Know Your Fears

know-your-fears-2

My husband told me he plans to write out a list of what he fears from a Trump presidency.  It makes sense, given how much fear is in the air.  Until each of us gets a bead on the nature of our fears, chances are it won’t matter much what we do.

We are exhausted from a long and tortuous election season.  Our nerves are wracked, our moral compasses are twitching.  Our guts are writhing from a roller-coaster ride that isn’t over but barely beginning.

The presidential contest was close, but it was more than that: it was polarizing, salacious, and unedifying.  It was omnipresent and momentous, hauling us all in together in a stinking net of civic obligation.  Then it ended with an ugly surprise, revealing that the nation’s ‘leading citizens’ don’t deserve their reputation as a leading class.  Today, American minds are still traumatized and reeling.  People are depressed, resentful, angry, disapproving.  Most of us sense further calamity brewing. 

Who likes the feeling of powerlessness that sets in after ‘the people have spoken’?  We, the electorate (yes, we’ll all complicit) have tipped the political order upside-down.

So, instead of bringing relief, the outcome of the election brings a new host of worries.  Americans must continue to be attentive and mitigate the various forms of damage Trump’s presidency may cause.  Fissures have opened up in both political parties; they, too, are divided and dangerously weakened.  The next few years will see ongoing tumult and crisis, making it all the more urgent to clarify goals and conserve energies.

American politics requires stamina and organization.  No one person or organization can fight every battle.  So know your fears; name the nature of the danger as exactly as you can.  Let the list you write define the wisest course to pursue.

Feel free to state what you fear most from a Trump presidency
and what you think people who share your fear should be doing.
If you’re viewing this on a laptop, the comments link is in the left sidebar at top.

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Donald Trump’s Win

A man making a flag, Bain collection (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Donald Trump’s win was largely strategic.  He understood what states and voters he needed for a victory and he found them.  The mainstream media (which now has an acronym, MSM), though devoting an inordinate amount of air-time and column-inches to Trump’s campaign, seldom looked beyond its trashy surface to report on its nuts and bolts.  As a result, the public was largely unprepared when Trump pulled off a solid victory, securing well over the 270 electoral votes needed to become the next president of the United States.

An exceptional report that Joshua Green and Sasha Issenberg prepared for Bloomberg Businessweek, however, documented the approach the Trump campaign employed.  Trump spent little on political ads and claimed not to believe in polling.  Instead he poured money ($100,000 a week) into private surveys and used the data to run election simulations.  In mid-October, though running badly behind, Trump’s team was focused on “13.5 million voters in 16 battleground states whom it consider[ed] persuadable.”  The campaign had prioritized the states—Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Georgia—that were essential to Trump’s winning.  In addition, the campaign orchestrated its messaging to demoralize three key groups of likely Clinton voters—idealistic young people, African-Americans, and women—in hopes that they would not vote at all.

In the weeks before the election, the electoral map at Real Clear Politics showed a tightening race, with more and more states in the toss-up column.  On the eve of the election, Secretary Clinton’s lead consisted of just over 200 electoral votes that were considered certain; 170 electoral votes were in the toss-up column.  In the campaign’s final days, Trump visited New Hampshire, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Nevada, realizing that wins in these states could compensate for losses in others.

On Election Night, the vote came in along the lines that the Trump campaign envisioned.  He secured victories in all the swing states he had prioritized, also winning in Michigan and Wisconsin, which Democrats had carried in every presidential election since 1992.  The final vote counts are still being arrived at, but recent reports state that Trump’s edge over Clinton in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin totaled just 112,000, a tiny number in an election in which an estimated 132 million votes were cast.

Secretary Clinton won the popular vote, but her support was not widely enough distributed.  While her campaign was wildly successful in some populous states, notably California (where millions more votes have yet to be counted), her support was soft throughout most of the country.  The strength of Clinton’s campaign was symbolic messaging: its tone was confident, inclusive, and comforting.  Yet the very constituencies her campaign was designed to appeal to didn’t turn out for her in sufficient numbers.  The Democratic vote in many urban areas declined, and African-Americans who turned out for Obama didn’t turn out for Clinton.  CNN has concluded that “While she won the key demographic groups her campaign targeted, she underperformed President Obama across the board, even among women, according to exit poll data.”

One wonders what the energetic crowds who are protesting the outcome of the election were doing during the seemingly interminable campaign: did they vote and campaign for Clinton?  What it will take for the Democratic establishment to shake off its complacency and recognize that, aside from President Obama’s star power, its operations have not been working so well?  After an election in which Donald Trump won 37 percent of the Latino vote, will Democrats come to grips with the fact that banking on identity politics is unwise?  Since the year 2000, the Democrats have suffered defeat in three presidential elections (Gore, Kerry, and now Clinton), while the GOP, though perennially wracked by internal divisions, has gradually increased its hold on state and federal power.

