An occasional blog about populist politics and popular music, not necessarily at the same time.
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Saturday, August 13, 2016
One of the more annoying themes pundits like to spin about Donald Trump is how he represents some sort of populist backlash against the elites who run the country. To do so coherently you have to construct strawmen both of the elites and of the people. Coming up with a definition of elites that does not include Trump is an especially daunting challenge: he is, after all, extremely rich, very famous, a guy who flies around in private planes and helicopters, who lives in a postmodern castle in the heart of Manhattan. Sure, elite could mean many other things that Trump decidedly is not: brilliant scientists, stellar athletes, remarkable chefs and fashion designers, actors who can play someone other than themselves. But rich and famous counts for a lot in America: it gets you invited to hobnob with politicians and gives you free access to the media, privileges that, having been born rich, Trump has enjoyed nearly all his life.
Then there are the people. You can't have populism without people, but Trump's people aren't exactly a random cross-section of America -- what Bill Clinton referred to when he said he wanted a cabinet that looks like America (not that the one he picked wasn't a good deal richer and fancier dressed). Trump's cross-section is skewed white, older, and male (in almost exclusively to mostly order). But doesn't populism also have to signify some kind of economic revolt? It did in the 1990s when the Populist Party emerged in response to the worst recession American capitalism suffered (only exceeded by the Great Depression of the 1930s, and maybe the Bush meltdown of 2008). And it's certainly true that there is an economic revolt brewing all across America today, where poverty is increasing and most Americans above the poverty line are mired in stagnant wages, rising prices, and often crushing debt, while business (especially the financial sector) has recovered from 2008 and is posting record profits, with virtually all of the gains accruing to the billionaire class.
But it's not Trump's people who are behind this revolt -- those who really are down and out (or just struggling to get ahead) voted for Sanders or Clinton (if they voted at all). As Nate Silver shows (see The Mythology of Trump's 'Working Class' Support), Trump voters are significantly better off than median (average household income is $72K, about even with Cruz with but less than the $90K of Kasich and Rubio voters). They are, in short, comfortable enough they can afford to indulge their prejudices in false solutions and a candidate who won't help them in the least.
If anyone had any illusions that Trump's economic program would be a boon for billionaires and disaster for everyone else, the candidate dispelled them in two quick moves last week. First, he announced his team of economic advisers. For a quick rundown, see Andrew Ross Sorkin: Donald Trump's Economic Team Is Far From Typical, Patricia Cohen: Trump's Economic Team: Bankers and Billionaires (and All Men) and Evan Popp/Josh Israel: Donald Trump Announces Economic Policy Team: 13 Men -- not sure why these authors chose to focus on sex when the team is homogeneous in more extraordinary ways, such as their finance portfolios, and their PAC experience. Most are billionaires, and most built their fortunes on predatory financial shenanigans -- most notoriously John Paulson, who rigged up the Abacus Fund to bet against the mortgage bubble. A few may dabble in manufacturing ventures -- Steve Feinberg's company makes AR-15 assault rifles -- but only one has a manufacturing company at the base of his resume (Dan DiMicco, formerly of Nucor). None are economists, unless you count Stephen Moore (whose peerless record of bad predictions qualified him to be employed as Chief Economist at the Heritage Foundation).
Two of the advisers do have books that might be seen as signposts of a Trumpian economic nationalism, but they point in different directions, underscoring the incoherence of Trump's own blather: DiMicco's American Made: Why Making Things Will Return Us to Greatness (2015), and Peter Navarro's Crouching Tiger: What China's Militarism Means for the World (2015), but like so much of Trump's thinking they don't exactly fit together. Navarro, for instance, is more concerned with protecting business interests in East Asia against Chinese domination than bringing jobs back to America. I have no idea how DiMicco intends to rebuild America's manufacturing base, but most of Trump's advisers do have proven records of bankrupting companies and sending jobs elsewhere.
The absence of any credible economists is especially striking. Sorkin's article explains that even long-term Republican partisans like Glenn Hubbard and Greg Mankiw are keeping their distance from Trump. Sorkin also lists some major Republican donors who have been staying away -- the people Trump picked mostly paid plenty for the proximity, and are all in position to more than make their investment back if Trump wins. Trump got a lot of credit during the primaries by not being beholden to the billionaires who backed his candidates, but as you can see from this list, that's all over now. Of course, if you're smart you should have realized that being your own billionaire backer doesn't convey one iota of independence from the billionaire class -- it merely harmonizes the corruption.
Perhaps Trump could have clarified all this in his "major economic speech" in Detroit (transcript here), but when it comes down to brass tacks, Trump has little to offer other than tax breaks and deregulation for the already rich, who will then magically take their gains and invest them in American jobs -- just like they did with the tax breaks and deregulation of the Reagan and Bush eras? (Amusing quote from Trump's China-bashing section: "Just enforcing intellectual property rules alone could save millions of American jobs. According to the U.S. International Trade Commission, improved protection of America's intellectual property in China would produce more than 2 million more jobs right here in the United States." Collecting more intellectual property tariffs is the major purpose of TPP, which Trump claims he opposes.)
