Tag Archives: donald trump

Twelve Takes on a Transition

24 Jan

As we roll through another transition in American power, here are 12 semi-related opinions on what we’ve witnessed over the past few weeks, and what may yet come.

1. The 2020 inauguration was surreal–and yet it wasn’t at all, either. A who’s-who of a greying political elite that has dominated the American stage for the past 30 years was strewn about a socially distanced stage, masked up before an empty Mall to perform its quadrennial ritual. In many ways it signified a return to boring politics, a development that may not be cause for celebration but at least offers a more familiar, navigable script. There was some fresh poetry and a very elaborate Lady Gaga brooch and some fuzzy Bernie mittens to liven it all up, but otherwise it seemed, in the end, what one might expect this moment to offer: the old gang back together again, and making deep concessions to a changed world.

2. I don’t have a ton to say about Joe Biden that I didn’t say back when he visited Duluth in September or immediately after his win over Trump. As one of the most entrenched establishment presidents ever, he is in many ways a bizarre figure to take charge in a moment of great crisis, amid a pandemic and on the heels of an insurrection, at the seeming end of Reaganomics and amid the highest racial tensions in 50 years. But here he is, anointed by history to take charge, and he has a great opportunity before him. The bar is relatively low: get people vaccinated and back to work and the national mood will lift considerably, and the opposition party has a fascinating struggle ahead of itself as it figures out where it stands in relation to its departed leader. Biden has a chance to be the president who really delivers.

3. The necessary caveat: never underestimate the power of the left eat itself alive. If the vaccine rollout gets bogged down in attempts to target narrow groups (as it already has in some states) or if Biden takes heavy internal heat for a stalled progressive agenda that needs Joe Manchin as its 50th vote, this could wind up as one of the most sclerotic presidencies ever. There is some reason to expect that it won’t. Unlike the Republicans, whose insurgency went straight to the presidency in 2016, the Democrats are a comparatively unified caucus right now; their loudest internal critics wield little actual power. But as the events of 2020 show a roiling frustration with incremental progress on American streets, and it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where the Democratic center fails to hold.

4. The two previous points ask a fundamental question: is this the start of a new era, a swing in the American pendulum that went from New Deal consensus to Regan consensus and now turns toward something new? Or is it another lurch in a nation growing more and more ungovernable, one which the 2022 midterms will promptly offset? Transition or decline? The next two years will, I think, provide a definitive answer on the direction.

5. Pedantic international affairs major insertion: what happened on January 6 was not a coup. Coups d’état involve the active collaboration of the armed forces. The reaction of the American military establishment was basically the opposite of a coup. One could even argue that the events later in the day were constitutionally questionable, because the order to call in the national guard did not come from Trump. Mike Pence, in order to prevent the subversion of the democratic process, seemingly took control; we can only assume that a threat of the 25th Amendment extracted the eventual Trump semi-concession. It took a small dodge of the constitutional order to maintain the larger constitutional order, and was the only logical endgame for a form of politics built around trolling existing order.

6. Whatever failures occurred at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, the reaction of the American security state has been overwhelming. The FBI is hunting down the perpetrators with systematic precision, and with a military occupation in Washington DC, the inauguration passed without a hint of returned insurrection. (That said, as someone who once attended another inauguration, I can assure people that the monster security presence, while expanded in 2020, is no new development.) Let no one question the vast power of the American state when it mobilizes, and while it can be terrifying in its reach, it provides a reminder that the old Max Weber maxim, that the state is a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, can be a force of great stability. Stability can be unfair and unequal, but it also tends not to kill very many people, and it usually offers ladders to those who can play its games. It has its discontents, no doubt, but it also has its merits.

7. On a similar note, the power and the social media giants to silence Trump shows their overwhelming ability to control the so-called public square. I have some low-level minor league experience in this world: as someone who has moderated a silly little hockey message board for over a decade, I apply a set of online content moderation standards on a semi-regular basis. (At one point, before I got my admin powers, my board even spun off its own little Parler of disaffected users, though that forum has since gone the way of the dodo.) The language of the Facebook and Twitter plutocrats over the past months is all too familiar because I have said some of the same things to justify some decisions: my message board is a private space, to be moderated by its owner and his designees; we are like bouncers at the bar, not a government, and our users have no inherent right to anonymity or unrestricted speech on our platform. I try to be consistent and just in this space, though I am only human.

8. In short, I think Twitter made the right decision. No one should be above the established standards of content moderation in an established space. What is galling, however, is the inconsistency: if Trump can get tossed for inciting an insurrection, why are oppressive if not outright genocidal regimes still around? The answer, of course, is profit, a trend that the flight of capital from Trumpland post-insurrection underscores further. On the one hand, this seems like a depressing comment on access to a major source of contemporary discourse; one the other, maybe we need to dust off Adam Smith’s old arguments about the moral underpinnings of markets. One can dream.

9. One of the greatest joys of the Trump social media ban: getting Trump out of the heads of the media. A relatively small number of Americans uses Twitter (they are no monopoly, so let’s stop pretending like breaking them up would do any good), but it is very much a major source for everything the news broadcasted over the past five years. No more Trump Twitter means no more real-time lib-owning and the glee or exasperation that came with it. The quiet is so, so very welcome. If a side effect of social media crackdown is that more people spend less time on social media, I will shed no tears.

10. The world will, I hope, become several degrees less crazy when Covid-driven lockdowns cease to be a thing and life frees people from refreshing their news feeds every five minutes, and this trend applies to the left, the right, and the center. Life has blurred more and more toward virtual reality over the past year, with people increasingly reliant on technology for so much of their social lives and their escapes. In some ways technology will only continue this trend, but we have also seen the horrible limits of this world over the past year. In a weird way, I take some solace in the number of people who are just done with lockdown measures. It’s a sign that, when some sense of normalcy returns, a lot of people will embrace that analog reality.

11. On a less obviously political note, I’m very curious to watch and see what happens with real estate markets and American migration patterns when Covid becomes less of a thing. Over the past year, the headlines have been dominated by flight from crowded cities as people seek escapes; anecdotally, some northern Minnesota locales that haven’t seen population growth in a long time have seen an uptick in interest. As someone who thinks that neither $3,000-a-month Manhattan rents nor $30,000 Iron Range homes are signs of healthy economic competitiveness, this pleases me. Now, can it keep up?

12. It seemed somehow fitting that the man who delivered the inauguration convocation was a figure from a strange, dream-like past. I spent my college days eating in a dining hall named after Father Leo O’Donovan, a former Georgetown University president who I’d simply assumed was long dead. Instead, there he was: aged but still vigorous, insisting that a critical moment was upon us. Tennyson’s Ulysses seems an apt metaphor for the start of this new administration.

Sad

15 Nov

One story of the past decade of my life has been a general failure of an attempt to escape the highs and lows of national politics. I’ve spun this yarn on this blog before, from the moment I realized I could be free in a park in Mexico City ten years ago to an attempt to say goodbye to all that at the start of the Trump Administration. I made halting progress at times, especially when events closer to home came to fill my life. But in 2020, that endless mirror of a Zoom call that forces us to stare at our faces and contemplate our warts, an election day that turned to an election week forced me to use every weapon in the arsenal in an attempt to stay sane. It worked, at the price of exhaustion that has carried through for another week.

The outcome of the 2020 election was clear enough from the moment the New York Times’ Needle, that data-mining triumph and harbinger of doom, flipped on Georgia on Tuesday night. The eventual result was clear by Wednesday morning, even though it took three more days for the networks to declare a winner. The polls have taken a justified beating for their inaccuracy, but the data people—especially, I think, when one leaves aside their attention-grabbing probability numbers and focuses instead on what they write—were otherwise by far the best sources of information as the count dragged on. The two sage Nates, Nate Cohn of the Times and Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight, laid it out clearly. The count was a simple math problem, and every piece of evidence showed that it would not be kind to Trump.

And yet, somehow, I couldn’t stop the endless refreshes in search of new results or interpretations. It was addicting, an endless string of hits off a drug. Part of it was the fact that I faced most of this alone: sure, my phone was blowing up incessantly, but there was no one right in front of me to distract me. Part of it is pent-up quarantine energy, restless at the tedium of life at home. In my work circle, a tacit pact emerged to enable this mindset: show up to your meetings and perform your basic tasks, please, but we don’t expect much more of anyone this week. We’re all in this together.