Image: “Flag making—man cutting out stars with machine”
from this source

Day 23: ‘The Best People’

Winding up (western aerial), © 2016 Susan Barsy

Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump has often promised that, if elected, he will recruit the very ‘best people’ to improve the federal government. To those who favor a smaller, smarter federal government, it’s an appealing idea.  It also appeals because our need for ‘the best people’ to run the republic is old and enduring.  Representative government is only as good as the people in it: if people of low character become prevalent, the quality of representation suffers and the power delegated to officials ends up being misused.

Yet Trump is in a poor position, politically and morally, to bring the best people to government.  Politically, he has set himself up as an antagonist of the establishment.  For more than a year, he has railed against the political class, not limiting his attacks to issues of policy, but assailing the character and achievements of many people who have painstakingly built up a reputation for public service. Remarkably, Trump has not confined his attacks to members of the opposite party.  He has also insulted many within the GOP, his own adopted party, which could normally be expected to supply talent for a Republican administration.  Serving in a Trump administration would be politically risky.  Many leading Republicans, in and out of government, have openly repudiated him, leaving one to imagine a Cabinet populated by hangers-on like Chris Christie, Trump’s own children, or his loyal lieutenant Kellyanne Conway.

It’s difficult to recruit ‘the best people’ without belonging to the best class oneself.  Here Trump’s cratering social reputation will be felt.  Last week, the media’s focus shifted from the implications of Trump’s political positions to his personal conduct and mores.  Allegations of his sexual misconduct are multiplying, sparked by a leaked tape in which Trump boasted of his indecent behavior toward women in lewd and contemptuous terms.  Whatever claim Trump had to personal decency has been destroyed.  Respectable people are censuring him loudly.

The issue of social integrity is distinct from the issue of Trump’s politics.  Who would care to sit next to him at a dinner party?  Who would feel honored to shake his hand?  Until lately a popular celebrity, Trump’s own words have supplied grounds for branding him a pariah.  Were he to win in November, he would make a poor figurehead for a country whose creed is the equal enjoyment of inalienable rights.

To summarize: Trump arouses political and moral aversion in people who might otherwise be his supporters and colleagues.  The aversion is not just to Trump’s views but to his very personality.  Yes, Trump’s tactics and policies arouse aversion, but so do Ted Cruz’s.  Cruz, though, combines political iconoclasm with some personal probity.  In this, he resembles the antebellum radical John Calhoun, whose ultra pro-slavery views combined with a cold rectitude and formality that impressed even his political enemies.  How different is Donald J. Trump, whose claims to social respectability are evaporating.

Were voters to catapult Trump to the top of the government, it’s difficult to imagine his improving on the caliber of the talent it attracts.  How many able, forward-looking people of good character would decide that serving Trump is something worth doing?  Shunned by the ‘best people,’ President Trump could find it tough to deliver on the promise of better government.

Image: Aerial of a winding mountain road,
© 2016 Susan Barsy

Day 31: Republican Party Chaos

A serious fissure (Hawaii), © 2016 Susan Barsy
Today the signs of institutional chaos within the Republican Party are growing.  The fragmentation of the party is more open and unscripted.  The party is being called on to dump its nominee, which would be unprecedented.  It appears more certain that Trump will lose the election.  Afterward, the GOP itself is more likely to break apart than to survive.

The immediate precipitant is an ‘October surprise’: nasty footage capturing Trump boasting of his crude sexual behavior back in 2005.  The tape is causing a flap, outraging a whole new constituency of people who were not openly speaking out against Trump before.  Many GOP candidates and voters are suddenly loudly denouncing Trump, demanding that he quit the race or be forced out by the RNC.

Moreover, I agree with this darkly compelling article by Rick Wilson that the troubles of Republicans in Congress are just beginning.  The constituency that catapulted Trump to the nomination and continues to back him in the general campaign is fundamentally anti-establishment and will not mesh with either the Party’s conservative or moderate wing.  The support flowing into the GOP presidential race is thus a force antithetical to the success and cohesion of the GOP in Congress.

Leading Republicans, whether moderates like the Bushes or conservatives like Ben Sasse, know they cannot cooperate with Trump without his damaging them.  Were Trump to be elected, the ideological divisions among Republicans in Washington would be unlike anything modern Americans have ever seen.  (The closest parallel might be the ‘accidental presidency’ of Tyler back in the 1840s, or the dark-horse ascendancy of his successor James Polk.)

