Donald Trump was a joke until he wasn’t.
The nominating contests brought forth innumerable champions to assail him as a demagogue, a fantasist, a misogynist, a racist, a narcissist, a fascist, an isolationist, a bully and a liar, and he surfed the tidal wave of contempt all the way to the Republican nomination.
Bernie Sanders was a throwback to the twenties until he wasn’t. In May, he arrived at 1968 to replay the year in Chicago when young protesters from the Democratic Party’s Far Left disrupted the convention and got clobbered in a police riot. Bernie’s protesters at the Nevada convention in Las Vegas in May were more restrained — if you regard a thrown chair, screaming about the female anatomy, and inciting death threats as democratic discourse in support of democratic socialism.
Trump and Sanders, the scratch duo of Right – Left Populists, ganged up against Hillary Clinton. She was on her way to a coronation until she wasn’t quite. She kept her cool, though the effect in the summer of 2016 was to siphon money she needed for the general election.
Clinton was sandwiched between two fantasists: Trump, who will make 11 million immigrants vanish, and Sanders, the angry one-note bore at the bar who kept interrupting with another round of fancy drinks he couldn’t pay for: The non-partisan Urban–Brookings Tax Policy Center calculated his $15 trillion in new taxes fell short by $18 trillion of paying for his $33 trillion in student and universal health care entitlements. Revolution doesn’t come cheap. But who’s counting? Not those Bernistas who so talked themselves into disbelieving Clinton’s pledged delegate lead as to threaten ructions at the convention in Philadelphia in July.
Sanders’ pied piper multitudes of millennials were spared critical scrutiny of their hero’s promises. The heat has all been on Clinton.
As the front-runner for so long, she had already been grilled, fried and fricasseed by a virulent far right-far left media even before Trump arrived with his laurels from the Pulitzer Prize-winning site Politifact. It named him for the 2015 Lie of the Year. In May 2016, after he had sworn fealty to the NRA’s guns-for-all agenda, he burnished his Politifact medal by tweeting that Clinton wanted to abolish the Second Amendment. He knew it was false.
She was on record many times saying what she said that April: “We can protect our Second Amendment rights AND take commonsense steps to prevent gun violence. “Those included renewing the ban on assault weapons, a hot election issue that became even hotter after a lone attacker wielding an assault rifle killed dozens at a gay nightclub in Orlando, the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.
As for the Republican at the top of the ticket, Trump’s obscene obsession with himself would not let him speak for country or community. His tweet: “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism.”
Clinton, assailed by billions of dollars in dark money ads, developed a stubborn defensiveness that did not serve her well during the primaries. Centrist Democrats were upset that under pressure from Sanders and the Left she abandoned her support for trade pacts. Her enemies flung into a simmering pot labeled “untrustworthy” any fault they could identify – flip-flops on policy, and exaggerations of rejoinders in the heat of debate. They had more momentum on the long-running saga of her home server for emails, censured by the State Department’s inspector general in May 2016 as a violation of the rules; she did not have the approval she had said she had. But whether the practice was illegal was remitted to the FBI, a cloud of uncertain potency.
Sanders was generous in forswearing comment on the email mess, but unrelenting in painting Clinton as a creature of Wall Street. In one period the “Wall Street” that Sanders portrays as her friend launched 42 attack ads against her, only two against him. And the press, conforming to the stereotype they’d adopted, made nothing of her announcement to sack bankers from the Federal Reserve’s regional boards. Some anonymous hater obliged the Sanders theme by posting on YouTube a mash up of clips purportedly portraying Clinton’s attitude to the banks, headlined “Hillary Clinton lying for 13 minutes straight.” Viewers sucked it up. The story fit the stereotype of untrustworthiness so it got regurgitated on Facebook and Twitter by legions of the like-minded oblivious of the distortions produced by dishonest editing. Politifact said the video gave “a misleading impression.” Indeed, Politifact had noted several Clinton speeches dating back to March 2007 calling for more oversight and transparency. “From then to 2008, she repeatedly suggested and introduced a bill to establish national standards and regulations for loan brokers and lenders.”
Seven million people viewed “lying for 13 minutes.” Trump, having caricatured Lying Ted, Little Marco and Low-Energy Jeb, dubbed her Crooked Hillary. No matter that in Politifact‘s regular truth meter, ahead of the party conventions, she had a 77 percent truthful rating, Trump 24 percent. Politifact counted as false no less than 86 percent of his statements, (Sample, May 26: “Clinton is going to release all the violent criminals from jail”).
The split in the Democratic Party had been music to the Republican Party, which had not had many good tunes lately. Its shell-shocked leadership will do its best to distance itself from the obnoxious “ists” that Trump accumulates by a primordial instinct, but it had to abandon its dominant concern about whether Trump qualifies as “a true conservative.” The trouble for the party is that he doesn’t really know, still less care, what “conservative” means to the different elements of the Republican party, from the high-minded constitutionalists respectful of rights, zealous of freedom and individual dignity, to the vulgarian money-bags and far-right talkers and screamers on social media who have so redefined Republicanism as to make the very idea of government a heresy.
