From the very onset of his candidacy for the presidency, Trump has occupied most of the political space in the media. Notwithstanding the criticism and mockery directed against him, he has at least until now illustrated the thesis that that all publicity, good or bad, is desirable, for the recipient, if not for the country. I am reminded of my experience as chairman of the English department of Boston University under the president John Silber. Unlike Trump, Silber was an intellectual and extremely well spoken, but like Trump he suffered from megalomania. He was an intentionally disruptive force, bent on breaking things up and transforming the university, making it excellent and great, according to his lights. Resistance to his authoritarian style was overwhelming. He was voted no-confidence several times by faculty, which he dismissed with contempt. He had support from his handpicked Board of Trustees, and that was all that mattered. During my time at the university, he was the major subject of conversation. Like Trump, though on a lesser scale, he was the obsessive theme of university life. In Silber’s case, departments and disciplines suffered, in Trump’s case, policies and programs.
The Trump effect on the Democratic party has been debilitating. We are told by media polls that Democratic brand (an unfortunate marketing term) is toxic, even more toxic than the Republican brand—this, despite the reporting of intense, enthusiastic opposition to Trump and his agenda. The enthusiasm, as it turns out, is a product of various progressive organizations such as move-on. It does not translate to the Democratic party. The party’s opposition is largely defensive of existing programs that the Trump Administration is trying to dismantle rather than a positive assertion of a new agenda. The party has not recovered from the trauma of its defeat in 2016. And it has taken to heart, too much to heart in my view, its defeats in the recent, congressional bye elections. The fact is that all the elections took place in gerrymandered Republican districts where Democrats significantly improved their showing over their showing in previous elections. The true test is in the swing states (Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Florida) where Trump won the presidency. Democratic disappointment over the defeats is understandable, but excessive and self-defeating, only exacerbating the divisions within the party. The call for new, young blood to replace the current leadership of the party, (Nancy Pelosi has been singled out) seems like flailing rather than a solution. The problem lies not in the blood, whether young or old, but in the policies and programs that the party stands for. The current identity of the party is defined by what it is against, little voice is given to a positive message. Suffering as it does from an unresolved conflict between its Sanders and Clinton factions, it lacks a coherent message. Where, for instance, does it stand on health care, apart from its united opposition to the Republican effort to repeal and replace Obamacare. For all its virtues, Obamacare is flawed. How would the Democrats address those flaws? Would the repairs take place within its present structure or would the effort be to move toward a single payer? We hear little from the Democratic leadership on the subject.
We don’t know about the work of Democrats in the swing states where Trump prevailed and won the election. It’s not enough to show that Trump is a fraud (that has been tried and has failed so far). The Democrats must show that they have concrete programs that address economic grievances of the voters who supported him. Such work may be happening, but it is virtually unreported in the press. Here is where the media is part of the problem. The amount of space given to Trump leaves little room for what is happening locally and regionally throughout the country—in cities and towns under the leadership of mayors and governors. The American scene of disaster and carnage Trump has painted is belied by positive achievements throughout the country, of which we get occasional glimpses in the reporting of journalists such as James Fallows and on NPR. The media always has choices to make about what is to be covered. It must not allow Trump to continue to monopolize its attention.
The media’s preoccupation with Trump diverts us from the role of the Republican party whose ambivalence, if not outright disdain, toward his personality masks the essential affinity between their agenda and his, certainly in economic matters. In a recent column, David Brooks, under the misleading title “What’s the Matter with Republicans?”, tries to explain why the white working class went for Trump and the Republicans “against their own economic interests.” What he variously calls “emotional interests” and “values” effectively trumped “economic interests” of working class voters for Trump. According to Brooks, the working class has apparently inherited the frontier virtues of self-reliance and self-responsibility. In extending a helping hand to the disadvantaged, government encourages dependency. “The virtues most admired…are what Shirley Robin Letwin once called the vigorous virtues: ‘upright, self-sufficient, energetic, adventurous, independent minded, loyal to friends and robust against foes.’” Brooks sums up: “I’d say they believe that big government support would provide short term assistance, but that it would be a long-term poison to the values that are at the core of prosperity.” Brooks doesn’t explicitly endorse the theory, but he speaks of it as “plausible,” “Anybody who wants to design policies to help the working class has to make sure they go along the grain of the vigorous virtues, not against them.”
