The next Donald Trump

We are now forty days from the 2016 election, and the result is still very much in doubt. The collision of two unpopular, ill-liked candidates has created something approaching competition. On the Wednesday after, talking heads will find their own way of saying “the losing party would have won if they had ran anyone else as their candidate.”

So perhaps we are heading into a Donald Trump presidency. The effects of this, domestically and internationally, are in the air. But one should expect regression and an increase in everyday hostility towards non-whites as a start.

This post is not about the 2016 election. It’s about the next Donald Trump-like candidate to gain a mass following in the United States. And the one after that, going forward into the indefinite future.

A common error in conventional thinking is to mix up structural and particular events. That is, is Trump emerging from a large, stable movement in society, or is he a man with a particular skill set that is not easily replicated? Sociologists like myself think the former explanation is better, while conventional Republicans would like to think the latter is true.

The debate about Trump harkens back to debates about the rise of populists and fascists in the modern world. That is, were Adolph Hitler, Idi Amin, or the Khmer Rogue a special type of evil that is so tied to their being? The unsettling reality, which explains why so many believe that, is that monstrous figures emerge from society. Any political leader or force that has existed can return in a similar form. That means that we, collectively, have the potential to both build and destroy.

Deindustrialization, outsourcing, stagnant wages, underemployment, falling unionization rates, rising healthcare and education costs. All of these, beginning around 1970 and continuing until now, are serious structural forces. They impact a wide swath of society, but for conservative populists, working class whites can be utilized to gain power. Much of the country is at least partly segregated, making racial appeals effective. A massive recession hit the bulk of society head on, and the recovery has only benefitted the rich elite. These days are the crucible of radical politics, which has reached a more complete form on the right, though the Sanders campaign and Jill Stein indicate movement towards the left as well.

Remember that Hitler attempted to seize power first in November 1923 with the Beer Haul Putsch. The Enabling Act, which gave the Nazis unchecked power, came a full decade later. But in that time, the Weimar Republic struggled with hyperinflation, economic stagnation, and political paralysis. The persistence of this particular structure is what made far-right politics possible. As long as crisis reigned, there was always another chance.

And that’s what we should expect going forward from the 2016 election. Structural issues will persist, and a Clinton presidency is not going to solve core economic problems (remember when her husband destroyed welfare and funded prisons instead?) or help communities of color to any meaningful degree. Deadlock in the Senate, demagogues in legislatures across the country. There can always be another Trump. When they come, we should not be surprised.

Glimpse of a Mad King

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.

On defeating Teflon Trump

Long before he ever announced running, going back to the 2012 primaries, it has been hammered home that Donald Trump is incredibly unqualified for high elective office. But he managed to power through his opponents, despite most experts across the spectrum assuming he would burn out.

The disparity comes I think because Donald Trump is very well-suited to running for President. If Ronald Reagan was the Teflon president, Trump is the Teflon candidate. His public image and private life have been raked over the media for decades, such that we became desensitized to traits and actions that should be a huge deal. By 2016 all of it congealed into this buffonish likability, where faults strangely morph into assets given enough time. Hillary Clinton has Teflon aspects, but she never had the pop culture exposure that elevates someone from a (flawed, vulnerable) politician and not a character.

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Thus the zombie campaign. No matter how many shots are fired, there has never been a real dip in poll numbers for Trump since the beginning of the primaries. The only thing that would really have a serious impact, if we think primarily about his business and rhetoric, would be a full leak of his tax returns. But since he can keep tight about that until after the election, only a well-timed Wikileak is going to make that a reality.

This is why I feel the speech by Khizr Khan at the DNC, along with tons of follow-up media and a Washington Post editorial by his wife Ghazala, are really a tuning point against Teflon Trump. The usual criticism has lost its impact. He has no record in elected office. And his long-term political history is eclectic, since he was socially moderate and friendly with Democrats until recently. But that speech hit a fresh vein. Candidates are often criticized for not serving in the military, or for getting cushy posts away from the frontline. Personally, I don’t equate military service with patriotism and vice-versa. But going into the concept of sacrifice, which means so much more. And it’s a new way of looking at Trump’s wealth and privilege. If public servants are supposed to be selfless, then any good candidate should have had to sacrifice something. Trump has indeed sacrificed nothing, anything, while the Khan family lost their son.

