As Donald Trump took the stage inside the lavishly decorated Quicken Loans Arena last week, much of the focus of major media outlets was on the crumbling Republican Party, a party that, we are told, lost its identity amidst the tumultuous rise of a billionaire reality television star.
Predictably, the much-publicized convention was a mess, featuring a failed candidate attempting to undercut the party’s nominee, blatant plagiarism, and the expected hysterics.
Trump’s speech, in the eyes of many analysts, served only to further darken the mood, building on a campaign fueled by bigotry and fear-mongering.
The picture of America Trump so eagerly painted was stark: It is a nation beset by crime, racial tension, and terrorism. Lurking around every corner is an undocumented immigrant. Even the police are unsafe.
“Most striking about the liberal commentariat’s approach to the Trump phenomenon is its almost singular focus on the collapsing Republican Party as the culprit of Trump’s political success.”
Needless to say, much of what Trump said was erroneous, and his attempt to revive the “law and order” message of Richard Nixon is just as fraudulent as almost everything else he has done and said during his campaign.
The speech, nonetheless, created quite a stir. In such a seemingly pivotal moment in American politics, journalists feverishly declared Trump’s words to be some of the most terrifying in recent memory. His narrative of an America in decline also seemed to offend the sensibilities of many commentators, some of whom decried Trump’s “sham patriotism.”
Prestigious outlets, most notably the New York Times, have repeatedly expressed dismay in the face of Trump’s rise to political prominence, and this dismay came to a boiling point in the aftermath of the convention.
In an editorial published the morning after Trump’s speech, the Times bemoaned Trump’s “campaign of fear” and denounced him for “playing to disaffected people’s worst instincts.”
But what is most striking about the liberal commentariat’s approach to the Trump phenomenon is its almost singular focus on the collapsing Republican Party as the culprit of Trump’s political success.
Further, in the face of this collapsing party, pundits and Democratic politicians have utterly failed to offer a counter-narrative — nor have they seriously attempted to examine the roles they themselves played in the emergence of Trumpism. Instead, they have channeled the sentiments of billionaire Steve Schwarzman, adopting a posture of mild confusion — and, at times, utter bewilderment — toward the deep-seated resentment being expressed by millions of Americans.
Here’s the Times once more: “What historical shift, what tremors in American culture, yielded up Mr. Trump’s moment from the depths of the national id? How did a braggadocious Manhattan billionaire with a history of dodgy business deals convince 13 million people feeling battered by a changing world that he is their solution?”
Much of Trump’s appeal is undoubtedly rooted in bigotry. But it is also, as Bernie Sanders has recognized, due to the general economic anxiety felt by much of the public — anxiety that outlets like the New York Times and other commentators seem content to downplay.
In response to Trump’s America-in-decline narrative, some, as Nathan Robinson masterfully documented in Current Affairs, have even attempted to insist that things aren’t really that bad, feeding into the confusion surrounding Trump’s appeal.
In other words, in the face of a demagogue channeling the economic anxieties of millions, liberals are content to insist that the status quo, though it could use a few adjustments, is actually working quite well.
“All of this is a peculiar role reversal,” Robinson writes. “Ordinarily, conservatives are the ones defending the status quo, while the left tries to rouse public interest in various pressing social problems. Now, Trump is the one speaking of the decline of the country’s fortunes, while liberals have become the new cheerleaders for America-as-it-is.”
And while Trump has demonstrated his competence as a serial liar, he is, as Robinson notes, “not always lying.”
Indeed, “there were portions of the speech that could have come straight from the mouth of Bill Big Haywood or Eugene V. Debs,” Robinson adds, such as when he spoke of “laid-off factory workers” and “the communities crushed by our horrible and unfair trade deals.”
The smug punditry — the pinnacle being Vox‘s Ezra Klein — has nothing to say in response, other than, “Things are not really, really bad.”
Underlying much of the commentary detailing and analyzing the rise of Trump is a striking lack of self-awareness among those (ostensibly liberal Democrats, in particular) who have not only been impotent in addressing the nation’s crises — often, they have helped to perpetuate them.
“The elite professional class, in the 1950s one of the Republican party’s most reliable constituencies, became the very heart of the Democrats by the 1990s,” writes Kyle Smith. “The party of labor morphed into the party of lawyers. This didn’t happen by accident.”
While much of the focus in 2016 has been on the Republican Party’s “new incarnation,” little attention has been paid to the role the gradual transformation of the Democratic Party has had on the political and economic order.
Far from embracing the tradition established by Franklin Roosevelt and continued, somewhat, through the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, Democrats today have happily filled their role as the nation’s “second-most enthusiastic capitalist party.”
They have embraced the neoliberal shift that now dictates the rules of the global economy; they have fought repeatedly for deregulation of industry; they have adopted right-wing meritocratic language in the face of unprecedented income inequality; and they have, despite rhetorical flourishes to the contrary, remained deeply committed to the donor class that bankrolls their political ambitions.
