First of Three Parts
1. Populists vs. Elitists
Something big is happening in American politics—bigger than this election. And so even if we can’t precisely predict the winner this November, we can know the general contours of American politics in the decades to come: populists on one side, elitists on the other.
But first, let’s start by thinking about what we’ve seen at the party conventions in the last two weeks: the Republicans nominating Donald Trump and the Democrats nominating Hillary Clinton. And maybe it’s best if we’re sitting down, because the changes are such that we could get dizzy.
Here’s the July 28 headline in The Washington Post: “We are witnessing a visceral shift in the way the parties speak to the country.” The story continued, “The country’s two major political parties, emerging from their conventions to square off in the general election, are speaking to Americas unrecognizable to each other in voices that sound like a political and ideological role reversal.”
“Role reversal”? Well, actually, that’s overstated: The Republicans are still on the right, and the Democrats are still on the left. In Trump’s Cleveland, for example, the police were the heroes, frequently applauded by GOP delegates, as well as by speakers; yet in Hillary’s Philadelphia, the cops were regarded with stony silence.
Nevertheless, the Post story on the parties’ reversals, datelined Philadelphia, was onto something: “For Republicans, the country is a place of near-apocalyptic gloom whose best days are fast receding. … The nation of the Democrats . . . meanwhile, is a vibrant and diverse place.
Of course, the shift is far greater than just atmospherics and rhetoric. Trump has, to be sure, changed the GOP: It is now the populist party. Meanwhile, under Hillary Clinton, the Democrats are now the elitist establishment party. The Post, now owned by Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com, the third richest man in America, boasting a fortune estimated at $66.5 billion, might be forgiven for missing the nuances of any argument involving criticism of the elite establishment.
Yet across the country, the choice is clear: If you’re not happy with the status quo, if you want change, you’re likely to lean Republican. By contrast, if you think things are going fine, if you like the way we’re being led, you’re likely to be a Democrat—except, of course, for Bernie Sanders voters; we’ll come back to them later.
And so that’s the real role reversal this year: It’s a matter of speaking truth to power—or not. And seeking real change—or not.
For its part, the GOP has come a long way in just four years; the old dominance of corporate libertarians and warlike neoconservatives—that is, the people who want to cut or privatize Social Security and Medicare, on the one hand, and invade Syria, on the other—has been shattered. It’s been replaced by a populist nationalism that can be summed up in that Bruce Springsteen anthem: We Take Care of Our Own.
So goodbye, Mitt Romney, John McCain, and George W. Bush. Older voters, with kids or grandkids of military age, just weren’t that into politicians who wanted to jeopardize their pensions and send the U.S. Army off to “liberate” Fallujah for the umpteenth time.
Meanwhile, as for the Democrats, well, they haven’t changed much in the last four years, or eight years—and that’s the way they want it.
In 2008, Barack Obama captured the Democratic party, and it’s safe to say that Hillary Clinton is now pledged to carry on his legacy; from a perceptual point of view, Hillary sealed that deal when she hugged Obama on stage on Wednesday night. So yes, Clinton is Obama’s third term.
Of course, we must also remember that Hillary and Bill Clinton have always been tight with the power structure—and power has been good to them. We can recall that they first made real money with the connected Rose Law Firm, back in Little Rock, and then they amassed a substantial fortune through their work with the Clinton Foundation in Manhattan.
So today, Republicans are the outsiders, and Democrats are the insiders. In many ways, this might seem to be a risky stance for the “ins”; after all, the “right direction/wrong track” polling question stands at roughly 23:70. That is, more than three times as many Americans are unhappy with the way things are going as happy.
Yet the polls today show that the presidential race is neck-and-neck, with even a slight edge for Clinton. And why is that? It seems fair to say that while the overwhelming majority of voters want sweeping change, many are still leery of Trump. And so that’s Trump’s challenge: to reassure the unsure.
