What is Donald Trump if not the beneficiary of American liberalism? He did not arise from anything but Democratic Party policies over the past century that benefited the petit bourgeois land owner while carrying along the middle and working classes. Since at least the Goldwater campaign, the city of New York, his home town and base of operations, has been seen as the absolute bastion of a political system that everyone in the conservative/neoconservative vanguard loathed. His success is totally defined by the allowances of liberalism for his bad behaviors on the one hand and the liberal nomenklatura’s sensationalist, too-little-too-late defense of civil liberties in the name of their own awful record on those same liberties.
Consider for example his well-known housing discrimination case dating back to 1963. Trump was caught using a system of devices to keep black and brown people from moving into his properties alongside his father. But there is zero mention in all that coverage that this abhorrent behavior was possible not despite but because he was operating in a Democratic machine metropolis. Andrew Kopkind, whose anthology The Thirty Years’ War: Dispatches and Diversions of a Radical Journalist 1965-1994 should be a textbook in journalism and contemporary American history classrooms nationwide, wrote for The New Republic in June 1965 a story about the Students for a Democratic Society campaigns in poor communities:
They do not seek allies in the middle-class liberal word, because their analysis of society tells them that the liberals have as much at stake in the status quo as the conservatives, and are equally biased against change… Relations with the League for Industrial Democracy are far from friendly. League leaders-especially Bayard Rustin-want a coalition of liberal movements (unions, civil rights groups, the churches) to improve the condition of the poor. The students see the coalition idea as merely an extension of New Deal welfare politics. They want to do more than lift a few poor people into the middle class. “The New Deal brought socialism to the middle class and free enterprise to the poor,” a Protestant minister who works with SDS in Cleveland said.
Kopkind wrote in an August piece for New Statesman about Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society legislation that “He is still tied to the New Deal concept of welfarism: poor people are responsible for their poverty; Negroes are responsible for their oppression; and the middle class is responsible for its alienation.” Kopkind’s work points out the structural flaws in the democratic socialist system, “guns and butter Keynesianism”, that functioned as a warm, moist bed into which the opportunistic staph infection of Trump’s business practices grew into a boil we are watching rupture on television this year.
This failure of New Deal liberalism is a gap, a space, and it is into this space that the conservative reaction arose and metastasized with a populist grammar and vocabulary around Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative and William F. Buckley, Jr.’s National Review. Trump and his father exploited this gap for their own ends in the 1960s while greasing the palms of the right people in the Democratic machine to keep out of trouble. Indeed, the Trump housing discrimination case was brought about because of the complaints of potential tenants who experienced his bigotry. They were not standardized citations filed by mindful civil servants who were diligently tracking demographic trends within the Trump properties akin to how a policeman sits on the side of the road writing tickets. Donald Trump had to be caught by citizen-activists doing wrong before the New York liberal machine bothered with calling him out for taking advantage of this gap.
My grandmother was one example of someone who found comfort in repudiating this gap. She was a little girl who migrated to New York City shortly after the 1929 crash from Northern Ireland. Her father was a fan of Franklin Roosevelt and a typical working class bartender. Her career was spent teaching in New York public schools and her retirement care over the past two decades, which required her and my grandfather relocating to Rhode Island, has been reliably and steadily maintained by a substantial public employees pension. Yet she was also a longtime reader of National Review, a loyal viewer of the FIRING LINE program, and a dedicated Republican.
This was not out of some bizarre sense of self-hatred or a loathing of her coworkers. Instead, it was the justified loathing of this gap. Buckley and his colleagues proffered a set of answers that were poisonous but which seemed reasonable, a simplistic vision of economics, in reality grade school arithmetic, combined with dog whistles about “entitlements”. My grandmother was not an economics major and so she did not grasp that there are massive differences between writing a household budget and writing a national one, such as the fact that nations can print money and cancel their debts while citizens cannot. It was because the New Left’s embrace of counterculture so offended her Roman Catholic Greatest Generation notions of propriety and the Old Left’s Communism that Buckley, himself a Catholic, seemed like the only sane answer to this gap, otherwise she could have very well ended up reading Kopkind rather than National Review.
Over the next fifty years, the Democratic Party time and again, when given the opportunity to overcome the gaps and contradictions within their labor party program, simply refused to do so and in fact made these issues worse. Whether it was Johnson’s bungled management of the Great Society and civil rights legislation combined with his abhorrent Cold War hawk policies or Jimmy Carter’s tack to the right midterm that led Ted Kennedy to take up a Quixotic bid for the 1980 nomination, the party of unions instead went further to the right.
