Thursday, July 16, 2015

Playing The Trump Card


by Oren Jacobson

The way Donald Trump’s presidential announcement started revealed everything we need to know about his candidacy. His almost comical escalator ride to the stage from which he delivered his rambling announcement was one part egomaniacal, descending from the heavens to impart his genius upon us, and one part shameless self-promotion. Simply put, it was vintage Donald.

Well, sort of. While the tone and style of the event was utterly consistent with Trump’s public persona, the script was slightly different from the one he was reading in 2000. As he considered a third-party run that season, he claimed himself to be socially liberal, attacking the far right as intolerant and calling out party darling Pat Buchanan as a racist. He even endorsed the idea of universal health care. Those memories are hard to reconcile with the Trump who announced his 2016 bid for the GOP nomination-- the Trump declaring Mexican immigrants to be rapists and drug dealers, while conceding that some might be good people.

It would be easy to write this off as a flip-flop, or another example of Trump’s poor character. But that would miss the point. Donald Trump’s (currently) espoused views might be repulsive, but the man is no idiot. He built an empire on his ability to self-promote. He made his fortune by putting on a show for investors, business partners, and the American viewing public. He has long been an actor on a stage. He knows how to play a role, and in this moment, on this stage, he is reveling in the role demanded of him. He is, after all, running for the Republican nomination in 2016. He is one of the best marketers and performers in the world and this man knows his audience.

We could go on for pages about the factual inaccuracies of Trump’s campaign to date-- and indeed, others have. These are important points worth making, especially as the man tops the rest of the field, temporary though his lead may be. However, I actually think we are focusing our attention on the wrong thing. Donald Trump isn’t the issue.

If we remove Trump from the equation what are we left with? I’d certainly be far more comfortable saying that we have a candidate who recognizes the burgeoning immigrant community aligns far more with the broad Democratic platform and is simply choosing to focus on different demographics. But if that were indeed the case, the logical thing to do would be to recognize that you cannot sustain competitiveness at the national level without embracing and welcoming diversity in a substantive way. That’s not what’s happening here.

I would love to suggest that this really is simply about border security. However, the Republican Party killed a bill that dramatically increased spending on the border. In 2013 68 Senators passed a bipartisan bill, with 14 Republican votes, that would have overhauled our immigration system. The comprehensive immigration reform bill would have added 19,000 border agents, made E-verify a requirement for every employer as a hedge against hiring undocumented workers, and completed a 700 mile fence along the border, among other things. How substantial would the increase in funding have been? As of 2013, we spent roughly $3.5 billion annually on border security. The bill would have created an initial fund of more than $45 billion.

When the House, controlled by Republicans, took up the legislation, they declared they would move it piecemeal, and not as one large package. President Obama gave Speaker Boehner space to operate. Ultimately, the Tea Party tanked the whole thing. Apparently more border security isn’t the key issue on the far right. It’s amnesty.

Simply put, the far right doesn’t want those who came here illegally to stay in this country and they will not support any law that that creates a pathway for them to do so, regardless of the reality that we won’t deport 12 million people. Speaker Boehner, despite knowing the votes existed to pass the full bill, lacked the courage to even put it on the floor. So when the GOP cries out about border security, and uses the tragic death of Kate Steinle as a rallying cry for it and against immigrants, shouldn’t we ask them why they didn’t act when they could have?

What is even more ridiculous about the entire argument from the right is that on every other level the GOP should have loved this bill. Increased border security? Check. Boost the economy? Check. Pay taxes? Check. Pay fines? Check. Move to the back of the line? Check. Deficit reduction? Check, to the tune of almost $1 trillion over 20 years. The party that claims, falsely in my view, to be the party of fiscal sanity, pro-growth policies, and national security said no to a bill that makes the border more secure, boosts the economy, and shrinks the deficit? Check.

When you cannot find logic all you are left with is an irrational emotional drive. And emotion is at the very center of the anti-amnesty, anti-immigrant fervor on the far right. The bloviating of Trump and similar candidates isn’t about smart politics or sound principle. It’s about appealing to a hyper-nationalist, xenophobic base with little appreciation for facts and a great desire to return to a time when difference was deficiency. This is the party of self-deportation. The party who booed a gay service member during a primary in 2012. The party of birthers. The anti-marriage equality party. The “Obama is a Muslim” party. The party still fighting to protect the flag of slavery they parade around in a garish, haunting celebration of state’s rights.

This is not about Trump. This is about the contrast in priorities between the base of the Republican and Democratic electorates.The extreme far right-- the base of the GOP-- has spent the last few weeks in an anti-gay, anti-immigrant, pro-confederate flag frenzy. The Democratic base has been pushing to remove a symbol of hate, celebrating the expansion of equality, and talking about economic fairness, opportunity, and equality thanks to a candidate whose rhetoric often sounds quite similar to that of Teddy Roosevelt, a president no one would describe as extreme. The divergence in values here is stark, and presents a pivotal fork in the road for moderates. With which group shall you cast your lot?

Values matter. Values define us. Donald Trump is simply the mouthpiece by which a sizable portion of the Republican base electorate is communicating its current values. Trump will eventually bow out and ride the escalator back up to his next promotional opportunity, but the values that have created the wave he is currently riding will remain. Those fear based values, like the Trump Card itself, must be folded and discarded. The ballot box must be where we dispose of them.
This post by Oren was originally published in Politics in Progress on Wednesday, July 15.

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