It is hard to see how this theory explains why the white working class turned to a self-described strong leader who promises to give them jobs and solve their problems. This is conservative Republican cant. The Appalachian coal miner suffering from a chronic disease in a dying, climate warming industry and wanting his son to follow him into the mines is hardly the self-reliant adventurer on the frontier. The frontiersman went west to find and exploit opportunities unavailable at home. The Western frontier is a thing of the past. The new frontier is technology. The coal miner should be looking to government and corporations to fund the education of his children in the new economy. The frontier virtues are antithetic to Trump’s populist rhetoric, which promised miners and manufacturers that he alone could be relied on to save jobs that can’t be saved. But Brooks does give us the traditional Republican theory that in effect rationalizes and obscures the actual practice of Trump and his party. And it does represent the challenge that confronts the Democratic party in the heartland. It is a challenge that may be politically effective, but doesn’t stand up to intellectual scrutiny as “plausible.”
Let’s begin with the “values” argument. Like every virtue, self-reliance has its limits. It does not make the sidewalks we walk on, the roads we drive on, the bridges we cross. Nor does it build and fund the schools in which we learn. Those achievements are the work of government, which its critics denigrate as big and by implication oppressive. How big or small should government be? Doesn’t the answer depend on the size of the country and its problems? The size of the government should be commensurate with the problems in which the government necessarily plays a role. We are a big country requiring a big government. Brooks distinguishes between short term assistance of which he apparently approves and long term assistance, which he judges as “poison to the values that are at the core of prosperity.” Does that apply to health insurance for a low-income person suffering from a chronic disease? Short term assistance would leave the person at the mercy of the illness after it ran out. Brooks would probably resent the aspersion that the old Victorian assumption about the undeserving poor informs the distinction he is making. And what is entailed in his idea of prosperity—a GNP that increases with comparatively little benefit to the poor and working class? We can agree that big government the size of authoritarian socialist states that control the entire economy is poison. (Note social democratic states are mixed economies, in effect public-private partnerships.) We have a strong market economy (I avoid the misleading adjective “free”) that is regulated in various ways. The matter for discussion and debate between and within the parties should concern the nature and extent of the regulations. It is the height of folly to exalt “the free market” as the unconditional, i.e. unregulated, source of prosperity. Big corporations, not the “dependent” poor, created the Great Recession. I would hope that the kind of argument I am making here, better formulated by Democratic politicians, would persuade the misled Trump supporters and remind them of their economic interests. What Brooks leaves out are the values on social issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and the Establishment clause of the Constitution. Here is where the Democratic party determined not to surrender its values, has a difficult challenge to confront.
Brooks’s effort, it would seem, is to explain the Democratic defeat rather than the Republican victory. (It is not that the Republicans won the election, the Democrats lost it. The title of the column should have been “Why the Democrats Lost the Election.”) His is only one of a number explanations. In an article on Forsetti’s Justice Alternet, an unnamed writer, born and raised in the heartland, dismisses the view that “Democrat’s failed to understand white, working class fly over America, No! The real problem isn’t east coast elites who don’t understand or care about America. The real problem is rural America doesn’t understand the causes of their own situations and fears and they have no interest in finding out.” And he attributes it to Christian fundamentalism, which “prevents rural America from entertaining any information that runs counter to their belief system.” The result is racism and xenophobia. Then there is Greil Marcus’s account in First of hte Month [Trumping Freedom] of the attraction that Trump’s macho freedom bestowing posturing holds for his supporters.
These explanations are not mutually exclusive. They represent the possible diversity of motives that drove and still drive Trump’s supporters. The question is what they tell us about what needs to be done. The writer from the heartland and Greil Marcus present us with difficult, but not insurmountable, obstacles. Let us say that Marcus and the refugee from the Evangelical heartland are right about what motivated Trump voters. Does that mean that elections in the future will be determined by the 77 thousand votes in the swing states that gave him the election? To say, as Marcus says, that appealing to the economic interests of the Trump supporters is simply “a waste of time” is to claim to know, what no one can know, what the future holds. He has no way of knowing how many voters fit his description or which voters for Trump understood or misunderstood their economic interests or which voters are open or not open to persuasion about where their economic interests truly lie. It is to surrender before the battle has begun. Lest we forget, Clinton won the popular vote by over 3 million.
Despite the contrary thrust of his argument, Brooks reminds us about economic interests and that is where the Democratic party must demonstrate the bad faith of the Trump/Republican rhetoric and action while offering its own compassionate and realistic vision of America prosperity for all. It must try to show Trump voters how racism and xenophobia undermine their own economic interests. Employers in agriculture and technology are having a hard time filling jobs, because there are not enough low-skilled or high-skilled applicants available or qualified for open positions, a factor in the slow growth of the economy that Republicans complain about. While recognizing intractable divisions in the country, the party needs to demonstrate and communicate that it, not the opposing party, is devoted to the interests of the working class, white, black, Hispanic and Asian. It is a question whether it is up to the task.