One of the most troubling aspects with some online elements that pass for liberalism or progressivism these days is an attitudinal condescension, at best, or mocking contempt, as worst, toward some supporters of Donald Trump, in particular his working class devotees. (Which also, unfortunately, exposes an off-putting, often times unconscious classicism from some liberals.) It is a tendency this article calls “liberalism-as-snark.”
Now, by and large the progressive critique against Trump has been thoughtfully on point. However, there is, from time to time, a level of condescending smugness toward some of Trump’s followers that generalizes them as nothing more than being a bunch of ignorant yahoos based on some selected polls and focus group studies. (Which are merely snapshots that don’t necessarily capture the totality and nuance of the grievances from Trump supporters.)
Jodi Dean, a professor in the political science department at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, percipiently points out the level of condescension by some liberals toward Trump’s working class followers:
Liberals enjoy their outrage. Here Trump confirms for them their rightness in despising the Republican base, itself only seldom anything other than their own disgust with the working class. As they use Trump as a catalyst for their own good feeling, liberals repeat his practices of contempt in another register. Not only is he a candidate they can enjoy hating but he enables them to extend their hate to all the non-millionaires supporting Trump: they really must be idiots.
Now, the sort of liberal contempt that’s being critiqued here is not those pertaining to the (justifiable) righteous indignation from progressives against the crude, anti-immigrant nativism, xenophobia, racism, misogyny, and hyper-demeaning (over-the-top) political bombast expressed by some of Trump’s most impassioned followers. (All of which are fair and reasonable game.)
What is being critiquing here, though, is the sort of liberal ire toward Trump’s followers (in particular the white working class) that makes the following argument: these folks are a bunch of unsophisticated rubes under the spell of “false consciousness” who are voting against their economic interest by supporting a Republican billionaire. However, when one looks deeply at the myriad of reasons for the attraction by a significant number of Americans toward some of Trump’s messages, it is quite otherwise.
In a piece penned by one of the most astute observers of American politics, The Washington Post‘s Dave Weigel, he did an admirable yeoman’s job by actually interviewing Trump supporters, especially working-class denizens, in the Midwest entitled, “Why Donald Trump makes sense to many voters—even some Democrats.”
When one gets past the “anti-political correct” messaging, from Trump, that appeals to some of his supporters, what stands out—as Weigel’s article glaringly highlights—is actually an appeal to economic populism. Specifically, it is an economic populism centered around two areas. First, a sharp critique of unfettered neoliberal globalism. Second, an embrace of a pro-manufacturing, “get tough” economic nationalism (that some defenders, of what has been characterized as a neoliberal racket, would dismissively label as “protectionism”) that unites lunch pail liberal Democrats and Clyde Prestowitz-style Reaganites (anti-free trade, pro-fair trade) who both support a robust and smart national industrial policy, i.e., refashioning the American economy away from “making money off of money” (finance capital) to “building things” (export-driven industrial manufacturing). In other words, a policy that is the secret behind Germany’s global economic success. (The Atlantic famously noted a conversation between the heads of state of Germany and Great Britain that highlights how important manufacturing is to the former: “German Chancellor Angela Merkel once was asked by then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair what the secret was of her country’s impressive success. She famously replied, ‘Mr. Blair, we still make things.’ In Germany, manufacturing still dominates finance, not the other way around, as Germany has continued to emphasize manufacturing and exports over the financial industry.” [Italics in original.])
Now, what does this article, here, mean by its assertion regarding the views of some Americans toward economic populism as it relates to their gravitation toward Trump’s message? Well, the basis of the aforementioned point revolves around the unequivocal specificity to what exactly frustrates these Trump followers, especially those from the working class (some of them Democrats), in the Midwest as communicated to Weigel.
In an interview conducted by Weigel, he highlights a conversation with a 65-year-old man walking to a union local, in Flint, established out of the famed “sit-down strike” of the 1930s, UAW Local 598 office:
[Gerald] Woodruff, a sometimes Republican, was impressed by Trump. “I watched the debate,” he said. “Fox singled him out in that opening question. They said they asked hard questions of all the candidates, but they went after him because he’s touching a nerve. If Republicans can capitalize on that, they’ll do pretty good.”