Those of us with long memories have seen this dynamic before. Back in 1980, I was a junior staffer on Ronald Reagan’s campaign against Jimmy Carter; in that year, too, Americans wanted sweeping change, but they were uncertain about Reagan, mostly because they were told, every day, by Walter Cronkite & Co., that he was either an incompetent old coot or a crazy warmongering cowboy. In fact, it wasn’t until the one presidential debate that year, on October 28—just a week before the election—that Reagan made the sale. As he said so famously, as Carter repeatedly flailed away, “There you go again.” In that instant, watching the challenger smile as the incumbent once again bared his fangs, the country said to itself, Reagan’s not so bad. And so the Gipper won in a landslide.
Yet in the meantime, the reader might fairly ask: If the election is still in doubt, why is this piece entitled, “The Emerging Trump Majority”? The answer is this: Even if Trump loses, the future course of the two parties is set—the Republicans as the populist party and the Democrats as the establishment party. As John Weaver, top political adviser to John Kasich and thus decidedly not a Trump fan, prophesied recently, “I think we’ll have a lot of mini-Trumps in the 2018 midterm elections imitating what we’ve seen. People always copy what they believe might be successful.”
Yes, it’s easy to foresee the rise of Trumpism for one simple reason: In today’s socioeconomic arrangement, there are a lot more losers than winners. And so the simple math of elections says that the party of the dispossessed multitude will overcome the party of the entrenched few.
So let’s take a closer look at the two parties today. It’s a tale of two cities, Cleveland and Philadelphia.
2. The Trump Republicans in Cleveland
On the first day of the GOP convention, Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort set the populist tone, calling for banking re-regulation: “We believe that the Obama-Clinton years have passed legislation that has been favorable to the big banks, which is one of the reasons why you see all of the Wall Street money going to her.”
The specific flashpoint issue is the possible reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall Act; that was the 1933 law that separated investment banking (aka speculating or gambling) from community banking (aka getting a mortgage or a small-business loan). As Bloomberg News observed of Manafort’s declaration, “This was a shock. The restoration of Glass-Steagall was hardly a foreign idea in this year’s presidential race, but it had mainly been the province of liberals such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.”
We might note that the restoration of Glass-Steagall is also enshrined in the 2016 Republican platform.
So what’s going on here? Have Republicans turned against capitalism? Answer: not really. You see, Glass-Steagall was never left-wing; there was never any socialism. Instead, it was an orderly and necessary restructuring of the private financial system, which had been dangerously concentrated on Wall Street. And that over-concentration, of course, led to the bubble that preceded the epic 1929 crash of the stock market, which, in turn, led to the Depression.
And looking back more than eight decades to a bleak time, we learn that just about everyone other than Herbert Hoover agreed: Something had to be done. So in addition to separating community banking from investment banking, thereby insulating Main Street from Wall Street, Glass-Steagall also included the beginnings of deposit insurance—surely an essential bulwark for the working- and middle class. (Oh, and by the way, Hillary, whose husband signed the repeal of Glass-Steagall back in 1999, strongly opposes bringing it back.)
The legislation, we might add, originated with Sen. Carter Glass, of Lynchburg, VA, and Rep. Henry Steagall, of Clopton, AL. Both lawmakers were Democrats, but they were Democrats of a very different kind from today; indeed, if they were alive now, it’s a safe bet that they’d be Republicans. And the same holds true for their constituents; the southwestern part of Virginia, and virtually all of Alabama, are redder than red.
Thus we can see: The same people, with the same ideas, vote differently, depending on what the parties are offering them.
So here, we can pause to recall the wisdom of the 19th century British statesman Lord Palmerston, who once said of nations, “They have no permanent allies, just permanent interests.” And this point applies equally to peoples and regions. In Lynchburg and Clopton, folks have always needed access to capital, and yet at the same time, a banker living and working in Manhattan is not likely to be attuned to the needs of people he has never met, living in places he’s barely heard of. This is not a criticism of New York banking; it’s merely an observation about the way the world works—people tend to be insular, living in their own silo. And that’s why politics is needed, to bridge the gaps and mediate the differences. It can be a messy process, to be sure, but let’s remember: The alternative is economic hard times—or even worse.
