Saturday Reads: Trumped Up InsurgencyPosted: August 22, 2015
It’s getting to be the ugly season of American politics which makes writing about it and discussing it terrifically unpleasant. Part of the problem is that we rely on a two party system and one of the parties has basically gone off the rails. It’s difficult to imagine the the overall majority of candidates for president in the Republican party today even gaining the least amount of traction around 10-20 years ago or more. Of course, there have been George Wallaces that pop up every now and then, but it seems that we’ve got a bumper crop of them. Meanwhile, the nation’s major newspapers are off chasing imaginary scandals. It’s even harder to believe that the newspapers that printed the Pentagon Papers and chased down the Watergate story might actually finding anything that major and truthful today. They seem more caught up in conspiracy theories and failed opposition research. They don’t even seem to fact check prior to going to press given the recent spate of nothing but speculation that passes as coverage of Hillary Clinton at the NYT.
The ugly faces of both parties are evident in the misogyny aimed at Hillary Clinton and the continuing presence and political viability of showmeister Donald Trump. Trump’s supporters are as filled with ugly thoughts and rhetoric as the master of nasty himself. Alabama is one of those states where being “backwoods” and “backward” are symbols of pride. Along with Texas and Mississippi, it’s one of those states I try to drive through as quickly and low profiled as possible. Trump’s appearance there has brought out the angry, ignorant hillbilly hoards. This is Nixon’s Southern Strategy come full circle. The pictures of the crowd are frightening. Basically, it’s full of love for Jesus and hate for humanity in that mishmash of synapses that come from the brains of the completely deluded.
Trump fans came by the thousands, driving from the Florida panhandle, from Mississippi, from Tennessee and Texas. Traffic was backed up for more than a mile.
On the street, Olaf Childress, a neo-Confederate activist, gave out copies of “The First Freedom” newspaper, which had headlines about “Black-on-white crime,” “occupied media” and “censored details of the Holocaust.”
The most-enthusiastic Trump backers began arriving at the stadium at dawn, hoping to get a spot close to the stage. The first in line were Keith Quackenbush, 54, and Bill Hart, 46, co-workers at a retail giant in Pensacola, Fla.
“I’m telling you, everyone who is a worker at our store, they’re excited about Trump,” Quackenbush said. “I don’t care what race or gender, whatever age — they love Trump. This is a movement.”
The Atlantic published some “voices” from Trump supporters. If these folks are in your neck of the woods, move! They’re everything that we’ve ever been told about the “ugly American”. It seems difficult to wrap your brain around this brash trust fund baby New Yorker as a Southern idol, but whoops there it is! It’s also part and parcel of the Trump political strategy.
Here is the Trump political logic: “Alabama is extremely critical,” a close associate of Trump’s told me (actually, we agreed I’d call him “a close associate of Mr. Trump”). “You have Iowa’s caucus on February 1st, New Hampshire on the 9th, and South Carolina on the 20th.” The race, this associate explained, would not be wrapped up by then. According to this political calculus, the crucial moment arrives three days later, on March 1st, with the “SEC primary”—the belt of Southern states that encompass the Southeastern Athletic Conference—when Alabama, Texas, Georgia, Arkansas and several others hold their primaries.
Trump is currently leading the polls in many of these states. A new Texas poll has him in first place, beating actual Texans Ted Cruz and Rick Perry. He’s dominating the field in Alabama, as well, doubling the support of second-place finisher Jeb Bush, from neighboring Florida. (Trump is winning in Florida, too, according to a new Quinnipiac University poll, which, although it is an SEC state, doesn’t hold its primary until March 15th). If Trump sweeps the early states, or even just wins Iowa and South Carolina, these advisers believe he could effectively lock down the Republican nomination by sweeping the SEC primary on March 1st. “He feels he wins the nomination on 1 March w/ a sweep of the populist anti-establishment South,” another adviser emailed. “That’s when Trump’s ‘nationalism’ coupled with Sessions’ ‘populism’ comes to full fruition.”
The Alabama rally is meant to show that “he’s starting to motivate and cultivate the base there,” the close associate said, and to demonstrate that Trump is putting in place the strategy and structure to actually win the Republican nomination and not just—as some haters surmise—make a big splash in Iowa and then bail out to go cut the ribbon in some new hotel.
Furthermore, Trump believes he has a secret weapon that could help him carry the South. “The other thing people don’t know about Mr. Trump is that his brand and sales are strongest in the South,” the associate told me. “His TV ratings, his Trump Resorts guests. So this [stadium rally] is about bringing the message that he is here to stay, and is the legit frontrunner. This shows a calculated strategy, that he understands the process and understands it’s not going to end in South Carolina. We’re going to bring the message down further into the belt and expand his support.”