What nerve was he touching, exactly?
“I think it’s wrong for an American business to move their business out of the United States to keep from paying taxes, but keep us as a marketplace,” Woodruff answered. (Emphasis added.)
Now, if an individual read the quote, above, he or she would be forgiven to have reasonably mistaken it for words uttered by any progressive economists, like Joseph Stiglitz, giving a full-throttled, impassioned critique against corporate tax avoidance. (An act that takes the advantage of American markets but avoids the reach of U.S. tax collectors that entails, among other things, moving factories abroad.)
Moreover, Weigel interviews two other individuals drawn to Trump’s campaign whose words sound if they were uttered by progressive populists (emphases added):
“I remember my dad in the late 1970s,” said Holly Gaul, 58. “He was a journeyman electrician. With the things at the time that were going on with GM, he knew his profession was going to be gone. And it was.”
There were jobs, sure, but not the kind people could live on. “Women my age are taking the McDonald’s jobs that the high school kids used to get,” Gaul said. “I’ve been waiting for a stronger president, somebody that I could look up to and respect again. He could stand up to those other countries. It’s wrong when they can build furniture in China and ship it here cheaper than it costs us to build it here.”
“Back when our economy took a dump, I had to go to Afghanistan,” said Bob Parsons, 51. “I had to work there as a product relations manager, just to build our retirement back up. There were no jobs in Michigan to be had. They’re not fair to what’s coming over, as far as the trade goes. For example, 100,000 cars come over here; 5,000 go over there. I like what he says: If they don’t let us send them there, we don’t take their stuff.”
Essentially, one of the major political thrusts that’s drawing some Americans to Trump’s campaign is his “get tough” approach to U.S. trade deals overseas. Other than Senator Bernie Sanders, Trump—whatever liberals may think of his core politics (which is justifiably repugnant, to progressives, on so many levels)—is one of the few candidates, in either party, who’s not slavishly accepting the narrative of neoliberal globalism as an economic boon for the many. (Like trade unionists, consumer groups, and the economic populist left, Trump has even come out against President Obama’s neoliberal disaster that is, essentially, the “NAFTA on Steroids”, i.e., the Trans-Pacific Partnership [TPP].)
(The article, here, should note that while there are much that progressive populists can agree with, in regard to some of Trump’s critiques against unfettered neoliberal globalism, in particular so-called free trade agreements in general [particularly the TPP], it is not the piece’s intention to downplay those aspects of his critiques that some have pointed out as worrisome to say the least. Specifically, those aspects that involve, among others, crude levels of national chauvinism—including nativist ire and not-too-subtle xenophobia directed against undocumented immigrants coming into the U.S. as a result, in part, from their economic displacement arising out of neoliberal globalism itself.)
Now, granted the thrust of Trump’s aforementioned critiques is not as thoroughly developed as those posited by progressive economists critical of untrammeled neoliberal globalism and the regime of so-called free trade agreements. However, it is still a critique: a meaningful one in light of the fact that both Chamber of Commerce Republican conservatives and third way Democratic centrists—who both wield significant influence in each of their respective parties—are still wedded slavishly to the neoliberal free trade consensus of the establishment business, media, and political class in the U.S. Far too many Republicans and Democrats fail to question the consensus because they are unable—or have simply refused—to realize the deep human costs of neoliberalism über alles. How can our elected officials begin to solve this problem when they see no problem to begin with?
In sharp contrast, significant segments of the electorate, in their gut, viscerally understand the human costs arising out of the regime of neoliberal free trade fundamentalism as their lived experiences—whether because they themselves or people they know have lost their jobs when the factories they worked at shuttered before moving abroad to more favorable, low-wage economic climates of Southeast Asia and Central America. These free trade deals have all too clearly shown working Americans the abject failures of an insatiable neoliberalism that seeks to commodify and discard everything in its path in its narrow, amoral pursuit of shareholder maximization.