When this speech went viral, Trump had a response that was unusually poor. Trump often says too much, or the wrong thing in public, but this always went back to the well-tread criticisms America had grown used to. He came off not only as an asshole, but unprepared to deal with the accusation that he has not known sacrifice. His plans to ban Muslim immigration came into new context, and he lacked the self-assuredness that allows his (usually half-baked) ideas to stand as legitimate policy planning. Instead of Teflon Trump, we saw a house of cards.

All of this should be surprising. Another late night monologue about his marital history and Trump Steaks seems trite. Khan in a few minutes managed to dig through Trump the character, the pop culture celebrity, and expose him as the racist, petty, vapid man he truly is. This needs to happen more. Trump is not a joke, he is a menace, and has made discrimination and harassment of non-white groups somehow acceptable to his supporters.

The Teflon Trump must lose his shine.

Clinton-Sanders and the Great Unfriending

In my decade on social media, there has been no reaction like this. As the Democratic primaries finished, and especially since the first day of the DNC last week, the battle over voting Clinton versus an alternative has never been addressed by more of my friends, for a longer sustained period of time with such emotion. I have no doubt that there has been a Great Unfriending, much like there is after a mass shooting or a young black person killed by police. The zeitgeist gets encapsulated in one particular event or process, and usually friendly individuals tear themselves into pieces.

Great Unfriendings are not always bad. They can help flush bigoted and ignorant people to the forefront, and it allows us to match our perceptions of friends, co-workers, and allies to their behavior. Social media, being so casual, also helps us understand privilege, and who we are when we don’t wear such a complex mask.

The DNC was a pivot point. The options and opinions have shifted. For all of Sen. Sanders and his talk of “political revolution”, the question until recently was about picking one of two people to be the Democratic Party nominee. The rhetoric had always been that Sanders supporters were part of a social movement rather than a straightforward election campaign. But that had never been tested. I personally thought that many Sanders movement activists spent far too much time on the primaries, if a grassroots revolution on all levels of government is the idea. And I wondered if people would stay together as this movement, or would they either get discouraged or shift to campaigning for Clinton.

Now the question is much bigger than the individual people will vote for in November. It’s about how much each of us is willing to follow political custom, or stand in opposition. It’s not the primary coming up on Tuesday. Now it’s about what our democracy should be. How a vote for Clinton, or Jill Stein, or Gary Johnson, or Donald Trump changes the status quo. It’s a much harder conversation to have, and many people have never had it before. Previously it was “Issue X: is Clinton or Sanders better?” Now there are no straightforward comparisons. Stein and Clinton have very different foreign policy agendas, but only one belongs to a party struggling to get on the ballot. It’s irrelevant whether Clinton gets 271 electoral votes or 350, but what Stein and Johnson receive determines whether voters in dozens of states will have alternatives to vote for. Ballot access through the Presidential vote is crucial, because third parties spend so much of their limited money and people tied up in litigation. Access, plus the millions of federal funds available to those that poll at least 5%, changes the entire dynamic of party politics going forward.

There have been deep questions about privilege and identity. Is supporting Hillary an act of privilege. Or is rejecting Clinton ridiculous, and a luxury for those who have little to lose from President Donald Trump? I’ve seen friends of color take both stances, and I’ve seen friends, both white and not, denounce them. Ultimately, I’m not certain. I have my own personal plan, but I really don’t wish to invalidate the opinions of people who, it is true, have much more to lose in November than I do.

This new stage is more radical and open-ended. And we learn more about those around us. This should be a positive. I’m not asking for civility for civility’s sake. But this moment should be appreciated as one of the most open periods of political discourse in recent history. Presidential elections make even apathetic people care about politics for a little while, and the Democratic primary battle, along with the rise of Trump. It’s a golden moment for organizers and social change. And it would be a shame if this moment were underutilized because we talk when we should listen.

Stein, vaccines, and the new, better Green Party

Jill Stein has gotten some negative media attention due to an answer in a Reddit AMA regarding vaccines.