Indeed, building on Palmerston’s point, we can note that over the last two centuries, the two major parties have switched positions on just about everything. The Democrats, for example, the followers of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, were once the party of limited government, white supremacy, and slavery. And the Republicans, following Abraham Lincoln, were once the party of (relatively) big government, civil rights, and abolition. In other words, in crucial ways, the 19th century Democrats were to the right of the GOP.
Yet now, of course, the partisan alignment has changed. The people of Lynchburg and Clopton are mostly the same as they always were, but now, faithful to their own interests, they are Republicans. And by the same token, the former Republican strongholds of, say, Vermont and Illinois are now mostly Democratic.
We can illustrate this not-permanent-alliances-but-permanent-interests phenomenon in the life of one man: Ronald Reagan. Born in 1911, Reagan was a staunch Democrat into the early 1950s, when, attracted by Dwight Eisenhower, he started voting Republican, although he didn’t actually switch parties until 1962.
Yet even as Reagan went from supporting Franklin D. Roosevelt to supporting Barry Goldwater, he was always, of course, the same person. As he liked to say, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party; the Democratic Party left me!” Ever the problem-solver, Reagan always plowed his furrow, even if the partisan tools he used had to change.
In our time, if some Democrats are now Republicans, it’s also true that some Republicans are going the opposite way, becoming Democrats, or at least Democratic fellow-travelers. One such is Elliot A. Cohen, best known as a top foreign policy adviser to President George W. Bush. As a neoconservative, Cohen is horrified by Trump; indeed, it’s fair to say that most of the neocon establishment, which has dominated GOP foreign policy thinking for a generation, is unalterably hostile. Earlier this year, Cohen co-authored a letter signed by 121 GOP national security experts, labeling Trump’s foreign policy as “wildly inconsistent and unmoored in principle.” More recently, Cohen told Politico, “I don’t know any prominent national security person who’s signed up with Trump since he started.”
In truth, Trump has many top foreign policy mavens on his team, starting with Sen. Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Still, it’s undeniable that a big switch is happening: Just as Lynchburg and Clopton have gone red, so many neocons are going blue.
Moreover, the flux in the GOP isn’t limited to foreign policy; it’s also happening on domestic policy concerns, such as immigration. Breitbart readers are undoubtedly aware of this site’s long-standing advocacy of border security and sovereignty, and yet as a sign of these border-hawkish times, it’s revealing that immigration restrictionism is spreading to other publications.
For example, Jeremy Carl, writing for National Review—once firmly in the open-borders camp—took note of “the full-on populist revolt” and then casually blasted “Paul Ryan-style open borders.” Such anti-globalist words would simply not have been uttered in NR’s pages a few years ago.
Needless to say, this shift has disoriented and disheartened Republican intellectuals who cling to the old ways. One such is Avik Roy, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, who served as a policy adviser to Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign. Roy shared his unhappiness with the left-wing publication Vox, which, immediately and predictably, slapped on the most negative headline it could think of: “A Republican intellectual explains why the Republican Party is going to die.” Of course, Roy must have known that he was venting his spleen to a partisan enemy, although perhaps he didn’t care. After all, he is obviously anguished about the disconnect between the GOP policy elite and GOP voters. As he said:
Conservative intellectuals, and conservative politicians, have been in kind of a bubble. We’ve had this view that the voters were with us on conservatism—philosophical, economic conservatism. In reality, the gravitational center of the Republican Party is white nationalism.
The claim that the GOP is the party of white nationalism would be news, of course, to Republicans such as Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina or Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico, but without a doubt, the Republican Party has changed: It is a nationalist party, as the post-nationalist ideologies of neoconservatism and globalism have been displaced by old-fashioned patriotism.
Of course, patriotism, and nationalism, have always been the touchstones of the grassroots. Yet as we know, the elites have wandered off into other isms. And now, it looks as if Cohen and Roy, as well as others of their persuasion, will have to keep wandering.
Once again, it’s not that grassroots Republicans have changed; it’s that the situation has changed. Once upon a time, immigration to the U.S. was a positive civic ritual that affirmed American values; that is, foreigners would come here legally, get a job, learn English, and embrace American ways. And presto! They too were Americans. It’s hard to think of anything healthier for a country’s psyche than to see others come and adapt to its ways.