Why is this point important? Because as these quotes, highlighted by Weigel, show is that some of Trump’s supporters—or, at least, those drawn to parts of his message—display motivations that are rational, economic self-interested ones.
As such, one cannot simply argue that the support for Trump is entirely based on some alleged “false consciousness” of people supporting a billionaire candidate who’s altogether completely inimical to their economic interests. At the end of the day, they’re making a rational choice in regard to their interests that’s no different than pro-environmentalists supporting anti-Keystone Pipeline progressive Democrats or social conservatives supporting pro-life right-wing Republicans.
And here’s the kicker—these supporters of Trump, especially working-class devotees, believe he’ll represent their economic concerns, in particular on issues of free trade and the economic dislocating effects of untrammeled neoliberal globalism. Why? Because he is a billionaire (not in spite of it).
Continuing with Weigel’s piece, his interviews highlight the point above:
[Bob] Parsons’s wife, Brenda, who’d been nodding her head, interjected to explain why she trusted Trump.
“He’s a businessman,” she said. “Being a businessman, he knows the ways around. I don’t think he’d go to Congress and ask. I think he’d just do it.”
Bob Parsons explained that Trump could ignore lobbyists. It was lobbyists, hungry to sell out America for a buck, who weakened the trade deals, he said.
In other words, since Trump is a billionaire himself, he will be immune—in the eyes of some of his supporters—to the corrupting influence of America’s affluent donor class and its army of K Street lobbyists that heavily skew economic and public policy choices toward a strong pro-corporate and pro-wealthy bias (as the latest scholarly studies have demonstrated). The implicit logic behind their expectations is that because he is part of the affluent donor class, Trump, more than anyone else in this primary election cycle, acutely understands how the system is rigged and where the trapped doors lie, and thus can be more effective in navigating through the maze of Washington drenched with special interest money.
Essentially, the above logic, is similar to the rationale behind President Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s appointment of Wall St. swashbuckler, Joseph P. Kennedy, to head the then-newly established New Deal regulatory agency overseeing finance, Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). (Who better to guard the henhouse than the fox who was once engaged in the activities the agency, overseeing finance, is now sworn to regulate.) A better historical precedence was the public credibility-driven gravitas accorded to two New York scions of inherited wealth, Teddy Roosevelt and FDR, in their forceful campaigns against, respectively, the “malefactors of great wealth” and the “economic of royalists.”)
Although one can make a reasonable case that these supporters’ expectations that Trump will avoid the powerful influence of America’s donor class and K Street lobbyists are thoroughly misplaced, what cannot be denied is that many of them acknowledge the salient dangers posed by the “donor-ocracy” that pervades the Beltway. In other words, like liberals and progressives, these Trump supporters have astutely diagnosed the cancer to our small-d democratic process that impacts public policy choices: the scourge of money in politics—and, on a deeper-level, the asymmetry of power relations in our polity between the powerful and ordinary citizenry that prioritizes the interests of the former at the expense of the latter.
The clarity of such diagnosis is emphatically highlighted, quite saliently, by one Trump supporter who wrote to The Atlantic‘s Conor Friedersdorf in explaining that person’s support for Trump. The individual wrote:
[Trump] has brought to life the silent majority, who have quietly fumed about the corruption that runs rampant in our government. Our government merrily believes they have pulled the wool over our eyes to the atrocities they routinely commit. Trump has taken these atrocities Mainstream! He daily reminds all the crooked politicians that they have been bought and paid for! The People knew it before, but Trump is reminding us that it is NOT acceptable! It is NOT wrong that Trump has given money to these people to do his bidding, it IS WRONG that these people took his money and DID his bidding! We get that Trump gave them money for a few little building permits––but what do the Koch Bros, George Soros and especially the drug and insurance companies need to give them money for? (Caps in original, boldface added.)