As Isaac Chotiner noted, the speech "was meant for Republican bigwigs as much as for passionate Trump voters" -- actually, I'd say much more for the bigwigs, as he pulled his punches on doing anything meaningful about balancing the trade deficit -- he just expects miraculous effects there from giving businesses free money. (By the way, the trade deficit actually is a boon to the finance industry, and a major driver of inequality. Some of that money shipped abroad goes to workers abroad, but a large slice of it goes to businesses, many of whom reinvest their profits in American banks which help drive up the prices of assets, benefitting the rich, not least the sticky-fingered bankers.)
The speech offers an avalanche of numbers abstracted from dubious sources, so it helps to follow with the fact checkers, like Fact-checking Donald Trump's speech to the Detroit Economic Club, to get a rough idea how selective Trump's writers were with facts and how outrageously they could spin them. I particularly appreciate this for the full context to Hillary's quote about putting "a lot of coal companies and coal miners out of business" -- actually very thoughtful on how we need to help workers and regions impacted by technology and trade, touching even. But still, you only get a rough idea -- there's much more in the speech that could have been critiqued (like, e.g., the intellectual property crap I cited above), plus it would help to provide more context for Trump's sources (e.g., when he cites the Institute for Energy Research, are you aware that it's a Koch front group?).
Some critical links in response to the speech follow. I'm again struck by how hard it is for some pundits to let go of the notion that Trump is some sort of populist. As should be glaringly obvious by now, there is no economic dimension to Trump's so-called populism. He is too much a part of the rich in America to find any fault with them. Sure, he finds fault in some trade deals, but not because he opposes trade or wants to restore tariffs -- it's just that those agreements were badly negotiated, something a more skilled dealmaker like himself wouldn't have done and could easily fix. How, however, is mysterious, presumably magic, because he doesn't have any coherent program other than his boundless faith in himself.
So what makes Trump a populist? Well, it's all in the eyes of the beholder, isn't it? Deep down, Trump's campaign is based on little more than demagogic appeals to racism and xenophobia. It celebrates a subset of the nation that is white, native-born, and Christian, and flatters them as the true Americans, the people this country used to belong to, people who feel entitled to take the country back from the traitorous scum that let those foreigners and deviants and gave them jobs and power, and that cultivates their votes.
Trump's pitch is the classic right-wing scam, first pioneered by the fascists of the 1920s and 1930s. So why dignify Trump as a populist, a movement from the 1890s which sought to elevate common people (mostly farmers at the time) by reining in the predatory practices of the rich, instead of deriding him as a fascist? I think it's because a certain class of pundit always viewed fascism and populism as two faces of the same thing: an expression of the ignorant prejudices of the lower orders. This betrays a good deal of ignorance both about the history of fascism and the current composition of Trump's movement: both have more to do with middle class fears of the masses but ultimately depend most of all on their real masters, the rich.
Robert O. Paxton, in The Anatomy of Fascism, argues that fascist movements developed in countries where aristocratic classes had been unable to repackage their political interests to have any real appeal in democratic elections. In essence, the fascists were able to broaden the appeal of conservatives by agitating the middle classes, playing to their fears of communist revolution and their various prejudices and hatreds and offering redemption through a renewed, often violent, cult of nationalism. To my mind, Paxton's focus on democratic appeal is overly narrow, as he uses it to deny that various murderous conservatives like Francisco Franco were really fascists. Curiously, his definition doesn't exclude Trump or, for that matter, much of the Republican Party at least since Newt Gingrich became party leader in the House. For twenty years (at least) Republicans have shamelessly campaigned to increase the power and wealth of the already rich, to vastly increase the degree of inequality among Americans, and they have done this by rallying a large slice -- middle-class and up, white, Christian, patriotic in the sense of being pro-military -- to their cause.
Of course, Republicans haven't advertised themselves as fascists -- Americans fought a World War to rid the world of fascism, and sought afterwards to characterize communism as an allied disorder (coming up with "totalitarianism" to group the two as opposed to our system of democracy and free enterprise). In particular, ever since Nixon launched his "southern strategy" and claimed "the silent majority" as his base, Republicans have been careful to "dog whistle" their appeals to racism. The only thing that makes Trump exceptional is that his anti-immigrant stance has been overtly racist -- certainly it doesn't extend to his Slovenian wife or his Scottish mother or his German grandparents -- and that he has refused to dissociate himself with the hard-core racists who have flocked to his campaign. (Has any presidential nominee ever had fewer American-born ancestors?) I suppose you can see from this why pundits who can't tell you the difference between fascism and populism might get confused, but is there anything more to it?
