Bill’s warmth.” New York magazine described her “failing to demonstrate the most elementary political skills, much less those learned at Toastmasters or Dale Carnegie.” Last year the White House was panicking at her levels of electoral incompetence, her questionable decisionmaking, and her inclination for taking sleazy shortcuts. More recently, noting Sanders’s catch-up in the polls, The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin said that she was a “rotten candidate” whose attacks on Sanders made no sense, and that “at some point, you cannot blame the national mood or a poor staff or a brilliant opponent for Hillary Clinton’s campaign woes.” Yet in a race against Trump, Hillary will be handicapped not only by her feeble campaigning skills, but the fact that she will have a sour national mood, a poor staff, and a brilliant opponent.
Every Democrat should take some time to fairly, dispassionately examine Clinton’s track record as a campaigner. Study how the ‘08 campaign was handled, and how this one has gone. Assess her strengths and weaknesses with as little bias or prejudice as possible. Then picture the race against Trump, and think about how it will unfold.
It’s easy to see that Trump has every single advantage. Because the Republican primary will be over, he can come at her from both right and left as he pleases. As the candidate who thundered against the Iraq War at the Republican debate, he can taunt Clinton over her support for it. He will paint her as a member of the corrupt political establishment, and will even offer proof: “Well, I know you can buy politicians, because I bought Senator Clinton. I gave her money, she came to my wedding.” He can make it appear that Hillary Clinton can be bought, that he can’t, and that he is in charge. It’s also hard to defend against, because it appears to be partly true. Any denial looks like a lie, thus making Hillary’s situation look even worse. And then, when she stumbles, he will mock her as incompetent.
Charges of misogyny against Trump won’t work. He is going to fill the press with the rape and harassment allegations against Bill Clinton and Hillary’s role in discrediting the victims (something that made even Lena Dunham deeply queasy.) He can always remind people that Hillary Clinton referred to Monica Lewinsky as a “narcissistic loony toon.” Furthermore, since Trump is not an anti-Planned Parenthood zealot (being the only one willing to stick up for women’s health in a room full of Republicans), it will be hard for Clinton to paint him as the usual anti-feminist right-winger.
Trump will capitalize on his reputation as a truth-teller, and be vicious about both Clinton’s sudden changes of position (e.g. the switch on gay marriage, plus the affected economic populism of her run against Sanders) and her perceived dishonesty. One can already imagine the monologue:
“She lies so much. Everything she says is a lie. I’ve never seen someone who lies so much in my life. Let me tell you three lies she’s told. She made up a story about how she was ducking sniper fire! There was no sniper fire. She made it up! How do you forget a thing like that? She said she was named after Sir Edmund Hillary, the guy who climbed Mount Everest. He hadn’t even climbed it when she was born! Total lie! She lied about the emails, of course, as we all know, and is probably going to be indicted. You know she said there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq! It was a lie! Thousands of American soldiers are dead because of her. Not only does she lie, her lies kill people. That’s four lies, I said I’d give you three. You can’t even count them. You want to go on PolitiFact, see how many lies she has? It takes you an hour to read them all! In fact, they ask her, she doesn’t even say she hasn’t lied. They asked her straight up, she says she usually tries to tell the truth! Ooooh, she tries! Come on! This is a person, every single word out of her mouth is a lie. Nobody trusts her. Check the polls, nobody trusts her. Yuge liar.”
Where does she even begin to respond to this? Some of it’s true, some of it isn’t, but the more she tries to defensively parse it (“There’s been no suggestion I’m going to be indicted! And I didn’t say I usually tried to tell the truth, I said I always tried and usually succeeded”) the deeper she sinks into the hole.
Trump will bob, weave, jab, and hook. He won’t let up. And because Clinton actually has lied, and actually did vote for the Iraq War, and actually is hyper-cosy with Wall Street, and actually does change her positions based on expediency, all she can do is issue further implausible denials, which will further embolden Trump. Nor does she have a single offensive weapon at her disposal, since every legitimate criticism of Trump’s background (inconsistent political positions, shady financial dealings, pattern of deception) is equally applicable to Clinton, and he knows how to make such things slide off him, whereas she does not.
