Why Trump Wins

A previously unpublished post from 2016

close-up of the Republican candidate talking

“It’s the economy, stupid”—Bill Clinton

The painfully long GOP primary season reached its climax Tuesday, as real-estate mogul Donald Trump secured a victory in Indiana that scuttled his two remaining opponents and all but gave him the presidential nomination.  In recent contests, Trump has scored lopsided victories, finding support in suffering areas of the Rust Belt, as well as among the residents of northern cities and coastal states.  In New York and Pennsylvania, for example, Trump carried every county except his own Manhattan Borough.

Trump’s emergence as a political force is engendering widespread irritation and dismay, even alarm.  Trump has a vicious streak; he is not a gentleman.  He affronts the Republican establishment by upending their principles; he affronts everyone else by eschewing the etiquette of statesmanship.  At rallies, he turns on the crowd by stoking base tendencies, insinuating that it’s okay to be violent; it’s okay to hate.  In a stagnant political moment, Trump promises radical and stark action on middle-American issues.  On policy, he’s cagey.  Unfortunately, it’s impossible to separate the message from the man.  He’s driving a stake through the heart of the parties and feeding on identity politics’ innards, horrifying every decorous conservative and liberal.  Donald Trump is free speech at its worst.

Last night, CNN’s large panel of political experts squirmed in their chairs, their very skirts and suits discomfited as they contemplated the magnitude of Donald Trump’s triumph over a field that once included 17 talented and determined rivals. This morning, the New York Times ran an editorial, ‘GOP Steps Deeper Into Darkness,’ essentially skirting the dilemma of millions of voters and lamenting that ‘Instead of rejecting what Trump stands for, the Republican Party is falling in line behind his nomination.’  Meanwhile, Donald Trump subliminally responds, “It’s the economy, stupid,” in every one of his victory speeches.  In truth, we have no way of knowing what part of his crowd is evil and what part is wise.

Beating Trump will depend on honing in on the part of his message that’s constructive and co-opting it.  Trump is unique in his focus on the downside of unbounded global capitalism.  He’s winning because of his prescriptions for the American economy, prescriptions unpalatable to an upper-class establishment that shrugs off evidence of declining US prestige and lower-class suffering.  Trump is winning because he has a consistent perspective on a few key issues, expressed in a compellingly urgent way.  He’s winning because the complacency that has allowed our infrastructure to decline and industries to decay must end.

Trump is rising despite lacking the virtue that republican government requires.  His election would further dim the light of American ideals.  If only Trump’s opponents were equally gutsy in acknowledging and promising to redress the nation’s ills.  Ultimately, their failure is why Trump wins.

A nation of bankers and shopkeepers

capital-projectWhen my father could still speak, he would sometimes ask, “Do we really want to be a nation of bankers and shopkeepers?”  By which he meant, “Do we really want to become a nation that doesn’t make things?”  And, when talking about the nation of “bankers and shopkeepers,” he would inevitably mention England, a once-great manufacturing power that had allowed its amazing industrial advantages to wither away, leaving only “the capitalists,” who controlled and circulated most of the wealth, and “the shopkeepers”—everyone else—who retailed things. Continue reading

A President Ventures Abroad

President Wilson and the King and Queen of Belgium at Ypres, 1919 (Courtesy: Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library via the Commons on Flickr)

Given the international status of the United States today, the home-bound nature of the presidency during the first century-plus of the nation’s existence is hard to imagine.  The first president to venture beyond the western hemisphere was Woodrow Wilson, who in 1919 traveled to Europe at the conclusion of the First World War to participate in the negotiations that produced the Treaty of Versailles.

During his trip, Wilson and his entourage visited Belgium, touring Ypres and other areas that had been devastated by the fighting.  An anonymous photographer attached to the US Signal Corps documented the president’s tour of the war-torn landscape.  The resulting deep-focus sepia prints preserve the occasion on which Wilson first saw something of late war in which he and the rest of the nation had been engaged.

Image: from this source.
Click image to enlarge.

Faces of the Thirties

Carl Van Vechten, Portrait of Earl Jones in Langston Hughes's "Don't You Want to Be Free?" (Courtesy of the Library of Congress).

Among the heroes of public culture, James Billington, the long-serving Librarian of Congress, ranks high.  Under his leadership, the Library of Congress has been on a drive to digitize its vast collections and make them accessible online to a global public.  Sound recordings, films, photographs, old prints, drawings, maps, manuscripts—millions of items can now be viewed and freely used, to the extent that copyright law allows.  Many of the illustrations on Our Polity are from its website.

Among the Library’s holdings are a collection of photographic portraits by Carl Van Vechten, taken mainly in the 1930s.  Van Vechten (1880-1964) was an Iowa native and graduate of the University of Chicago who, in 1903, moved to New York City and became a journalist under the tutelage of Theodore Dreiser.

Van Vechten first made his reputation as an art and music critic, writing mainly for the New York Times, where he was a champion of then-neglected forms of popular music such as folk, jazz, and blues.  He also wrote about, and got to know, the many gifted African-American artists, writers, and intellectuals who, in what was referred to as the Harlem Renaissance, were first making their mark at this time.

Carl Van Vechten, Portrait of Ethel Waters (Courtesy of the Library of Congress).     Carl Van Vechten, Portrait of Ram Gopal (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)    Carl Van Vechten, GertrudeStein with American flag backdrop, 1935 (Courtesy of Library of Congress)    Carl Van Vechten, Portrait of Leontyne Price (Courtesy of the Library of Congress).    Carl Van Vechten, Photograph of F. Scott Fitzgerald (Courtesy of the Library of Congress).

Only in the 1930s did Van Vechten turn to photography, the field in which he scored his greatest lasting achievement.  Several thousand of his portraits survive, most but not all taken in his studio, amounting to a fascinating collective portrait of cultural life of the time.  Included among his subjects were noted composers, actors, singers, ballerinas, folk artists, novelists, poets, and prize fighters.  Many were Van Vechten’s friends; others were new or making a passing appearance on the scene.

Van Vechten’s photographs mirror the diversity that was then a new feature of America’s culture.  It was our first truly cosmopolitan, modern decade.  The Russian ballerinas, Jewish publishers, gay expatriate arts patrons, Spanish surrealists, and black opera-singers that thronged the cities represented a welcome and radical shift in a culture that had long been dominated by a pale, genteel population that was far more narrow and homogeneous.  In the thirties, American culture came of age, incorporating into itself the global currents that formed, and continue to influence, the culture of the present day.

Images from the Van Vechten Collection: (top) Actor Earl Jones; (inset, left to right)
Ethel Waters, Ram Gopal,
Gertrude Stein, Leontyne Price, F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.