In the normal course, Trump’s first rancorous speech would have sent him back to opening golf courses, but we are in a new normal where the velocity of American politics is supercharged by deep anxieties across the West: Wherever you look, establishment leaders are on the defensive to fact-free populism and xenophobia; “experience” is the new dirty word, and jihadist groups provide the fuel for politics of hate and fear as Communist subversion did in the 1950s. Then America was shaken by the kaleidoscopic lies of Joe McCarthy who used his Senate subcommittee as an instrument of personal and political terror.
Eisenhower would not take him on. Three forces roused America’s better self: A 74-year-old Republican senator, Ralph Flanders, curiously enough from Vermont.; Ed Murrow of CBS who coolly let the swarthy McCarthy hang himself by his own words; and a courtly 63-year-old Boston lawyer, Joseph Welch, who skewered McCarthy’s defamations: “You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency sir. At long last, have you no sense of decency?” Eighty million saw the encounter. The fever of fear was ended.
Trump set out from the start to divide and conquer. He blew up the leadership’s tactical hope of compromise on the wedge issue of immigration by banging on about his beautiful wall, his notional Mexican crime wave, and, while he was at it, barring Muslims from the United States. The Bushes and the Romneys have had the self-respect to say they will skip the circus coronation in Cleveland on July 18-21 while the “Never Trump” pack scampers for cover. Bravery in this context has been a readiness to take shelter in weasel words: you won’t endorse the fellow but you will support him. To Governor Bobby Jindal, Trump was a madman who had to be stopped, to Rubio he was a “con artist,” to House Speaker Paul Ryan he was “un-American.” But all that was the day before yesterday, when New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had a free will.
The pleading in defense of Trump-Sanders populism is empathy for the cultural shock of millions of Americans embittered by globalization, infuriated by the canyon between the very rich and the masses, humiliated by finding their skills unwanted. In March 2016 the median household income was still stuck where it was 16 years ago at $57,263, and actually $79 short of that. Some 6 million have dropped below the poverty line – that’s 47 million poor Americans. The steady erosion of the middle class across America is marked by 65 percent thinking the country is on the wrong track.
Trump has advanced no substantive economic agenda. His is the Party of Me. His millions think they see it in T-R-U-M-P in huge white letters on his very own Boeing 757 jet; in his ebullient self confidence and the glamour of his entourage; and in the notion that somehow together they will “take their country back,” at one sweep removing all the changes affecting life and an individual’s sense of belonging and worth. It is an emotion shared by many in cultural turbulence, but it invites the cruelest denouement implicit in his self-analysis in “The Art of the Deal”: “I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole.”
Trump’s rout of the Republican establishment has to be seen as an inflexion point in America’s political history, the second great humiliation of the party half a century after the disaster of 1964- , and perhaps the harbinger of a third if Trump’s luck runs out as quickly as it did for the clients and suppliers of his bankrupt casinos. In 1964 Senator Barry Goldwater, the apocalyptic prophet from Arizona, set his heart on defeating Lyndon Johnson and the “morally decadent liberalism” of the Democratic Party. Hillary Clinton was then a “Goldwater Girl” in a cowgirl outfit, enamored of the rugged individualism spelled out in his book, The Conscience of a Conservative. Goldwater was a more appealing figure than the ideologues who nominated him, the man with the epigram: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” But he was a thoroughgoing reactionary, a scary nuclear hawk and one of only six Republicans in the Senate to vote against Johnson’s landmark Civil Rights Act. His nomination left the Republican Party divided and dead for 1964; Goldwater won only five Deep South states and (barely) his own state of Arizona.
Johnson went on to carry out the last great social-political reform movement of the American century: Medicare and Medicaid; civil rights laws to empower black Americans; for the working poor a hike in the minimum wage and food stamps. No good deed goes unpunished. As he piloted the Great Society through Congress, riots traumatized the cities (Watts), the Vietnam War ran the country into the red, and the politics of resentment were reinvented by an impresario of demagogy, Alabama’s racist governor George Wallace. Wallace showed how the white working and middle classes could be turned into what would later be called Reagan Democrats through appeals to anti-black sentiments.
Wallace’s coded assaults on Johnson’s bills and the “pointy-headed intellectuals” in Washington created and exploited a coalition of frustration among white- and blue-collar workers, the core of the prevailing liberal coalition. Two years after Johnson’s win with the largest popular vote in U.S. history, the GOP gained 47 seats in the House, four in the Senate and eight governors’ mansions. George Will summed up the brilliant recovery: “Barry Goldwater lost 44 states but won the future.”
