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

On the verge (Election Day)

The shadow of a man and woman standing under a tree in autumn along the shore of Lake Michigan.
Today is Election Day, and we are each and all on the verge of something new.  Something unknown.  The campaign has been a time of trial—a time of bad dreams, friction, and more than a few out-and-out breakdowns.  Charisma, in the form of Donald Trump, has ruptured fault lines in the Republican Party and the nation that existed already.  Because of his candidacy, we as a nation and as individuals have gained some self-knowledge the hard way, which is how self-knowledge is always gained.  He has tested us, exposing our weaknesses, our normally veiled resentments, our various gnawing dissatisfactions.

Americans need.  Some truly live in a state of want, but others are fearful of the future, sensing decline and the increasing challenge of securing work and access to opportunity.  Others, not in need, want something other and better than what they already have, and, for that, they’re ready to trade something away.  Certainly, this is true of Republicans who have enjoyed considerable political power but insist the political order should be delivering something better than what it has managed to create so far.

Twitter sometimes delivers thought-provoking jewels, such as a tweet this morning quoting Gerald Ford: “Truth is the glue that holds governments together. Compromise is the oil that makes governments go.”

Hillary is not an innocent, but someone who has winked at the order herself and at acts within her province that are immoral or unseemly.  She is a tarnished political heroine, this ‘First Woman’—the other choice that all our earlier choices have made.  Many will vote for Hillary as a symbol of something she doesn’t really stand for, then expect her to wring something better from federal government and the political establishment.  She is the good-enough candidate, particularly in the eyes of those who feel no urgency about political change, whose hearts may have stopped bleeding some time ago.

 Whatever we stand on the verge of, it is best to acknowledge our complicity.  Whichever future we’re on the verge of, it will feature a world of political work that the republican model calls on ordinary people to perform.  My hope is that the election will usher in a period of broad ideological ferment and political reorganization, necessary precursors to restoring what is unifying and wholesome in American culture.

Day 32: The Tribune’s Endorsement

Looking down toward Tribune Tower, © 2016 Susan Barsy
Late last week, the Chicago Tribune endorsed Gary Johnson for president, an action that, while indicative of the uneasy response the leading candidates trigger, also shows a remarkable failure of nerve.

In 2016, a measure of bravery is involved in committing to either of the two top presidential candidates, especially given the invective that they have inspired.  The vituperative nature of the campaign has left mud clinging to both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.  The shame heaped on Trump, in particular, has had a tendency to slide off and besmirch his followers, whom Clinton contemptuously dismissed as ‘a basket of deplorables.’

One wonders whether this, the risk of guilt by association, will deter voters from voting, or whether it is inhibiting likely voters from honestly declaring their intentions to friends, or to the strangers who call on the telephone, conducting voter surveys.

How many people are ‘shy’ Trump or Clinton supporters, but will not risk saying so out of a dread of conflict or embarrassment?  Will there be many people who lie about their vote, or who will absolve themselves of future responsibility by casting no ballot on Election Day?

How childish it would be to shirk one’s duty.  But then look at the action of the Chicago Tribune‘s editorial board.  If its members intend to follow their own recommendation and vote for Gary Johnson, I will be astonished.  If they are not personally going to vote for Gary Johnson, their recommendation was an act of prevarication.  They deliberately threw away any chance of influencing the outcome of the campaign.

When a group of highly educated, rational, and conscientious journalists cannot bring themselves to declare for one or the other of the candidates who is certain to win the election, it’s likely that something similar is happening in the more obscure corners of our nation, too.

It is very difficult to resolve to vote for a deeply flawed nominee.  It leaves a bad taste, to give power to someone you do not trust, you do not agree with, or you do not admire.   To vote this year is to take a risk.  How many Trump voters will lie about it?  How many ambivalent souls will stay at home?

Image: The Tribune Tower on a good day
© 2016 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.

Will the Electorate Destroy the Political Parties?

Artist's sketch shows men talking excitedly at an open-air polling place in NYC.

Something utterly unforeseen could happen in this election cycle: the electorate could destroy one or both of the parties through primary voting.

Both the Democrats and Republicans are ‘hearing from ordinary America’, and the message is hostile.  On the Republican side, voters are heavily favoring Trump, a sometime Democrat and independent only weakly identified with the Republican Party.  On the Democratic side, voters have shown an unexpected interest in Sanders, a lifelong independent who is parasitically exploiting the Democratic brand.  Meanwhile, the veteran politicians who have come up through the parties have had an unexpectedly hard time making inroads against the spoilers, a sign that the parties are badly out of touch with the times.

We hear about the ‘establishment,’ but what is it really?  The parties, we are discovering, are impotent.  There is little capacity for concerted action among party politicians themselves.  If there were, they would have stopped these threatening insurgencies long ago, shutting out Trump and denying Sanders his putative connection with the Democratic Party.

Trump and Sanders are political bounders.  Who are their friends on the Hill?  How would either of them accomplish anything, were either handed the presidency?  Who would their advisers be?

Yet, faced with such a sub-optimal outcome, the senators, governors, and leading congressmen within each party have exerted no discipline, done nothing in unison.  Democratic governors and senators are not speaking out, urging voters to back Hillary.  Leading Republicans watch helplessly as, with each gladiatorial debate, their candidates further damage and degrade the party.  In the process, party feeling—that most basic of bonds—is being destroyed.

