Trumpism and What it Says About Us
Oren Cass has a point when he writes in City Journal that too much effort is being expended explaining the Trump phenomenon. After all, had the reality TV star not thrown his hat into the ring, the Republican Party would likely be well on its way to nominating "a conventional candidate like Marco Rubio or John Kasich, who would be favored to win against a Democratic Party that could not muster an option beyond a socialist punchline and a Clinton under federal investigation."
Alas, Trump is still the Republican front-runner, and we must learn what we can. In particular, the Republican Party would be well-advised to focus on the visceral anger of Trump's core supporters – middle-aged white males without college degrees – and where it comes from.
To say the least, this is not a group that is doing well or facing the future with confidence. Though causality is hard to establish, mortality rates are at least one reflection of general well-being. And white males between 45 and 54 are experiencing rising mortality rates, even as general mortality rates continue to fall. As Anne Case and Angus Deaton of Princeton have documented, since 1998 mortality rates for this group have risen by .5% per annum, after a twenty year period of annual decline of 2% per year. That contrasts, remarkably, to 1.8% decline in mortality per year over the same period for Hispanics and 2.6% for black Americans.
With manufacturing jobs declining and automation cutting into service jobs, this group is having a harder time finding and holding jobs. With traditional factory and big business employers shedding jobs, Walter Russell Mead points out, small businesses will be the primary sources of new jobs going forward. Yet government policy has made it harder, not easier, for small businesses to obtain capital.
Big banks are making ever fewer loans to small businesses, even as expensive hyper-regulation has favored the big national banks over smaller community banks, ill-equipped to deal with the expense of regulatory compliance. Small business lending by the ten largest banks declined 38% from 2006 to 2014. Only 43% of loans up to one million dollars in 2015 originated in banks, down from 58% in 2009, with the rest coming from alternative lenders who charge substantially higher rates.
Non-college educated whites (and minorities too for that matter, in all but rhetoric) have very legitimate grievances against both parties. The major parties have too frequently demonstrated their contempt and lack of concern. In 2008, candidate Obama dissed at an upscale Bay Area fundraiser poor whites taking solace for factory closings in "guns and religion." At Mitt Romney's 2012 comment about the "47% who will never vote for us" was interpreted in a similar vein.
While much of Democratic Party nomination battle has focused on income inequality, in fact the Democratic Party has long since ceased to care much about working class whites – one reason that so many Trump supporters are traditionally Democratic voters. The big Democratic donors are far more concerned with climate alarmism, and support environmental measures that are mass job cutters – e.g. blocking the Keystone Pipeline, raising energy prices by promoting non-economically viable alternatives to coal, and opposing new nuclear energy facilities. Most of the Democratic Party's signature issues, particularly social issues, have nothing to do with the economy or jobs.
TRUMPISM, IT MUST BE REMEMBERED, is something of an international movement that has affected almost every advanced democracy of late. And the reason is the same: the governments of those advanced economies have broken the most fundamental social contract with their citizens -- the commitment to treat their own citizens' well-being as taking priority over that of citizens of other nations. That is most obvious in Western Europe, which has been moving away from national sovereignty for over half a century, with power increasingly transferred from national parliaments to European Union bureaucrats in Brussels.
Mass Muslim immigration may finally be the issue that causes large number of Western Europeans – many of them drawn from the elements of European society most likely to live adjacent to Muslim "no-go zones" to which fire and police protection does not extend – to rebel. Leaders such as Germany's Angela Merkel and the bureaucrats in Brussels fairly leaped at the chance to admit millions of Muslims fleeing war-torn Syria and various other Middle Eastern hellholes as a grand humanitarian gesture, with little apparent consideration to what millions of new unassimilable immigrants would mean for either the security of the Europeans states from terrorism, or the safety of citizens, primarily woman, from ravaging bands of immigrants, or for the national culture.
As a consequence right-wing parties, some with fascist histories, are growing across the continent. Hostility to the pan-European project has risen sharply, and not only in Britain, which may soon vote to withdraw from the Common Market.
Immigration is also Trump's signature issue. Immigration, both legal and illegal, is a complicated and multi-faceted issue, and I claim no expertise. But it is one that is experienced very differently by working and middle-class voters and the political and economic elites. Reihan Salam writes, "For high-income Republicans, skilled immigrants are their colleagues, neighbors, and friends, and less-skilled immigrants provide them with low-cost child-care, restaurant meals, and other services that allow them to lead comfortable lives."
They are not worried, as is Senator Jeff Sessions (R.-Ala.), the Senate's leading immigration hawk, about immigrants driving down wages of working and middle class voters, who already cannot afford anything like the lifestyle or economic security their parents enjoyed. As Victor Davis Hanson, who spends part of each week as a farmer in California's once fertile central valley, points out, the children of the elites will not sit in classes where a quarter of the children do not speak English. And in the neighborhoods in which they live and jog, they are not likely to be attacked by pit-bulls, whose owners have little desire to speak English, much less cage, vaccinate, or license their dogs.
