The 2016 presidential election year in many ways reflects the way in which reality TV — never at a loss for drama, exhibitionism and outrage — has begun to influence political theater. Political races have always been, to an extent, a dog-and-pony show. But GOP candidate Donald J. Trump’s out-sized assertions and foot-in-mouth moments don’t seem to have cost him to the degree they would have cost a presidential candidate in elections past. Aided by the let-it-all-hang-out evolution of social media, what passes for reasonable discourse rests at an exceedingly low bar. The question is, just how much success can a presidential candidate enjoy using this provocative formula?
Perhaps Trump’s success, beyond the fact that his outrageous statements attract a great deal of media coverage, would have failed if The Donald did not also tap into a growing populist frustration, signaling a sea-change the political establishment can no longer afford to ignore.
For all his grandiosity, Trump has managed to tap into very real American concerns.
Imagine 1980s Los Angeles. The Night Stalker has struck yet again, just a mile away. You, like a lot of people in your neighborhood, don’t bother to lock your doors.
The Night Stalker, in the span of a few short weeks, has changed the feel of your community. People are scared. A friend-of-a-friend knew the latest victim. Not only do you resent the fact that a psychotic creep is going around killing people, now you’re forced to remember to stop and lock your door every single time you leave the house — and to do the same even when you’re home alone. You tell yourself: A) “I’m not going to let some sociopath change my lifestyle because my family and I deserve to go on feeling as safe and secure in our own home as much as we ever did!”, or B) You grudgingly make a habit of securing your home. It’s hot as hell that summer of 1985 and you’d like to leave the windows and doors open to cool off the house at night. Instead, you go out and replace your old, flimsy screen door with a security door, you install locks on your windows and if you can afford it, you shut yourself in with the help of an air conditioner. It isn’t cheap and it’s mighty inconvenient to guard against the “What if?” but the fact is, the Night Stalker isn’t making news on the other side of the country. He’s on the prowl right here in your own backyard. The threat isn’t abstract. It’s all too real.
Now let’s put the above into the present-day context — with a few caveats. The reality is, there will be no “wall” between Mexico and the U.S. in the event Trump is elected. Congress would have to back such an effort and not only would a wall be too expensive, they’re utterly embarrassed to even debate the issue because it’s too controversial and may very well cost our elected leaders their own reelection bids (not to mention the fallout with Mexico).
We can thank the separation of powers for making it impossible for president-elects to carry out their more audacious plans. In short, where there is no will, there will be no wall.
But what about immigration from countries that are under siege by ISIS? Can we take an honest stab at that one? Again, there’s a caveat: The reality is there will never be a means to truly secure an open and free country short of making us prisoners of a post-Democratic regime. But should we try in any way to acknowledge the reality of the threat — should we install a “lock” on the door (border) and make a bare minimum effort to reform immigration to account for the realities of the world in which we now live?
Like residents of mid ’80s Los Angeles, we can embrace the ideologically pure choice — in this case to resist all efforts to shut the door to some forms of immigration on principal — or we can go with the pragmatic choice: attempt to overhaul the broken immigration system out of necessity.
Now let’s bring it a bit closer in focus: Let’s make the answer to the above question a lot more personal. It’s easy, after all, to uphold principle at a distance. But what if you were at the ill-fated Bastille celebration in Nice, France, or the LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando, Florida? Might you resent someone who dismisses your loss by saying, “Relax. The odds are nothing will happen (again) to anybody you know. Try not to concern yourself too much with what just happened, either, because it might make you a bigot.”
Having been through what you’ve just been through, do you resonate more with the political leader who acknowledges what you’ve gone through and puts it to you straight: “We can’t just slap a bulls-eye on our foreheads and call it a day for the sake of being politically correct. We need to do something to address the ease with which terrorists can get into this country and inflict harm” or are you more reassured by a leader who reminds you that it’s your American duty to tolerate status quo because calling for improvement or reform is verboten on the basis that it might encroach upon what is perceived as politically incorrect?
Trump, to many, is little more than a bloviator. Arguably, however, many of Trump’s “sins” have been overlooked among supporters for the simple reason that he’s on target with some issues for which there was formerly little or no acknowledgment from establishment candidates, particularly on the GOP side of the ticket. Take the issue of “free trade”. Establishment politicians on the Right/Left, alike, have been largely unwilling to touch the topic of trade inequality even as trade-deal negotiators have kept the particulars secret, even, from Congress. Most recently, at the President’s urging, the Senate backed fast-track trade promotion authority for the controversial Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership, which means signing off on trade negotiations will require little more than an Up or Down vote from Congress. As such, TPP will be decided without adequate access to the text of the deal, let alone the usual opportunity to debate the merits before a vote is called. This thrusts TPP out of the realm of the arcane and into the spotlight of public suspicion — with critics as diverse as Elizabeth Warren, D-MA, and Rand Paul, R-KY, calling out the near-complete lack of transparency.