A descent into political obsession wasn’t all negative. My knowledge of the random county names across the U.S. has grown exponentially. The Twitters on my doom loop were universally insightful, with deep knowledge of random pockets of the country and instant, sharp analysis. At certain times of day, I learned to pull up the Twitter feed of a guy in Arizona with the avatar of The Count from Sesame Street who crunched numbers quickly. (“I cannot be stopped,” The Count calmly replied, after Trump emitted one of his “STOP THE COUNT!” tweets.) The endless stream of memes added some much-needed levity, with anything involving Nevada or Gritty taking the cake; the Four Seasons Total Landscaping adventure, meanwhile, will give me reason to chuckle years from now. I connected with old friends here and there, and enjoyed a socially distanced exhale on Saturday when our fate was, finally, sealed. Well, at least it was if you don’t live in the Trumpian fantasyland of unexamined conscience.

A lot of people thought Donald Trump was a descent into authoritarianism, and while he sometimes acted the part, it was only ever that: an attention-consuming act. Instead, his presidency was defined by weakness. It was a world-beating marketing campaign elevated by the puffed-up rhetoric favored by people whose self-confidence vastly outweighs their competence. Trump was never a third-world strongman: he was a reality TV imitation of one. His flaccid performance showed both the enduring power of American institutions and the overwhelming power of the entertainment complex to smother everything else.

The hoopla masked both the ineptitude and some of the more interesting nuanced achievement. We’re still waiting on that Obamacare replacement and that infrastructure package. The only major policy win was a milquetoast tax cut that any Republican could have pushed through, and Trump had the fortunate timing to get himself three Supreme Court picks in four years, while most recent presidents got two in eight. His foreign policy has been an incoherent slop, but it has avoided any catastrophic blunders and at times achieved some qualified successes. His trade policy likewise has proved a useful, if scattershot, corrective to the free trade bromides that dominated the previous quarter century. There’s reason to believe a more nuanced trade policy could be a point of agreement between Democrats and Republicans. The economy, which is usually beyond a president’s control, was good until it wasn’t, thanks in part to the Republicans’ drift away from their longtime fiscal and free trade orthodoxy. I expect them to rediscover it under the Biden Administration, but there is now potential common ground on a more middle-class friendly economic policy that didn’t exist four years ago.

If that were the extent of Trump’s legacy, it would be judged as fine, perhaps on par with other one-term presidents like Jimmy Carter and George Bush: a vital corrective to certain excesses, perhaps doomed by its heterodoxy and outside forces. But what will endure from the Trump Era is not any policy, but the scorched-earth warfare that politics became. It didn’t start with Trump, but it accelerated rapidly under him, enabled by the virtual world we increasingly inhabit: a barrage of tweets and own-the-libs raging that stayed relatively peaceful but opened the door to something different in the future. The left, in its sloppy and infighting-plagued and characteristic panic-over-anger fashion, responded in kind. American politics is now a battle between a Republican Party with no interest in being right so long as it wins and a Democratic Party with only a passing interest in winning because it must be right all the time.

The United States’ two major parties right now are reflective of a society scared of losing what it has built, scared of losing its culture, whether it’s that of a white settler nation with its myth of frontier liberty or a liberal empire bestride the world. Trump had a core of true believers who lapped up his rallies, but the vast majority of Trump voters I know are instead longtime Republicans who find the guy somewhat ridiculous but are willing to tolerate that because he more or less supported the causes that made them Republicans in the first place. (If you think abortion is murder or are scared Democratic policies are going to kill the industry that supports you or just value holding on to your own money above all else, a few nasty tweets aren’t a big price to pay.) The Biden campaign was perhaps an even more potent vessel of negative partisanship than the Trump campaign. It didn’t really matter what Biden stood for; it just mattered that he had the best odds of beating the other guy, which he did. Such is life under an empire teetering at the end of its apogee, at times calamitous but more often just decadent.

The coronavirus pandemic, for what it’s worth, did not prove much of a boost for Biden. Even people who know it’s bad just seem exhausted with it all now, few more so than those with kids. After reading of how low-income kids are falling through the cracks more than ever before and the extent of the mental health burden on kids who have lost their most formative years, I’m sympathetic to a desire to wish it all away. We live in dark times, and there will be lasting scars for many of us, especially our young. It is a great loss. But the fact that Trump’s approval did not rise, even as those of some relatively incompetent governors did, shows the emptiness of his effort. With leadership focused on resolve, we might have risen up united, as has happened in places like Germany or South Korea; clear expectations and national preparations could have at least this entirely predictable fall eruption. Instead, we got some tweets. Previous generations endured rationing, drafts, and mass mobilizations to endure wars with a vision of a better world; in 2020, people revolted at the notion that the government might tell them they need to wear a piece of cloth in public. That cue, of course, came from the figure at the top, not authoritarian but feeble and shallow, self-image elevated over real life, an American celebrity culture home to roost.

Given the polling errors, it is hard to know what exactly tipped this election. Biden surged in the polls after Trump bungled the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing, but “defund the police” proved an effective talking point in the Republicans’ favor, particularly (and paradoxically, given their distance from urban unrest) among the rural white people who the polls missed again. A not insignificant number of Hispanics are religious and found something to like in the Trump economy and, as a reminder, came to the U.S. for a reason, and as such may be less inclined to view it as the sin-steeped failure that a binary discourse on race relations implies. Biden, meanwhile, enjoyed the suburban surge that turned Georgia and Arizona blue, and did enough to stop the Democratic bleeding in the Midwest. The race was remarkably stable in polls, suggesting that opinions on Trump and Biden (and, let’s be honest, it was mostly Trump) were baked in so long ago that no manner of outrage over 2020 could change much.

One theory that fits with this narrative suggests that, since polls about a year ago were pretty much spot-on, the virus didn’t change many votes, but it did change who responded to polls. With so many liberals stuck at home and more willing to socially distance, a group of people suddenly had the free time or flexibility to respond to answer phone calls or join the ranks of the Very Online. Once there, they became more and more ensconced in their algorithmic circles, deprived even of the brushing interaction with different swaths of the country. Oh, how I have felt this drift in my own life into that virtual realm over the past few months, an unwitting necessity that has had the expected consequences, even for someone well-attuned to the dangers.

A move away from a virtual life won’t cure all that ails America in 2020, least of all the virus that is now ravaging the American Heartland at unprecedented levels. But avoiding that path of least resistance can tamp down somewhat on the anxiety that comes with it, and it can offer something other than the echo chamber: perhaps some new pursuits, perhaps some dives back into old ones, perhaps some reckonings with the chambers in one’s own mind. National politics will lurch along, and I now accept that I won’t ever fully escape it. Nor should I want to: I am a political animal, and I have the tools to keep it all in perspective, to put my foot on the scales here and there.

And with any luck, a Biden Administration will feel somewhat less existential in its stakes. Four years of politics as a TV series culminated in a story to save for the grandchildren, a week I’ll never forget. But after it, I am ready to return to the joys and sorrows and the exhilaration and the tedium of good, old-fashioned reality.

2020 Election Quick Takes

4 Nov

As of this writing, Joe Biden appears to have leads in enough states to earn at least 270 electoral votes in spite of some substantial polling errors, which would allow him to edge past Donald Trump and become the next President. The Democrats’ hopes for winning the Senate, meanwhile, appear to be slipping away, and their majority in the House of Representatives looks likely to shrink a bit, but remain intact.  A lot is still up in the air, but I can’t resist the urge to play Wednesday morning quarterback some, and venture a few conclusions:

Trump is a unique force in American politics. He turns out his base like no other, thereby consistently outperforming his polls. The fact that we didn’t see this in the 2018 midterms suggest it is very much a top-of-the-ticket effect. Love him or hate him, he has completely re-scrambled American politics. It further underscores the power of charisma from the top, as Democrats saw in the Obama years as well.

Even if this is it for Trump—and I’ll have more to say on the subject if it is—these results clearly aren’t a decisive rejection. What that means depends on what exactly Trumpism is without Trump. Is it all about style and personality, or is it more of a shift in the Republican Party toward being the party of the working class? For that matter, he might not be going anywhere, since this one has been so close.

