Even if the present downward spiral persists all the way to November 8th, the 2016 presidential election will not be a historic blowout. Since 1960 a half dozen elections have been lopsided, including two where the winner came close to carrying all fifty states. Yet, despite this historical perspective, 2016 may feel like those elections. Because qualitatively, the Trump campaign seems like a disaster.
It is clear that despite statements to the contrary, campaign workers and the GOP establishment have lost control of their candidate. Now that the conventions are done, Trump and Clinton will receive classified briefings. Within 24 hours, there was already concern that Trump may have described a top secret video. He did not, but few think he is incapable of such things. Many Americans simply have zero faith in Trump to do the right thing, for that is often the selfless thing. And not only is Khizr Khan right that Trump has never known sacrifice, he has no ability to do so.
What I think is interesting right now is that with the Republican Party, we see a glimpse of what an authoritarian America would look like. While the US is an oligarchy in practice, there is a political culture that curtails what leaders can do. Right now in the GOP, there is no one higher than Trump, and if he chooses to self-destruct nobody can stop him. Conservatives are getting a taste of the old days of European royalty, where insane monarchs ruled for years because they were, on paper, the leader.
This all remains in large part a vanity campaign. But in the service of ego stroking, the consequences may not be as trivial as the candidate.
In the final hours before the Iowa caucuses, it’s productive to take a step back and look at the Democratic presidential primary from a structural perspective.
American presidential campaigns used to be managed exclusively by machine bosses. There were no democratic primary elections- there was a convention, the candidate was often a compromise made in a smoke-filled room. Money and patronage were divvied among those who could mobilize resources. Popular participation did play a role, but party leadership counted for a lot- and much of the mobilization was under political machines controlled by said bosses.
All that has really happened since the 19th century convention-based system is that there are now primary elections. Of course that’s a big addition to the process, but the old forces haven’t been replaced. Party elites still try as much as possible to make the primary elections a coronation process; they also have the advantage that those with the most party loyalty are the main electorate. Thus even in a competitive race like 2008, the party structure was not threatened. A couple people got mad and said they wouldn’t vote for Obama, but otherwise unity was quick and very few people in power changed ideology as a result.
This is a meandering way of getting to the relationship of Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Party. As Matt Karp writes today, the inner core of the Party has been nearly unanimous in endorsing Clinton, or at least not endorsing Sanders. Even second and third-tier primary candidates of elections past got at least a small handful of national figures, even if they never polled in the double digits.
Sanders is far from the first major candidate that the leading cadre have despised. The Democrats did have a chance to move leftward (to essentially the social-democratic politics that Sanders triumphs) in the late 60s and early 70s, but conflict with the conservative establishment caused so much chaos that there was little time to, ya know, campaign and win elections. If you’re wondering whether the Party will ever embrace a truly different direction, ask whether the people that control it would benefit from higher corporate taxes, more regulation, and eliminating industries like private health insurance.
So the institution doesn’t like him because of his politics. A factor that I’ve yet to see someone articulate clearly is an issue for both officials and primary voters. Bernie Sanders is not a Democrat and has never been one. I’ve run into plenty of people for whom party identification is a core part of their personal identity. They are Democrats. Their parents and grandparents, going back to the New Deal, were Democrats. Partisanship has an ideological component, but it also has the same nationalist substitute you get with sports teams and Kirk v. Picard. The instant Sanders decided to run as a Democrat he entered foreign turf that he doesn’t fit into well.
If history is our guide, the Sanders movement is not going to fundamentally change the structure. My stance on the Party has been consistent to the point that friends are surprised when someone else invokes it- “the graveyard of social movements.” The radicalism of groups since the 19th century has been neutered to the point that once the most militant of working class organizations run away from any genuine progressive politics. Clinton, who has never supported a $15/hr minimum wage, won the endorsement of the SEIU. Currently, their signature campaign is Fight for 15. Much of labor has been so institutionalized that its leadership will choose party loyalty, even if it undermines fast food workers who have lost their jobs advocating for $15.
So as this primary season begins, the question of change needs to be separated. Can Bernie Sanders win despite near-universal Party opposition? Maybe, I don’t know. My concern is that even if he wins, the Party is not the vehicle to achieve progressive change. We have seen how much a President can be handcuffed by Congress- the opposition, yes, but also within the delegation.
I’ve seen people make the argument that Clinton v. Sanders is a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party. I don’t buy that interpretation (Don’t Believe the Hype!), nor any analysis that says the Party is destined to end up at this or that ideology. The best predictor of the future is the past, and the Democratic Party has been around for about two hundred years now. American party politics has flipped multiple times, but the Democrats were never radicals. When the Democrats fought in the 1890s over the Pullman strike, a Democratic president overrode a Democratic governor to crush it. Attempts to form a progressive, radical opposition has never lasted. Odds are that the Democratic Party will continue doing what it’s been doing, with no substantial change.