Given that figures like Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, and Ted Cruz have been badly damaged by attempting to work with their party’s ostensible standard-bearer, other GOP leaders are bound to begin strategizing about how to keep their distance and distinguish their branch of Republicanism from Trump’s.  I would not be surprised to see the party break into three.

Image: A serious fissure (Hawaii),
© 2016 Susan Barsy

Seismic Forces Rock the Parties

White height, © 2016 Susan Barsy
The newspapers I glimpsed while traveling communicated a sense of political calamity, the dismay of wonks, journalists, and miffed members of the GOP.  Trump, the party’s likely nominee, was causing the commotion, but the kerfuffle spoke volumes about the muddled condition of the party itself.  Something seismic is happening: the GOP’s ill-assorted components are about to morph into something new, or break apart.

In ordinary times, politicians, the media, and a vast network of consultants and experts promote ideological order and continuity.  The nation’s leaders use the media, and influential constituents use the leaders, to shape the citizenry’s vision, mapping out choice in a limited way.  A centrist ideology that is pro-corporate and pro-global has dominated both parties since the Clinton era, while ‘hard-liners’ of various stripes have increasingly dominated the GOP.  These modern-day fire-eaters may be against federal debt, reproductive rights, or even religious pluralism, but, collectively, they have skillfully gained sway within the Republican Party, with the dream of imposing their minority views on a moderate mainstream.

Trump has attacked the precepts of this centrist-right ideology, making him anathema to many leaders in both parties.  Are Americans voting for Trump because they are hateful and benighted, or are they supporting him because he alone is promising to jettison a set of ideas that has left much of the population stuck in the past and impoverished?  In either case, his ascendancy shows how completely the GOP establishment has lost touch with the people’s will.  The hegemony of the social conservatives and GOP moderates is over.  Paul Ryan and others who want Trump to shift in their direction hope to perpetuate it.  They’ll fail.

Will Donald Trump allow other GOP leaders to ‘handle’ him?  If he accepts orders from the likes of Paul Ryan, voters will conclude Trump is being co-opted and abandon him.  Ryan claims his goal is to ‘unify’ the party: if so, he could hardly have gone about it in a less auspicious way.  Why grand-stand when more might be accomplished quietly?  This crisis has exposed leading Republicans as shockingly short on political skills.  But then, how can a party whose leaders are famous for digging in their heels suddenly develop a genius for collective compromise?

In general, we can hardly blame Trump for the downward slide occurring in our political culture.  He has divined a set of issues that voters care about most passionately, and his ideological response has been more apt than that of any other prominent Republican.  We can abhor Trump’s crudeness and bigotry, and we can impede him by voting someone else into the presidency.  If I were a Republican party leader, however, I sure would be trying to salvage whatever is feasible about his ideology, and trying to integrate it into that of my party.

Trump’s main talking points have to do with restoring broad economic prosperity, insisting on corporate responsibility, and burnishing American citizenship’s prestige.  Trump’s ferocious hatred of outsourcing and unfair trade, his demand that something be done to relieve blue-collar pain, are oddly reminiscent of the leaderless Occupy movement’s themes.  Trump might not have it in him to be a successful president, but he’s been smashingly successful at reminding us that politics is ultimately about ideas not money.  Those who want to stop Trump need to counter his ideas with a positive agenda.  Can his opponents disavow their complacency?  Can they disavow their role in perpetuating a dysfunctional status quo?

Photograph by Susan Barsy

The disquieting Donald J Trump

O Uncivil One (cyanotype), © 2016 Susan Barsy

1.  I get embarrassed after expressing an opinion about Donald Trump, because I always feel that I don’t know what I am talking about.  I am so burned out thinking about Donald Trump that sometimes I find myself having an anxiety attack at bedtime instead of drifting off to sleep, which just isn’t like me.

2.  Sometimes I try to argue that Donald Trump can’t be such a terrible, dangerous person, because if he were, as a businessman, he would have already run into many, many problems with the law.   Running a large company entails complying with innumerable laws.  Workplace-safety laws.  Food-safety laws.  Laws governing equal employment.  Building codes.  Tax laws.  Donald Trump must be a person of considerable ability and judgment, I reason, because he successfully built up such a big business.  And because he likes to build things, I reason that he must be a constructive person by nature, who is not fundamentally interested in blowing up buildings and people in other countries.  He must have had to deal with many different kinds of people successfully, at least well enough to get to ‘the handshake.’  Ultimately, keeping a massive corporation going depends on consistency and conformity; paradoxically it also depends on freshness and flexibility.  Has Trump been a decent ‘river to his people’?  Or has he been every bit as bad as Walmart, but just covered up his company’s misdeeds more adroitly?  I reason to myself that if he had had major problems with the law and been a really bad ‘corporate citizen,’ his rivals would have outed him already, and the laundry list of his villainies would have made him a social pariah.  (To me, the much-talked-about problems with Trump University just don’t count, for reasons made clear in item 6 below.)

