Political Animal

Are White Working Class Folks Tiring of Trump’s Act?

Tom Nichols of The Atlantic has a simple question:

…I have been baffled by one mystery in particular: Why do working-class white men—the most reliable component of Donald Trump’s base—support someone who is, by their own standards, the least masculine man ever to hold the modern presidency? The question is not whether Trump fails to meet some archaic or idealized version of masculinity. The president’s inability to measure up to Marcus Aurelius or Omar Bradley is not the issue. Rather, the question is why so many of Trump’s working-class white male voters refuse to hold Trump to their own standards of masculinity—why they support a man who behaves more like a little boy.

I believe there actually is a simple answer.

For Nichols, he’s perplexed because the working class men he grew up around would generally look down on a person like Trump. They don’t easily show their emotions and they don’t brag about their sexual exploits. Their word is their bond, and a handshake means something. Working hard without a lot of complaint is considered virtuous even if individually there’s always some griping.

Trump exemplifies none of these ideals, but he’s able to accomplish something else that these men value. And the reason he can do it is because he has the one thing they definitionally lack–power.

Nichols eventually gets around to this explanation when he says, “I think that working men, the kind raised as I was, know what kind of “man” Trump is. And still, the gratification they get from seeing Trump enrage the rest of the country is enough to earn their indulgence.”

Ordinarily, a man who complains about how he has been treated is demonstrating weakness, and the same is true of someone who always tries to pass the buck. Someone who brags about his accomplishments is considered annoying and insecure, and even more so if they take credit for others’ work or exaggerate their own role. But Trump does these things from the White House as the commander-in-chief of the most fearsome armed forces assembled in the history of man. When he lashes out at his enemies, he’s not doing it as some ineffectual worker bee who can be squashed by his employer. This makes all the difference.

For months during the 2015-2016 Republican primaries, Trump’s most effective campaigning tactic was to dismiss every criticism by pointing people to the polls, which showed him in the lead. If people questioned his expertise, he said “I’m rich, I’m famous, I’ve slept with a lot of beautiful women.” These boasts were true enough, and they separated him from the average Joe who might try to elevate himself over his peers.

The most important thing that Trump does to win working class support is pick the correct enemies. He insults the people who make working class folks feel inadequate, or who at least seem to lightly regard their virtues. He also picks at the things that make white working class folks uncomfortable, which most definitely includes the increasing diversification of the country.

And, finally, Trump may play the victim in a very unmasculine way, but stoicism is much more of an ideal than a reality. Working class folks, with plenty of justification, feel like they’ve been getting screwed for decades. Trump gives voice to that, including in the realm of so-called “religious freedom.”

Some people have tried to argue that Trump’s support is rooted in male sexual insecurity, but that’s too narrow. It’s rooted in insecurity in general. People have enough to worry about with their jobs being outsourced that we don’t need to ask how many of them have been googling about erectile dysfunction.

Above all, Trump is a spectacle. He’s entertainment. And his show is almost entirely dedicated to insulting people who have either flourished while the working class has foundered, or who seem to look down on religious folks who work with their hands for a living. Trump goes after the cultural enemies of the white working class, and he actually makes them suffer. He’s not ineffectual, and so many people get a visceral thrill out of his performance.

There are still tens of millions of white working class men and women who see right through Trump and dislike him for all the reasons that Nichols believe they should dislike him. But they’re a minority.

Yet, they could be a majority before long. One key to Trump’s political success is that he doesn’t create negative consequences for his base. But that’s no longer true with 40 million Americans out of work. Suddenly, Trump’s act isn’t so funny, and more people understand directly that you can’t run America like a reality show.


Trump Sabotaged America’s Recovery Even Before COVID-19 Began

“Vaccine or no vaccine, we’re back,” President Donald Trump said last week as governors nationwide began relaxing the restrictions prompted by Covid-19. Trump has been the nation’s most ardent advocate for restarting the economy, even as most states have so far failed to meet his own administration’s metrics for a safe reopening. And little wonder: Trump is desperate to regain even a vestige of the pre-pandemic economy’s strength in time for the election this fall.