American cultural divides are deeply entrenched, and the result is, for all the insanity, stability. 2020 did everything it could to throw wacky wrenches into the race: coronavirus, racial reckonings, social unrest, Supreme Court drama, and on and on. And yet, so many things seem to be reverting to the norm. After Trump’s major inroads in 2016, Minnesota lurched strongly to the Democrats in 2018, but now seems to have found a middle ground, with some of the 2018 margins sliding back: solid, increasing urban Democratic majority offset by some gradual Republican gains further afield. Minnesota remains a divided state, though at a statewide level, it remains the Republicans’ white whale. Wisconsin seems to be mirroring its narrow Democratic win in 2018 as well. At the end of the day, most people are so locked in to their cultural categories that there isn’t much room to move in American politics. Only charismatic changes at the top seem to overpower the near-stalemate, and that only briefly.

The blue suburban swing is more of a gradual shift. The Democrats will most likely have gains in suburbs to thank if Biden does pull this off, but it’s not a tidal wave. They’re losing some of the house seats they won in 2018, and here in Minnesota, we’re seeing Republican gains in the state legislature. We should, if it wasn’t already obvious, be able to put the old narrative of the emerging Democratic majority to bed. 2008 and 2018 are high-water marks in our current alignment, not harbingers of a new permanent majority. The Democrats may continue to make gains in certain areas, and on the whole their position in American politics, with victories in the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections, is the stronger one. But there is almost always an equal and opposite reaction to victories in one place somewhere else, sooner or later. This is, of course, how the rules of the game pretty much work in a two-party system. And, on a related note:

Current discourse on the left about race and ethnicity is inadequate. After four years of Donald Trump, one demographic category where Biden has clearly outperformed Hillary Clinton is…white men. This, of course, may say something about gender politics. But the lede in this election seems to be Trump’s performance among Hispanics, and to a lesser extent Black men. Without that shift in Florida alone, the state goes to Biden and we all might have been in bed early last night. I don’t know exactly what this means, but it probably means people on the left should listen to these people a bit more instead of imposing their academic theories on how they should behave upon them. The simple reality is that most people do not look at every aspect of their lives as potentially racist or antiracist, and if analysis gets too caught up in that lens, it will miss a lot of other things. Identity is a complex, multifaceted thing, and not everyone moves in lockstep.

The Democrats nominated the best option they had. No, Joe Biden was not a fount of charisma, and that probably came out in the tighter-than-polled races and down-ballot Democratic losses. But that wasn’t really a strength for anyone in the Democratic field, with the semi-exception of Bernie Sanders, and if Biden gets destroyed by Cuban-Americans in Florida because he’s seen as a stalking horse for socialism, I don’t see how an actual socialist would have done any better. Biden, meanwhile, seems to have clawed some votes back in enough of the Midwest, which was always his supposed strength as a candidate. Not in the rural areas, seemingly, but some of the mid-sized cities like his native Scranton in Pennsylvania and some of Wisconsin’s small industrial centers are showing stronger results. His margin was also noticeably better here in my home in St. Louis County, Minnesota, which fits the same category. Biden was able to pull back some blue-collar roots while at the same time consolidating suburban gains around Phoenix and Atlanta. I’m not sure who else in the Democratic field could have managed both of those trends simultaneously.

Biden ran his campaign with military precision and stayed the course. This is Joe Biden we’re talking about, so of course the end result isn’t going to be exciting or world-changing. But politics is the art of coalition-building—even a base-heavy campaign like Trump’s knows this, based on the efforts among Hispanics—and, in 2020, it looks like Biden’s is a winner. For whatever it’s worth, he’s going to have a commanding win in the popular vote, and may yet win despite the substantial polling errors. If the Democrats’ goal was to nominate the person who best matched up with Donald Trump, they did so.

Other random notes:

  • Sad to see my one very passing acquaintance in Congress, Rep. Xochitl Torres Small of New Mexico, fall. The fact that she flipped that seat two years ago was astonishing in and of itself.
  • A few St. Louis County notes: Ashley Grimm’s win in a county board on the west side of Duluth shows that Democrats continue to shore up that part of the city, winning a race that may have gone to a more independent, blue-collar white guy in the past. On the Iron Range, the story is the demise of ticket-splitting: even though Biden held up fairly well on the core Range considering how much effort the Trump campaign expended here, the Democratic legislative candidates all saw their margins shrink, and Julie Sandstede, the state representative for the Hibbing area, won by less than 50 votes after winning comfortably in the past. Basically, existing trends are getting more pronounced.
  • Many congratulations to Grant Hauschild, Hermantown’s newest city councilor!

The Arsenal of Democracy

19 Sep

The Joe Biden campaign decamped on Duluth, Minnesota yesterday. Through an amusing series of rumor mill connections with its origins in the State Patrol, a few friends and I found ourselves on the patio of a café named Amazing Grace for the former vice president’s “spontaneous” appearance in the center of the city’s bustling Canal Park tourist district. I had my share of chances to brush up against political figures of all stripes in my DC days, so to see this scene from my dreamy college years dropped into my beloved backwater hometown was at once both familiar and surreal. It matched the mood of Biden’s presidential campaign, both a predictable capstone decades in the making and warped by the twisted house of horrors that is 2020. Reality slows down for no one.

Any sympathetic skeptics looking to find some inspiration in Biden’s slow-but-steady campaign for the presidency can now find it from an unlikely source: George Packer, the elegist of the broken American Dream. In “Make America Again,” published in the October edition of the Atlantic, he finds an unexpected hero who could just become the most consequential president since Reagan. Biden’s campaign, Packer says, “is not the stirring language of a visionary leader, or the doctrinaire rhetoric of an ideologue. It’s the prosaic talk of a career politician shrewd enough to realize that he might have greatness thrust upon him.”

In 2016, my sense was that Biden, not Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, was the most viable Democratic standard-bearer that year, the one person who could perhaps hold on to a fading part of the Democratic coalition that would prove pivotal in that year’s race. Clinton seemed too much a creature of the establishment, too devoid of charisma, to retain that demographic; I also didn’t quite buy the notion peddled at the time that an aging socialist would somehow speak to them, a position that the 2020 primary results seemed to vindicate. Biden chose not to run for both personal and political reasons, and we all saw what happened.

That confidence in Uncle Joe did not, in my mind, extend to the early primary season in the 2020 cycle. At 77, he seemed like a figure past his time, and he certainly looked it in the primary debates. The early Biden campaign seemed like a giant collective shrug, an effort that coasted on name recognition, vague Obama era good vibes, and the more acute weaknesses of some of his rivals. Just as his early pitch for the presidency was based on sketchy year-out polls that labeled him the most viable not-Trump, his ultimate triumph in the primary was by virtue of being the most viable not-Bernie. Unlike the Republicans in 2016, the Democrats showed off their institutional discipline and rallied behind their old vice president, a lowest common denominator that promised stability and maybe a few more of those white working-class votes in those crucial swing states. A van emblazoned with “Settle for Biden!” made its way up and down the streets of Canal Park on Friday afternoon.

The world has changed since Biden sewed up the nomination in early March, but in many ways, he is still an awkward fit for the moment. He is an old white man in an era when the Democratic Party spends most of its time celebrating racial and ethnic and gender diversity, a man who has spent the past 50 years in the swamp that both Trump and the rising left both claim to disdain. His age complicates campaigning during a pandemic. His handsiness and glad-handing are at best relics of a different era. There’s a legitimate concern that he will look at the Senate as the collegial institution it was in his early years, and not the bitterly partisan roadblock it has become since he left it, which could doom any legislative agenda. His well-cultivated image as a Scranton streetfighter squares awkwardly with the sprawling estate whose basement has been the base of operations for his campaign.

Biden, however, has two great strengths as a politician. First, he is adaptable, always responding to the tides; whether that makes him an opportunist or a careful listener who has his finger on the pulse of a nation is in the eye of the beholder, but because he isn’t beholden to any real platform, he can go wherever conditions lead him. Second, he knows what loss is, and is at his best when he speaks in raw, moving terms about it. In a time of death and plague, that knowledge of what it takes to overcome pain gives him an added gravitas. Watching his Democratic National Convention acceptance speech, I remembered why I thought he could be the unifying force in 2016, and sure enough, pretty much everyone I know on the left is along for the ride, however begrudgingly. The internal warfare that plagued the 2016 campaign has been consigned to the sidelines, and the policy disputes that defined the primary race seem like quaint arguments of a different era. This is not a policy election. It is, as Biden has said from the start, the struggle for the soul of a nation.