By contrast, today, the situation is much different; too many foreigners come here illegally, wangle their way onto public assistance, and then sit as unassimilated clumps at best, as terrorists at worse. No wonder the American people are angry. And the Republican Party, at least, is reflecting that anger.
Then there’s the Democratic Party, which is reflecting the opposite. As The Washington Post reported back in March, Hillary is now notably to the left of Obama on immigration.
3. The Clinton Democrats in Philadelphia
For their part, the Democrats haven’t changed much. The big change is that they are trying to hide their true selves, and they are using big money to help them do the hiding.
However, if we take a close look, we can see that the Democratic Party is as devoted to its pet causes as ever, including quotas of all kinds and fawning treatment for street radicalism.
As to quotas, we can examine, as an almost random example, the website of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin and see the head-counting regime in full force. Last year, in extraordinary detail, Badger State Democrats enumerated what they wanted in their 2016 convention delegation: African Americans, 12 percent; Hispanics, six percent; Native Americans, three percent; Asian/ Pacific Americans, two percent; LGBT Americans, 12 percent; and so on.
Indeed, the Democrats’ national party platform this year features a pledge to end “systemic racism”—which might leave some to wonder whether they noticed that Obama won the last two presidential elections. But of course, activists are never satisfied with progress made and always want more. And the ’16 platform gave it to them, and thus it includes this shout-out to #BlackLivesMatter, embedded in a call for ever more social engineering: “We will push for a societal transformation to make it clear that black lives matter and that there is no place for racism in our country.”
Yet the main takeaway from Philadelphia isn’t that the Democrats are still McGovernized.
Instead, the big news from Philly is that big money is back. And the even bigger news is that the Democrats don’t care who knows it. In fact, Democrats have turned money into a point of pride; they have more cash than the Republicans.
Without a doubt, the differences are stark: Hedge funds and their employees gave $122.7 million to Hillary, but just $19,000 to Trump. Some might be tempted to ask: Now what does that tell you? But for Hillary Democrats, it’s nothing but good news.
And how ’bout this New York Times headline: “After Lying Low, Deep-Pocketed Clinton Donors Return to the Fore”? The Times quoted Charlie Crist, former Republican governor of Florida, now running as a Democrat for a House seat: “This is a good place to be—for a lot of reasons. We must have set up five fundraisers today. This is the bank.”
Yes, sirree, the DNC is “the bank.” So Democrats, bow down to the one you serve, or at least, walk this way. The Times continued, quoting more Democrats rolling in their dough—and not caring who knows it:
For many Clinton donors, particularly those from the financial sector, the convention is a time to shed what one called the “hypersensitivity” that had previously surrounded their appearance at Clinton’s fundraisers. “I think we’re past that,” said Alan Patricof, a longtime donor to Clinton, when asked about the need to lie low during the primaries.
To be sure, Hillary herself doesn’t talk about big money, at least not in public; maybe one day, we’ll find out what she said to Goldman Sachs—but not yet. And so, okay, perhaps there’s a little hypocrisy at work. As Politico explained, “While Clinton continues to promise to rein in the influence of big money, her donors this week have seemed emboldened, celebrating at private parties around town and mingling in the lobby of the Center City Ritz-Carlton over cocktails and seafood.”
So there we have it. Of course, it’s not just the Clinton campaign that’s raking in the bucks; it’s also pro-Clinton SuperPACs, such as Priorities USA, which has $142 million, dwarfing any pro-Trump effort.
And that much money can, indeed, buy things. As was reported in 2015, Hillary’s social-media following has some, uh, interesting characteristics:
Her official Facebook account had almost 685,000 fans. … At least 46,000 of them list Baghdad, Iraq, as their hometown. While most of her US Facebook fans are older than 55 . . . Clinton enjoys the support of younger Facebook fans with 66 percent of her Iraqi female fans and 67 percent of males aged between 18 and 34.
Evidently, such dubious digital payola is still continuing: For some people, it’s a living to go online and support Hillary. Yes, if your campaign has the money to spare, you can buy votes, or at least online pseudo-votes.