There is truth to the notion that you must get the South to get the Republican nomination. Afterall, the South and the American Outback are home to the base of today’s Republican Party. Trump’s outrageous blend of Gordon Gecko style greed and George Wallce style racial animosity is selling well. So well, that his idea of overturning the 14th amendment to the Constitution has Republican candidates jumping on the bandwagon that would literally mean they and family members would’ve never been citizens. There is nothing more fascinating that watching actual “anchor babies” argue against their circumstances of citizenship. Two of Jeb Bush’s children and Bobby Jindal fall under this category. Mark Rubio and Ted Cruz would probably have never even made it into the country. It’s pretty amazing when you can diss your own circumstances with a straight, angry face.
Following the release of Trump’s plan, several of his fellow 2016 candidates, including Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina followed Trump by coming out in favor of the policy Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker on Friday rolled backstatements that suggested he also favored the policy, saying he had been misunderstood and would not take a position “one way or the other”. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has previously supported birthright citizenship legislation.
“I think he’s done a lot of damage,” says Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America’s Voice, a pro-immigration reform group. “He’s not only now leading in the polls, but he has the ‘Trump effect,’ pulling other candidates to his position on this issue.”
Democrats pounced, and the party’s congressional campaign arm launched a Twitter ad campaign in six swing states targeting Republicans, including Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado.
“Republicans, including Mike Coffman, want to end birthright citizenship,” one of the Spanish-language ads said. “Tell @RepMikeCoffman that is wrong.”
The ads also hit Reps. Marthy McSally of Arizona, Steve Knight of California, Barbara Comstock of Virginia, Crecent Hardy of Nevada and Will Hurd of Texas, all of whom represent districts with large Hispanic populations.
Bush, whose past stances on immigration have been more moderate than his party’s, tried to split the difference.
“This is a constitutionally protected right, and I don’t support revoking it,” Bush told reporters in South Carolina on Tuesday.
But while he said he would “just reject out of hand” revoking birthright citizenship, Bush used a term that some consider offensive: “anchor babies,” children born to non-citizen parents who travel to the U.S. specifically to give birth and obtain citizenship for their newborns.
“That’s the legitimate side of this,” he said on conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt’s show. “Better enforcement so that you don’t have these, you know, ‘anchor babies,’ as they’re described, coming into the country.”
Bush stood by his comments even as Democrats and immigration activists rained down criticism, saying he “didn’t use it as my own language.”
“Do you have a better term?” he fired back at reporters in New Hampshire. “You give me a better term and I’ll use it.”
Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton piled on, suggesting several alternatives.
“How about ‘babies,’ ‘children’ or ‘American citizens,” she tweeted. “They’re called babies.”
Norm Ornstein–writing for The Atlantic–wonders if this election cycle will be different. Is it possible that Trump will actually defy history and turn out to be the one that takes on Clinton? Insurgent candidates are common in the United States and ever so often, they do pull through despite the party establishment. The base in the Republican party is all about insurgency. It’s all they do. They’re just angry in general.
Still, I am more skeptical of the usual historical skepticism than I have been in a long time. A part of my skepticism flows from my decades inside the belly of the congressional beast. I have seen the Republican Party go from being a center-right party, with a solid minority of true centrists, to a right-right party, with a dwindling share of center-rightists, to a right-radical party, with no centrists in the House and a handful in the Senate. There is a party center that two decades ago would have been considered the bedrock right, and a new right that is off the old charts. And I have seen a GOP Congress in which the establishment, itself very conservative, has lost the battle to co-opt the Tea Party radicals, and itself has been largely co-opted or, at minimum, cowed by them.
As the congressional party has transformed, so has the activist component of the party outside Washington. In state legislatures, state party apparatuses, and state party platforms, there are regular statements or positions that make the most extreme lawmakers in Washington seem mild.
Egged on by talk radio, cable news, right-wing blogs, and social media, the activist voters who make up the primary and caucus electorates have become angrier and angrier, not just at the Kenyan Socialist president but also at their own leaders. Promised that Obamacare would be repealed, the government would be radically reduced, immigration would be halted, and illegals punished, they see themselves as euchred and scorned by politicians of all stripes, especially on their own side of the aisle.