As Packer notes, rarely have past great figures been perfect fits for their times. Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt were scions of old East Coast wealth who did more to break up concentrated wealth and build an inclusive economy than anyone in American history. Lyndon Johnson was a political creature with considerable, obvious flaws, but he also rode a moment of upheaval for long enough to ram through the most consequential legislative agenda of the postwar era. Just as Johnson followed the inspiring but ultimately rather tumultuous and technocratic Kennedy years, Biden could be the one who makes the promise of the Obama era real. Sometimes the people who know a system best are most able to change its trajectory.

I have frequently expressed exhaustion with Democrats’ efforts to resurrect the New Deal every time they try to roll out a semi-ambitious platform. Franklin Roosevelt’s effort, as Packer deftly notes, succeeded not because of the strength of its ideas, but because he found himself in a position of considerable power and had a mandate to test out an array of tools in a moment of crisis, some of which worked and stuck. Milton Friedman, of all people, understood this best: crises are the only times when real change happens, and “when that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”

After a momentary feint in the New Deal direction, the Biden campaign seems to have recognized this. Biden’s policies listed on his website aren’t what matter; what matter are the myriad ideas with popular support that have germinated in response to ongoing American crises over the past decade or two, and the possibility that we just might have a Democratic President, a Democratic House, and a very narrowly Democratic Senate that is willing to kill the filibuster and go all in. This, at least, is Packer’s hope. It is a rare optimistic take from him, the “last best chance” of an effort to restore something resembling a participatory democracy.

My own sense is that reality lies somewhere between the declinist picture Packer has painted so strikingly in his writing over the past 15 years and the tired but sustainable decadence diagnosed by the likes of Ross Douthat. When I read Douthat’s book I agreed with his diagnosis of Trump era white nationalism as right-wing cosplay, and I’m intrigued by an argument advanced by Bruno Maçães in an upcoming book, History Has Begun (excerpted in New York magazine here) that the Trump era is just a drift of politics into virtual reality; not that it doesn’t have real-world consequences, but Trump is an entertainer using politics to peddle his product, delighting his fans by owning the libs instead of enacting any serious policy. (And, lest it sound like we’re blaming one side of the spectrum exclusively for this drift, a left that settles solely for social media activism and reading Robin DiAngelo probably isn’t much different.) “America is not poised to become a place like Russia or Iran, but rather is mirroring a television show about a place becoming like Russia or Iran,” Maçães concludes. We are all caught up in a performative charade.

This seems true up to a point, and we are right to ask questions about the implications of our increasingly virtual future. But the more people live out a fantasy world, the more the lines will blur, and the greater the risk that people will actually believe their roles in this fantasy are reality. People will accept their typecast roles in this left-versus-right squabble, and the slow burn in the streets of American cities of this summer will turn into a low-grade, steady war in which more and more people die. There is no fantasy in death.

Joe Biden, of course, knows death. He also recognizes that the country needs to mobilize, with World War Two as a better analogue for the effort necessary than the New Deal. Maçães rightly diagnoses the long-running weakness of Western liberalism: its lack of muscle, its contentedness with thinking that giving people health care and a base level of material wealth will fill the hole in the American soul. It’s a start, of course; far better than many alternatives. But it will never fulfill the more aspirational corners human psyche. The answer is not a march in the streets (though they can help) but a government led by the Scranton streetfighter that Biden purports to be, a potential lurch back to reality from a figure who has no desire to inhabit Trump’s world of performance as politics.

As he left Amazing Grace on Friday afternoon, Biden made his way over to the two hecklers in MAGA hats on the edge of the crowd. Told to stay put by the Secret Service, my friends and I couldn’t hear what he said. Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, however, captured the moment: “Biden approached the man from the alternate reality, elbow bumped him, chuckled and assured him that if he does win, Biden would work for him, too.” It shouldn’t be refreshing to hear a presidential candidate aspire to be on the side of people who disagree with him, but this is where we are.

I don’t know if Joe Biden will be the transformational figure George Packer imagines he can be. Even if he wins in November, even if the United States pulls through this election without disputed results and violence in the streets, he’ll face a forbidding and sclerotic political environment. He could go down as a strange detour, a last gasp of a fading old order—just like Trump, from a different part of the political spectrum. But if—if—there is a way out of this troubling lurch in American democracy, it will most likely start in a basement in Delaware, and in the minds of enough Americans who see a pause in the performance as a worthy endeavor.

Goodbye to All That?

19 Jan

Eight years ago, I spent inauguration day freezing to death in Washington D.C. I was a Georgetown freshman, and there was no other place to be, particularly in the aftermath of an election that, whatever one’s politics, was certainly historic. Living in what was then (but is no longer now) a majority black city also gave me an added window into what Barack Obama’s ascendance meant for some people, particularly on election night, when I saw tears and joy that, I understood, were for something I would never be able to feel.

Not that a Midwestern white boy couldn’t try. I made sure to drink it all in: a national day of service event at RFK Stadium, a star-studded inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial. My cousin and his friend drove in from Indiana for the spectacle–I didn’t sleep the night before, as I awaited his arrival–and my dorm became a boarding house, with bodies sprawled across the common room. A group of us started down to the Mall around 4:30 and stood, huddled and chilled, for hours amid a throng of millions. Barack Obama was just a speck in the distance from our spot on the lawn, somewhere near the Hirshhorn Museum. We had a better view of the snipers on the roof of the National Gallery than we did of the new President, and the hike back to the Hilltop involved dazed weaving through mazes of port-o-potties. Still, it was all worth it, and I’m reminded of it almost every day: a few of those American flags they gave us to wave about still decorate my apartment.

inaug

I knew I was living history. I knew that, somehow, I needed to capture what this moment felt like so that I’d remember it. And so I wrote a few paragraphs. I was nineteen, and had only started writing in any serious sense a couple of months before. I had potential, though I also had a rookie’s penchant for florid prose:

The ceremony is to be a re-affirmation of the American faith in democracy. Its venue, the world’s most austere cathedral; the vast morning sky reaching from horizon to horizon in its embrace. There is no ceiling, least of all one of glass; simply the sky reaching towards the heavens…”

Yikes. The glass ceiling line is kinda cute, but come on, Karl. Are you really shamelessly comparing your country to a church? And seriously, that verb construction in the first line?

Fortunately, despite being an idealistic kid consumed by Washington’s atmosphere at the time, I was not among those who expected some sort of grandiose change out of Obama. Not that it mattered. That sweeping rhetoric, both the root of his appeal and the eventual source of disappointment for a number of his allies and disgust for many of his opponents, created a mythology that distracted from the actual art of governance. Later in the essay, I nail it:

There are no messiahs in politics. There are only humans, resplendent in their glories and glaring in their flaws. Time is short; there is work to be done. Soon the aura shall fade into memory, and unforgiving reality shall continue its steadfast march. To see the mountaintop is not enough; to stay upon the mountaintop remains an impossibility.

But for one day, such realities can be cast aside, and the awe-inspiring might of symbolism can run rampant in the mind. Often the import of great events lies not in actuality but in the power they wield in the human perception. And in this sense, this day can trump them all.

I can only laugh wryly at my verb choice in that last line.

In retrospect, that last paragraph was truer than I imagined, and Donald Trump’s election is as good a sign of that as any. So much of politics is emotion and symbolic power—what is ‘Make America Great Again’ if not symbolic?—especially on a distant national level when we’ve never met the people involved. I can be, and often am, more pleased by some election results than by others. But I will never be able to say I understand the joy black people felt upon Obama’s election, just as I’ll never be able to understand how Donald Trump could cause great joy in others, either. This isn’t to claim these emotions are in some way equivalent, but merely to marvel at how much a person we’ve never met can elicit life-defining sensations.

Part of me has grown downright scornful of this impulse to put faith in someone’s election, no matter the reason. This is the most insidious of vicarious lives, to cast one’s hopes on to some inevitably flawed human; Caesarism at its worst, a hopeless projection of hopes and dreams on to some distant figure of power when the most important work one can do to secure those aspirations is right here at home. But another part of me suspects I’d be fighting a losing war against human nature if I were to rail against this impulse full throttle.