But for all his cheerleading, Trump is unlikely to get the kind of robust rebound he’s hoping for—in large part due to sabotage inflicted by his own policies. Thanks to his administration’s early and ongoing failures to address the coronavirus outbreak, much of the nation still lacks the testing and contact tracing infrastructure necessary to control the virus’s inevitable resurgence. Mixed messaging from federal and state officials and patchwork guidance from location to location have also heightened the anxiety for Americans, most of whom remain reluctant to leave their homes.

Another handicap will be the fragility of the American economy, brought upon by the Trump’s pre-pandemic fiscal recklessness. When the president assumed office in an emerging recovery from the Great Recession, he had a golden opportunity to shore up the nation’s fiscal reserves and invest in its economic resilience. Instead, he pushed through one of the largest corporate tax cuts in history, padding the bank balances of billionaires while miring the rest of the nation in eye-watering levels of debt. As a consequence, America entered the Covid-19 pandemic already financially crippled. Now, in the face of the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, it is ill-positioned to aid its citizens, let alone rebuild for the future.

The 2017 tax bill that Trump signed into law permanently slashed the corporate income tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent—the largest one-time corporate rate reduction ever—and cut individual tax rates as well. Its projected price tag was a whopping $1.5 trillion over 10 years.

At the time, Republicans touted the measure as a bonanza for job growth and worker wages. Predictably, however, companies didn’t respond to the tax cuts by creating more jobs. Instead, they engaged in a record-breaking number of stock buybacks to pump up share prices, while most of the individual tax breaks benefited the nation’s wealthiest families. Corporations bought up as much as $1 trillion of their own shares, according to a Congressional Research Service (CRS) analysis, while roughly a quarter of the package’s tax benefits were enjoyed by the top one percent of households, according to the Tax Policy Center. Though shareholders and CEOs prospered, few corporations used their windfalls to pay their workers bonuses, despite some highly-publicized pledges to do so.

The only thing the legislation really accomplished was to blow a crater-sized hole in the federal budget, which until then had seen six straight years of declining deficits under President Barack Obama. By 2019, the federal budget deficit had ballooned to nearly $1 trillion, double the level in 2015.

Countries with strong balance sheets have more room to borrow in a crisis and more ability to pump huge infusions of stimulus into their economies. They can worry less about the burden of debt on future generations, and the politics of more spending are less fraught. Trump’s imprudent stewardship, however, has wholly robbed America of that flexibility.

Now, the nation is plunging into an even vaster chasm of debt to finance its recovery. Since the passage of the first tranche of coronavirus relief bills, including the CARES Act, the federal budget deficit is projected to reach a whopping 17.9 percent of GDP this year, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), a level unmatched since World War II.  Public debt, meanwhile, will exceed the size of the entire economy, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB).

Federal deficit graphDebts and deficits of this size will hobble the economy in a number of significant ways. First, interest payments alone, which were already burdensome before the pandemic, will consume a growing share of the nation’s capacity for investment and recovery. As it is, the government spent 8.4 percent of the federal budget ($376 billion) on interest payments in fiscal 2019, the CBO says. It’s an amount roughly equal to the federal government’s contribution to the Medicaid program that year. Post-pandemic, interest on the debt will be an even bigger line-item expense.

America’s shaky fiscal position also puts it at a disadvantage compared to other more prudent nations. That could pose real risks in the post-pandemic global order. Pre-pandemic, government borrowing was a smaller share of the economy in countries like Germany, France, the United Kingdom and China than in the United States, according to International Monetary Fund (IMF) data, In China, for instance, the government’s budget deficit in 2018 was just 4.8 percent of GDP, compared to 80 percent for the United States. Given their stronger financial reserves, these nations will have more ability to invest in their citizens and in their economies than the U.S., putting them first out of the gate toward recovery.