“While much of the focus in 2016 has been on the Republican Party’s new incarnation,’ little attention has been paid to the role the gradual transformation of the Democratic Party has had on the political and economic order.”
What’s left is ideological bankruptcy in the face of crippling poverty, a collapsing middle class, stagnant wages, and extreme concentration of wealth at the very top.
And often, Democratic Party liberals have not just been content to politely downplay the struggles of the working class they so flippantly abandoned; they, on some occasions, have expressed a startling lack of concern for the struggles of working people.
“I know Hillary Clinton’s economic team fairly well, and I’m very impressed by them,” said NPR’s Adam Davidson in a recent interview. “They really are top-notch economists and economic policy thinkers. They don’t have anything for a 55-year-old laid-off factory worker in Michigan or northeastern Pennsylvania. Or whatever. They don’t have anything to offer them.”
Thus Pennsylvania Republican Michael Korns can offer a better assessment of Trump’s appeal than the nation’s most connected policy wonks.
“Many voters feel that the Democratic Party, which they had supported for generations, has largely abandoned blue-collar workers,” Korns told the New York Times. “There’s also increasingly a feeling that the Republican Party has abandoned them as well, that neither party has much interest in the day-to-day economics of working people. And then when Trump came in, he spoke to them, he grabbed them.”
It is no surprise that Trump’s appeal has been strongest in areas, particularly white working class areas, that are dying at a faster rate than the rest of the population.
But Democratic Party loyalists have been content to reduce Trump’s support among white workers — and, indeed, Bernie Sanders’s support among white workers — to bigotry alone, characterizing material concerns as a distraction.
By doing so, as Connor Kilpatrick has noted, the “liberal elite is spared from having to question the fundamental injustices of capitalism.”
Which is, of course, the root of the problem: As the Democratic Party came to rely more on business than labor, its ideological center of gravity shifted rightward. Motivated by material interests and political ambitions, Democrats abandoned the language of class and accepted the free market Washington Consensus as axiomatic, effectively joining the side of those who emerged on the “winning” end of globalization.
And as historian Lily Geismer has observed, as “suburban knowledge professionals and high-tech corporations…supplanted urban ethnics and labor unions as the party’s core constituency,” the ability of Democrats to challenge capitalism, and to fight for workers, all but disappeared.
Bernie Sanders showed that there is an alternative to the corporate liberalism of Hillary Clinton and the phony populism of Trump, an alternative that can, and did, garner diverse and enthusiastic support among progressives.
But in his way stood an entrenched establishment almost unanimously opposed to his agenda — an establishment that, since the 1990’s, has helped to ingrain the worst of Reaganism and that has, in the words of Adolph Reed, “renounced its commitment to any sort of redistributive vision.”
Nathan Robinson correctly observes that Democrats have come to “count on fear of Trump” as their “sole campaign message.”
But he is incorrect in suggesting that it could be any other way. Democrats cannot merely decide to begin fighting for the interests of the working class. Their ideological commitments, and their material interests, have rendered them incapable of addressing — or even understanding — the struggles of those they claim to represent.
“Democratic Party liberals have shown that we shouldn’t expect much more than a tepid defense of a status quo that has bled out the middle class, eroded social mobility, and left millions living in deep poverty, without adequate nutrition and health care.”
Interestingly, no one has elucidated this point better than Barack Obama.
In his book The Audacity of Hope, published prior to his 2008 presidential run, Obama noted, “I can’t assume that the money chase didn’t alter me in some ways…as a consequence of my fund-raising I became more like the wealthy donors I met, in the very particular sense that I spent more and more of my time above the fray, outside the world of immediate hunger, disappointment, fear, irrationality, and frequent hardship of the other 99 percent of the population — that is, the people that I’d entered public life to serve.”
As academic analyses and decades of anecdotal experiences have taught us, when money comes into conflict with principle in American politics, money almost always prevails.
Decades ago, John Dewey observed, “Whatever may be the convictions of individuals within the parties, the parties themselves are property-minded. In the clash between property interests and human interests, all their habits of thought and action fatally impel them to side with the former. They make concessions, but do not change the direction of their belief or behavior.”
Thus, when Robert Reich asks “Does Hillary Get It?” and when Matt Taibbi laments Democrats’ refusal “to see how easy they could have it” if they would only adopt a social democratic platform devoted to lifting working families and prosecuting Wall Street fraudsters, one can only shrug and ask, in response: What did you expect from a party whose donor base consists of those dedicated to maintaining the system that has enriched so few and pushed so many to the margins?
So far, Democratic Party liberals have shown that we shouldn’t expect much more than a tepid defense of a status quo that has bled out the middle class, eroded social mobility, and left millions living in deep poverty, without adequate nutrition and health care.
But then again, there’s the other side: Ezra Klein and members of the “happy, complacent” elite say that things aren’t really that bad, after all.
Therein lies the reason Democrats can’t, as Robinson put it, “articulate a comprehensive alternate political worldview”: They don’t even recognize the need for an alternative, and if they did, they wouldn’t have one to offer.
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