It’s something of a paradox. I have little trouble being coldly rational in how I weigh most things, including the effectiveness of politicians I agree with or my own reactions to momentous events. And yet there are few things that have as much of a pull on me as passionate youth, and (joking a few paragraphs ago aside), I pass no harsh judgment on my earlier words. We tend to experience the world more vividly in our formative years, to live more fully in emotional surges. And while it requires the proper mindset, I do actually enjoy revisiting some of my old writing, understanding it as an essential part of growth and not just some fixed moment of an incomplete self. Those glimmers we get in those formative years are among the most important moments we encounter. Joan Didion: “one of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before.”

Inauguration Day 2009 was the peak of an arc that eventually swung through a park in Mexico City two years later, an outburst of troubled words in the days after I left Washington, and has landed me right back where I came from, delighted to be where I am. Joan Didion eventually said Goodbye to All That, and she was right to do so. It’s all happened before, will probably all happen again. There’s nothing so unique about this moment that past experience can’t speak to.

But that doesn’t mean the insight from this moment isn’t real, doesn’t mean the emotion that comes out of it can’t continue to course through what we do, in some way or another. So if I shrug impassively at this next inauguration, it’s not because I’ve abandoned what I felt eight years earlier. It’s merely its natural culmination. A deeper fire still burns. I have work to do.

A Dream Sours

9 Nov

Whither the Democratic Party, after Tuesday’s stunning defeat? There will be time enough to contemplate how our new Republican majority goes forward, but for now, it’s time for an autopsy on the demise of a Democratic era, and the collapse of an Electoral College Maginot Line.

This begins by looking back on the past two elections. It’s time we recognize that Barack Obama was not at the head of a tide, or at least not one for the immediate future. He was exceptional. He ran on an agenda that did not have broad popular support, but swept to power twice on the force of sheer charisma, integrity, and ability to inspire optimism in spite of it all. The repeated decimation of Democrats down ballot across the country shows how quickly this wore thin. The wins at the presidential level masked some serious shortcomings in state and local races, and are an embarrassment for a party that had reason to think it was on the rise.

Obama’s presidency will thus go down as a paradox: a popular man whose legacy will likely not outlive him, unless President Trump truly surprises us. The economy performed steadily under conventional measures during the Obama years, but nothing reversed the widening gaps that preceded him. His signature piece of legislation, the Affordable Care Act, helped cover more people but has been fraught with issues throughout, and probably won’t resemble the original after a few months. His foreign policy was better than that of his predecessor and of the alternatives to him in 2008, but never quite amounted to a coherent doctrine. Everywhere else, he faced resistance and gridlock; he responded with executive orders, effective in the short term but setting a dangerous precedent for successors to roll them back and more. There were some momentous shifts on social issues, though future Supreme Courts may have some word on how permanent those are. The real question, I suppose, will be whether the Democrats can harness the electoral machinery he put into place and reuse it in the future, or if it will languish. Otherwise, Obama is just the bookend to an era of rising and falling global liberalism, a Washington Consensus that arose out of post-Cold War confidence and now heads into the great unknown.

It was bound to end, as all movements must; the question was how, or when. Even if Hillary Clinton had won, she probably was the end of the line; the Democrats just didn’t have a new generation ready to carry it forward, and its limitations were becoming obvious. It could have evolved, if there were an effective leader to bridge the gap, but there wasn’t. Instead, the Democrats had a candidate of the status quo, and when she crashed, so did the whole enterprise.

Our old friend Mitt Romney has been on my mind lately. In fact, I think there are a lot of parallels between the Clinton and Romney campaigns: blandness, occasional tone-deaf statements, inability to broadcast much of an agenda other than opposition to the other guy, reliance on sheer institutional inertia, certainty of ultimate victory. The unexpected polling error in both Obama and Trump’s favors are not coincidental; it’s just that one more clearly swung the election. Candidates who fail to be fresh will always underachieve, even if they don’t make any unforced errors.

I won’t wade into the discussion over the magnitude of Clinton’s email- and foundation-related sins, but the existence of these issues is a fundamental problem when the theme of one’s campaign is competence and reliability. When a candidate gives mixed messages on the thing she’s supposed to be good at, it’s a bad sign. I’d also add that, whether there were fires or not, there has always been an awful lot of smoke around the Clintons. Yes, Republicans have drummed a lot of this up, but eight years of the same efforts exposed practically nothing on Barack Obama. Clinton was a flawed candidate, and flawed in the worst possible way for the pitch she was trying to make. Her time would have been 2004 or 2008. By 2016, it was too late.

In retrospect, I do think Bernie Sanders probably had better odds than a lot of people gave him credit for, though not as good as his supporters would have liked to believe. He certainly would have played better among the rural white people around the city I live in. But gains in one place could lead to losses elsewhere. Clinton wrecked Sanders among people of color, and Clinton herself failed to generate the needed turnout from people of color. Maybe Sanders wins back some of those Midwestern states, but Nevada, Colorado, and Virginia might all flip the other way. Do the math, and it’s still a toss-up. That particular “what if” is a murky one, and the moment is past. The Democrat most capable of building a big tent was Joe Biden, and that ship has also sailed.

A lot will be said on the left about racism or bigotry, and its apparent triumph. But any discussion of racism has to get past that loaded word and look at the details. Two hundred counties that broke for a black man four years ago went to Trump. This wasn’t a rush of people suddenly discovering hate in their hearts. Instead, you have a lot of people for whom the battle with racism was not their primary reason for going to the polls. Many of these people probably have no real desire to discriminate, but live in places where racial issues aren’t really present in day-to-day life, and are far more motivated by other factors. And when a candidate gives voice to their dearer causes, it’s not hard to dismiss some warts; once that dismissal of warts is normalized, further revelations aren’t going to upend the process. Sure, Trump would take a hit in the tracking polls when he went after someone based on their ethnicity or gender, but before long, the dynamics of the two-horse race would have him trending back upward, as the latest spurt of outrage faded from memory and the persistence of day-to-day life on the ground rose up again.

It’s also worth asking some questions about the wide range of things that fall under that blanket label of “racism.” The working definition on the left considers both a card-carrying member of the KKK and a person who questions protest tactics when Black Lives Matter occupies the freeway and fouls up a commute as exhibiting racist tendencies. Deplorable as one may find all of these attitudes and the many shades in between, it’s counterproductive to treat these phenomena the same way, and slap the same label on the full range of people who hold them. Much as “47 percent” doomed Mitt Romney, the “basket of deplorables” comment left a lot of wavering people fundamentally alienated. Once again, Clinton was supposed to be the uniter, the candidate of “stronger together.” This made her failures to live up to that ideal considerably more impactful than those of Donald Trump, who made no such claim (or, at least, not one anyone took seriously). The candidate of unity failed to display it, and the other guy spoke to voters on a levels they actually cared about. If the Democrats continue to paint with the broad brush of racism instead of interrogating different cases carefully, they will continue to appear condescending, and will continue to lose.

These racial lines have an added drawback for Democrats: most people of color are tightly packed into cities, and as we’ve seen, this limits their odds of winning majorities in the House and of winning the Electoral College despite taking the popular vote. The Democrats, the supposed party of tolerance, are extremely likely to live just among themselves, and it hurts them. Sure, it would be nice to eliminate some of those structural issues that give rural voters added influence, but this is the system we have, and it’s not going to change without getting a hand on the wheel in the first place.

The hubris of so many Democratic operatives, the belief that a more diverse nation would create a firewall and a longer-term majority, might yet come to pass. But as I explained in my initial reaction, the rise in white identity on the right is the natural outflow of identity politics on the left, however justified it may or may not be. This is why identity politics is ugly and dangerous, and it is a major reason why so many struggling states around the globe lapse into ethnic groups squabbling over government. There can be no functioning state without a nation, and that nation needs to approximate some sort of broad identity, even while allowing for nuance within it. Sure, the Democrats may be on track to pick up Arizona and Georgia and maybe even Texas over the next decade. But if they don’t change course somewhat, and rely on demography alone while failing to reach out to large demographics, things will continue to flip. Minnesota—yes, Minnesota—will be the next state to go red, along with the rural northeast, and more will follow.

I heard from a reliable source that Obama wanted to go spend time in Appalachia, but that his advisers told him it wasn’t worth the time. If true, it may prove a fatal error.