Well, Mussolini got his start leading a gang that smashed the heads of strikers. Trump hasn't done that, but he has encouraged his supporters to acts of violence against demonstrators, and most recently asked his "second amendment people" to stop his opponent, Hillary Clinton (after his convention chanted "lock her up"). Again, Republicans since Nixon have occasionally "dog whistled" their support for violence against their perceived enemies -- in particular, recall Nixon's embrace of "hard hats" who cracked the heads of peace protesters. And the threats made against Obama and Clinton by lesser Republicans and their fans are beyond counting.
I suppose you could add two more technical issues, but I suspect they're beyond the radar of most pundits. Trump's opposition to trade deals -- what you might call economic nationalism, although to be fair he doesn't -- recalls the fascist concern for autarky. And Trump's more explicit "America First" foreign policy stance threatens to fight wars with no concern for the casualties inflicted elsewhere -- hence his insistence on keeping the option of nuclear weapons "on the table" -- although there is little reason to think he would start wars for foreign conquest (as Mussolini and Hitler did). These aspects have created a huge schism within the Republican establishment, not because they point toward fascism but because they threaten to undermine the profits of global-minded businesses. Republican-leaning capitalists have been remarkably obtuse in not understanding that they've made much more money under Clinton and Obama than under Bush, but many are finally, belatedly realizing that Trump would be even worse for them than Bush was.
Just because Trump is a demagogue preying on the worst instincts of a once-powerful segment of the American people does not make him a populist, even if it makes him somewhat popular. After Detroit, that at least is one term that should never be associated with him. As for fascist, I won't argue no -- as a leftist I've long been hypersensitive to even the slightest whiff of fascism -- but I don't regard Trump as exceptionally fascist (e.g., as compared to Cruz and Kasich). I don't see him doing fascist things, but I don't see him undoing the present security state, and he may make things somewhat worse, especially for people who don't pass muster as white.
That's because what he really is isn't any sort of ideologue. He's simply a dog -- a guy who's been hearing all those Republican "dog whistles" for so long he assumes everyone can hear them, that they define reality. And as such, he campaigned on the basis of what he and all the other Republican dogs heard, oblivious to the tact and decorum the whistlers have worked so hard at cultivating. Trump should be a hugely popular figure in this world, because he's practically the only public person who speaks their understanding of the truth. On the other hand, the true conservatives who have been manipulating this electorate, especially the ones who bought wholesale into economic orthodoxy and the ones who are most obsessed with preserving America's worldwide hegemony are aghast, as well they should be.
Just as I won't deny that Trump is a fascist, I won't deny that his election would be catastrophic. It's not so much what he would do as what him winning would say about the American people: that we're so jaded we'd fall for a crude and ignorant media celebrity who understands nothing and has nothing to offer but discredited clichés, with a side of hate to pin our self-loathing on. Above all, his election would encourage the worst sort of racist revanchists, people who until Trump's rise were consigned to the farthest margins of political discourse. But it would also repopulate government with run-of-the-mill conservative spearchuckers, who would multiply the corrupt rot of the Bush administration, and that may do more damage in the long run.
Trump has been sinking in the polls, even since I started writing this. He seems to have learned that the only way to shift one horrid gaffe from the news cycle is to commit another one -- like his "2nd amendment people" threat, or his claim that Obama and Clinton "founded ISIS." Still, no matter how far Trump sinks, Clinton has been unable to push her share above 50%. If Trump wins it will say more about her than about him. Still, Trump only has one real chance: he needs all his dogs to vote, and he needs much of the rest of America to not bother. For that to happen, Clinton will have to prove remarkably uninspiring and/or a dangerous warmonger (her obsession with the "commander-in-chief test" worries me). But also Trump will have to stop pissing off most of the country, and at this point that seems pretty unlikely.
A few more links on the speech:
Pierce, by the way, started his article with a somewhat unrelated reference to "a popular Republican strategist named Rick Wilson," who wrote an op-ed hoping that Trump be defeated so utterly his memory is forever purged from conservative consciousness. Pierce goes on to note:
When conservatives set out to take over the country, they set themselves up with a tough task: to somehow convince a majority of Americans to enrich the 1% at their own expense. They did it by assembling as many single-issue constituencies as they could stand under their umbrella, and even then the few victories they scored were often marked by subterfuge -- remember Bush's "compassionate conservatism"? What about his promise to never engage in "nation building"? When Bush cratered the economy, they didn't readjust to the changed reality. They invented their own, in an echo chamber that was totally disconnected from reality (take another look at that fact checking linked to above), and within this world they found their champion in Donald Trump. That puts them in quite a bind: if, having rounded up all the hate groups, and all the fools, they still lose, and lose badly, the only option left for reaching new voters is to abandon their pursuit of inequality, but how can they do that given the way a handful of billionaires dominate the party?