Monday, May 09, 2016

An across-the-board weird election year? Or just Presidential-level nutiness from the Trump Republicans?

Trump's all-but-formalized victory in the Republican Presidential primaries was something the conventional wisdom wasn't expecting. Including inside the Republican Party. So there is a lot of scrambling going on for pundits and star reporters to re-gauge their approach while, of course, trying to avoid going too far out on a limb and committing themselves to something that we look embarrassing when the new conventional wisdom is safely established.

Elizabeth Drew is one of the best among well-known political writers who generally stick carefully within the bounds of Beltway respectability. So her recent take, Trump’s Long Game NYR Blog 05/06/20169, may be a good measure of the state of the narrative-redefining process:

Trump has also been successful at branding his opponents. He knows how to do that: pick a perceived weakness, give it a name, and repeat, repeat, repeat, ad infinitum. Toward the end of the primaries he had his audiences cheerfully chanting “Lyin’ Ted,” and soon enough they’ll be saying “Crooked Hillary.” (Trump toyed with “Incompetent Hillary” for a while, but then alighted on the sharper and more damaging appellation.) To my knowledge, no previous presidential candidate has done this.

The slogan of the Trump campaign, “Make America Great Again,” was born of the mind of a great salesman; he affixed it not to baseball hats but to truckers’ caps. Can anyone say what Hillary Clinton’s slogan is? Clinton sees the complexities of the world; hers isn’t a bumper-sticker mind. Trump is a master simplifier, which is very useful in politics. (JFK, who also understood complexities, ran in 1960 on “Get This Country Moving Again.”) Trump’s message is more sophisticated than it appears: it gets at the sense of his followers that America has slid—economically, militarily. He says, “We can’t defeat ISIS;” he asserts that other countries “don’t respect us.” Many Republicans paint Obama as both power mad and a wimp.

The admitted formerly licentious figure presents himself as a settled family man and his closeness to his children can’t be faked. Trump neither drinks nor smokes and doesn’t do drugs, and he brought up his kids not to do these things, either. He’s oddly prissy—he just had to talk about Hillary Clinton’s bathroom break during a debate but he found the concept “horrible”—a word he also uses frequently, pronouncing it “harroble.” Trump’s a noted germaphobe. [my emphasis]

Success is success. And the Republican nomination is highly competitive, high-stakes politics. So the fact that he's effectively won it makes it reasonable on its face to praise the brilliance of his approach. On the other hand, it's an effective approach to take for reporters who want that precious "inside access" to the Trump campaign, too. For me, the jury is still out on that one. Sometimes people blunder into brilliance, or at least brilliant success.

It's a long-established convention in the corporate media to describe successful appeals to white racism and xenophobia in a faux-sociological way, referring to "alienation" and broad social conditions. Since those are human and social phenomena, of course they don't exist as separate ontological categories, they are part of real life will complicated determinants. But the Beltway media approach is typically a way of minimizing the raw effects of white racism and xenophobia as such. And also of expressing faux sympathy for the working people, one of the millionaire's pundits' favorite poses. When pundits like David "Bobo" Brooks talk fondly of the workin' folks, it reminds me of this classic geezer rock song, the Rolling Stones' "Salt of the Earth," which was probably intended to be something like a folk song but has the narrator describing working class people as a strange, distant presence composed of people who deserved sympathy but for which actual identification or empathy is out of the question:

Drew does specifically focus on the racial and xenophobic appeals that are key to Trump's success among Republicans:

Because Trump upsets assumptions and makes his own rules, because of those intangibles, he defies conventional political analysis. The thing is, Trump’s a lot smarter than he pretends to be when he identifies with your average Joe who’s been out of work or underpaid or sick of immigrants or simply pissed off at having to be “politically correct.” The rejection of PC has been one of Trump’s cannier moves: it liberates his audience but it also liberates him. That same average Joe (who puts the actual Joe the Plumber, of fleeting fame in 2008, in the shade as a campaign symbol) doesn’t want to have to compete with minorities or immigrants, and he doesn’t want to have to be polite about it. The shocking claim in Trump’s announcement speech last June that Mexico “sends us” rapists and murderers was in fact a considered and critical element of the campaign he was about to wage.

Trump’s anti-immigration talk, coupled with the fantastical wall with Mexico that he apparently has millions believing he’ll build, with Mexico paying for it, are examples of how adept he’s been at sussing out the grievances of his core constituency. Like Bernie Sanders, he understands that trade agreements have destroyed jobs and caused considerable anger. Like several Republican candidates before him, he’s played not entirely subtly to racial hatred. Trump’s pre-candidacy “birther” obsession—his tall tales about “investigators” he’d sent to Hawaii to dig up the real story of Barack Obama’s birthplace and the “absolutely unbelievable” material they’d turned up (but he never revealed)—was about race. Trump plays a plutocratic Archie Bunker. [my emphasis]
The "plutocratic Archie Bunker" label is a perceptive one.