The whole Clinton campaign has been unraveling from its inception. It fell apart completely in 2008, and has barely held together against the longest of long shot candidates. No matter how likely she may be to win the primary, things do not bode well for a general election, whomever the nominee may be. As H.A. Goodman put it in Salon:
Please name the last person to win the presidency alongside an ongoing FBI investigation, negative favorability ratings, questions about character linked to continual flip-flops, a dubious money trail of donors, and the genuine contempt of the rival political party.
The “contempt” bit of this is obviously silly; we all know levels of contempt have reached their world-historic high point in the Republican attitude toward Obama. But the rest is true: it’s incredibly hard to run somebody very few people like and expect to win. With the jocular, shrewd Donald Trump as an opponent, that holds true a million times over.
Nor are the demographics going to be as favorable to Clinton as she thinks. Trump’s populism will have huge resonance among the white working class in both red and blue states; he might even peel away her black support. And Trump has already proven false the prediction that he would alienate Evangelicals through his vulgarity and his self-deification. Democrats are insistently repeating their belief that a Trump nomination will mobilize liberals to head to the polls like never before, but with nobody particularly enthusiastic for Clinton’s candidacy, it’s not implausible that a large number of people will find both options so unappealing that they stay home.
A Clinton/Trump match should therefore not just worry Democrats. It should terrify them. They should be doing everything possible to avoid it. A Trump/Sanders contest, however, looks very different indeed.
Trump’s various unique methods of attack would instantly be made far less useful in a run against Sanders. All of the most personal charges (untrustworthiness, corruption, rank hypocrisy) are much more difficult to make stick. The rich history of dubious business dealings is nonexistent. None of the sleaze in which Trump traffics can be found clinging to Bernie. Trump’s standup routine just has much less obvious personal material to work with. Sanders is a fairly transparent guy; he likes the social safety net, he doesn’t like oligarchy, he’s a workaholic who sometimes takes a break to play basketball, and that’s pretty much all there is to it. Contrast that with the above-noted list of juicy Clinton tidbits.
Trump can’t clown around nearly as much at a debate with Sanders, for the simple reason that Sanders is dead set on keeping every conversation about the plight of America’s poor under the present economic system. If Trump tells jokes and goofs off here, he looks as if he’s belittling poor people, not a magnificent idea for an Ivy League trust fund billionaire running against a working class public servant and veteran of the Civil Rights movement. Instead, Trump will be forced to do what Hillary Clinton has been forced to do during the primary, namely to make himself sound as much like Bernie Sanders as possible. For Trump, having to get serious and take the Trump Show off the air will be devastating to his unique charismatic appeal.
Against Trump, Bernie can play the same “experience” card that Hillary plays. After all, while Sanders may look like a policy amateur next to Clinton, next to Trump he looks positively statesmanlike. Sanders can point to his successful mayoralty and long history as Congress’s “Amendment King” as evidence of his administrative bona fides. And Sanders’s lack of foreign policy knowledge won’t hurt him when facing someone with even less. Sanders will be enough of an outsider for Trump’s populist anti-Washington appeal to be powerless, but enough of an insider to appear an experienced hand at governance.
Trump is an attention-craving parasite, and such creatures are powerful only when indulged and paid attention to. Clinton will be forced to pay attention to Trump because of his constant evocation of her scandals. She will attempt to go after him. She will, in other words, feed the troll. Sanders, by contrast, will almost certainly behave as if Trump isn’t even there. He is unlikely to rise to Trump’s bait, because Sanders doesn’t even care to listen to anything that’s not about saving social security or the disappearing middle class. He will almost certainly seem as if he barely knows who Trump is. Sanders’s commercials will be similar to those he has run in the primary, featuring uplifting images of America, aspirational sentiments about what we can be together, and moving testimonies from ordinary Americans. Putting such genuine dignity and good feeling against Trump’s race-baiting clownishness will be like finally pouring water on the Wicked Witch. Hillary Clinton cannot do this; with her, the campaign will inevitably descend into the gutter, and the unstoppable bloated Trump menace will continue to grow ever larger.