Of course, this phenomenon is not new in 2015. It was there in 1964, building over decades in which insurgent conservative forces led by Robert Taft were repeatedly thwarted by moderates like Tom Dewey and Wendell Wilkie, until they prevailed behind the banner of Barry Goldwater. It was present in 1976, when insurgent conservative Ronald Reagan almost knocked off Gerald Ford before prevailing in 1980 (and then governing more as a pragmatist than an ideologue). It built to 1994, when Newt Gingrich led a huge class of insurgents to victory in mid-term elections, but then they had to accept pragmatist-establishment leader Bob Dole as their presidential candidate in 1996. And while John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 were establishment figures, each had to veer sharply to the radical right side to win nominations; McCain, facing a possible revolt at his nominating convention if he went with his first choice for running mate, Joe Lieberman, instead bowed to the new right and picked Sarah Palin.
It’s still difficult to think of this privileged white man as an insurgent. Still, American Populism is a weird phenomenon that seems more like a religious cult than anything rational.
The Beltway definition of populism is disdainful. When it’s affixed to unexpected movements like the Trump insurgency, it seems to mean little more than a prolonged public tantrum. Looking back at recent pundit-diagnosed outbreaks of the populist bacillus, one sees it dubiously attached to causes as different as the drawling “Two Americas” stump speeches of John Edwards, and the America First culture-war candidacies of Pat Buchanan. Going further back, historians and pundits have spied populism everywhere from the racist shade of George Wallace and other stiff-necked Southern segregationists, to the red-baiting career of Joseph McCarthy, to the redistributionist reign of Huey Long in New Deal Louisiana. Still further back, populism has been detected in such 19th-century figures as its great Gilded Age avatar William Jennings Bryan and Andrew Jackson.
It’s tempting to dismiss populism as an epithet deployed by the power elite—a label that members of our political class slap on something popular that they also deem threatening. But there’s more to it than that. The populist movement of the late 19th century, for instance, was grounded in economic grievances, with leaders like Bryan seeking to unite the nation’s producing classes—farmers, small-town businessmen and urban workers—who thought they could overthrow the industrial age’s regime of market cartels, debt peonage and degraded wage labor.
But populism, during the farmers’ revolt of the 1890s, was also a cultural insurgency—a kind of self-administered political wake for the beleaguered middle American Protestant soul, newly adrift in an urbanized, capitalist nation of immigrant laborers and international bankers, and yearning for the folk egalitarianism of an idealized Jeffersonian republic. This is how populism has come to double as a synonym for modern cultural conservatism. Historian Richard Hofstadter famously branded the Gilded Age agrarian uprising as a precursor to McCarthyism: an outpouring of economic resentments that gave aggrieved farmers license to scapegoat any and all available elites—Jewish bankers, British titans of industry, American robber barons—for their declining cultural influence.
Trump is an unlikely populist because he subscribes to so few positions associated with the cultural side of conservative populist revolt. Before his plunge into the 2016 race, he hadn’t taken a hard-line stance against gay marriage and reproductive rights; and as a twice-divorced, one-time Manhattan playboy, he’s anything but a poster boy for family values. While all the Republican candidates denounce Obamacare, including Trump, and all have plans to expand coverage, Trump is the most liberal sounding. On the pundit altar of Morning Joe he praised single-payer Canada as a system that works but said America needs a private health insurance. “You can’t have a guy that has no money, that’s sick, and he can’t go see a doctor, he can’t go see a hospital,” Trump recently told conservative radio talk show host John Fredericks. Trump added that even if his position costs him support in the GOP primaries, “you have to take care of poor people.”
And yet GOP primary voters have flocked to the early Trump boom. A recent CNN poll indicates that 53 percent of GOP voters feel their views aren’t represented well in Washington—virtually double the 27 percent of Democrats agreeing with that idea. (Never mind that the federal government that so rankles Republican voters is now overrun with Republican leaders—populists often lay into their ideology with the greatest enthusiasm.) Among those saying they want Trump to continue his primary run, CNN also found, are “those seen as the core of the GOP primary electorate: 58 percent of white evangelicals, 58 percent of conservatives and 57 percent of Tea Party supporters.”
Look at those stats. White Evangelicals? I guess we’ve learned about their massive ability to support guys with multiple wives and sins since so many of their men are outright pervs and lawbreakers. This may be the first political season that I truly wish I could avoid. This is exhibit one for that rationale.
“Donald Trump is telling the truth and people don’t always like that,” said Donald Kidd, a 73-year-old retired pipe welder from Mobile. “He is like George Wallace, he told the truth. It is the same thing.”
If that doesn’t get you running for the nearest distraction, check this out.
What’s on your reading and blogging list today?