The Goldwater debacle proved a fortuitous launching pad for Ronald Reagan who’d once defined himself as the “near hopeless hemophiliac liberal” who bled for causes. His electrifying speech for Goldwater on Oct. 27, 1964, attracted record contributions for the party. He became the new hero of the right as the governor of California, and 16 years later, just short of his 70th birthday, he won the first of two presidential landslides. They marked the coming of age of a new coalition, a fragile reconciliation between the fading old-style traditional “establishment” Republicans, evangelicals and social conservatives.
Reagan’s sunny optimism transformed the country’s mood. In biographer Jacob Weisberg ’s phrase, he did with a grin what Goldwater tried to do with a grimace. The top tax rate of 70 percent Reagan inherited was 28 percent when he left office; at one stroke in 1986 he removed 6 million poor from the tax rolls. But it’s a myth that he ended the era of big government. He added 200,000 employees to the federal payroll, increased the national debt from $908.5 billion to nearly $2.7 trillion, and saw the trade deficit rise four fold, the issue that so obsesses Trump.
And Reagan was no Trumpkin nativist. He gave legal status to 3 million undocumented immigrants. In the judgment of Michael Steele, former chairman of the party, this moderate Reagan could not get through today’s primaries. The far-right anti-government talkers, supported by anti-establishment groups, have pushed the party to a nihilism reflected in the interviews of demoralized Republican leaders by Jackie Calmes in They Don’t Give a Damn about Governing. With the Tea Party, and the wretched gerrymandering, they can win in the states, but have had a poor run in national voting for the presidency.
The authoritarian Trump promises action instead of the reflexive paralysis of the party he has hijacked. He boasts he will be “the greatest job producer God ever created.” Given his appetite for a trade war, he may need divine intervention to beat Bill Clinton, whose average monthly job gains were an unequalled 241,000. Hillary Clinton has said she’d put the First Husband in charge of revitalizing the sluggish economy. The only problem with that, retorted The Wall Street Journal, is that the Obama-era Democratic Party has repudiated the Bill Clinton-era centrist agenda. It is true Sanders has made it harder for Hillary to thread the needle between progressive ideas and the surety of competence she represents. But Democratic presidencies can altogether claim a better record on growth and jobs, according to a 2015 study reported, with qualifications, in U.S. News.
Can the mercurial Trump deliver? The self-promoted billionaire who would be in charge of USA Inc. has presided over four companies he led to bankruptcy. No problem. He’s proud of dodging personal responsibility. He tweeted Vanity Fair: “Stop saying I went bankrupt. I never went bankrupt but like many great business people have used the laws to corporate advantage.”
Trump has made an art form of resilience. He’s “Don the Con” to the thousands of students at Trump University, who between 2005-2011 paid for real estate classes they claim didn’t deliver on his hard sell. No problem. In his lexicon they’re all losers. As for when he will disclose his tax filings, it’s been Groundhog Day all over again. “What’s he got to hide?” asked Hillary Clinton.
The best guesses are that the notorious loopholes in real estate law mean he pays little and that he is worth much less than he suggests. But Trump finally found a deceptive excuse that would resonate as candor with his supporters: “I fight like hell to pay as little as possible for two reasons. Number one, I’m a businessman. … The other reason is that I hate the way our government spends our taxes. I hate the way they waste our money.Trillions and trillions of dollars of waste and abuse. And I hate it.”
Every prediction of Trump’s imminent demise, pace Mark Twain, has proved an exaggeration. Now who dares say that on Jan. 20 we won’t see Trump plastered in his favorite red over the north portico of the White House?
What would follow is anyone’s guess. He alarms fiscal hawks with a hands-off pledge on entitlements, scares the wise men of foreign policy with loose talk about nukes for all, and insults every woman as “a piece of ass.” All that can be glimpsed of his policy dossier is a series of bafflements, one germ of an idea colliding with another contradictory idea. If he aspires to sound presidential, he should call his program The Audacity of Hype. His talent for marketing is as current as his Twitter feed five minutes ago. He filched from candidate Reagan’s 1980 slogan (Let’s) Make America Great Again and trademarked it as his own by deleting the redundant imperative so the 27 characters would work nicely on a baseball cap. And the workaday baseball cap – in vigorous red – suggests empathy with the white working stiffs whose predicaments are at the heart of the election. Make America Great Again is up there with Reagan’s “It’s Morning in America Again”; “A Chicken In every Pot, A Car in every Garage” (Hoover 1928); “I Like Ike,” (Eisenhower 1952); “You Know in Your Heart He’s Right” (Goldwater 1964). Clinton-Obama would be advised to have a snappy answer when Trump borrows Reagan’s deflator “Are You Better Off Now Than You Were Four Years Ago?”
In 1956, the button favored by my class group at the University of Chicago was “All the way with Adlai.” We thought it a hoot when he replied to a woman reassuring him he had the “the vote of every thinking person” with, “Madam, I’m afraid that’s not enough, we need a majority.” The laugh was on us – and Eisenhower turned out to be a great president.
Understand, I draw no parallels. Trump was a joke until he wasn’t.
* Sir Harold Evans. Editor at Large, is the author of “The American Century”
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