So we come, a half-century after the Goldwater campaign, to the Trump phenomenon. Don DeBar, who covered the conventions this summer for his CPR Radio news program, wrote an analysis of what he saw in the Sanders and Trump bases that is worth reading in full but which I quote here:
Tony Monteiro and I were at both conventions. Many Left (and Democratic Party operative) organizers attempted to hold large protests against Trump in Cleveland. But only the organizers showed up, and their efforts to organize locally in Cleveland failed completely. Yet, there has apparently been no real attempt to understand WHY they failed. In my honest opinion, it wasn’t a lack of skill or resources on the part of the organizers, but, rather, the big picture of the objective conditions facing their would-be constituents. Cleveland has as a backdrop not New York’s – or California’s – Palisades, but empty factories where the people used to earn their living, the places where they made the money to pay their mortgages, their kids’ tuition, etc., etc. These ghost-like structures loom visually in the background as a reminder of their past and present condition. Flawed as he is, and regardless of whether he or any other American politician can be trusted to put deed to their word, Trump speaks directly and clearly to these concerns, as did Sanders, and, predictably, this is resonating with many of these people.
This is a key fact to understand. Trump’s ascent and seeming growth in strength is not despite but because of repeated public relations scandals and faux pas that would would and did topple a Howard Dean or someone similar. This is to be attributed on the one hand to the fact that the public, with a mild grasp of the Chomsky/Herman propaganda model, filtered through the sick lens of Rupert Murdoch and the Breitbart organization in some instances, knows that the mainstream media is so obviously beholden to the Democratic Party, the vanguard of finance capital. On the other hand, it is because the Democrats, led by Obama, allowed the aforementioned gap to become a chasm by bailing out Wall Street instead of Main Street.
Eight years ago, the newly-elected President had a popular mandate perhaps only equal to that of LBJ or Ronald Reagan. But as so many have pointed out before, he used that opportunity to solidify the gains of finance capital caused by the 2008 crash. In doing this, he left a massive opening for the Republicans, who went from the party of war criminal neocons like Bush and Cheney to the populist Tea Party in less than eighteen months, a transformation unheard of in any other country on earth. And compounding this the Tea Party, populated by demagogues like Ted Cruz or Michele Bachmann and little else, became nothing but a Congressional gridlock catalyst.
As such, Donald Trump, the self-important scumbag real estate shark, casino magnate, cheapskate hotelier, and reality television star, took advantage of a gap now as wide as the Grand Canyon and launched not a traditional presidential campaign but what is really an anti-campaign. Decorum and decency? Screw that. Outreach to minority voters? Hell no. Worry about press coverage? Mind your own business. A single policy platform plank that is more substantial than headlines from the Libertarian blogroll on a given day? Buzz off.
Several months ago, it was made clear by a Real Clear Politics poll aggregate that Bernie Sanders would have swept Trump in the election by a margin of 10.4 percentage points averaged. Simultaneously, it was blatantly obvious that Clinton would be neck-and-neck with Trump. The most clever ruse foisted yet on the public is how it is somehow the responsibility of the voters if Trump gets elected whereas, in reality, the blame lies solely with a Democratic Party who intentionally passed on a surefire victory and two candidates who put their egos ahead of victory. This is yet another instance of how Trump benefits from gaps within American liberalism, be it Clinton’s imperial neoliberalism or the Bernie Sanders brand of Pentagon Keynesian New Dealer liberalism.
I read Ralph Nader’s columns regularly and respect what he says. I also read the editorial page of the New York Times semi-regularly to keep up with what is essentially the ideological platform of the New York Democratic Party my grandmother hated so much. Both seem unable to grasp, for whatever reason, that Trump’s populist appeal is fueled by their condemnations. It is not that his base does not know these things about Trump, it is they like him for these political screw-ups. If the New York Times seriously wanted to do damage to Trump, they would endorse him, at which point his base would begin having second thoughts. “Wait, if the Times is in favor of him there must be something wrong!”
Trump’s populist appeal is based upon not only his own rejection of the political establishment, epitomized by his bullying nicknames for his opponents. It is also based substantially on the establishment’s complimentary rejection of him as a candidate, demonstrated by how every neocon policy wonk has run into Hillary’s big tent and a substantial number of the remainders seemed to be rats fleeing a sinking ship after yet another scandal. In response, the mainstream press has tried to label Trump as an authoritarian, which brings to mind the image of a voting booth being turned into a kinky S&M dungeon when a Trump voter enters to cast his ballot.
No, Trump voters don’t want to be dominated. If anything, they are sick of the political system that has dominated their lives. Instead, they want a press and electoral system that is not going to betray them like Obama did. They want a foreign policy that will not bring the planet as close to the precipice of nuclear war as Clinton has and will. They want a single-payer healthcare system that will not bankrupt them like the Democrats have with the Affordable Care Act. Ironically, many who wished for the collapse of the two-party system over the past eight years are now facing just that and are too numbed by their fear of a Trump presidency to recognize they got exactly what they wished for.
Trump, like the Tea Party before him, is a charlatan. But he is a charlatan only because the Democrats were fakes beforehand. He is the hellspawn of a failed American liberalism that is beyond redemption, “the New Deal concept of welfarism.”