Sanders is thus an almost perfect secret weapon against Trump. He can pull off the only maneuver that is capable of neutralizing Trump: ignoring him and actually keeping the focus on the issues. Further, Sanders will have the advantage of an enthusiastic army of young volunteers, who will be strongly dedicated to the mission of stalling Trump’s quest for the presidency. The Sanders team is extremely technically skilled; everything from their television commercials to their rally organizing to their inspired teasing is pulled off well. The Sanders team is slick and adaptable, the Clinton team is ropey and fumbling.
There’s only one real way to attack Bernie Sanders, and we all know it: he’s a socialist fantasist out of touch with the Realities of Economics. But Trump in the worst possible position to make this criticism. Economists have savaged Trump’s own proposals as sheer lunacy, using every word deployed against Bernie and then some. And while from a D.C. policy veteran like Clinton, charges of a failure to understand how political decisionmaking works may sound reasonable, Sanders is a successful legislator who has run a city; the host of The Apprentice may have a more difficult time portraying a long-serving congressman as being unfamiliar with how Washington works.
Of course, the American people are still jittery about socialism. But they’re less jittery than they used to be, and Bernie does a good job portraying socialism as being about little more than paid family leave and sick days (a debatable proposition, but one beside the point.) His policies are popular and appeal to the prevailing national sentiment. It’s a risk, certainly. But the Soviet Union bogeyman is long gone, and everyone gets called a socialist these days no matter what their politics. It’s possible that swing voters dislike socialism more than they dislike Hillary Clinton, but in a time of economic discontent one probably shouldn’t bet on it.
One thing that should be noted is that all of this analysis applies solely to a race against Trump; the situation changes drastically and unpredictably if Marco Rubio is the nominee or Michael Bloomberg enters the race. Yet the moment, it doesn’t look like Marco Rubio will be nominated, but that Donald Trump will be. And in that case, Clinton is toast.
Some in the media have rushed to declare Sanders’s campaign moribund in the wake of his recent loss in Nevada. This is absurd; after all, out of 50 states, only three have voted, one being a tie, one being a major Sanders win, and one being a small Clinton win. The media has dishonestly pointed to Hillary Clinton’s higher superdelegate count as evidence of her strong lead, despite knowing full well that superdelegates are highly unlikely to risk tearing the party apart by taking the nomination out of voters’ hands, and are thus mostly a formality. The press has also crafted a narrative about Sanders “slipping behind,” ignoring the fact that Sanders has been behind from the very start; not for a moment has he been in front.
But even if it was correct to say that Sanders was “starting to” lose (instead of progressively losing less and less), this should only motivate all Democrats to work harder to make sure he is nominated. One’s support for Sanders should increase in direct proportion to one’s fear of Trump. And if Trump is the nominee, Hillary Clinton should drop out of the race and throw her every ounce of energy into supporting Sanders. If this does not occur, the resulting consequences for Muslims and Mexican immigrants of a Trump presidency will be fully the responsibility of Clinton and the Democratic Party. To run a candidate who can’t win, or who is a very high-risk proposition, is to recklessly play with the lives of millions of people. So much depends on stopping Trump; a principled defeat will mean nothing to the deported, or to those being roughed up by Trump’s goon squads or executed with pigs’ blood-dipped bullets.
Donald Trump is one of the most formidable opponents in the history of American politics. He is sharp, shameless, and likable. If he is going to be the nominee, Democrats need to think very seriously about how to defeat him. If they don’t, he will be the President of the United States, which will have disastrous repercussions for religious and racial minorities and likely for everyone else, too. Democrats should consider carefully how a Trump/Clinton matchup would develop, and how a Trump/Sanders matchup would. For their sake, hopefully they will realize that the only way to prevent a Trump presidency is the nomination of Bernie Sanders.