Seven Updated Observations on Trump

pdf_iconIt is now exactly five months since I posted Is Trump pulling a Colbert on the Republican Party? (https://asecondmouse.wordpress.com/2015/07/09/is-trump-pulling-a-colbert-on-the-republican-party/) and for some reason, presumably quite unrelated to that timing, that entry has experienced an upsurge in views over the past couple of days. So, perhaps it is time to update.

Like pretty much everyone, I’d expected Trump—irrespective of whether he was pulling a Colbert/Snape—to be political history by this point, and given that he is not, as a good Bayesian we need to recalibrate.  And thus we will:

1. Trump’s supporters are a genuine political movement with a coherent set of grievances against the GOP [1]

Trump’s base, it is now clear, comes from socially conservative less-educated whites who forty years ago heeded the siren call of Richard Nixon to abandon the Democratic Party with its new multi-ethnic agenda and cast their lot with the GOP.

So how has this worked out for them?

  • The GOP has delivered on none of their social agenda: prayer in schools is still outlawed [2]; gun access has probably been expanded a bit, though this can largely be attributed to the NRA; at the Federal level nothing has changed on abortion (it has been somewhat restricted at the state level), and they’ve suffered an epically stunning reversal on gay rights.
  • Economically they have been at either a standstill or, more realistically, gone backwards, with various elements of globalization accounting for much of this, both in closed factories and competition with younger immigrants for low-wage jobs.
  • Their life expectancy is declining, their neighborhoods are wracked by drug abuse, suicide and divorce; their Main Streets are a mix of shuttered storefronts, pay-day loan operations and consignment shops, and the few remaining viable businesses are all controlled by distant corporations.

Not a pretty picture.

The initial response to this situation were the Tea Party movements beginning with the 2010 electoral cycle, which delivered first the House, and four years later the Senate, into Republican hands. And with this newly mobilized power Republicans—faced with a President who the 24/7 bloviator media circus assured them was the most depraved politician since Caligula, having already secretly reduced the US to the level of Libya and on course to turn it into North Korea—in the face of this profound existential threat the Republican establishment did…well, basically nothing, because in fact the Republican [and Democratic] elite are perfectly content with the status quo and have no real incentives to change anything.[3]

The distinction between now and 2014, I would suggest, is that this group—who may be largely powerless, but are certainly not stupid—realized that the core strategic error of the Tea Party was a naive faith that they could gain power in some sort of bottom-up libertarian self-organization with elements of Bukunin’s collectivist anarchism, but without central coordination. That failed. The obvious alternative is to seek a central leader, and into that political vacuum, perhaps not even fully realizing what he was getting himself into, walks Trump.

2. Yes, Trump is a fascist but…

Ross Douthat pretty much has nailed this one: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/03/opinion/campaign-stops/is-donald-trump-a-fascist.html : not really anything else to add here.

3. He has no street power, nor will he ever

That is, we’re not going to see true European-style fascist movement emerge here, as those require extra-legal power in the form of urban militias. That is an incredibly high bar for Trump to cross for at least the following reasons:

  • The bulk of his support is older and rural, not young and urban. While the U.S. has long experience with right-wing rural rebellions, starting with Shays’ Rebellion, the dominant approach has been to pretty much ignore these, with the Nevadan deadbeat Cliven Bundy being the most recent example, and alternative approaches such as those used against the Branch Davidians and Ruby Ridge did not end happily. That’s one of the advantages of living in a really big country with lots of empty space.
  • Even if Trump could somehow attract a younger crowd, they aren’t sufficiently fit for regular combat, and it is hard to imagine they would be fit for street combat. A positive side to the High Fructose Corn Syrup epidemic, I suppose. [4]
  • Unlike Europe, the U.S. has no culture of soccer hooliganism, and soccer hooligans are the shock troops of modern urban street violence. Ask Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. For this we probably can thank the university-based structure of U.S. sport in contrast to the club-based structure found in the remainder of the world. So the NCAA is good for something. [5]
  • And finally, U.S. police forces are pretty well equipped for and experienced at dealing with mass urban violence. For better or worse.

But really, this is not going to get to the point where U.S. riot control tactics are deployed against masked Trump supporters: I see no credible path for Trump to mobilize significant mass violent street support, thus restricting him to the ballot box.

4. Trump is not Mussolini

This meme was circulating here in Charlottesville a couple weeks back, and as a consequence I read a whole lot more about Mussolini than otherwise I’d be inclined to do, and except for some imperfect convergence in ideology, Trump and Mussolini have absolutely nothing in common. Nor, except for ideology, do Trump and Hitler. Yet today we see no less than the usually sane Dana Milbank making the same comparison in the Washington Post.  It ain’t so.