Mark Zuckerberg need not worry, like residents of rural Fresno County, about being sideswiped or rear-ended by those who flee the scene, leaving their wrecked cars without insurance and registration. "I don't think," observes Hanson, "Mitt Romney has had a dead pit bull, in ripe rigor mortis with a rope around its neck, dumped on his lawn, or a beautiful Queensland Heeler, torn to shreds from dog fighting, thrown into his vineyard."
BUT IF DONALD TRUMP SPEAKS to voters tired of being ignored and condescended to, he is nevertheless a disastrous representative of them. Nothing in his life until now has shown an iota of concern with those who now salute him, and he has not offered one serious policy prescription that would address their economic insecurities. All he offers is his boastful self-promotion and a call for the power to make American great again. However different in style he is to the polished and fluent Barack Obama, he offers the same promise of being some sort of miracle worker. (Remember when Obama pronounced his nomination as the day the oceans cease to rise.)
Trump is not the antidote to thought-stifling political correctness, as his supporters seem to think. Vulgarity and the lack of basic human decency are not the opposite of political correctness.
Trump's rise is but one sign this political season of something rotten in America. The Democratic Party battle between a woman with a thirty-year history of boundless greed and deceit, who could never hope to again gain a minimal security clearance unless elected president, and a septuagenarian socialist, who appears to have become no wiser since college, is, in its own way, fully as horrifying.
Both Trump and the Democrats attest to a decades' long failure of civic education in America. Unschooled Illinois farmers once stood in the sun for hours listening to Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debate: Today more Americans can identify the name Kardashian than Vice-President Biden. The Constitution and the Federalist Papers are almost unknown. President Obama, supposedly a former teacher of constitutional law, has not hesitated to resort to executive action to achieve what he cannot through Congress.
And Trump threatens to go one better. He has betrayed no understanding of the American system of checks and balances or three co-equal branches of government. Recently, he boasted that he would gut First Amendment protections of the press to make it easier for him to sue, in the manner of Turkey's Erdogan, reporters and papers that get under his tissue-thin skin.
Meanwhile college students tolerate, and even demand, limits on free speech on campus (except concerning Jews and Israel) and the absence of any semblance of due process in hearings that can have lifelong consequences. The millennials flock to the banner of Bernie Sanders, whose proposals would add trillions in new annual debt, apparently oblivious to how their own futures are blighted by already incurred government debt, which ensures they will not benefit from the social security and Medicaid for which they will soon be paying, if they are fortunate enough to find a first job. The trillions of dollars in unfunded pension obligations at the local and state level would also be news to them.
Major institutions have also failed. Trump is in part a phenomenon of wildly disproportionate free media coverage – 76% of that given to all the Republican candidates combined. That has not been just ratings driven. The mainstream media has been only too happy to advance the only Republican candidate Hillary could surely defeat.
ONE OF THE WISEST OF THE FOUNDERS, Benjamin Franklin predicted, "Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters." And, as David French argues, "Trump is running not for president of a constitutional republic but to be the strongman of a failing state."
Trump, however, is, in Andrew McCarthy's words, "the effect, not the cause, of culture rot" – the siman not the siba in Gemara terms. In the America of my youth, the fastest way to ensure ostracism on the playground was bragging, and bragging about one's wealth would have been the worst of all. The iconic "strong" man of those days – the Marlboro Man or Gary Cooper at OK Corral – was one of few words, not a voluble ignoramus. He was never boastful and did not threaten others; he did not initiate violence or confrontation, but did not back down in its face.
One by one, many at first inclined to hold their noses and vote for Trump (and there is an argument for doing so) have determined that they cannot, for he will further lower the standards of an already debased culture. For some it was his casual dismissal of the courage of John McCain during six years of torture in North Vietnamese captivity, which left McCain permanently disabled.
For Andrew McCarthy, the lead government prosecutor in the first World Trade Center bombing, it is Trump's boast that he will order American troops to become war criminals and target the wives and children of ISIS fighters. For Stephen Hayes of the Weekly Standard, it is the impossibility of explaining to his young children why someone would mock the physical disability of a crippled reporter. For the religious conservative David French, it is his pledge to keep funding Planned Parenthood to the tune of millions of dollars, so that it can continue killing hundreds of thousands of babies a year.
These thoughtful conservatives are shocked that Trump's supporters rather than being appalled by his cruelty and malice are attracted by it. They see him as the artifact of a society from which the civic vitality catalogued by de Tocqueville has been lost and replaced by vitriol and demagoguery.
"Our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people," wrote John Adams. "It is wholy inadequate for the governance of any other." (Hat tip again to David French.) If so, America is grave danger on the evidence of this election season.