I’ve come back to Obama a lot in this post, in part because he is very much my president. The first bubble I ever filled on a ballot was for him, and even as I’ve drifted away from doctrinaire liberalism into something a lot more complicated, I don’t regret either of my votes for him. I was in Washington, D.C. the night he won, and that night might be the most momentous bit of history I ever live. Temperamentally, I relate to the man: cautious and intellectual, prone to elevated rhetoric and a desire for communal action, while perhaps suffering from a certain aloofness and detachment at times. He had genuine empathy for the America that was left behind, but forces beyond his control—forces beyond anyone’s control—largely rendered him powerless to change things. George Packer put it presciently, back in 2010, as the Tea Party arose to face Obama and the failures of Middle East nation-building and the end-of-history Pax Americana became evident:

The noble mission to make the world safe for democracy ended inconclusively, and its aftermath has curdled into an atmosphere more like that of the Palmer raids and the second coming of the Klan. This is why Obama seems less and less able to speak to and for our times. He’s the voice of reason incarnate, and maybe he’s too sane to be heard in either Jalalabad or Georgia. An epigraph for our times appears in Jonathan Franzen’s new novel “Freedom”: “The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is a personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage.”

The dream has soured, and it has done so on both sides of the aisle. Fortunately, we have ways to pick up the pieces.

Slouching Toward Bethlehem

18 Oct

As usual, I try to avoid national politics on here; as usual, I can’t resist inserting myself. This cycle has drawn everyone in for more carnage, much in the way we fixate on train wrecks. I’m not much of an idealist, have no qualms for voting for the lesser of two evils; at the same time, I tend to believe apocalyptic thinking of any stripe is overstated, and am more inclined to laugh off ludicrous claims than to fear for the future of the country. But as I’ve let show, this is an instance in which I think the choice is a clear one. Donald Trump must lose.

I’m not opposed to Donald Trump because I think he’ll cause great calamity. The risks might be somewhat higher, but he’s strongly constrained by the inertia of a powerful state. Nor do I fear the content of his provocative language: I’ve never taken the “build the wall” rhetoric seriously, and ultimately, I don’t think minority groups will see their fates be much different under Trump than they would have been under a standard-issue Republican. I’m less afraid of him doubling down on some of his claims than of him getting bored and losing interest in the whole charade.

Frankly, I struggle to see how anyone who’s tracked his behavior over the course of this cycle can have any confidence that he will actually do any of the things he says. While thankful, I also struggle to resist rolling my eyes at anyone who jumped off the bandwagon recently, as if he didn’t exhibit the same patterns of volcanic behavior all along. I see a President Trump as a bumbling clown, nutty but at least capable of reading off a teleprompter from time to time, all at the behest of his handlers, who step in to do damage control when he devolves into another tweetstorm against someone who’s offended him. (How is it that people who claim to oppose political correctness are so often the most thin-skinned?) To date I have little faith in the handlers’ ability to do that, but it’s not totally implausible to imagine Trump as a blustering figurehead and spinmaster-in-chief while a cadre around him implements its policies of choice, thereby avoiding a train wreck. Whatever you think of said policies, this leaves us right back where we started, with a group of political insider technocrats Making America Great Again. So much for the revolution.

Funnily enough, there are things about Trump’s policies (such as they are) that intrigue me. Foreign policy motivates me more than most voters, and I have deep reservations about Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy, which has been pretty reliably wrong over the past 15 years. On diplomacy, I prefer the calculating deal-makers to the liberal hawks, and while I have deep concerns about Vladimir Putin, he’s also a necessary partner in the Middle East and in other spheres, and handling him requires a bit more nuance than displayed in some Democratic Party circles recently. (How strange the world now seems: the Democrats are the hard-liners on Russian autocrats, while the Republicans are cozy with them.) While my takes on trade and economics are nuanced, I appreciate that Trump has prompted some good reflections on the state of the white working class, and an opportunity to have genuine debate about our blind assumptions about the Washington Consensus that have dominated both parties since the end of the Cold War. (I suppose Bernie Sanders gets an assist here, too.) A more polished version of Trump would have at least piqued my interest.

These are just a few of the policy areas where Trump sheds some light before going ten feet overboard. Arguments that immigrants hurt native-born Americans’ economic prospects are basically bunk, and I am glad to see many of the barriers to LGBTQ equality come down. But I’m also capable of putting myself in the shoes of people watching their world change so rapidly and feeling some sympathy. The immigration system does need careful management instead of wishful idealism, and people do need to be vetted some; religious conservatives have a right to worship as they choose, and raise their children in the ways they see fit. I don’t see the Clinton campaign acknowledging this reality. Her campaign makes occasional overtures toward a big-tent coalition, particularly during the Democratic National Convention, but so often appears motivated by a bunker mentality brought on by its candidate’s baggage. It fails to inspire, and the strategy seems to involve checking off boxes with all the interest groups it needs to keep happy.

My objections to Trump have much more to do with the way he has shifted the window for political debate in the United States. Or, rather, the way he’s shattered the window altogether. To be fair, Trump didn’t start this. Most popular media and cable news has been superficial garbage for a long time, and we can blame some of the toxicity on both a Republican Party that has subtly played off racial divisions since Nixon and a Democratic Party that has increasingly come to resemble a scattershot coalition of identity-based interest groups all trying to make a narrow claim at the table. But Trump has accelerated this, and brought it into the open with no apologies. Elements  of the left have sunk to his level, and political discourse, never pleasant, has degraded into self-reinforcing horror show. No figure is more responsible for this than Donald Trump.

We have the politics we deserve, and we can’t say the Greeks didn’t warn us. These are the timeless dangers of democracy, though I hastily add that I still find it the worst choice except for all the others. (I can see the Trump tweet now: “Korrupt Karl hates democracy. Sad!”) These are the consequences of dumbed-down celebrity politics, with messaging aimed at the lowest common denominator. It’s a reduction of elections to a binary choice in which it is somehow our patriotic duty to choose, red team versus blue team, more about winning and losing elections than the tricky work of governance. It needs some inherent dignity to avoid collapsing into an entertainment complex. Trump exemplifies politics as the reality TV show, and his continued presence on the political stage would only set off a downward spiral of degradation. I don’t predict the imminent collapse of American democracy, but each spin down the toilet increases the odds that it won’t quite be the same afterwards.

Trumpism, to the extent that it exists, taps into a Nietzschean energy: the world, instead of three interlocking circles that explain everything, is reduced to winners and losers, with sharp lines between them. Its most fertile intellectual ground is in the dark corners of the internet, where young men, probably around my age, assume ridiculous Latin pseudonyms and peddle their profound ressentiment of those who oppose them. (Oh, the Nietzschean irony.) Trump’s election wouldn’t bring them to power, nor would his defeat silence them. But the whole Trump phenomenon runs the risk of normalizing them, of empowering this narrative of fire and brimstone, of tribe and ideology over common American future.

In a way, I’m sympathetic. I get that urge to rise up in a crusade for greatness through politics. It’s what drove my eighteen-year-old self to Washington. I understand that longing to smash the day-to-day drudgery we inhabit and unleashed a repressed inner soul in all its erotic glory. It’s hard to beat that rush, and that side of human nature never will—and never should—go away. But channeling it in ways that trump up a mediocre establishment as an existential threat endangers American exceptionalism in the best sense of the phrase, this belief in a national project that won’t ever die. Lord knows this project has had its dark patches through history, but through it all, we are all awfully lucky to be here in this day in age. It’s cute to think we’re standing on some precipice of looming demise, and probably empowering to pretend one man can change it, but, alas, real heroism for the vast majority of us probably involves something both much closer to home and much more radical than checking a box on a Tuesday in November.

Some argue it’s a good thing that certain political currents, long suppressed, are now out in the open. I’m skeptical. One often hears Trump supporters say they’re glad he tells it like it is. I hate this phrase as much as I did when I first heard a public figure in Duluth utter it some years ago.  A layer of civilization is necessary for governance within political systems—especially the American one, with all its checks and balances—and there’s a need for consensus instead of silos of self-affirming certainty about what one already believes. No one has a monopoly on truth. Our elites have failed us many times, certainly, but we are blind to how far we have to fall. It’s more than a little disconcerting to witness the sort of political awakening one expects out of dispossessed young men in the Middle East coming out of a middle-aged couple in Youngstown.