TPP critics cite draconian provisions that enable corporations to demand market access — even for products that suffer a poor safety record. Not unlike NAFTA — which enabled TransCanada to sue the U.S. recently for the loss of the Keystone XL Pipeline — TPP opens the floodgates to still more billion-dollar trade investor lawsuits. These settlements inevitably come out of taxpayer pockets, which in some ways amounts to carving a backdoor into members’ treasuries. Nonetheless, it’s our smaller trade partners who fare worse. The ugly little secret Conservative business proponents and neoliberals, alike, are loath to admit is that trade imbalances may, quite literally, translate into starvation and unrest on the part of less developed partners, which drives the impetus to immigrate into the United States and elsewhere as a means to survive. All the while, the false narrative about the displaced American redneck who doesn’t care to give his counterparts in the Third World a leg up continues. Some 40+ years into “Globalization version 1.0” we still haven’t had a brutally honest, bipartisan discussion about the role of poorly-crafted FTAs as equal-opportunity creators of harm among the poor and middle class not just here in the U.S. — but throughout much of the world.
Free trade gone bad is driving an economic refugee crisis that has been hiding in plain sight for the better part of 25 years.
The last time we saw this much straight talk on the part of a leading presidential candidate about trade policy — let alone an acknowledgment that trade imbalance, not merely the onward march of technology, plays a role in depressing wages, blunting competitiveness and cannibalizing job growth — billionaire businessman Ross Perot was squaring off against Bill Clinton in 1992. Without Trump’s relentless hammering, NAFTA, TPP and similar FTAs would not have made the election-year radar screen.
If Trump wins the election in November, it won’t be because he’s right about everything. And it won’t be because he can deliver on many of his promises — or for that matter any of his threats. It will be because Trump has acknowledged a handful of populist issues with a passion that, as politically jaded as we are, strikes many an American as so utterly foreign as to appear frightful and overwrought, on the one hand, and strikingly genuine, on the other hand. Whether voters are reassured vs. threatened by Trump’s brash, unapologetic approach is another discussion entirely. But one thing seems clear: Trump doesn’t pull any punches. He doesn’t even seem to care if his beliefs ultimately cost him.
A great deal of Trump’s support can be explained simply by the fact that people want someone who means what they say, and says what they mean. This type of candidate represents a departure from the usual flip-flopping politicians engage in when their polling determines that a particular position is unpopular. Times are changing. Young voters, in particular, are no longer content to vote party line, alone. Voters rally behind candidates who exude a certain level of personal authenticity. Given the sheer number of brusque, unscripted statements coming out of Trump’s mouth on any given day, The Donald seems nothing if not fearlessly true to his own convictions.
To many, Trump’s audacity is cause to run for the exits. To others, Trump is a breath of fresh air. But here’s the curious thing: Both reactions to Trump, the man and the candidate, are valid.
If Secretary Clinton loses the election to Trump, it will not be entirely attributable to her record on Benghazi or her insistence on the use of a private email server to the contrary of her contractual security obligation as a high-level government official. The loss of Clinton to Trump in November, should it occur, would instead reflect mounting frustrations voters have toward business as usual on the part of the establishment. Populism, in this respect, isn’t merely the hallmark of a more self-serving society. Populism is a counterbalance to concerns that have gone unaddressed, if not actively marginalized, by leadership for so long that it gives rise to an exceedingly rare phenomena: grassroots consensus.
Not so long ago, many American voters crossed party lines in great number to vote for “Change” in the form of Barrack Obama. Candidate Obama promised to root out the undo influence of special interests. But President Obama failed to follow through.
Candidate Obama promised to deal with too-big-to-fail banks. Instead, already too-big-to-fail banks have grown bigger than ever. Under President Obama’s watch Wall Street has reached all-new highs in the derivatives trade — promising that the next financial crisis, if anything, will be worse than the first.
Candidate Obama promised “shovel-ready” and “green jobs“. Instead President Obama has largely fulfilled President Bush’s dream of an America independent of foreign oil — at the cost of enormous quantities of greenhouse gasses seeping into our atmosphere even as operators pollute America’s waterways thanks to the fact that fracking operations are largely exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act, among other EPA environmental protections.
Candidate Obama promised to shutter the controversial Guantanamo Bay detention center. But President Obama went on to authorize the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012, which allows for American citizens to be held, potentially, in much the same way — indefinitely and without representation — thanks to the Administration’s designation of the “homeland” as yet another battleground in the war on terror.
