Donald Trump
Credit: Alex Hanson/Flickr

To be honest, I didn’t listen to or read Donald Trump’s speech last week in Pennsylvania. For a while now I’ve been saying that it is not worth the time spent critiquing what he says about policies because he consistently changes his tune and backtracks when the mood and/or circumstances suit him.  But after reading several critiques of what he had to say, I finally decided to take a look.

For a great refutation of that speech, you’ll find none better than Paul Krugman. But the approach that concerns me the most comes from those on the left who reinforce what the presumptive Republican nominee said. I’m sure it has come from others, but an article by Egberto Willies is the one that set off a lot of alarm bells. He quotes Trump’s speech extensively and then says:

Forget about the inaccuracies. There is a lot of truth in the message even if the messenger is a liar, a demagogue, a bigot, and one that is also guilty of the pilfer.

Since when do people who claim to be reality-based think it’s a good idea to “forget about the inaccuracies?” And since when do we find “truth” from someone who is a liar, a demagogue, and a bigot? I’m not saying that’s impossible, but we can’t simply forget about the inaccuracies. Because whatever truth might exist is embedded within the same message being peddled by a lying demagogic bigot.

Where does Willies find truth in what Trump said? Here is some of the speech he quoted:

Our politicians have aggressively pursued a policy of globalization – moving our jobs, our wealth and our factories to Mexico and overseas. Globalization has made the financial elite who donate to politicians very wealthy. But it has left millions of our workers with nothing but poverty and heartache…

This wave of globalization has wiped out our middle class. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can turn it all around – and we can turn it around fast…

The people who rigged the system are supporting Hillary Clinton because they know as long as she is in charge nothing will ever change. The inner cities will remain poor. The factories will remain closed. The borders will remain open. The special interests will remain firmly in control. Hillary Clinton and her friends in global finance want to scare America into thinking small – and they want to scare the American people out of voting for a better future…

Our friends in Britain recently voted to take back control of their economy, politics and borders. I was on the right side of that issue – with the people – while Hillary, as always, stood with the elites, and both she and president Obama predicted that one wrong.

Now it’s time for the American people to take back their future. That’s the choice we face. We can either give in to Hillary Clinton’s campaign of fear, or we can choose to Believe In America.

As many people have noted, this was Trump making an obvious play for Bernie Sanders supporters. It sounds exactly like something the Senator might have said during a campaign appearance or written recently in an op-ed. The whole point of Willies’ article is to suggest that Clinton needs to start sounding more like Sanders – and by extension – more like Trump.

Both Sanders and his supporters try to distance themselves from the more noxious things Trump proposes by suggesting that we can separate his message about globalization from the nativism he also espouses. Here is how the Senator recently put it:

Let’s be clear. The global economy is not working for the majority of people in our country and the world. This is an economic model developed by the economic elite to benefit the economic elite. We need real change.

But we do not need change based on the demagogy, bigotry and anti-immigrant sentiment that punctuated so much of the Leave campaign’s rhetoric — and is central to Donald J. Trump’s message.

The trouble is that it is impossible to separate that message about globalization – whether it comes from Trump or the Leave campaign – from the demagogy and nativism on which it is grounded. Notice how Trump talks about “independence.” In the same speech he talked about how the U.S. has become dependent on foreign countries and he will put America first again. Of course, that also means “closing our borders.”

It’s true that Sanders doesn’t overtly go there. Instead, in the quote up above, he says that the global economy isn’t working “for the majority of people in our country and the world.” If he had said that it’s not working for the developed world, he may have been able to make a point. But it’s a lie to suggest that it hasn’t worked for the whole world. In a rather blistering critique, Jonathan Chait points out that it is actually Trump who is being more honest.

Sanders argues that the correct response to the system that is allegedly failing rich and poor countries alike is “real change,” stripped of nativist sentiments: “we do not need change based on the demagogy, bigotry and anti-immigrant sentiment that punctuated so much of the Leave campaign’s rhetoric — and is central to Donald J. Trump’s message.” But Trump’s message, for all its demagoguery and racism, is at least connected to a factually coherent analysis of how trade works…Trump is arguing that trade deals have helped foreign countries and screwed American workers. He’s straightforward about his intention to screw over foreign countries.

Sanders, on the other hand, wants to pretend that a policy that screws over the global poor can be undertaken not only without overt bigotry, but that it will also benefit the global poor themselves. Between the two, Trump’s case is the more realistic one.

Any argument about globalization and trade that doesn’t accept that there have been winners and losers both within this country and around the world is – at best – dishonest. To focus our trade policy only on benefiting those in our country who have been the losers at the expense of everyone else is, therefore, grounded in nativism.

As I’ve said before, we need to have an honest discussion about trade policy. But what Trump and Brexit and Sanders are tapping into is an emotional response to the way the world is changing. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging the fear this kind of change sparks. But to demagogue that fear (either explicitly or implicitly) is simply wrong. We need to call it out for what it is.

We can’t roll back the changes that are already underway. Our choice is to either tap into the fear and spark more nativistic responses or simply acknowledge that we are afraid and talk honestly about solutions.

Americans are facing an important moment right now. The reality of globalization means that we must learn to – as President Obama said – expand our moral imagination.

Concretely, we must direct our effort to the task that President Kennedy called for long ago. “Let us focus,” he said, “on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions.” A gradual evolution of human institutions…

Agreements among nations. Strong institutions. Support for human rights. Investments in development. All these are vital ingredients in bringing about the evolution that President Kennedy spoke about. And yet, I do not believe that we will have the will, the determination, the staying power, to complete this work without something more — and that’s the continued expansion of our moral imagination; an insistence that there’s something irreducible that we all share.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.