Thursday, December 31, 2015

Where Does Trumpism Come From?


Writing at Vox yesterday, David Roberts has a classic explanation for the rise of fascism or, more particularly, explains where the hell Trumpism comes from and how it took over the Republican Party. His support comes the intersection of a group losing both its economic status and it's cultural status-- not an either/or proposition. As he explains, economic anxiety and racism can't be easily distinguished when looking closely at the hard-core Tumpists. It's very much a part of Us vs Them politics, rather than right vs left.
Most politics is interest group politics, about securing benefits and protections for a particular Us and in some cases denying benefits and protections to particular Thems perceived as undeserving or in competition with Us for scarce resources.

This is most clear when the interest group in question is a demographic group systematically excluded from power-- in the US, nonwhite non-men, basically. That's why we call feminism or Black Lives Matter or LGBT movements "identity politics." They manifest as political or economic demands tied to group identity.

...The interests of the politically and culturally dominant group are woven into the status quo; they are simply "politics." Maintenance of the status quo is the assumption; changes to the status quo, which would shift the distribution of benefits and protections, are "demands." The dominant group is rarely seen as, or thinks of itself as, a distinct identity with common interests. It is simply the norm, the baseline. The dynamic is no different for white, Christian, working-class men and their wives in the US.

There's a unique political dynamic that develops when the dominant group begins to lose power due to demographic and economic changes. It becomes a group, one identity among others, fighting for benefits. This is a profound and unsettling shift, inevitably seen as a corruption of the proper order, an assault by the undeserving on the resources of those entitled to them. The group experiences diminution as humiliation and seeks someone to blame, usually various subaltern groups. The process often involves backlash, even violence.

Contra Sanders, Trump did not "convert" their economic anxiety into xenophobia and racial resentment. Rather, from their perspective, he correctly identified the roots of their economic anxiety, something other politicians fear to do because of "political correctness." ...
The Republican base thinks they face a victorious Democratic Party that is intent on expanding government to increase dependency and therefore electoral support. It starts with food stamps and unemployment benefits; expands further if you legalize the illegal immigrants; but insuring the uninsured through the Affordable Care Act will dramatically expand the number of those dependent on government. They believe these policies are part of an electoral strategy-- not just a political ideology or economic philosophy. If Obamacare is fully implemented, the Republican Party may be lost forever.

While few explicitly talk about Obama in racial terms, the base supporters are very conscious of being white in a country with growing minorities. Their party is losing to a Democratic Party promoting big government and whose goal is to expand programs that mainly benefit minorities. Race remains very much alive in the politics of the Republican Party.
To these voters, Democrats are a) hurting the economy by b) taxing productive, upright citizens in order to c) funnel benefits to minorities and immigrants who will then d) vote for Democrats and reinforce the cycle. The economic and demographic anxieties are part of the same story.

Admittedly, Trump supporters do not overlap neatly with the Republican base. He has drawn in many people who were entirely disconnected from politics. But if anything, reactionary sentiments are stronger in the cross section of Americans drawn to Trump.

To the bafflement of the GOP elite, Trump's supporters haven't objected to his various dissents from Republican orthodoxy-- his promise to protect Medicare and Social Security, his odd mix of isolationism andbelligerence, his relentless, crass mockery of Republican politicians. His voters are not animated by abstractions like small government and low taxes, or by party loyalty. They are animated by demographic interests.

They don't mind government benefits as such. They mind losing some of their benefits to others who haven't worked for them, who don't deserve them, lazy minorities and illegal immigrants. Trump is standing up for Us, and denouncing Them, in a clearer way than any other politician.

This kind of ethnic chauvinism-- socialism for me, Darwinian capitalism for thee-- is orthogonal to the policy disputes between the two US political parties. For years, it's been subsumed under the plutocratic economic agenda of the GOP elite; Trumpism reflects its full flowering. (Such chauvinism is more familiar, and better represented, in European splinter-right parties.)

For the Americans rallying around Trump, economic insecurity is tied to the rise of minorities. Traditional white, Christian, small-town, patriarchal culture, along with the high-paying jobs that sustained it, is being assaulted, invaded, corrupted by the rise of demographic groups that do not share its values and a political party that manipulates those demographic groups to further its own power.

To be very clear: I'm not saying, as Sanders is sometimes accused of arguing, that racism is merely an expression of economic anxiety, or that solving economic anxiety would solve racism. That would, in fact, be naive. Racial resentments and stereotypes have their own independent reality and power, which extend well beyond what can be explained purely through recourse to economics.

But by the same token, it's important to understand that from the perspective of the beleaguered white working-class voters supporting Trump, there are not two stories, the loss of economic power and the loss of cultural power, but one story: Their America is being degraded and displaced in favor of another America in which they don't belong. Trying to understand them without grasping that unified story is politically fruitless.
If you'd like, you can contribute to Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign here.

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At 5:44 AM, Blogger Natalie Daniels said...

I think that in 2006 when Rahm was in charge of the DCCC the promotion of blue dog and DINO dems alienated working class Dems and helped the nascent Tea Party movement coalesce in the South with more support. After 9 years of GOP voting it will be nigh to impossible for Sanders to pull them back into the Dem fold.

At 8:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Trumpism comes from the lowest form of human community: the tribe. Unless you are a member of the tribe, you can only be seen as an enemy.


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