Trump and the Italian billionaire politician Silvio Berlusconi have a fair amount in common, and not just their attitudes towards women. But the only thing Berlusconi and Mussolini have in common is they are Italian and their names end with the letters “ni”. Apparently sufficient for an analogy these days.

5. It’s not just the polling

We are witnessing a great deal of strum und drang over the weaknesses of contemporary polling methods, plus the usual caveats that polls distant in time from the actual elections have little predictive power. But the persistence and size of the Trump numbers, which are also supported by the fact people show up at his rallies and tell a fairly consistent story seems well beyond what one would expect of measurement error. I’m not a pollster but I know what randomness in a time series looks like, and that’s not what we are seeing.

6. The choices for the Republican nominee are probably down to Trump, Cruz and Rubio, and Cruz is very well positioned here.

As I’m sure has occurred more than once to Cruz, in the absence of Trump, Cruz can make the best argument for being an establishment outsider—by all accounts he is completely loathed by his fellow Republicans—as well as having good Tea Party cred and, unlike Trump, understanding evangelicals. So if Trump somehow crashes, Cruz is the clear beneficiary, and doesn’t really need to work on this, though he is doing so anyway.

I’m practicing U.S. politics prediction without a license here, but with the complete meltdown of the Jeb Bush campaign it seems like Rubio is the only serious establishment player. But how long it takes to get to that point, and whether we go to the GOP convention in Cleveland with three major candidates (can both Trump and Cruz remain viable?) or two remains open until we start seeing primary votes. Polling on second-choices would be useful here—if Trump is completely out [6], do voters go to Cruz or back to the establishment choice, presumably Rubio?—but given the difficulties in the first-choice polling, that would be hard information to get.

7. A Trump-led third party could potentially be more than a spoiler

In the absence of the very real possibility of the Republican nomination, I’d put the probability of a serious—probably at a Ross Perot level, certainly more than a Ralph Nader or Strom Thurmond level, probably not Theodore Roosevelt and the Bull Moose Party level—Trump third-party bid at about 50%. This is currently seen as putting him in the role of a spoiler, and at the 2016 Presidential election, it most certainly would be, virtually guaranteeing a Clinton victory and possibly Democratic control of the Senate.

In a larger time frame, however, it is easy to imagine an anti-immigrant populist third party emerging with significant influence in Congress and at the state and local level for at least a few election cycles, as that is precisely what we are seeing in Europe. At that level, the relevant comparison would be the French National Front under Marine Le Pen, which has seen considerable success in recent years despite once being thought beyond the fringe. Third parties always have a difficult time in the U.S., which has neither proportional representation nor any sort of transferable vote, but with a strong regional base can have a significant impact.

To a large extent, we’re already in the midst of this experiment with the Tea Party, and per my first point, the Tea Party constituency has tried and failed to have significant influence within the GOP so one can almost argue that they can’t do much worse outside of it. For political consistency with Britain and France, this new party should be called the National Front. People’s Party is good general name for a populist party but, alas, it is used by the Danes, and I’m guessing even a mere whiff of Nordic socialism, even in opposition, would kill it. So it is more likely to be just be called the Tea Party, or the New Tea Party, or possibly even the Trump Party.

Conclusion

At this point, I’m pretty sure Trump is not playing Severus Snape. Trump is Voldemort.[7] Cruz is clearly Lucius Malfoy; Hillary Clinton is Minerva McGonagall; the constantly shape-changing Christie is Remus Lupin. If he uses his massive campaign war-chest to take out Trump in a sacrificial move [8], Jeb Bush will be Albus Dumbledore. Otherwise he is the well-meaning but bumbling half-giant Rubeus Hagrid. This scheme works pretty well, actually, except there’s one major player I can’t readily place: Rubio. Definitely not Harry Potter, though I’m seeing quite a few parallels with Arthur Weasley.[9] 

Beyond the Snark

FP’s  Siobhad O’Grady with a somewhat different take on Trump-as-fascist:  http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/12/09/trump-may-be-a-loudmouthed-demagogue-but-is-he-a-fascist/ Mike Godwin—the Godwin of Godwin’s Law—on the issue: https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/12/14/sure-call-trump-a-nazi-just-make-sure-you-know-what-youre-talking-about/ Still another, somewhat inconclusive, discussion of fascism, also agreeing that extra-legal violence is an essential element: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/16/opinion/whose-fascism-is-this-anyway.html. Upshot of all this: “fascist” has probably outlived its utility and something more general like “authoritarian populism” would be better.