Part of her statement:

“I think there’s no question that vaccines have been absolutely critical in ridding us of the scourge of many diseases — smallpox, polio, etc. So vaccines are an invaluable medication,” Stein said. “Like any medication, they also should be — what shall we say? — approved by a regulatory board that people can trust. And I think right now, that is the problem. That people do not trust a Food and Drug Administration, or even the CDC for that matter, where corporate influence and the pharmaceutical industry has a lot of influence.”

followed up later with this, mentioning controversies with the use of hormone replacement for menopause, and treatments for Alzheimer’s that backfired:

it’s really important that the American public have confidence in our regulatory boards so that all of our medical treatments and medications actually are approved by people who do not have a vested interest in their promotion.

and clarification on Twitter:

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Snopes also lists the claim that Stein is anti-vaccination as unproven.

My mother, a psychiatrist, was concerned about Stein’s take on vaccines, so I did some research to make sure I had all the needed context.

The Washington Post story, which is the norm among large, nonpartisan media outlets, takes a skeptical look at Stein’s claims, assuming that the formal independence of the FDA more or less as true.

The closest Stein gets to anti-vaxx arguments is here:

“There were concerns among physicians about what the vaccination schedule meant, the toxic substances like mercury which used to be rampant in vaccines. There were real questions that needed to be addressed. I think some of them at least have been addressed. I don’t know if all of them have been addressed.”

Pretty different from what her remarks were being portrayed as. At its core, Stein doesn’t believe that vaccines have any of the purported negative effects that are common currency among anti-vaxxers. Nor does she see any existing issues as overriding the massive public health necessity of vaccination. In fact, she specifically says vaccination rates need to go up in light of Jenny McCarthy and others. As she said on Twitter, the issue is that government agencies have a credibility problem. Even if their statements are 100% true, the intensive lobbying by pharmaceutical companies, and a revolving door between the FDA and private industry, invites skepticism. And indeed that is part of why parents may choose to ignore warnings about things like vaccinations. Even if “the FDA is a tool of Big Pharma” is unrelated to “vaccines are essential for public health,” it can muddy the waters.

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The pharmaceutical lobby is incredibly powerful. A 2005 piece by the Center for Public Integrity pointed out over $100 million annually in lobbying. To quote, emphasis mine:

The industry’s multi-faceted influence campaign has also led to a more industry-friendly regulatory policy at the Food and Drug Administration, the agency that approves its products for sale and most directly oversees drug makers.

Most of the industry’s political spending paid for federal lobbying. Medicine makers hired about 3,000 lobbyists, more than a third of them former federal officials, to advance their interests before the House, the Senate, the FDA, the Department of Health and Human Services, and other executive branch offices.

A 2015 story in TIME about the now-current head of the FDA, Robert Califf M.D pointed out that he was making six figures in consulting fees annually from pharmaceutical companies. Pharmaceutical companies were instrumental in the passage of Medicare Part D, which is a cash cow because it has no price controls unlike most government health programs. Pharma is also the only part of the health system that was not impacted by the Affordable Care Act, trading perks in exchange for not blocking the bill.

I’ve been a registered Green from mid-2009 until today, minus the time myself and many others registered independent to vote in the Democratic primary this year. In years past, Green ideology was a complete mess. It was sort of socialist, sort of capitalist, and alternatively enthusiastic about and skeptical of science. Going to a party conference, I was frustrated by the lack of coherence and a tendency towards conspiracy theories and quack medicine.

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This election cycle is different, because the primaries have manufactured a large disenchanted bloc of voters who see Stein as an answer. This has had the effect of making Green ideology more consistent, and pushing out its more kooky aspects. An amendment to the 2016 platform was passed by the National Committee to make the Green Party explicitly anti-capitalist and move towards eco-socialism. This would resolve the ambiguous take on economics in Green politics and give the party something to stand on. The party this year also voted to remove support for practices like homeopathy. I do believe that Jill Stein has been part of the solution rather than the problem- her status as a doctor makes outsiders more likely to listen, and since her run in 2012 there has been pressure to move beyond a niche party.

Your vote in November is yours alone. Don’t let people bully you into a decision. If you are in a swing state, it’s a tough decision and in some sense I’m glad I don’t have to make it. If you live in a safe state, a vote for the Greens would be huge. A large result would secure millions in public funding, improve ballot access. Minor parties spend more money on litigation to get on the ballot than anything else. And even if Clinton wins, a 5%+ for Stein shows that the Sanders movement against politics as usual has survived.

Enough is enough. Vote Stein.

Donald Trump: populist? fascist? Neither.

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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.

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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.