Wednesday, November 9, 2016

After the Election

The ugly 2016 presidential election is now over, and in a year of amazing surprises the voters have now dealt the country and the world the biggest surprise of all - President Donald Trump.

So it is time to don what is left of my old political science hat to reflect upon this momentous event and what it may say about our present and portend for our future.

Increasingly, demography seems to be destiny, as voters seem to be sorting themselves out according to their separate "identity politics" silos – rural, white, male, older, and less educated silos for Trump, urban, non-white, female, younger, and college-educated silos for Clinton. These divisions represent a deep, dramatic, and ultimately dangerous pattern of permanent polarization in our society.

Much of the coverage of this election has focused on candidate Trump himself, his personality and “temperament,” and his supposed character flaws as a candidate and as a potential president.  Conservative David Frum recently called Trump “the most anti-constitutional personality ever to gain a major party nomination of the U.S. presidency.” Presidential candidates typically try to run on aspirational, hopeful themes “morning in America,” “a bridge to the 21st-century, “hope and change.” In contrast, Donald Trump offered a vision of contemporary America as a Hobbesian state of nature from which we could be rescued only by investing him – “I alone can fix it” - with absolute sovereignty. Of course, the actual American reality may be really much less bleak than Trump’s peculiar picture of it. But the voters obviously bought into Trump's dark vision.

Since the take-over of the Republican party by the “conservative” movement (and the consequent extinction of moderate “Eisenhower Republicans,” who at least for a while had dominated the mid-20th-century party), the modern Republican party has struggled with some fundamental internal political contradictions. The Republican “establishment” has been a coalition of economic libertarians, socially traditional conservatives, and “neo-conservative” intellectuals (the last group mainly more concerned with foreign policy), all originally somewhat artificially held together by their shared anti-communism (a much diminished motivator since the end of the cold War). William Buckley’s attempt to unite traditional social conservatism with pro--free-market economics, while quite successful at times, has always been inherently problematic, for capitalism has always been the greatest destroyer of traditional community values and relationships. Hence the party’s ultimate awkwardness about the “social issues” so often emphasized by certain segments of the party.

But the party’s principal political problem has been that the establishment’s primary policy goals – tax cuts for the rich, for example - have consistently favored the already wealthy at the top of the economic pyramid. In a democratic system with virtually universal suffrage, however, such a program is obviously not an easy recipe for electoral victory. So for years now the Republican electoral strategy has simultaneously been about advocating the pro-rich agenda of the party’s establishment and also appealing to considerably less well-off constituencies on “cultural” issues – cultivating “conservative” white voters, many with a heightened sense of grievance, many responsive to racial appeals and religious rhetoric. But while campaigning on “cultural” issues to whatever extent necessary, the Republican elites have largely remained committed to traditionally “conservative” policies, expressed ideologically as a commitment to lower taxes for the rich, smaller government, de-regulation, free trade, etc.

While right-wing populist zealots have been around at least since Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, the John Birch Society in the 1960s, and Pat Buchanan in the 1990s, both the conservative movement and the Republican party establishment have long labored to keep them somewhat at bay, even while benefitting from their votes at election time. But the increasingly shrill anti-government rhetoric of Republican politicians, encouraged by right-wing talk radio and social media, combined with the weakening of both political parties’ capacity to control either the selection of their candidates or the behavior of their members in office, have, especially in the last quarter-century, fired up the Republican party’s increasingly disillusioned white-nationalist “base.” The result has been obstruction and an attempt to delegitimize, first, the Bill Clinton presidency and, then, that of our first non-white President, Barack Obama, whose election was such an obviously threatening portent of the changing demographics and culture of the country. 

But all this obstruction, negativity, and hate-mongering offered no positive alternative to address any of the actual anxieties and concerns of the party’s downscale white “base” voters. The eventual result was revolt – the “Tea Party,” the Congressional “Freedom Caucus,” and the amazingly successful anti-establishment presidential campaign of Donald Trump - a revolt directed as much against the Republican "establishment" as against Obama and the Democrats. From the perspective of the party’s free-market elites, Donald Trump was an outsider who took over their Republican party. But from the perspective of the party’s downscale white “base,” so ill served by the establishment elites’ ideology of lower taxes for the rich, smaller government, de-regulation, free trade, etc., it was their anti-establishment take-over of the party. Just as the foreign-policy neocons had been widely discredited among the party’s “base" voters by the Bush Administration’s failed adventure in Iraq, the economic collapse of 2008 likewise contributed to discrediting the party’s traditional leadership among its justifiably disgruntled, downscale “base” voters. 