But the Archie Bunker character was one who was prejudiced and conventional minded, but at heart a decent and caring person. It's a two-edged metaphor in the hands of our Pod Pundits, in other words. As the New York Times obituary by Richard Severo for the actor Carroll O'Connor put it (Carroll O'Connor, Actor Who Played Archie Bunker, Dies at 76 06/22/2001):

In a career spanning five decades, Mr. O'Connor won five Emmys. Four were for his work in CBS's "All in the Family," in which he played Archie, that patriarch from Queens who in the 1970's became emblematic of a certain kind of American bigot. Archie called his forbearing wife a dingbat, his son-in-law a pinko Polack and his daughter a weepin' nellie atheist. He said these and other outrageous things with the certitude that is usually enjoyed only by someone of modest intellect. But in the way Mr. O'Connor handled the role, Archie emerged as a complex, not-always-wrong sympathetic figure to most of the 50 million weekly viewers in America. Liberals seemed to love Archie as much as conservatives; even some critics called him lovable. [my emphasis]
Casting Donald Trump as lovable but crude Archie Bunker is definitely a way to normalized Trump and his Mussolinized rhetoric.

I think that we'll need to wait until after the Republican and Democratic conventions,, July 18-21 and July 25-28, respectively, to get a good read on how the contest in the summer and fall will go.

What we do know now is that both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have historic negative ratings among the general public, his more unfavorable than hers at the moment. Clinton does not yet have the nomination tied up, so that makes it very tricky to game out the shape of the main campaign.

Digby Parton was perceptive early on in the primary contests about the potential appeal of a Trump campaign. She wasn't weighed down by the conventional assumption that the Republicans are a responsible center-right party. An opinion still dearly held by the punditocracy despite decades of evidence to the contrary.

In Trump is crushing the conservative movement: Inside the implosion of a decrepid [sic] ideology Salon 05/09/2016, she's surprisingly optimistic about the prospects for an electoral calamity for the Republicans in November:

Today, we have a spectacle wherein the last two Republican presidents, George H.W. Bush and George W., along with the last Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, refusing to vote for the 2016 nominee. The 2008 candidate, John McCain, a man once known for his independence and integrity, is in a tough Senate race and is playing so many angles, he’s not making any more sense than his old running mate, Sarah Palin. The smarmy Republican majority leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, whispers that he thinks he can manipulate the amateur Trump to his will, so he isn’t too worried. And the Speaker of the House, the once and future king, Paul Ryan, is hedging his bets, unwilling to say if he will support the nominee, even though he is the chairman of the convention that will nominate the man. He is between the proverbial rock and a hard place, with the GOP base now intractably hostile to him over his inability to single-handedly pass their agenda, while at the same time needing to preserve some semblance of credibility to lead the party once this fall’s epic debacle is done. [my emphasis]
From my own Democratic point of view, a fall debacle for the Republicans is too good to hope for. For one thing, I will be surprised if the real existing Republican Party doesn't unite behind Trump as the candidate, though there will be a lot of mealy-mouthing about it.

The other big caution in my mind is that, for once in her national political career, Hillary Clinton has had remarkably favorite press. Remarkable, because there is nothing the mainstream media love more than a Clinton psuedoscandal. Unless it's a Clinton sex story. But in this primary series, the Beltway wise heads decided early own that Clinton was the presumptive nominee, so they've reacted to Bernie Sanders' campaign with unending disdain. While the same Beltway conventional wisdom assumed that Trump was a joke. They didn't realize it, apparently, but by treating him as a carnival sideshow that was an easy ratings boost, they have given him remarkably favorable press from his own viewpoint. Trump's press coverage may be more skeptical going forward, though that's not saying very much. Clinton's will surely be worse. Sanders' coverage is already bad, and the press hostility can be expected to intensify if he becomes the nominee.

Also in Salon, Jack Mirkinson expresses a more skeptical view of Republican weakness in 2016, No, Donald Trump won’t kill the Republican Party 05/09/2016. These factors he identifies are substantial considerations:

To begin with, this sort of declaration supposes that there was a much much better GOP around to be murdered by Trump. But there wasn’t. Trump is unique in the openness of his racism, his singularly vulgar public presence and his overt appeals to mob justice, but he sits atop a party that’s made bigotry, authoritarianism and oligarchy the core pillars of its public policy. Republicans didn’t need any encouragement from Donald Trump to attack voting rights or embrace torture or promise to gut the safety net. Trump’s not leading the vicious anti-trans movement that’s sweeping the nation. He didn’t bring Sarah Palin or the Tea Party into the universe. Put simply, Trump won because he turned the messages the Republican Party has been sending out for decades up to full volume and reaped the rewards.

More importantly, though, it’s a misreading of both past and present history to declare that the GOP is in a terminal condition. Even after its descent into Trump madness, we’re still talking about a party that controls Congress and a majority of state legislatures and governorships. Democrats could take the Senate back, but that is by no means a done deal. It’ll be a miracle if they recapture the House. If Hillary Clinton wins in November and fights to be re-elected, she’ll be attempting to win a fourth straight presidential term for the Democrats, something that hasn’t been achieved by either party since the days of Harry Truman. Republicans may be suffering through a particularly acute identity crisis, but they retain substantial power across the country. [my emphasis]
I'm also inclined to think that Trump's White Power campaign will energize a lot of Republicans to vote and also to continuing activism.

Whether the Democratic Party can achieve a comparable mobilization remains to be seen.

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