And all because Congress has failed to serve ordinary America.  The national leadership of both parties, as embodied in Congress, has shirked its duties.  Congress has not worked to create the virtuous circle of corporate responsibility, abundant skilled employment, and robust domestic consumption that would make our economy strong.  It has not confronted our ridiculous trade imbalance with China.  It has not resolved the issues around immigration and citizenship that are practically and symbolically urgent to millions of Americans.  Finally, Congress has ignored the fact that it must rein itself in and show the American people that it cares about efficient and effective governing.  Those who serve in the House and Senate have no sense of urgency—the urgency that both Trump and Sanders, for all their defects, are brilliantly communicating.

It’s wild and alarming to imagine the parties being destroyed from inside.  If Trump wins the delegate race, for instance, others within the GOP will face a choice: either embrace him and his ideology, back a ‘protest’ candidate, or break away to form their own new party.  Americans witnessed something of this sort back in the 1850s, when, over the course of a decade and in response to the festering problem of slavery, the Whig Party fell apart, the Democratic Party split into northern and southern wings, and the Republican party emerged out of nowhere, sweeping Lincoln to prominence and victory.

Nothing so cataclysmic has happened in our lifetimes.  Yet, many signs indicate that the current party system is losing its salience because it has grown deaf to the people’s needs.  In such circumstances, parties can become defunct with surprising speed.  Trump, Sanders, and even Bloomberg understand that, for an intrepid candidate, the parties’ senescent condition spells personal opportunity.  Any of these candidates, if successful, would force a dramatic shakeup within the parties, transforming the political landscape of the nation and the capital.

RELATED:
Inside the Republican Party’s Desperate Mission to Stop Donald Trump’ (NYT)

Image: from this source.

This artist’s sketch from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper shows voters talking excitedly at an open air polling place in 1856.  The caption reads ‘Scene at the polls.  Boxes for the distribution of tickets.  Everybody busy.’  At that time, voting consisted of obtaining a pre-printed party ticket and putting it in a ballot box.  The three booths are labelled with the names of the three presidential candidates: Buchanan, the Democrat and victor; Fremont, the nominee of the new Republican (anti-slavery) Party; and Fillmore, who represented the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party.  Though the Democrats were victorious, the Republicans’ success in carrying some northern and eastern states created the impetus that would bring the new party to power four years later.

What If They Can’t Take The Capital?

H. H. Green, "Bird's Eye View of Washington, DC," 1916 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

We may not have reached the turning point in the 2012 campaign, but Mitt Romney‘s impolitic behavior has got me thinking about what it might mean for the Republican Party if it fails to take the presidency this time around.

The party wars raging these days are much like real wars in which a few goals are recognized as being of overwhelming importance.  In military conflict, taking or holding a capital is often paramount to victory. The force that fights to take a capital but never succeeds condemns itself to a war without end.  It never gains sway.

The outlook for the GOP

Despite the Republicans’ emphasis on unity, theirs is a badly divided party, composed of two parts, ideologically riven, and in real danger of breaking apart.  Throughout the campaign, moderates within the party have been hoping that its two wings can be welded together sufficiently to secure a presidential victory.  Should the Republican party fail of this goal, it will have difficulty convincing us that it remains a dominant political force.

The Republican Party still has vast resources and an impressive organization; it has some intelligent personnel and many, many backers and devotees.  Despite all this, it could go into decline, if the presidential contest suggests that it is no longer organized around ideas and policies that have national appeal, that can command the assent of a voting majority.

A party shy of the presidency

Is winning the presidency all that important to the life of a party?  It is when the party has been struggling for several presidential election cycles to demonstrate that its candidates truly represent the will of the people.  Historically, when a party cannot win the White House, that party fades.  It happened with the Federalist party to which the Founders belonged.  It happened to the Whig Party in the 1850s.  It happens when a perfectly good party lack leaders capable of reshaping the party’s ideology for changing times.

A party that cannot win the presidency risks the loss of its adherents and its leadership, too.  Without the presidency, a party cannot initiate and bring legislation to fruition without cooperation from the other side.  The Republican Party has set itself in opposition to the Democratic Party.  Instead of building the goodwill that has historically proved the salvation of a minority party, it has shown open and increasing enmity toward the other side.

Emphasis on controlling the electoral process

Anxiety pervades the Republican Party, which since the year 2000 has concentrated more and more, not on recasting itself ideologically, but on controlling the electoral process in hope of achieving a favorable return.  Ever since George W. Bush’s contested win that year, which came down to interpreting a bunch of chads clinging to physical ballots in Florida, the Republicans have become obsessed with state-level control of the election rolls.

G. W. Bush’s re-election in 2004 occurred amid controversies over voter suppression in states like Ohio, where Republicans had succeeded in removing voters from the rolls through aggressive challenges.  In the current election cycle, we have seen concerted efforts in several Republican-controlled states to tighten up voting requirements and to make it more difficult for certain classes of voters to gain representation or vote early.

Only respect for the electorate can save the GOP

It’s a shame, because intelligent leadership and constructive ideas are what the GOP needs.  In the end, only better ideas and a genuine respect of the electorate can save the Republican Party from the minority status that threatens it now.

Image: H. H. Green, “Bird’s eye view of Washington, DC” (1916), from this source.
Other wonderful old maps and views of the nation’s capital are here.

RELATED ARTICLES:
Voter Harassment, Circa 2012, New York Times.
Is the Republican Party Dying?, Our Polity.
A Great White Nation of Self-Made Men, Our Polity.
Democrats: Shake It Up, Our Polity.
2008: The Critical Election That Wasn’t (Part II), Our Polity.