Regarding the stranglehold of the donor class over America’s system of government—and the resulting scourge of pay-to-play politics—a significant number of Trump followers get it as the above quote emphatically shows. They, like liberals and progressives, see this rot of money in politics that makes our democracy seem nothing more than a sham bought and sold to the highest bidder. As such, to those on the left and center-left who mock Trump’s followers, perhaps that they should get off their self-righteous hobby-horses and, perhaps, maybe do something more constructive—say, joining up with Trump devotees in organizing a movement to get money out of politics.
Additionally, what should be a warning to all Democratic aspirants to the Oval Office, this primary season, is that there’s another potent dynamic that’s fueling Trump’s confounding lead in the polls. It is a dynamic that former White House counselor and contributing writer at Salon, Bill Curry, points out in his recent post:
A key issue in this race is the integrity, accountability and efficiency of government. Republicans talk more and more about it, Democrats hardly at all. In case you didn’t notice, the fallen state of politics and government is what Trump talks about most; that he does so vividly and bluntly is a big part of what some must consider his charm.
Unpacking what Curry highlights in his article is something that isn’t as easily polled: the deep public hunger for an effective government that not only can diagnose, correctly, the concerns and issues that matter most to the electorate, but also possesses the firm will for robust action to meaningful fix the array of problems that the voters are worried about. As such, when one gets past the meaningless sloganeering, a key issue that concerns a vast number of Americans isn’t necessarily over the size of government (“big government” vs. “small government”) but rather which side is government on—and, relatedly, whether government has the firm will to effectively act to fix the vast problems that plague voters’ minds.
For Democrats running in the presidential primary season—belonging to the historic party of government activism—the aforementioned dynamic that Curry highlights should, again, be of tremendous concern to them. If they are to garner a winning majority in the fall 2016 elections, they need to craft policies that show not only do they understand the issues that very much concern Americans, but they must forcefully show that they have the will to actually do something about it.
Mere lofty campaign rhetoric, elaborate political manifestos, and technocratic hedging will not simply cut it anymore in today’s volatile political environment. It is a volatility marked by palatable sense of frustration, among Americans, who view their system of government as broken, in a near-irredeemable fashion, and bought off by elite special interests in which the great public challenges of our time are met with bumbling incompetence, cold indifference, or (more) broken promises from our elected leaders.
As such, this explains, in part, the energy behind the deep level of impassioned support for Trump during this year’s Republican presidential primary season. For Trump’s supporters, they view him as nothing less than a decisive “man of action” who will get things done, without concern for polite protocol or for the demands from the establishment class, within or outside of the GOP. Because Trump is perceived, among his followers, as a no-nonsense, no fuss, can-do businessman—who gets down to brass tacks—the problems that concern them, in their eyes, have a better chance of actually being fixed under a Trump presidency than by any other GOP aspirant to the Oval Office.
Now, this energy is similarly playing itself out on the Democratic side where Bernie Sanders, this summer, has caught off guard much of the commentariat, with his surprisingly strong traction among Democrats in this year’s primary season. When people unpack the specifics of the head-to-head poll numbers between Sanders and Hillary Clinton, what they discover is a commanding advantage that the Vermont senator has over the former secretary of state on the issue of honesty that serves to only highlight the weak numbers of Clinton on the issue of trustworthiness. The writer, H.A. Goodman, highlights this finding in the Huffington Post:
Honesty and a genuine value system are the primary reasons Bernie Sanders is gaining in the polls and the primary reason people of all backgrounds will choose him over Clinton or any GOP nominee in 2016. These traits are the reasons polls are ever-changing, since there’s no poll that asks, “What’s in the heart of your future president?” Since adherence to principle is a novelty in this day and age, Bernie Sanders reminds voters of an ideal. It’s this ideal that will enable Sanders to surge past Clinton and towards the Democratic nomination. It will also help him win the White House, since Bush and other Republicans must still answer tough questions about Iraq, Wall Street, and income inequality.
In light of this, why should honesty and a genuine value system be crucial factors behind the Sanders surge? As suggested in the Huffington Post post above, it’s because in an age where the electorate is accustomed to political U-turns and politicians shamelessly pandering to them with empty promises that are never are kept, honesty and a genuine value system do matter.
