The role of identity politics in Trump’s victory and Clinton’s defeat: Identity politics, the invention of the multicultural left, has been taken over by Trump and his hard right supporters.
On the left, multiculturalism in its apparent intention has been a benign effort to embrace cultural diversity. In its practice it was often an aggressive reminder of white male supremacy and the racism and sexism that has disfigured our democracy. In harping on white male supremacy, the multiculturalists in effect created white identity and in challenging it, whites, not wedded to liberal politics and suffering from the Great Recession felt left out, marginalized. They were not part of the multicultural rainbow. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in The Disuniting of America and Todd Gitlin in The Twilight of Common Dreams warned against the dangers of identity politics, arguing that the stridency of many multiculturalists promoted division rather than commonality. Schlesinger in particular was the object of severe criticism by the cultural left.
So what should Clinton have done to counteract Trump’s appeal to the white male voters who voted for him? She should have at least equaled Trump in the number of times he visited areas in the swing states where he made his case and made her case. Clinton was less of a presence in the campaign than Trump, trusting instead to the superiority of her ground game—that is, she delegated her campaign to others. But what could she have said that was different from what she was saying? She may have been clearer and more forceful than she was that “stronger together” included the white working class. She was of course right that Trump is temperamentally unfit for the presidency, but the insistent repetition of this truth crowded out another truth, which received little attention in the campaign. Trump was the candidate of the party that controlled Congress and obstructed the legislation that would have improved the condition of all workers. It was the party of corporate America that both Trump and Sanders were lambasting. I doubt, however, that a more effective campaign by Clinton would have been enough. The fact is that Trump had succeeded in convincing his followers that he was anti-establishment (including that of his own party) and implanting in their minds the idea that being employed was a zero sum game. It was either them or us. Though vague and incoherent, he had charisma and the enthusiasm of his supporters and promised something different. White workers needed scapegoats to assuage their anger and grievances. Illegal immigration and Islamic terrorism fit the bill. It is, of course, impossible to know whether a better candidate than Clinton, in essential agreement with her politics would have prevailed. I suspect, however, that Trump, the effective demagogue of the moment, would have successfully exploited the sense of grievance and the desire for breaking up the system, “draining the swamp,” as he put it and would have won against any of the available candidates. After all, not only did he defeat Clinton, he also turned away 16 substantial rivals of his own party. The media may have misled the public and perhaps Clinton herself in declaring she had only to be silent when Trump was outrageous and conversely that Trump could easily win if he stopped saying the things he said and did. The advice was as wrong as the polls that predicted her victory.
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What does Trump’s courtship of Romney tell us about both characters and about what we may expect of a Trump presidency? I’ll begin with the hopefulness that my friends see in it, also reflected in the New York columnist Frank Bruni’s “The Case for Romney.” Bruni understandably hopes that Romney’s civility in contrast to Trump’s crudeness and vulgarity would be a positive presence in a Trump cabinet. He and my friends have apparently forgotten Romney’s disgraceful opportunism campaigning against Obama in 2012 in which he took positions for and against on virtually every position. He transformed himself from a moderate Republican to a “severe conservative” in order to disarm the Republican base. As I pointed out in my book The State of Our Disunion, “he has been pro-choice and pro-life, for and against gun control, for planned parenthood and against it, for Pell Grants for college students and against them, against rescuing the auto industry and then taking credit for its rescue, and for and against the view that human beings are a major cause of global warming.” If one subtracts Trump’s vulgar crudeness and authoritarian disposition, there is not much to distinguish them in their political convictions, which change direction with every change in the political winds.