America’s inevitable reliance on more debt will further mean more reliance on the largesse of other nations, such as China, to extend us credit. As much as Trump eschews America’s dependence on China, the country has been a primary financier of his fiscal policies and is the second-largest holder of U.S. public debt (after Japan). Its role as one of America’s biggest creditors will only grow, potentially creating yet another leverage point to China’s advantage in the post-pandemic world.

Perhaps the most tragic consequence of Trump’s profligacy is the squandering of what could have been. True, no one could have predicted the emergence of COVID-19 and the havoc it would wreak on the world. Still, America could have been much better prepared.

Rather than tax cuts for corporations and the very rich, Trump could have pumped more resources into the nation’s workforce development and adjustment programs. That would have been beneficial no matter what, but it would have cushioned the blow of disruption for the more than 36 million Americans now unemployed since mid-March. He could have restored our infrastructure for public health, so that the nation could in fact have “the best testing in the world,” not just his empty boast to that effect. He could also have continued to pay down the national debt and built a rainy-day reserve for crises precisely like the one we’re facing now.

Instead, Trump and his GOP allies in Congress are currently balking at more relief for the millions of Americans who desperately need it. Worse yet, their excuse for a “pause” are the soaring deficits that they themselves created. And because he hasn’t made the kind of investments that could save American lives, Trump is now willing to sacrifice them to restart the economy, resorting to the callous, long-shot strategy of “herd immunity” with its potential for thousands – perhaps even millions – of avoidable deaths.

As badly bungled as his pandemic response has been, Trump’s pre-pandemic policies and priorities will prove equally destructive. The result: Whenever the pandemic ends, America’s convalescence will be long and slow.

A Warren VP Pick Would Show That Biden Is Serious About Repairing the Economy

Recent reports are suggesting that Joe Biden is looking more seriously than ever at choosing Massachusetts Senator and former presidential rival Elizabeth Warren as his running mate.

It seems like an unusual choice at first: running mates are typically chosen to balance out the nominee in a specific demographic and geographic way. But times have changed and old rules have less relevance now. The biggest divide in the Democratic primary was age: voters over 45 strongly preferred Biden, while voters under 45 strongly preferred Sanders, with Warren in a distant but consistent second in most polling. Even now, Biden’s biggest weakness among Democratic-leaning voters is low enthusiasm from young people desperate for radical changes to an economy that seems impossibly rigged against them.

Given the nationalization of politics, it’s not clear that a geographically targeted pick will yield results. It’s not clear that picking Tim Kaine helped Clinton to do any better in Virginia than she would have otherwise, for instance. Pressure on Biden is understandably and admirably intense to pick a woman of color, but Warren is currently the most popular choice for VP among both African-American and Hispanic/Latinx voters.

But there’s another even bigger picure. The key fracture in the primary was over a return to pre-Trump normalcy, versus the bolder transformative visions for American society pitched by Sanders and Warren. The need for rethinking the rules of the economy was already urgent before the pandemic, but the economic consequences latest crisis only exacerbate the need for bolder changes. Billionaires are getting richer than ever even as tens of millions have lost their jobs and face ruin. 21st century economies were already facing a monopolization crisis unprecedented since the Gilded Age. Small business closures in the COVID-19 era, combined with the plutocrat-response of the federal government in bailing out big business while leaving crumbs for small business, will only make it far worse.

Even Joe Biden’s team is taking note of the shifting ground, and Warren seems uniquely suited to help him meet  the challenge:

Biden spent much of the Democratic primary locked in on a pledge to revive decency in American political culture. Warren ran on a call for “big, structural change” that launched her to the top of the polls in the summer of 2019, but didn’t translate into success this year. The heart of Biden’s appeal remains steady, but as the coronavirus fallout deepens, he has also begun to telegraph a desire to strike out with a more ambitious policy agenda — a political enterprise, in scope and scale, that many Warren allies believe she is uniquely qualified to shepherd through the mazy, grinding gears of government.

Warren has focused her political career on holding big business, Wall Street and corporations accountable. Her messaging has been consistent about changing the rules of American capitalism to give an even playing field to workers and small business. In doing so, she has adopted most of the essential critiques of the system made by younger democratic socialists and social democrats, without scaring off the suburban coalition that has become essential to Democratic electoral fortunes.