And so I turn to Hillary Clinton: embattled, dogged by scandal, uninspiringly wonkish, too far to the left to sweep to a broad mandate, but too ensconced in her establishment cadre to inspire the energy to advance a more progressive agenda. She promises four more years of technocratic plodding, vicious right-wing opposition to anything she proposes, and shady, sheltered practices that, whether justified or not, will continue to court media attention. This only drags Washington further into the muck, perhaps ups the odds of a stronger counter-reaction in two or four years.

I reassure myself in a few ways. One, whatever Clinton’s flaws, they are predictable, and nothing in her political history suggests she will do anything unexpected or drastic. Give me a mediocre status quo over the revolution any day. Two, while she certainly won’t devolve power from Washington, she has neither the charisma nor the political capital to centralize it much more either, and at least pays lip service to bringing everyone to the table instead of saying “I alone can fix it.” Three, while the Republican Party has a very complicated reckoning to come, there is at least some hope that the coming dust-up allows the party to salvage itself in a way that it never could with a floundering President Trump at the top. In the long run, his defeat may do more good for the more sanely-grounded elements of his cause, since they’ll be part of the national conversation, but not tied to an absurd, distracting figure.

I sometimes say my time in Washington jaded me, but I think a more accurate summation my takeaway from four years there was a revelation over the smallness of it all: how much life could go on without worrying about it, and how much the people in charge are stumbling in the dark and guessing, just as we all are. This doesn’t mean that some political rookie can roll in and shake it up, though. It also takes experience, and knowledge of how to play the game to at least move policy, which does still matter enough that we can’t laugh the whole thing off. Only in reality TV shows do Trump-like figures march in and prove effective.

The Yeats poem that gives this post its title, oft-quoted this election cycle among intellectuals lamenting our political fate, claims the best lack conviction. Maybe, instead, the best know that obsessive conviction is misplaced. For my part, it’s time to stop reading FiveThirtyEight, make peace with the Clinton slouch, and get back to work here at home.

On Class Divides

9 Aug

Not many people have many nice things to say about the state of our current presidential campaign. But even rotting trees can bear fruits, however, and the Trump candidacy in particular has inspired a rush of quality analysis on people who have had a rough time in an often post-industrial economy. Some even pitch this election along class terms, as the people struggling in 2016 America coalesce around a single figure and a well-educated, well-connected, and financially stable upper class tries to figure out what all the fuss is about. It’s not that simple, of course, but it still points to some important realities that are worth talking about.

The relationship between race and poverty tends to get plenty of press, and has been contested politically (whether out in the open or more subtly) throughout the country’s history. Class warfare, on the other hand, has come in spurts, only surging when led by Jacksonians or turn-of-the-century populists and such. It has long been dormant as a national political force, most likely due to a Cold War consensus that rejected anything that smelled of Marx and claimed it was possible to rise up via hard work, a free market, and some basic supports from the government such as public education, taxation policy friendly to homeownership, and a small safety net. And for the second half of the twentieth century, that was more or less true.

Revolutionary Marxism is fading into history now, and few people seriously believe many of its tenets: most notably, history disproved the idea of a united proletariat. But the people on the bottom half of the socioeconomic ladder haven’t gone anywhere, and with overwhelming evidence showing greater separation between the top and the bottom, the class lines are hardening again. There has been a rise of a vague, white underclass. People have been putting out books on this rough topic for some time now, but the pace has accelerated this year, and has culminated in some provocative recent titles, including White Trash by Nancy Isenberg and Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. (The Atlantic reviews both here; the interview with Vance that made the book go viral is here.) The lament is clear: there’s an entire class of people, from the rural South to Appalachia to working-class suburbs, that has mostly been ignored or scorned by the upper classes, and this is starting to come home to roost politically. It also hits home for a northern Minnesotan; while nowhere as extreme as in Appalachia, there are headlines about counties scrambling to combat heroin abuse, and the region caucused for Trump, while the wealthier Republicans of the Twin Cities gave Marco Rubio his lone win of the primary season. Something is clearly happening here.

The Atlantic piece makes an important distinction: tossing anyone who’s white and doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree (or even those with bachelor’s degrees in non-prestige positions) in one big group is going to hide a lot. In fact, it feels like a group that elites might use to denote “white people who are not like me.” This blind lumping of all flyover country white people has led some on the left to accuse poor white people of voting against their economic interests. This misreads the electorate: for the most part, the stereotypical Appalachian doesn’t vote. It’s their neighbors who do who are the core Trump supporters: the people who are managing to get by in these places, as teachers or policemen or in whatever remaining factory jobs there are. Surrounded by people whose lives are going down the tubes, these relative success stories want to pull up the drawbridge to protect themselves and their families from the depravity around them. As people who have made it, they don’t want their hard-earned tax money going to the deadbeat down the street. Middle America is a nuanced place filled with its own networks class distinctions, sometimes more subtle but no less real than on the coasts.

Trump’s appeal goes beyond class, though, and the emergence of a more distinct class divide goes far beyond Trump. The media is now filled with people decrying elites (many of them elites themselves), and the Democrats faced their own sustained anti-establishment insurgency through the primary season. No one can really agree on what the establishment is (Finance? Big government? People with PhDs? Any rich person?), but it sure makes for a convenient bogeyman. Suddenly, longstanding divides are becoming realms of political conflict.

It’s so easy to resort to these generalizations because class is so highly fluid, and we can plausibly accuse most people of being part of some class we don’t like. In 26 short years, I’ve had moments where I’ve felt near the top and toward the bottom. Most people also don’t have a very good appreciation for where they land on this spectrum; even as a very self-aware person, it was easy to think I was “poor” in a place like Georgetown. (In relative terms, sure; in absolute terms, not at all.) For someone in poverty, a 15-dollar-an-hour wage seems like a ticket to the middle class. A couple making over $100,000—successful, clearly, but possible with two jobs that aren’t exceptionally high-paying—is already in the top 25 percent of households. In fact, median household income lands at around $51,000, so a full half of American households are earning less than that. Yet most upper middle class kids—generally, the people I’ve been surrounded by throughout my life—think they come from somewhere much closer to the middle, and for some, there’s a genuine anxiety in needing to preserve some sort of status. People are constantly struggling with ideas of class, and it’s not hard to come to resent a more successful group or fear a less successful one.

Education can prove just as much a source of class as income, as I can well attest as the kid of two parents who have never brought home huge paychecks, but both have advanced degrees: my path to Georgetown felt as natural as it must for children of far greater means. Seven in ten Americans don’t have bachelor’s degrees; one doesn’t need a degree from an elite school to get a credential that separates oneself from over half the country. For graduates of high schools from which the vast majority of graduates go to college, this may seem baffling, but that just goes to show what a different world such high schools are in comparted to the ones where people don’t follow these roads. My new master’s degree puts me in the ten percent of the country that has an advanced degree, and I expect I’ll end up in what others might label the “upper middle class” in some way or another, whether I like it or not. The paths set before people can make alternatives difficult to fathom.

And then, of course, there are less tangible ways to signal status, such as clothing and comportment and spending habits. One can now create an illusion of wealth by buying and acting in certain ways, and on the other side of the coin, there are the bohemians for whom scorn of such status symbols is a status symbol in and of itself. The conformity of hipster non-conformity is its own little subculture with its own set of rules now. The “upper class” is just as complicated and diverse as the lower class, as it tends to include anyone from financiers to professors to celebrities to people who just work boring but well-paying jobs. Some think class comes with certain codes of conduct; others use the benefits of class to act as they please.

There are so many gradations, and so many different ways to signal class, that any effort to draw clear lines is probably doomed. Likewise with class-based political action: critical masses of people just don’t usually define themselves by identities that are this fluid, this capable of changing with time. But as those lines grow less flexible, these identities can harden, and the contour emerging in this presidential race will probably only grow with time. Visible voting blocs need not win to have influence, and even if Trump goes down in flames, it’s not hard to imagine a more polished populist successfully stoking this newly visible class divide.