But, in committing themselves to Trump, those disgruntled, angry voters picked a man and not a party. They found someone who says and does what he pleases and thus represents the freedom from the constraints elites seem to be imposing upon them. Of course, Trump was able to be so unconstrained because he was born to wealth and privilege. Everything about his life and his career separates him the white "working class" that has so enthusiastically adopted him as their spokesperson. 

But, as Adam Smith observed centuries ago:

This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition … is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments. That wealth and greatness are often regarded with the respect and admiration which are due only to wisdom and virtue; and that the contempt, of which vice and folly are the only proper objects, is often most unjustly bestowed upon poverty and weakness, has been the complaint of moralists in all ages.

Indeed, just as American culture inordinately admires the rich and the economically successful, one of the peculiar perversities of American politics is the widespread belief that - of all things - a background in business somehow qualifies someone for political office! Trump's reputation (deserved or not) as a successful businessman, combined with his outsize, strongman, caudillo personality certainly strengthened his appeal and credibility with his constituency - much more so than any of his policy proposals, which even many of his supporters probably didn't believe or possibly even care that much about. During the campaign, billionaire venture capitalist and Trump supporter Peter Thiel famously said that “the media is always taking [Trump] literally but not seriously. I think a lot of the voters take him seriously but not literally.” I think Thiel got that exactly right!

His criticism of the media, which performed incredibly poorly even by its own flawed standards, again highlighted the growing disconnect between our political, social, and cultural elites and about half of the country's population. For example, last March (after Super Tuesday) NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff "interviewed" an imaginary Trump voter in one of his columns. Clearly what was really much more needed was for everyone in the media to interview - or, better yet, actually get to know and dialogue with - a real Trump voter!

So, now, what's next for America with Trump as President? During the campaign, stylistic (not policy) comparisons were occasionally made, comparing Trump to Italy's Benito Mussolini, for example. Whatever the superficial stylistic similarities, the fact is that Mussolini never enjoyed absolute power. There were all sorts of checks - Italy's family culture, the independent and greater charisma of the Catholic Church, the military whose primary loyalty was always to the King, and the King himself, who eventually removed Mussolini and probably could have - and certainly should have - done so sooner.

But Trump will have a Republican Congress and a Republican Supreme Court and so should enjoy a great deal of effectively unchecked freedom of manoeuver. Not caring that much about Republican party ideology himself, he'll likely happily sign the Paul Ryan budget, At minimum, we should expect tax cuts for the rich and the end of helath care for the poor and otherwise uninsured. Social Security and Medicare are safe - because the Republicans depend heavily on the votes of older Americans. On the other hand, i am not very hopeful about the future of Medicaid. Getting what they want domestically, the Republican Congress can be expected to leave him lots of freedom in foreign policy - freedom to tear up trade agreements, to undermine NATO and our other alliances, and to cozy up to his friend Vladimir Putin. 

On his signature issue, immigration, who knows what will happen? Will he really try to deport millions of undocumented people? And what effect will that have on our fragile society and our economy (which depends on immigrants for so much necessary work)? The reality may prove less than the promise. But we cannot underestimate the symbolic centrality of the immigration issue for Trump's constituency, a good illustration of which was right-wing commentator Ann Coulter's infamous comment: I don’t care if @realDonaldTrump wants to perform abortions in White House after this immigration policy paper. 

The reference to abortion highlights how the unique character of Trump's "populist" candidacy put party elites in an unusual quandary, compelling them to abandon many of their ostensibly “conservative” principles to support Trump’s “populist” campaign. 

And a particularly noteworthy casualty has been the one other major component of the Republican coalition - one of the party’s most paradoxical constituencies - the “Religious Right,” a curious alliance of conservative white Evangelicals and conservative white Catholics. (Note, of course, that not all white Evangelicals are conservative, and that African-American Evangelicals are reliably liberal and Democratic. Likewise, not all white Catholics are conservative, and the majority of US Catholics will in any case soon be non-white. Latinos, the largest growing Catholic constituency, are also increasingly liberal and Democratic.) In supporting someone like Trump, the Religious Right demonstrably prioritized Republican party politics over its ostensible religious principles. As Russell D, Moore, the current president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the public-policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, recently observed, “The religious right turned out to be the people the religious right warned us about.”

In the aftermath of the election, Moore commented: “This means that conservative evangelicals are politically homeless — whether they know it or not.” It remains to be seen whether or not they know it and what choices are made as a result!

Maybe more than ever before, in this time of dramatic cultural and social change, American society needs the authentic witness of vibrant Christian communities, faithful to the challenge of living and proclaiming the Gospel both within their own communities and in the public square. Such witness suffers serious damage when undermined by the contamination of too close an identification with the partisan political agenda of any faction or political party. Again Russell Moore expressed it well when he called on the faithful “to dethrone politics as a religion and as a source of identity while at the same time remaining engaged in our responsibilities as citizens.”

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