If Biden does take over the presidency in January 2021, he will almost certainly be faced with daunting challenges, not least of which will an economy in need of rescue not only from self-imposed recession but also decades of structural neglect. Rampant inequalities, a healthcare crisis and the looming threat of climate change will also need urgent action. It’s a relevantly similar situation to the one he and Barack Obama faced in 2009 during the Great Recession, and one of the clearest lessons from that period was that the stimulus response was not only inadequate to the need, but that Republicans will oppose whatever Democrats ask for no matter what. So Democrats must be bold in making demands, and use whatever levers of power are available to move policy in the right direction, knowing that conservative structural impediments will attempt to block them at every turn. Warren, with her focus on Big Structural Change, is uniquely suited to credibly help the Biden Administration bend the bureaucracy to the needs of the public.

And Warren can do it while remaining consistent with the Biden appeal to basic decency so crucial to appealing to voters sick of Trump’s daily offensive outrages. Her more measured demeanor may not be as thrilling to understandably angry young voters as Sanders’, but it also communicates the necessary transformative policy focus while reaching the anti-Trump base where it currently is.

There may come a day as Millennials approach their fifties and combine with Generation Z to become the dominant likely voter bloc, when a much more aggressive democratic socialist politics can win nationally. But the results of the 2018 midterms and the 2020 Democratic primary made it clear that that day has not arrived. But we are also long past the point where we can credibly advocate a return to a pre-Trump “normal.” That “normal” wasn’t actually good to begin with, and the burgeoning unaddressed crises of the Clinton/Bush/Obama eras have now exploded into raging bonfires in the wake of Trump’s disastrous presidency.

Warren supporters during the primary felt that she was the best bet to bridge the divide between the need for big structural change and the desire to return to a calmer decency in public life. She remains the best choice to do so from among Biden’s possible vice-presidential choices, especially as Democrats confront the economic devastation left by the pandemic.

We Need to Speak Honestly About the GOP’s Evolution Into a Conspiracy Cult

One of the challenges in analyzing modern American politics is accurately describing the Republican Party without seeming unserious and hyperbolic. Major publications are understandably in the habit of presenting both sides of the partisan divide as being inherently worthy of respect and equal consideration, both as a way of shielding themselves from accusations of bias and as a way of maintaining their own sense of journalistic integrity.

Unfortunately, the modern Republican Party’s abdication of seriousness, good faith and reality-based communications or policy-making has stretched even the most open-minded analyst’s capacity for forced balance. Donald Trump’s own inability to string together coherent or consistent thoughts has led to a bizarre normalization of his statements in the traditional media, as journalists unconsciously try to fit his rambling, spontaneous utterances into a conventional framework. This has come at the cost of Americans seeing the full truth of the crisis of leadership in the Oval Office for what it is. For instance, it was ironically salutary for the American public to witness Donald Trump’s bizarre pandemic press conferences where he oddly attacked reporters for asking innocuous questions and recommended researching bleach and sunlight injections, because they got to see Trump raw as he truly is, without the normalization filter. Republicans have long argued that the “mainstream media filter” gives them a bad shake, but the reality is the opposite: sure, it’s not as good as being boosted by Fox News’ overt propaganda, but it does them a greater service than letting the public see them unfiltered at all.

But there comes a tipping point at which it becomes too dangerous to keep up the pretense. Most people left of center would argue (rightly, I believe) that we hit that point long, long ago and the time to re-evaluate journalistic norms and practices should have been decades earlier when the GOP was busy covering up the Iran Contra scandal and promoting the Laffer Curve as serious public policy. Or that any number of catastrophes of conservative public policy and norm erosion since should have sounded the alarms along the way, from the Bush v Gore decision and the Brooks Brothers Riots to the lies justifying the invasion of Iraq, to the deregulation-fueled Wall Street crash, birtherism, the Benghazi obsession and the nomination of Donald Trump. Many would point with legitimate outrage to the abdication of responsibility in the face of climate change, yawning inequality, forced family separation policy, children in cages and so much else.