To be sure, some holes have been punched in the Clinton financial armor. As many observers noted, nobody in Philadelphia mentioned the Clinton Foundation—evidently, it now polls as a negative for the Clintons, hence the silence. So kudos to Peter Schweizer, author of the muckraking book, Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How Foreign Governments and Businesses Made Bill and Hillary Rich. By dint of his investigative prowess, Schweizer has knocked a major girder out from under Bill and Hill.
In addition, some caustic observers on the left have actually taken note of the persistent stench of plutocracy. Under the headline, “The DNC Is One Big Corporate Bribe,” New Republic reporter David Dayen singled out marquee-name Democrats now working plush jobs in just one industry, tech, including:
Obama campaign guru David Plouffe (now with Uber) and Gore consultant Chris Lehane (now with Airbnb) . . . former White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, now at Amazon. . . . Former Attorney General and corporate lawyer Eric Holder took time off from his work with Uber and Airbnb to address the convention.
However, we can observe that all this money comes at a cost: With each new dollar, the Democrats are ever more bought into the establishment system. And this is at a time when, as we have seen, more than two-thirds of Americans think the country is on the wrong track. So the Democrats, being bought and paid for, can’t help but appear smug and oblivious.
As The Washington Post’s Dan Balz wrote, Hillary “embodies the establishment and political status quo.” From an electoral point of view, that’s sad! Or as Trump himself tweeted, “Hillary will never reform Wall Street. She is owned by Wall Street!”
Yet Clinton, in her July 28 acceptance speech, did her best, trotting out every possible cliche, the more focus-grouped, the better. She cares. She’s a fighter. She’s here for all of us. Critics say that she’s the Queen of the Rigged Game, but hey, her supporters will insist, that just reminds us that she’s a woman!
And then, in her big speech, Hillary moved to heal the party divide. Addressing Sen. Bernie Sanders and, by extension, his campaign supporters, she said:
Bernie, your campaign inspired millions of Americans, particularly the young people who threw their hearts and souls into our primary. You’ve put economic and social justice issues front and center, where they belong. And to all of your supporters here and around the country: I want you to know, I’ve heard you. Your cause is our cause.
For his part, Sanders seemed to be fully on board. In the words of Henry Gomez of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “The Clinton team steered the convention out of chaos by negotiating a prominent role for Sanders and sending speakers to the microphone with classy tributes to her former rival.”
So that’s all it takes to bring Sanders around? For a self-proclaimed “revolutionary,” he has proven to be remarkably easy to tame. Donald Trump, always canny about power relationships, nailed it in a July 24 tweet: “There is no longer a Bernie Sanders “political revolution.” He is turning out to be a weak and somewhat pathetic figure.”
Meanwhile, others on the left proved truer to their convictions. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, for example, slammed the Obama-era status quo:
Look around. Americans bust their tails, some working two or three jobs, but wages stay flat. Meanwhile, the basic costs of making it from month to month keep going up. Housing, health care, child care—costs are out of sight. Young people are getting crushed by student loans. Working people are in debt. Seniors can’t stretch a Social Security check to cover the basics.
Wow. We can only add: It’s easy to imagine a Republican having made the exact same critique, word for word, in Cleveland.
And Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, an Iraq war veteran-turned-Sanders supporter, further turned up the screw, calling upon Democrats “to care about lives lost, lives ruined, and countries destroyed by counterproductive regime-change wars.” As Politico observed, Gabbard was “taking an implicit shot at Hillary Clinton’s support of the Iraq invasion.”
So as a result, it’s no wonder that many on the left are still skeptical of the Hillary Machine. Emmett Rensin, writing for The New Republic, stepped back and asked, “What Does the Democratic Party Stand for Now? Good Question.” As best he explained, “Over the past few days in Philadelphia, the Democratic Party attempted to promise everything. It made a four-day bid to offer something to everyone, to give every element of the United States some rationale for buying in.”
Rensin noted that he kept hearing the same buzzwords: “inclusion,” “acceptance,” “justice.” And that moved him to observe that the Democrats were offering something less than a program; they were offering a state of mind: “Speaker after speaker appealed not so much to an agenda as an identity: a vision of competence and decency to be trusted with the management of the United States.”