Then there is the question: why would Trump, notoriously thin skinned court someone who called him a “fraud” and “con man” for such an exalted position as secretary of state? Here is my theory composed before Trump made his decision. No matter whom Trump decides to nominate, it’s a win win for Trump and a lose lose for Romney. Let’s assume that Romney is passed over. By having met with Trump twice and praised him after the meetings, which were “enlightening,” “interesting” and “engaging,” Romney has been defanged as a future critic. No critical comment by Romney in the future will have credibility. But let’s suppose Trump does appoint Romney, he will in effect have coopted him. The hope is that be will be influenced and constrained by a rational Romney. The more probable prospect is that Romney will now be Trump’s captive, for it is the president who ultimately decides and, as Trump as repeatedly made clear, he is the decider. It is incidentally not at all clear what Romney’s foreign policies are and whether they would effectively distinguish themselves from the advice that Trump will hear from a staff and cabinet filled with aggressive-minded generals like Mike Flynn and Mad Dog Mattis. What does all this tell us about Trump’s strategy in general? Having alienated the Republican establishment in the primaries, he is now reversing course in order to win its members back or at least to neutralize them. And he is succeeding. There is little chance, if any, that he will try to include a Democrat in his cabinet. The strategy in the primaries was populist. He intends, however, to govern with the assistance of the wealthy 1% elite that fills his cabinet–with small populist gestures such as rescuing a thousand jobs in Indiana from deportation to Mexico–and mostly hard charging ex Marine generals. The populist gestures will be all theater. (The Indiana play has gotten enthusiastic reviews from the workers whose jobs he has saved and from others who see it as a precedent for saving jobs elsewhere. Of course, every play that is put on has its investors. In this instance, millions of dollars in tax relief for the company.) The political and economic reality will be hard right republicanism—as his appointments have already shown. But there is an even more ominous prospect: a willful authoritarian rule. We don’t know what is in store for us, because the president-elect prides himself on his unpredictability, consistent with authoritarian rule but not with law and order, whose agent he claims to be. The new Administration may turn out to be the most lawless in American history.
Why do even Trump’s harshest critics praise the conversations after visiting him. In private conversation, he listens, can be agreeable and assures them that he is open to opposiing views. His public performances is another story. The split between public and private doesn’t seem to bother the politicians he has to work with. Paul Ryan, for instance, says he is not troubled by what Trump says or does in public, because he assured by his private conversations with him. What a perversion of judgment! The presidency is an office in the public realm not in private life.
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Trump, the media and the electorate: The affinity of Trump for the authoritarian leaders Putin, Erdogan and el Sisi has been duly noted. Their advantage over him is that they are under fewer constraints to punish journalists who criticize them. They can arrest, punish and even torture with impunity. Trump may harbor the fantasy (his former and possibly future aide Corey Lewandowski calls for the imprisonment of the editor of the New York Times); the furthest Trump himself has gone was to threaten the enactment of unconstitutional libel laws that would be applicable to journalists. He has found another legal way: the use of social media, in particular twitter, to flood the space with false information and outrageous opinion. Its effect is to put the traditional media in a defensive-offensive position in the perhaps futile attempt to rescue the truth from his barrage of misinformation. Why futile? Because Trump has already succeeded in making his supporters indifferent to whether the content of his statements is true. He has found a way of feeding the anger and the sense of grievance with the entertaining theatricality of his assertions. Residues of the content remain fixed in the mindset of his followers and for them they become the truth, whatever the facts may be. And then there is a large portion of the electorate who are inattentive, undiscriminating or simply confused. By its sheer quantity, the effect of the daily twittering by Trump grows into the Big Lie.
Monday morning quarterbacking of the election has for the most part focused on Clinton’s inadequacies and mistakes and those of the media. The electorate has largely escaped criticism. It is the people who choose their leaders in a democracy, and those who lose in elections are held responsible for failing to make their case. But shouldn’t the electorate be responsible for their failure to sort out what represents their true interests and what does not.
When voters say in interviews that Trump may turn out to be disastrous as president, but they will vote for him anyway or that Trump may be saying things that aren’t true and promising to do things that he will not do, but they will nevertheless cast votes for him, because he promises to break up a system they detest, should we simply rest content with understanding their frustrations and not judge them? And what of the minorities that have been targeted by Trump, the Hispanics, for instance, who failed to show up in sufficient numbers to vote against him or in fact voted for him. The fault lies not in the stars—or not exclusively.