Later analysis by Ross Douthat on the Trump/Cruz/Rubio finalists—this seems to be the “common wisdom” now—from an ideological perspective: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/17/opinion/campaign-stops/the-gop-at-a-crossroads.html. Again noting that Trump isn’t particularly conservative and one could imagine if he’d chosen to move just a bit further left he could have presented a Huey Long-style challenge to the Democrats rather than causing chaos for the Republicans.

Bakunin collectivist anarchism: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mikhail_Bakunin. Not a perfect match, particularly since the Trump supporters are in a post-industrial environment, which explains much of their predicament. The Tea Party is also frequently compared to the various 19th century United States populist movements (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_United_States_(1865%E2%80%931918)#Populism), but—unlike Bakunin’s anarchism—these never had a libertarian element, were very interested in national organization, and the industrializing vs post-industrial environment is again huge here.

Rural rebellions: Cliven Bundy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bundy_standoffBranch Davidians: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waco_siegeRuby Ridge: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruby_Ridge. Though I suppose I don’t really need to provide links for things in Wikipedia.

U.S. young adults too fat for the military: http://www.militarytimes.com/story/military/2015/07/15/report-nearly-1-in-3-young-adults-too-fat-for-military/30178023/

Issues with polling: This is a pretty good recent summary of the issues specific to the early primaries: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2015/12/07/trump-continues-to-lead-the-polls-heres-why-he-might-not-win-the-election/.

Thomas Edsall on the Trumpistas vs Republican establishment:  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/16/opinion/campaign-stops/can-this-really-be-donald-trumps-republican-party.html

Political power of soccer hooligans: for the Egyptian case, start with http://edition.cnn.com/2011/SPORT/football/06/29/football.ultras.zamalek.ahly/ but there were quite a few other analyses along these lines. David Kilcullen’s Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla  discusses this in considerable detail, emphasizing the rather unique set of street-fighting skills imparted by hooliganism. None of this is new: one of the greatest challenges confronted by the early Byzantine Empire were the Nika riots (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nika_riots) instigated by chariot race hooligans. The Emperor Justinian’s response left a bit to be desired in terms of human rights standards, though Trump would presumably approve.   

Trump Winery property and dog killing: http://www.washingtonian.com/articles/people/greatest-most-amazing-absolutely-huge-story-of-how-donald-trump-took-over-virginias-biggest-vineyard/ The drums and the rooster feathers: let’s just say I made that up—it wouldn’t happen in the 21st century. Would it?

French National Front party: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Front_(France) Viktor Orban’s (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viktor_Orb%C3%A1n) Hungarian Fidesz party—now the governing party—is another good comparison here, and Orban is certainly a closer parallel to Trump than Mussolini.

J.K. Rowling thinks Trump is worse than Voldemort: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/11/world/europe/donald-trump-muslim-britain-petition-ban.html

Kurtz reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kurtz_(Heart_of_Darkness) (but you knew that, right?)

Footnotes

1. Quite independently—that is, I wrote my screed prior to seeing this article—the ever-perceptive Ross Douthat reaches much these same conclusions with respect to the limited options of the Republican establishment: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/10/opinion/campaign-stops/the-crisis-of-republican-authority.html

2. I’m old enough to remember when Protestant prayer was a regular part of the public school day. And so, I’d guess, are many of Trump’s supporters, who tend to be older.

3. Consider the position of the US elites (party affiliation is irrelevant here: we’re looking at the denizens of the 158 families, right and left)

  • At the elite level, the country has fully recovered from the Great Recession and other excesses of the Bush era: the Dow-Jones average is almost 50% above its 2008 levels, elite unemployment is effectively zero, inflation is almost too low to measure; for the first time in decades the country is on the path to energy independence.
  • Economic growth is steady and probably at about the highest sustainable level for a mature industrial/service economy. Years of manipulation of the tax laws have insured that the gains from growth go entirely to the economic elite, with none of that unpleasant “trickle-down” from the mid-20th century. De facto taxation of elite income sources—many of which escape taxation altogether—is at levels not seen since the Gilded Age of a century or more in the past.
  • As with economic growth, the elites acquire virtually all of the benefits, and incur virtually none of the costs, of globalization. And there are many. Same for information-technology-driven automation.
  • The education system has been co-opted into a corporate model that has brought merit-based social mobility to a standstill—well below the levels of Europe by many though not all accounts—as well as insuring that in the course of their “education” precious little Jason and Ashley will never encounter people or ideas which will make them feel uncomfortable. But they’ll have access to a great fitness center.
  • Violent crime is on a steady decline (with the consequence that in coastal cities urban property values, another asset of the elite, are hitting stratospheric levels); the legal system has been manipulated to the point where white-collar crime is virtually impossible to prosecute.
  • This system is overseen by a very stable, centrist government disinclined to the ideological and imperial over-reach of previous administrations and under the sway of a corrupt campaign finance system fully endorsed by a Supreme Court controlled by right-wing revisionist judges.