Moreover, the American public hungers for conviction politicians who say what they mean, and mean what they say. As such, in today’s volatile political environment, voters have a short patience for pols with a penchant for an elasticity of political principles where promises are easily up for cheap discarding.
(A perfect example of this occurred during the last contested Democratic primary cycle, in 2008, when then-Senator Barack Obama made a memorable promise to American workers that he would renegotiate NAFTA. Well, after almost a full two-terms in the Oval Office, President Obama has yet to renegotiate the trade deal despite his rhetoric in 2008. In fact, he announced, way back in 2009, that he had no plans to reopen NAFTA talks at all. Moreover, to add insult to injury to the millions of labor supporters of the President, he is currently pushing hard for Congress to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The stunning lack of follow-through by this Democratic president is quite a vivid understatement.)
Now, with that said, the issues of honesty and principles are also much deeper than just character. What they also go to is the issue, again, of “action.” If a politician says what he or she means, and means what he or she says, there’s more of a likelihood that he or she will act on commitments and policy proposals introduced during a campaign.
Among voters in the Democratic primary, just like among Trump followers in the GOP race, the issue of “action” is central, if not more so. After witnessing, Democratic candidates for president, at each electoral cycle for the past 40 years or so (beginning with Jimmy Carter), campaign on the populist left, yet govern on the technocratic center-right (in particular, on economic issues), many grassroots liberal Democrats are at their breaking point right now: call it the “pandering fatigue syndrome over the trail of broken progressive promises.” In other words, to channel the spirit to Fannie Lou Hamer‘s most memorable words, they’re “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Thus, this frustration felt by a significant number of progressive Democrats explains the energy behind the Sanders insurgency—and the steady rise of his poll numbers in the Democratic primary campaign this summer.
Among Democrats right now (in particular, progressives) there’s a stirring appetite for a certain kind of substantive politics. It is a politics that actually does something—and stands for something—after years of ultimately barren politics that either luxuriated itself in soaring, yet empty rhetoric or engaged in safe, triangulating contrivances that lacked the clarity of vision, the force of courage, the firmness of conviction, and the energy of moral purpose.
In essence, for a significant number of Democratic voters there is a hunger, out there, for not only a politics that means something, but one that will actually do something to fix the array of challenges facing America. For many Democrats, the critical issue more than ever, during 2015 and the presidential election cycle next year, is not just whether a candidate will be a bold advocate for robust progressive policies but also whether he or she will be a fighter, with the will to act, that will fight until such policies are enacted. The calculated politics of capitulating centrism is over. And the moment of populist “action liberalism” has arrived.
As such, this is why liberals and progressives, more than anyone else, should understand the animating drive galvanizing Trump supporters. To Trump’s adoring legions of followers he represents one thing more than anything else: he’s a man of action, a doer, a person with the will to get things done.
However liberals and progressives may disagree with Trump on a whole range of issues—such as, glaringly, the issue of immigration reform and the treatment of undocumented immigrants—they should, again, more than anyone else, understand his appeal while still reject the reactionary aspects of Trumpism.
After many decades of having to endure a cheapened, capitulating politics of centrist third way triangulation and cold, technocratic neoliberalism—where Democratic politicians campaigned on the left of “Putting People First,” but governed on the right by slavishly embracing neoliberal free trade deals that “put people last”—progressives and liberals should understand the potent hunger, among a significant number of those on the political right, who embrace Trump and see him as a tribune for their concerns who will “get things done” and “fight for them.”
Yes, Trump embodies much of everything that is inimical to progressive values. However, his presence in the political arena, is a sharp reminder to liberals in what they long for: a fighting progressive with a clarity of principles and a creed of bold action that advances liberalism by rejecting the empty politics of capitulation. For many of these frustrated liberals they have already found that progressive: Bernie Sanders.
(Image: Caricature of Donald Trump by DonkeyHotey on Flickr licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.0 Generic License. From DonkeyHotey: “The source image for this caricature is a Creative Commons licensed images from Gage Skidmore’s flickr photostream and smilygrl’s flickr photostream.”)