Donald Trump is more of a symptom than the cause of our political mess

I don’t like to talk about politics too much on our blog, because frankly I need more positivity in my life, and these days it is really difficult to find anything whatsoever in politics that gives me cause for optimism.  Still, I am a historian, and I can’t help but think that we are currently experiencing one of those watershed Presidential elections, like the election of 1860 or the election of 1932 or the election of 1968, in which those of us who experience it will talk about in terms of what things were like before, and what they were like after.

I think lots of people are worried about this election and what it means for our country and our society.  People have been saying that about Presidential elections for a while now, but I think in this case, it is actually true, and not just because this next President may be able to shape the Supreme Court for the next few decades by picking justices to replace the handful that may die or retire in the next few years.

It puts me in mind of a famous story about Benjamin Franklin, in which he is leaving the Pennsylvania State House (now known as Independence Hall) after the final day of deliberations by the Constitutional Convention in September, 1787.  A woman approached him and asked “Well, Doctor, what have we got – a republic or a monarchy?”

Franklin replied “A republic – if you can keep it.”

If we can keep it, indeed.

A lot of Republicans are saying that Donald Trump does not represent their party, and there is much talk about whether or not they can wrench the nomination away from him at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland this July.   And I think it is certainly possible that they may succeed.  It may even be likely.   But I also think it is still possible that they may NOT succeed, and that Trump will get the nomination anyway.  Or he may break away from the Republicans and run as an independent third-party candidate.  Frankly, I am not sure I can really put anything past him or his supporters.   And that is what I am getting around to talking about here.

The problem is NOT whether or not Trump wins the Presidential election.  I know a lot of people are concerned about that, but I just don’t think Trump can pull that off, even if he does get the Republican nomination.  He is just too disliked.  In fact, it is a testament to just how unpopular he is that in theoretical match-ups against Hillary Clinton (herself a highly polarizing figure, to put it mildly), he still loses – spectacularly.  So no, I don’t think the thing we should be worrying about is the possibility of a President Trump.

The problem, as I see it, is this: what happens when this chunk of the Republican party that supports Trump doesn’t get what they want? What happens if their candidate doesn’t get the nomination?  What happens if he does get it, and he loses?  How will they respond?

The reason I think this could be something to worry about is because this is a segment of the population that is absolutely seething with frustration, resentment, and anger.  And although he certainly exploits those feelings, and he absolutely stokes the flames, so to speak, Trump did not create these feelings.  These feelings did not start with him.  All he has done is harness them, legitimize them, and give them a very loud and insistent voice.  But these feelings have been around for a long time, simmering and building up in pressure over the course of several decades (at least – and it can be argued that they have been around much longer).  And it is no accident that these people are a large, disaffected part of the Republican party.  Beginning with the Presidential elections of 1964 and 1968, the Republicans embraced a “Southern Strategy” that harnessed the disaffected whites of the former Confederacy that felt that with its embrace of civil rights and integration, the Democratic Party had not only abandoned them but repudiated them.  So the Republicans let these angry white people know that they were on their side by using “code words”, rather than being explicitly racist.  This was pointed out most famously (or perhaps infamously) by GOP political operative Lee Atwater in an interview back in 1981.  And so for several decades, the GOP has included this faction that until recently had been kept (mostly) hidden away, like a crazy uncle kept in the attic and away from polite company.  It is not to say that all Republicans are racist, but merely that as an organization, the party felt that it was advantageous to include this large segment of the mostly rural white population that resented the end of segregation and resented the rise of social policies such as affirmative action.  And as a result, starting in the 1930s with FDR, most black Americans abandoned the party of Lincoln and began voting for the Democrats.

Then, suddenly, in 2008 we elected a black President.

All that racial resentment that had been boiling under the surface started to make itself noticed.  And wow, was it ugly.  But still, it was more socially acceptable for conservatives to use the milder language – the code words – than to use the explicit racist terms and statements.  And across American society, even among many white Democrats, it is still not popular to talk about the issues of race and discrimination.  In a November 2014 article for Salon, Paul Rosenberg put it like this:

What all the above boils down to is that blaming blacks for being poor remains broadly popular in America today, and that taking note of continued discrimination is not. A modest majority of Democrats outside the white South disagree, and this creates a political fault line that Republicans have repeatedly exploited across the decades, with no end in sight.  When conservatives get too crude — as was the case with Cliven Bundy, for example — this threatens to upset the apple cart, and appearances must quickly get restored. But it’s the crudity, not the underlying attitude of blaming blacks, that has fallen out of favor. This would hardly surprise a Southern gentleman of this or any other century.  It’s just the way things are supposed to be. Always have been. Why ever change?

