The political commentariat has spilled a lot of ink trying to understand what the Trump phenomenon is all about. But no one has come up with a convincing story about why it is that candidate, and then President Trump has managed to break every rule in the book with near impunity. Perhaps it is because the rules he breaks with such obvious delight were designed for a very different day and age, with very different sensibilities.
I submit the Trump phenomenon is not primarily about politics; it is about culture. He is, unfortunately, representative of the current damaged state of American culture. Consider for a moment, Mr. Trump’s behavior and his policy agenda and think about when we have seen this before. Most recently it was the backlash against the cultural revolution of the 1960s that propelled Richard Nixon into the White House.
Trump’s behavior is routinely crude, juvenile, narcissistic and authoritarian. It is Manichean; driven by class consciousness, complete ignorance of economics and a whole-hearted disdain for political and social norms. His “America First” policy agenda champions exclusion rather than assimilation. It rests on the delusion that building physical, financial and administrative barriers between the United States and the rest of the world will bring back the mythical America of the 1950s. It is a zero-sum game. The Sharks versus the Jets. Differences are solved with fists.
The America First urge is nothing new in American politics; it has always lurked a bit under the surface. There are however two differences this go around. First, during previous bouts of isolationism America was a bit player on the world stage. Second, Donald Trump has managed to do what no other politician has done before. He built a coalition that capitalized on populism and isolationism. He combined the Midwestern prairie populism of South Dakota’s George McGovern with the Southern populism Alabama’s George Wallace. By combining the two he captured the electoral college (although not the popular vote) without the votes of upmarket coastal elites and ethnic minorities, both of which are concentrated in urban enclaves.
Barring some catastrophic political error (to which Trump seems strangely immune) it will be difficult for someone to upend his coalition. His backers have made an emotional and class based commitment, not a policy based one. This makes them difficult to dislodge, particularly when the opposition keeps on insisting that Trump voters are Neanderthals. Deplorables as Mrs. Clinton put it. Consequently the 2020 Presidential election is starting to shape up like the 1972 contest between George McGovern and Richard Nixon.
When George McGovern won the 1972 Democratic nomination, he led his party sharply to the left, and then went on to carry Massachusetts, losing the other 49 states to Richard Nixon. McGovern’s capture of the Democratic Party with his call to “Come Home America” led it into the political wilderness for 2 decades until Bill Clinton captured the White House for the Democratic Party in 1992. Note that Jimmy Carter’s narrow 1-term victory was an aberration, the result of disgust with President Ford’s pardoning of Richard Nixon.
As President, Nixon extended Lyndon Johnson’s welfare state, created affirmative action, imposed wage and price controls, and made detente with the Soviet Union a core element of U.S. foreign policy. At the same time he derisively referred to William F Buckley and California Governor Ronald Reagan as right wing troublemakers and elitist idealogues. Sound familiar?
Nixon co-opted Wallace’s blue collar populists and appealed to the patriotism of middle class voters. These were the voters he called the “Silent Majority”; voters who were not necessarily political conservatives, but who resented what they saw as the condescension of liberal elites. That ought to sound familiar as well.
Meanwhile, like before, the Democratic Party is veering sharply left. And like before the Republican Party is either supporting or remaining silent about Presidential policy initiatives (like tariffs, deficit spending and industrial policy) that it had previously professed to abhor. Which is to say that both parties have turned sharply left in favor of more central planning; the question is one of degree, not direction. Just as under Nixon.
What separates Trump from Nixon is Trump’s ignorance as well as his outlandish and typically boorish public behavior. In fact, his profanity laced stream-of-consciousness speeches may be one factor that cements the tie between Trump and his fans. He talks like them; he is one of them. He is not a “suit”. Far from being a liability, his coarseness may be a political asset, at least in the short term.
For some reason or other a lot of conservatives who used to quote Toqueville and Burke about the importance of the pursuit of virtue to the political health of a society seem to have lost their old speeches. Not that progressives are much better; quite a few including Kamala Harris, Tom Perez and Kirstin Gilibrand deliberately use profanity to develop “street cred” with the base. Bill Clinton’s town hall discussions about his underwear preferences now seem positively demure. So it should be no surprise that public discussions of policy issues are often fact free affairs framed in language designed to appeal to the prejudices of the audience.
But the sloppy (at best) and often vulgar language used by politicians is detrimental to the health of civil society, social order, decency and compromise. It is also an indicator of sloppy thought. And it leads to bad policy, which often produces awful results. In this regard it is worth taking a trip down memory lane to recall some of Nixon’s policy making, which bears more the a passing resemblance to Trump’s.
It is, for instance, well worth remembering that Nixon’s economic policies which included wage and price controls and attacks on the independence of the Fed, produced the runaway inflation of the 1970s. It ultimately resulted in severe stress in the financial system, a recession in 1973 – 1975, a severe stock market downturn, stagflation and commodity shortages. In fairness, it wasn’t entirely Nixon’s fault; he had plenty of help from successors Jerry Ford and Jimmy Carter who followed the same types of awful policies.
With their protectionism, unrestrained spending and redistributionism, both major parties are planting the seeds for a return to the 1970s. It is (or ought to be) clear that, while Trump is a problem, he is not the problem. He is symptomatic of a damaged culture that is infecting our political and civic institutions. The problem will last beyond Trump’s exit from center stage, just as it did with Nixon’s.
The challenge is to rebuild the culture. That is a lot more difficult than winning elections.