Under President Obama, habeas corpus died and whistleblowers have been pursued with a fervor not even associated with neocons.
Under President Obama we have continued to pour billions of dollars into NSA dragnet surveillance technologies with the same amount of Fourth Amendment abandon as the Obama Administration’s Republican predecessor.
Under President Obama the American people have once again been denied a genuine, bipartisan conversation about securing our borders against infiltration by terrorists — in spite of the fact that heinous acts of terror have all but become weekly news.
The point, of course, is not to recount failure for failure’s own sake. The point, rather, is to appreciate that “change”, even when promised with the best of intentions, is rarely something seasoned politicians — let alone comparatively inexperienced candidates voters have seen fit to elect to office this Century — can deliver. Our system of government simply does not afford a President monarch-like powers. And that’s a good thing for continuity of government. But this presents a serious challenge to those who run for office on the promise of reform. While reform from within the beltway may prove more difficult than voters and newly-elected candidates, alike, anticipate, there is one thing we can change — and that’s the level of respect and tolerance with which we frame the challenges of our day.
That kind of change cannot come too soon.
In recent years, all it takes to chill debate is the assertion that one is racist, bigoted, isolationist, nationalist, protectionist, populist or xenophobic for challenging the status quo. In deference to the “New Moralism” of our age, many of our leaders resign themselves to a narrow subset of safe positions on any given topic. We can’t and won’t “think differently” because stepping out of line is wrong. We are told the task of furthering national security without decimating our Constitutional rights via the use of sweeping surveillance technologies is unrealistic. We are told that the task of securing our borders or reinvesting in the welfare of our job market implies a certain amount of injustice toward someone else. In the context of the New Moralism, either/or, all-or-nothing, black & white and right vs. wrong dichotomies are king.
But what does this rhetoric boil down to? Answer: A more insidious form of authoritarianism. Nuances, like critics, are to be quashed. Attempts to comprehend consequences are to swept aside in the belief that the practice of reflection amounts to little more than “fear mongering”. A belief that a decision need not amount to a contest between “their interests” and “our interests” is viewed as a cop-out because it fails to “root for the team” — whatever arbitrary or overtly partisan position that may entail. Striving for excellence — embracing the hard task of advancing integrity within political and economic policy even if that undertaking requires deep reform — was never supposed to be easy. But the New Moralism says it ought to be. If it isn’t, ulterior motives are to blame. Case closed.
Americans rally around political candidates who advocate change, yet in almost every case voters have awoken to the post-electoral reality of empty promises. In the past, voters may have regarded this as typical of American politics — candidates, after all, will often do and say nearly anything to get into office. And so, aside from the usual chiding over political gridlock, Americans have learned to live with a litany of broken political promises. There was a time, however, when it was easier to turn a deaf ear to the dysfunction. Most major cities offered a supply of modestly priced homes, States prioritized low-cost higher education options, nobody had ever heard of a “staycation” and the promise of a solid career in exchange for “working hard” was within reach of a growing middle class. But the unraveling first of the inner cities to drug and gang violence in the 1980s and more recently to the growth of Islamic terrorism in the 21st Century challenges American optimism. Our presidential candidates now reflect this reality if only to prove they are not fundamentally “detached”. Far from being an isolated sentiment, “Where do we go from here?” is a question that resonates with voters in many democratic nations. The British responded to Nigel Farage’s populist message in the form of BREXIT. Americans have responded to the rising uncertainties of our post-911, social-media divided world with the nomination of Donald J. Trump.
Is Trump the answer to all that ails America? No. No one leader can be, should be or will be. Leaders, no matter how sincere, don’t belong on pedestals. At the same time, it’s no longer credible to argue “There’s nothing we can really do to avert the next terror attack because ‘nice guys’ don’t lock their doors at night.” And it’s no longer enough, similarly, to argue “There’s nothing we can promise in response to job and wage loss but advise you to retrain because globalization is here to stay. Deal with it!”
The establishment, if it doesn’t want to reinforce perceptions of out-of-touch elitism, can no longer afford to dismiss and discredit populists.
Change has a way of inspiring people. But change also has a way of inspiring fear. Uncertainty often induces us to embrace the devil we know over the devil we don’t know. The 2016 presidential election cycle will come down to how much Americans want the continuity of an establishment candidate in Hillary Clinton vs. a political unknown in Donald J. Trump. Trump represents a departure from GOP candidates in recent years if only because he espouses a much more populist message. It remains to be seen if Trump’s brand of “angry populism” will carry him over the electoral finish line — or cost him in the way it has for other candidates for whom matters of personal conviction run deep: Bernie Sanders, Dennis Kucinich, Ron Paul and Ross Perot.