Yes, Cliven Bundy said things out loud, in front of cameras, that were truly appalling, and as a result he quickly fell out of favor in many conservative circles. But now, with the rise of Donald Trump, a lot of the crudity is coming out of hiding.  Trump’s ascendancy has made a lot of white racists feel like that they finally have a national political figure in their corner in a way that has not happened since George Wallace.  And many of his supporters sure love the fact that he is “not politically correct“.  Apparently, for many of these angry white people, “political correctness” means you can’t say what you really think.  So perhaps Trump inspires those among his supporters who, like Ted Nugent, decide to discard “political correctness”.  And the rest of us get to see and hear just what they really think.  And surprise, much of what they think is pretty racist.

It has become widespread common knowledge that white supremacists love Donald Trump, even to the point that Saturday Night Live commented on it.

And no, I don’t think that all of Trump’s supporters are racist.  Certainly a lot of them are.  But race doesn’t fully explain his popularity.  One recent study found that there were four things that seem to indicate which voters will support Trump over other candidates.  Trump supporters all possess these four traits in spades:

1) Authoritarianism.  i.e., it is more important to be obedient than to be independent.

2) Anti-elitism. In this context, I imagine that anger is directed at the GOP “establishment”, as well as other generally hated elites like Hollywood celebrities.

3) Mistrust of experts.  I imagine most Trump supporters don’t like professors, scientists, and others who have “fancy” degrees and such.  I would imagine many of them are more likely to believe conspiracy theories than to believe that global warming is a real problem.

4) American identity. i.e. chanting “USA!  USA!  USA!” all the time.

So taking these things into consideration, what is the likelihood that Trump’s supporters will meekly accept whatever the GOP establishment decides to do at the convention, even if it means discarding their preferred candidate, the one who (so far) has gotten more votes than any other Republican candidate? Certainly I am not the only one concerned about where this might go. Josh Marshall at TPM and Michael Bourne at Salon have both speculated about what might be next.   Bourne seems particularly worried:

For a generation, gun advocates have defended the right to bear arms as a check against tyranny, and for just as long liberals have dismissed this as a melodramatic talking point. But what if we take them at their word, and accept that it is possible we are witnessing the opening phase of a still-inchoate violent uprising by a broad class of Americans, who, ignored politically, bypassed economically, and dismissed socially, are beginning take matters into their own hands?

What if, in other words, Donald Trump isn’t an aberration created by the miscalculations of a party elite, but the political expression of a much deeper, and more dangerous, frustration among a very large, well-armed segment of our population? What if Trump isn’t a proto-Mussolini, but rather a regrettably short finger in the dike holding back a flood of white violence and anger this country hasn’t seen since the long economic boom of the 1950s and ’60s helped put an end to the Jim Crow era?

One way or another, we’re going to find out soon. Trump made headlines when he suggested his supporters would riot if he were denied the nomination despite his lead in the delegate count. Even if we are spared that spectacle, the Trump era will almost certainly come to an end by November. And then we will be left with the naked fact of his followers, too few in number to affect meaningful change on their own, too numerous for the rest of us to ignore, too angry to sit still for long.

Will there be, in fact, riots?  Certainly, it doesn’t help that Trump seems to encourage that idea.  And he claims that he can’t control them, which I guess is his way of saying that if they do riot, it’s not his fault. At this point, I would say the probability of some sort of violent protests at the GOP convention (inside and/or outside) is quite likely.

But will that be all?

I would imagine that a lot of Trump supporters are gun owners.  I hope that doesn’t become a factor at the convention in July, or after the election in November.  But truthfully, I have little faith that everything will end well.  At this point, we are so far outside the norm of political predictability that I doubt anyone has any idea what will be going on a year from now.

I just hope that sanity ultimately prevails.



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