“Competence and decency.” Who’s against that? But those bland words can mean anything.
Indeed, the whole show in Philadelphia communicated a kind of intellectual exhaustion. And that only makes sense: After all, the Democrats have been in the White House for eight years; they have already played their best cards. As an aside, we can observe that this sort of exhaustion afflicts any party after it’s been “in” long enough, and the voters notice it; there’s a reason why only once since 1952 has a political party won a third consecutive term in the White House.
Of course, the Hillaryites know that challenging precedent, and so they unleashed what they thought was a clever plan: They would close the convention by trying to sound like Republicans. Thus the podium was crowded with as many generals as the audience could stand. And in his primetime speech, former Republican Michael Bloomberg called for deficit reduction—as if anyone at the DNC cared.
Meanwhile, in her speech, Hillary paid homage to Ronald Reagan, even as she slammed Trump: “He has taken the Republican Party the wrong way–-from morning in America to midnight in America.”
Such rhetorical tropes did not go unnoticed: On Thursday night, National Review’s Rich Lowry tweeted, “American exceptionalism and greatness, shining city on hill, founding documents, etc—they’re trying to take all our stuff.”
Yet despite the Democrats’ best efforts to paint the donkey red, the truth has a way of bleeding out, in all its refulgent blueness.
You see, the Democrats have plenty of ideology—their own innate ideology. As we have seen, quotacratic multiculturalism, which ordinary voters despise, is deeply woven into the fabric of the party. And we can detect other unpopular isms, too, such as globalism and green-ism.
For instance, we might recall that cutting piece by David Dayen of The New Republic: The full headline reads, “The DNC Is One Big Corporate Bribe/ Drink up—it’s on us! Then go protest the TPP to your heart’s content.” As we all know, Hillary, having dubbed the Trans-Pacific Partnership to be the “gold standard” of trade deals when she was helping to negotiate it—is now against it.
Or maybe not: It all depends on whom you ask. Her choice for vice president, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, supported the TPP; he once derided opponents of globalism for displaying a “loser’s mentality”—until the instant he was chosen as her running mate.
Meanwhile in the midst of this backflipping, one of Hillary’s closest allies in politics, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, stepped out to insist that despite what she was saying, she was really in favor of TPP. Only after intense “instruction” did McAuliffe reverse course and declare that Hillary was really against TPP. Honest!
Moreover, one can pick through the Democrats’ platform and find all of their ideological fetishes on full display: no less than 16 paragraphs on “climate change,” 14 paragraphs on the rights of indigenous tribal nations, and 12 paragraphs on immigration, mostly promising welfare and citizenship to foreign nationals who violate U.S. immigration law, as well as their families.
Yet interestingly, the platform short-shrifted more traditional concerns: just three paragraphs devoted to countering terrorism, just two paragraphs on Social Security, just two paragraphs on workers and wages, and one lone paragraph on manufacturing—which was balanced (some would say negated) by a graph on taxpayer-subsidized “clean energy jobs.”
And as for foreign policy, the same. Palestinian flags were on unchallenged display inside the Philadelphia hall, as well as on T-shirts and other emblems. And there’s this language in the platform, sure to scare any Israeli or American friend of Israel:
We will continue to work toward a two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict . . . provid[ing] the Palestinians with independence, sovereignty, and dignity. … Palestinians should be free to govern themselves in their own viable state, in peace and dignity.
Translation: The Israelis should negotiate with the people who want to kill them—who are killing them. For the Democrats, that might be a winning position in Berkeley, CA, but not so much in Belleville, IL.
In other words, maybe the Democrats’ whole huge effort to build a Potemkin village of faux ideology has come to naught. As Mike Murphy, chief adviser to Jeb Bush and definitely not a Trump fan, tweeted on Thursday night: “The highly effective dog whistle this convention has been sending to disaffected Republicans ended abruptly in HRC’s speech… #TooLiberal.”
Yes, the Democrats have a lot of money, and they used it to put a lot of lipstick on the pig, but maybe it wasn’t enough; it’s still a pig.
Next in Part Two: Republican Nationalism vs. Democratic Globalism