It is good to see more independent organizations liked National Nurses United bucking the trend of contradicting policy goals and endorsements. In their last post about the Sanders campaign before the caucuses, a nurse going door-to-door said:
We talked about what it means to have someone who is a champion, but also has a movement behind him. You have to have both to achieve change.
She’s right. You need both. But is that movement to come from a Party run by his opponents and funded by many of the same heinous corporations that fund the Republicans? Perhaps these buried organizations need to rise from the dead.
Because despite claims to the contrary, I think people power still has some life left in this country.
Jan-Werner Mueller has written an excellent editorial for Al Jazeera America, entitled “Trump is a far right populist, not a fascist.” I like this analysis because it goes into a few distinct and important areas when talking about politics, especially to an American audience. Essentially, it’s an attempt to counter the easy ‘fascist’ descriptor with something more rooted in history and ideology.
While the term ‘populist’ has a progressive connotation in the United States, in Europe is applied to race-baiting demagogues like Marine Le Pen of the National Front in France. Populism itself is not an ideology. It’s an approach to politics, relying on relating to the struggles of the common people and rallying them towards a goal. This goal can be anything- Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump can both be considered populists in their anti-establishment stance. In the late 19th century, the People’s Party gained traction by stirring up farmers to oppose urban finance capital that exploited them. All the variation in populism comes from who the villain is. For the Trump campaign, Latinos were the initial target. Now it’s expanded to Muslims, both groups being linked by their ‘foreignness’. Trump appeals to poor whites, the same who have been behind the spike in popularity of far-right groups like the National Front, along with Golden Dawn in Greece and the Danish People’s Party.
As with populism itself, “people’s party” reflects tactics rather than ideology.
But calling the Trump campaign populist is problematic. On the surface level, his rhetoric fits the bill. Yet the entire structure of the campaign is different. American populism grew at the grassroots level- it was a bunch of broke common people up against a small clique of bankers and politicians that created this inequity in the first place. Zach Carter is right to deem him a ‘plutocrat populist.’ I don’t think of Teddy Roosevelt and Huey Long when Trump floats into conversation. I think of Charles Foster Kane, a man who has profited from exploitation and claims that as experience for office.
His campaign apparatus has been slow in becoming anything other than a planning team for rallies. In populist fashion he stirs up his followers, but their zeal doesn’t carry. Big turnout, yes, but a noncommittal base. There has been no effort to change this; for a front-running campaign there is no systemic gathering of data and follow-up. What makes supporters of populist parties and figures distinct is their commitment above and beyond the normal politics of voting. In America, they battled the banks over monetary policy, and many fought and died in labor actions against mining and timber interests. Far-right supporters in Europe often engage in street protests and sometimes open conflict with political opponents. Despite the left and right selling very different ideas of what a just society is, and who is keeping it unjust, populism creates rabid followers. I don’t recognize what we call populism at anything beyond a surface level.
Even with mass support, this is still a Trump vanity campaign. His political shifts haven’t been justified by new experiences or ideas. Right-wing rhetoric is just the easiest way to get noticed- especially in a Republican Party that lacks high-caliber figures that could steal the spotlight. Thus just like ‘populist,’ the label ‘fascist’ also falters beyond a surface basis. Yes, in Italy and Germany there was physical violence between true believers and the opposition. Xenophobia was strong then and continues to be. Be that as it may, fascist ideology was complex and sophisticated, and those that crafted it were serious about everything they said and did. Trump’s politics are scattershot and shallow- the xenophobia is present, but it’s not directed in any way.
I don’t get the feeling that if he was elected, the fascist-seeming aspects of his stump speeches would be formalized and put into law. Some people advocate extreme ideology because they believe mainstream politics has failed and radical measures must be taken to reforge society. Others use it to gain attention and power, because they are no different in mindset than the discredited mainstream. Trump seems to be the latter.
So I take a third option on who Donald Trump is in this election cycle. His campaign isn’t the work of common people at all, and while his nominally populist outlook draws big crowds, it hasn’t created the warriors for the cause. While Trump rallies do often resemble fascism, or something just as odious, there isn’t any ideas about the role of the state and the nation. Trump is a consummate opportunist who taps into the energy of an alienated white working class, but not for any larger purpose. Populists, then and now, used these tactics to further a particular cause. Movements were populist and then something else. He is just one shade of the fallout from gridlock and corruption in the mainstream. Hollow demagogues have the same opportunity to harness popular anger as everyone else.