But even faced with awful consequences of all these horrors, a defender of traditional journalism might simply chalk them up to policy differences in a democratic society. They would be wrong to do so, but the position would be intellectually defensible in principle.

But recently there has been a shift among GOP voters that is different not just in degree of virulence, but also in kind. For a host of different reasons, core Republican voters have begun to reconstitute themselves as a conspiracy theory cult devoted to beliefs that were once relegated to the farthest fringe–fictions that cannot help but end in civil conflict and violence if they fully become canon among conservative voters nationwide. This process arguably began as far back as Glenn Beck’s prominence on Fox News, but it has now blossomed into a grandiose collective paranoid fantasy.

Being a Republican now requires believing in a jaw-dropping series of claims that, if true, would almost necessitate anti-democratic revanchism. One has to believe that a cabal of evil scientists is making up climate science in exchange for grant money; that there is rampant, widescale voter impersonation fraud carried out by thousands of elections officials nationwide; that the “Deep State” concocted a scheme to frame Trump for Russian collusion but chose not to use it before the 2016 election; that shadowy forces are driving migrant caravans and diseases across American borders in the service of destroying white Republican America; that the entire news media is engaged in a conspiracy against the Republican Party; that grieving victims of gun violence and their families all across America want to take away guns as a pretext for stomping the boot of “liberal fascism” on conservative faces; and so on. That and much more is just the vanilla Republican belief system at this point (not even touching less explosive academic fictions like “tax cuts pay for themselves” or “the poor will work harder to better themselves if you cut the safety net.”)

But things have gotten even worse in the few years short years since the Trump era began. Once a far-fringe conspiracy theory relegated to 8chan and neo-nazi filled knockoffs of Reddit, the QAnon conspiracy theory (which, among other things, posits that a wide swath of prominent Democrats, celebrities and assorted rich people are engaged in pedophilia and adrenochrome harvesting of children, and that the Trump Administration is always just a few weeks away from conducting mass arrests and summary executions–but only once QANON followers have awakened enough of the “normie” public) has become so pervasive that not only do “Q” signs pop up at almost every major conservative rally or protest, but a true believer is now the GOP nominee for Senate in Oregon.  When her campaign attempted to backtrack, she doubled down, saying “”My campaign is gonna kill me…How do I say this? Some people think that I follow Q like I follow Jesus. Q is the information and I stand with the information resource.” This conspiracy theory is destroying families, relationships, and the mental health of its adherents. A healthy and normal political party would inoculate itself from it and debunk it quickly. But the GOP is not a healthy or normal political party.

It doesn’t stop there. Almost half of Fox News viewers—the core of the GOP—believe that Bill Gates is using the COVID-19 pandemic to microchip them.  And Donald Trump has been promoting a series of conspiracy theories on twitter each more outlandish than the last, from old debunked accusations against cable news hosts he dislikes to concocted accusations against former president Barack Obama.

Go to any conservative event and you’ll notice a shift from even the raucous detached weirdness of Tea Party rallies. They feel less like political events than cult rallies. Cult experts like Steven Hassan have taken note of this, calling it exactly what it is: a cult built around manufactured realities, shared grievances and us-against-them insular extremism. The increasing dependence of Republican politicians on a shrinking, embattled white evangelical base already given over to faith-based belief systems and racism-tinged “city on a hill” ideology has only exacerbated the phenomenon.

It’s long past time for even the venerable pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post to start calling this what it is, and stop normalizing it as standard partisanship. It is deeply dangerous in a democracy whose constitution functionally guarantees a two-party system, for one of those two parties to become a conspiracy cult.

But that is exactly what has happened. And the first step to fixing it is to call it what it is, no matter how uncomfortable that might be for institutions and journalism professionals who find that sort of language loaded with unprofessional bias. The truth is what it is, even if it requires rethinking the role of a responsible press in an era of white anxiety and mass social-media-fueled disinformation.