I’m not totally opposed to such a campaign. Elites ignore the masses at their peril, and while stratification is unavoidable in complex economies, those on top need to do everything in their power to stay in touch with the rest. Class consciousness creates a necessary dialogue, and could perhaps yet lead to sensible policy outcomes. But it also comes with inherent risks and threatens to expose deeper divides, and the rhetoric of class warfare (from all sides) isn’t always conducive to a stable republic. The growing divide compels people who care about the American body politic—particularly those with greater means to do so—to keep a pulse on both and to cycle in and out, comfortable in both chic restaurants and dive bars, in the box seats or in the bleachers.

America’s classless history may be a myth, but that need not lead us to assume battle lines. Even if we do, they likely won’t last, given the messiness of it all. Class distinctions can help us understand a society, but we shouldn’t mistake them for reality. Yes, money and credentials can take a person far in life. But they are still no substitute for virtue, and we cannot reduce people to what they earn, where they’ve gone to school, or the signals they send. If all we can see are divisions, we shouldn’t be surprised to find ourselves in a fragmented state.

Jane at 100

4 May

Jane Jacobs’ 100th birthday seems an appropriate time for a reminder that the answers to many of our greatest questions may not be on the most obvious scale.

So, if you’re terrified by the rise of a certain political figure–or even if you understand many of the sentiments that have lifted him up, but fear the vehicle could damage any notion of democratic stability–this is a chance to take a deep breath and focus on the things close to home.

Much as I appreciate his Plato references, I’m not quite as convinced as Andrew Sullivan that Donald Trump dooms American democracy. The deep state won’t go lightly, and Congress is intractable enough to blunt most authoritarian impulses. Trump, I think, is still more Berlusconi than Mussolini. But it’s good to be ready for any possibility, and to spare oneself excessive angst on things one cannot control.

Jane has never been so relevant. If nothing else, it’s some vindication for a kid who wraps up his urban planning degree in the next two weeks. Sometimes the solutions to national problems are not national at all, but right next door.

Keep your eyes on the street.

Trump Cards on the Table

20 Mar

I don’t talk about national politics much on here. This is partly a reflection of my political priorities, as I’ve explained elsewhere on this blog before: if people spent half the time they do moaning about national politics on building up their own communities, they could make a much bigger difference than people in Washington ever could. This is also partly a calculation to avoid having my other work judged by any simple conclusions people might pull from my complicated thoughts on these matters. I think it is sad how much some people judge the character of others in completely unrelated arenas of life based on their political views, but it is what it is, and I try to avoid it.

We’ve now reached the point where I am compelled to write about Donald Trump. His candidacy has been an absurdity from the start, and at first I hoped not to write about it so as to avoid the self-fulfilling prophecy of making his antics the center of political attention. No one has done more for Trump’s candidacy than the media figures who blow up his every single stunt while the candidates who play by the same old norms got lost in the shuffle. The outrage machine that is American political commentary created a perfect storm, and Trump has negotiated it masterfully. His maneuvers are some of the cleverest in the history of American politics, and now we must talk about him.

There are plenty of causes for his rise. There is a party that has stoked the anxieties of the voters who gave them their Reagan Revolution without ever giving them much of anything in return. With some, it clearly does tap into latent racial or ethnic animus, all still very much alive in American politics. On the left, we can blame a conscious move to largely write off the white working class, and the dismissal of a swath of the country as “clingers” to guns and religion whose share of the electorate will grow smaller and smaller over time. The cluelessness and lack of concern among liberals can be a sight to behold. We have a country that has gradually sorted into more and more rigidly defined society, with everyone separated by place and education and any number of other factors. The façade of a unified (white) middle class is falling away, and jilted, the people at the bottom are realizing they have no reason to buy in to a system that has left them behind. All of that in a time of ascendant mass democracy, when anyone’s opinion can get blasted about the internet and cause a reaction, makes the situation ripe. Along with the sensationalistic culture, though, I’d add a politics of protest.  Alasdair MacIntyre:

[P]rotest is now almost entirely that negative phenomenon which characteristically occurs as a reaction to the alleged invasion of someone’s rights in the name of someone else’s utility…the utterance of protest is characteristically addressed to those who already share the protestors’ premises…the protestors rarely have anyone else to talk to but themselves. This is not to say that protest cannot be effective; it is to say that it cannot be rationally effective and that its dominant modes of expression give evidence of a certain perhaps unconscious awareness of this.

Trump is a protest candidate who will never be able to enact most of his proposed policies, to the extent that he has any. Even a fair number of his supporters understand that; they simply want to make it clear that they’re fed up with the status quo, and want to stick it to the “establishment.” It’s cathartic, I’m sure, and I’m jaded enough by Washington that I certainly appreciate the instinct to watch it all burn. But the unknown of what would follow should worry anyone, and when we stop to mull what pent-up forces the ensuing chaos might turn loose. Thousands of years of history suggest the track record is not very good for anyone who’d like to see a peaceful change. Democracy does a good job of funneling human emotion into respectable debate, but it’s all still there simmering beneath, and given the proper catalysts, there’s no reason the whole enterprise can’t collapse.

The protests on the left to Trump’s candidacy seem to affirm this whole dynamic. The clashes between the Trumpistas and the shut-it-down Chicagoans only seemed to empower Trump, and push his votes over the 40 percent threshold he’d previously failed to clear. The other secret to Trump’s success: the extent to which people go to trash him or shut him down creates a counter-reaction. This gets to the core of my gripe with left-leaning current of protest since it began occupying things a few years ago: these activists are speaking a language that only they understand. I’m well-aware this is an attempt to escape the narratives of power and forge one anew, but when one can only speak one language and the other “side” is not versed in it, the result is incoherence, and no one should be surprised when it only alienates people further. Questioning power is a necessary exercise, but when it simply aims to prop up an alternative form of power, we’re left with a power struggle in which all morals and sense of common humanity are liable to go out the window. I fear many people take the stability of the American system for granted, and for all its inequities and gross failures, we are all still incredibly lucky.

One thing is clear enough, from the words of MacIntyre and this well-written takedown of the “Trumpenproletariat” by Adam Garfinkle: this is not a rational campaign. It is its antithesis. It is an emotional volcano, a reach into the depths that taps into the dark side of daemonic passion and lets it explode outward. It’s exhilarating for those it has empowered, and given a chance at greatness: they haven’t had this sort of voice in politics in decades, if ever. This is the double-edged sword of belief and ambition, of the power of collective action toward some sort of final ideal. Trump exemplifies the worst of it, but it’s still an integral part of the human psyche, and trying to cut it off will prove as successful as trying to recreate the 1950s. Instead, American politics must learn to channel it toward genuine outcomes that reduce the alienation, or, if all else fails, to shut it down in the defense of a stable state.

The Democratic Party is hardly immune to these broader trends, though it is a few years behind in the cycle. The Democrats, too, may be approaching their reckoning, as Hillary Clinton is probably the end of the line for Third Way Clintonite liberalism, in one way or the other. We see looming hints of rebellion in the far left, and though that movement has yet to manifest itself in a political figure of its own. (Instead, it settled for a grumpy old socialist from Vermont, whose staying power despite some misgivings from the people of color who make up an increasing share of the party base shows what power he has.) It may never manage to coalesce into an electoral movement; never underestimate the radical left’s ability to implode in internecine warfare. But even if it doesn’t, a revolt against the establishment could yet lead to lasting damage. Either the party’s hold on the presidency will renew itself—and it has a chance to do so, perhaps through Clinton’s Vice Presidential pick—or it will come to an end. The Democrats’ bench at the moment is not especially deep.

I’m not a declinist; I think it’s always been a delicate balance to maintain an open and fair democracy, and have some faith that there are still enough checks on presidential power to keep this from getting too ugly. As long as there is no violence, this whole fiasco could use some levity. This does have the chance to be a wildly entertaining election cycle, as our caricature of silver spoon entitlement and crass nouveau riche lifestyle rides into battle on behalf of the downtrodden masses. As much of the rest of the world can tell us, sometimes we just have to shake our heads and get on with our lives as best we can.

Sooner or later, however, we are going to need a politics at some level that resists protest, Manicheanism, and spectacle for its own sake, or it will all stall into lethargy. I’m about as politically aware as people come, yet I didn’t even attend an Minnesota caucus this year, since I was so ambivalent about the options before me. I may feel the need to speak up in the coming months, and I’m willing to spend some effort battling to defend a stable state. But it’s good to have an escape plan, and the woods of northern Minnesota are looking more and more like a pretty good place to be for the next four years.