3.  I also feel embarrassed listening to Donald Trump because it weirdly resembles being privy to a private conversation.  Sometimes, at press conferences or when addressing late-night crowds after a victory, Trump’s tone is oddly personal and conversational, as though nothing in particular were happening, and as though he were shooting the breeze with me over milk and cookies at the kitchen table.  He gets a dreamy tone in his voice, talking about his employees, his hotels, his ‘operations,’ or the beautiful people of some state that’s just fallen to him.  When he talks about Florida, for example, he relates it to his own history and enterprises, not the other way around.  Sometimes it’s as though we are all going to be sucked up into the aura of Donald J Trump’s beautiful empire of luxury, leaving behind the angst and grunge of these second-rate United States.  Will the golden touch of Donald Trump brush off on the likes of you and me?  This is one fantastic effect of Donald Trump speaking.

4.  But I also feel uncomfortable when Donald Trump is being ‘tough,’ when he is being ‘scandalous,’ because I’m never certain whether he’s being scandalous mainly because scandal sells.  I know I should conclude that Donald Trump is ‘dangerous’ when friends say he is, but the way Donald Trump says many things, I find it difficult to nail his tone, to conclude that he is authentically mean and hateful.  Is Donald Trump a very genial and glitzy version of a Nazi, or is he someone who uses shocking utterances to get people thinking about how the American reluctance to draw bounds around itself might have trade-offs when it comes to internal order and economic well-being?  He is nearly alone in declaring loudly and in many registers that globalism has a big downside for the US, a downside that millions of citizens keenly feel.  If Donald Trump were anything like Hitler, could the Clintons ever have been induced to attend his wedding?  And what, then, to make of his rather noble tribute to Planned Parenthood, a compassionate tribute the likes of which have not been uttered by a leading Republican for decades?

5.  What I know is that Donald Trump cares nothing about civility, a traditional standard governing political intercourse and acceptable public-sphere behavior.  What does it matter if a person running for president has never held a public office?  It means he or she has never had to practice being civil.  Civility is the quality that keeps antagonistic parties on speaking terms, and what does effective government depend on more?  Trump at a campaign rally, however, speaks as though in the privacy of a corporate sanctum.  “Get them out” is a public-sphere translation of the message, “You’re fired!”, but firing a citizen is something not even the Donald can do.  To me, the violence and hostility Trump’s speech, and his deliberate decision not to practice civility, indicate why, if elected, he might be a failure at governing.

6.  Why do none of our objections matter?  Nothing is gonna stick to Trump because he’s a charismatic leader.  More than a century ago, the German sociologist Max Weber came up with the idea of ‘charismatic authority’ to explain why, seemingly in defiance of reason, some individuals inspire a large and faithful following.  Weber noticed that the charismatic rise simply because their followers see exceptional qualities in them.  Followers repose trust in such individuals on the basis of personality, not reason.  A charismatic leader’s claims to power rest on the possession of “exceptional personal qualities or the demonstration of extraordinary insight and accomplishment,” which inspire loyalty and obedience.  This relationship of trust helps explain why many Trump supporters have not wavered since deciding to back Trump at the beginning of his campaign.  Whether his charismatic spell over voters will wane, or whether it can be converted into an effective mode of governance, remains to be seen.

7.  Repeat the phrase, ‘Checks and balances,’ whenever the thought of President Trump induces panic.  If he’s really awful, Congress will rebel and impeach his ass.

GOP Options

Trump smiling (modified screen-shot), © 2016 Susan Barsy trump-smiling

1. Weaken your party by openly declaring you’ll never vote for Trump.

2. Go to the nominating convention hoping to sabotage Trump by backing one of the candidates he already trounced.

3. Treat Trump so badly that he leaves the party.

4. Follow the directives of a now-desperate GOP ‘leadership’ whose ‘vision’ has made the party the hot mess that it is.

5. Follow your minority faction out of the party, and watch Hillary win.

6. Try to start a new third party after creating laws that favor the existing parties.

7. Do nothing and stay Republican, hoping that Donald Trump will change or won’t be so bad.

8. Openly support Trump and become part of the new Republican order.  Maybe you’ll become a Supreme Court justice or a cabinet member.

9. Vote for Hillary.

10. Secretly vote for Trump, like many of your friends.

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