All of which is to say that while the elites pretend to react to the current situation by echoing the dying Kurtz’s “The horror, the horror…” if they have even the slightest self-awareness they should awake each morning pinching themselves and saying “I can’t believe I live in such a wonderful time!”

But even if they aren’t sufficiently self-aware to do that, at the very least they recognize that legislative “paralysis” merely maintains a status quo that, short of formally discarding, on the model of Darth Sidious/Palpatine, the remaining silly trappings of democracy, really couldn’t get any better. What the Tea Party sees as a problem, the elites see as a solution. [10] So ain’t nothing going to change here any time soon.

4. Is the obesity epidemic also the explanation for the decline in street crime?: the correlation is certainly there. Heck, you don’t even need “You can run but you can’t hide” if the miscreant can’t even run in the first place. For this same reason, anyone who thinks the size of the U.S. military can be substantially increased (short of relying on immigrants) is deluding themselves: recruitment quotas are being missed even now. 

5. Though not, it appears, imposing sanctions on the University of North Carolina.

6. He’s still got the Trump Winery curse to deal with. You haven’t heard about the curse?: Local lore has it that the property is cursed thanks to a groundskeeper who a few years back was killing the neighborhood dogs so that the owner—at the time the wealthiest man in the US—could hunt pheasants on the property with his fat-cat friends. This was before Trump bought the place—he wasn’t up there in his black helicopter stalking the poochies with an AR-15 modified for fully automatic fire, well, at least not back then—but killing your neighbors’ dogs is not taken lightly in the hickory-covered hills of central Virginia, and after the dog-killing incident, bad things started happening with people associated with that property, starting with the [natural? Or supernatural?] death of the wealthy owner. Really. Trump apparently was so impressed with his own bargaining skills that he didn’t explore the possibility that the sellers had some really good reasons for wanting to be rid of it.

And there are probably parts of the story we don’t know about: that night when the groundskeeper heard the sound of drums, and saw the ghostly flickering of torches in the distance, and in the morning found the gateposts of the property smeared with chicken blood and black rooster feathers scattered about…yes…in the hickory-covered hills of central Virginia, the unwary can find themselves dealing with forces the likes of which the Trump family cannot even imagine, much less hope to control.

Polling data haven’t factored this in either.

7. It seems J.K. Rowling, who we must acknowledge knows more than a bit about Voldemort, considers Trump worse than Voldemort, but I’m okay sticking with the original equation.

8. Like Dumbledore, Bush is doomed anyway.

9. The astute reader may be observing that this blogger has spent perhaps a bit too much time reading the Harry Potter books.

10. Though it is at least possible that this same set of circumstances may shed light on one of the other great mysterious of the current electoral cycle, Bill O’Reilly’s vicious attack on Ronald Reagan, Killing Reagan, which has been thoroughly denounced as a dark fantasy by virtually everyone who has either worked with or studied the 40th president.

That one of the most pompous bloviators in the Fox multi-verse should compose a book-length character assassination virtually devoid of factual content comes as little surprise: in fact that’s probably a requirement for the position. But targeting Ronald Reagan?—that requires some explanation.

Unless this is a signal—something akin to those scriveners who under Stalin inspired the phrase “Soviet history is very hard to predict”—that the GOP elite are ready to abandon the “Reagan Democrats” before the “Reagan Democrats” abandon the GOP. It was Reagan, after all, who finished the job of changing the affiliations of lower-middle-class whites that Nixon had begun, a task Reagan accomplished both through his not inconsiderable political skills, and by the helpful fact that he wasn’t Nixon. Is O’Reilly trashing Reagan in order to trash this legacy of Reagan?

But that would leave another mystery: how can the GOP win elections only with the votes of aging wealthy white people?—voter suppression is only going to take you so far. Oh, wait, perhaps now we see why the computer code on electronic voting machines is proprietary and can’t be examined…

O’Reilly’s next book will be titled Killing Kittens. Excerpt: “They may look cute, but they grow up to be ruthless predators of songbirds, a vector for the spread of mind-altering viruses and live in total contempt of the humans who ply them daily with food in exchange for a modicum of feigned affection.” Then on to those discredited stories about Dick Cheney, kittens and the wood chipper.

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3 Responses to Seven Updated Observations on Trump

  1. Pingback: Is Trump pulling a Colbert on the Republican Party? | asecondmouse

  2. womanstats says:

    Cruz/Malfoy–nah, how about Huey Long?

  3. Pingback: Quelques observations sur la candidature de Donald J. ¡Trump! | Polit’bistro : des politiques, du café

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