On the eve of an Iowa caucus that could put Donald Trump firmly in the driver’s seat for the Republican presidential nomination, the nation’s intertwined political-media establishment seems pretty convinced of a remarkable trend spreading among long-time GOP fixtures: The party’s power structure is reluctantly but unmistakably making its peace with the idea that the bombastic real estate magnate and reality TV star will become their standard bearer and possibly the next president.
More recently, though, the chattering class has noted a development that might be at least equally important, especially for the longer term future of American politics. Many liberals are abandoning their standard portrayal of Trump as a simple racist, nativist, xenophobic, misogynistic, (ADD YOUR FAVORITE ADJECTIVE) demagogue.
Instead, they seem to be warming to the idea that Trump is a genuine economic populist, and one who is not only giving (needlessly crude) voice to widespread and legitimate working- and middle-class frustrations, but who is consistently pounding on specific themes with which progressives should be entirely comfortable. In fact, some of them have picked up on my claim from last September that there’s enough overlap between Trump’s positions and those of Democratic Socialist Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders to create the (eventual) possibility of a new and enduring left-right populist synthesis.
The latest sign has come from journalist John Judis, who for decades has been one of the few prominent media figures to focus on the politics of American economic issues and the economics of political controversies. Judis has just published an essay on Vox.com titled “This election could be the birth of a Trump-Sanders constituency.” In Judis’ words:
“Sanders and Trump differ dramatically on many issues — from immigration to climate change— but both are critical of how wealthy donors and lobbyists dominate the political process, and both favor some form of campaign finance reform. Both decry corporations moving overseas for cheap wages and to avoid American taxes. Both reject trade treaties that favor multinational corporations over workers. And both want government more, rather than less, involved in the economy.”
“[E]ven if Trump and Sanders are denied the White House, their campaigns will have been extremely significant, perhaps even changing presidential politics forever. Their success in building a following in their parties is an early warning sign of discontent with the outlook that has dominated American politics for decades.”
I’d add, as I noted in my original post, that Sanders used to express realistic concerns about the impact of mass immigration on the wages and broader living standards of Main Street Americans. But when he decided to run for president, he apparently concluded that his campaign would make no headway among a critical mass of Democrats unless he went into full Hispanic-pander mode.
Of course, readers familiar with the national media world know that Judis has long been distinctive among his peers for recognizing how much of the Democratic party’s mainstream has drifted away from its working- and middle-class roots in favor of the kind of Wall Street-friendly outlook championed by former President Bill Clinton. I suspect he would also sympathize with the idea that many more left-leaning Democrats have become too enamored with an agenda centered around identity politics and cultural issues that not only offers nothing to their traditional – whiter – base, but that treats their own values with thinly disguised and often open disdain.
As a result, what really stands out about the Judis article is the venue. For since its launch in 2014, Vox.com has established itself as a bastion of elitist liberals who in particular strongly endorse the trade and immigration policies so harmful to native-born U.S. workers. Its staff is also keen on the idea that Democrats should be helping to speed America’s transformation into a society and economy that’s both younger and more diverse racially and ethnically, as well as one that’s more globalized and cosmopolitan, greener, and alienated from traditional beliefs about family structure, gender and sexual identity, and employment patterns. Think of hipsters enamored with the idea of the gig economy.
Moreover, the Judis piece isn’t alone. Last July, Huffington Post was so dismissive of Trump’s – then embryonic – candidacy on so many grounds that it famously announced that it would stop reporting on Trump’s run as part of its political coverage. Instead, the website explained,
“we will cover his campaign as part of our Entertainment section. Our reason is simple: Trump’s campaign is a sideshow. We won’t take the bait. If you are interested in what The Donald has to say, you’ll find it next to our stories on the Kardashians and The Bachelorette.”
At the end of last year, Huffington Post reclassified Campaign Trump. Arianna Huffington, the site’s founder, made abundantly clear that her contempt for Trump was as heated as ever. But just this morning, one of her Associate Politics Editors posted an item titled, “A Democrat Explains Why She’s Voting for Donald Trump.” The main reason? Her hometown of Dubuque, Iowa
“is suffering from a stagnant economy, and [she] is disappointed with Democrats for failing to adequately turn things around. When Trump, a wealthy businessman who espouses protectionist economic policies, rails against nations like Mexico and China, [subject Rebecca] Thoeni says she can relate.
“‘People at the company I work for, they lost their jobs. They’re sending those jobs to China,” she said.’”
For good measure, the article’s author contended that this Iowan “is one of many working-class whites who make up a large portion of the Trump phenomenon currently sweeping across the country. It is a coalition that spans Southern states and the Rust Belt, which has suffered from economic decline, population loss and urban decay. It also includes a good chunk of less educated Americans who do not have a college degree, and who feel like they’ve been ignored by leaders in Washington.”
A few days before, progressive stalwart Robert Reich wrote in a column about an epiphany he came to while touring the nation promoting his latest book:
“I kept bumping into people who told me they were trying to make up their minds in the upcoming election between Sanders and Trump.
“At first I was dumbfounded. The two are at opposite ends of the political divide.
“But as I talked with these people, I kept hearing the same refrains. They wanted to end “crony capitalism.” They detested “corporate welfare,” such as the Wall Street bailout.
“They wanted to prevent the big banks from extorting us ever again. Close tax loopholes for hedge-fund partners. Stop the drug companies and health insurers from ripping off American consumers. End trade treaties that sell out American workers. Get big money out of politics.
“Somewhere in all this I came to see the volcanic core of what’s fueling this election.”
Reich has by no means become a Trump-ite. But he acknowledged that”
“If you’re one of the tens of millions of Americans who are working harder than ever but getting nowhere, and who understand that the political-economic system is rigged against you and in favor of the rich and powerful, what are you going to do?
“…You don’t care about the details of proposed policies and programs.
“You just want a system that works for you.”
I could go on. But more important at this point is to note the publication of an article in The New York Times yesterday indicating that what’s happening is that the chattering class’ liberal wing is finally getting a message being sent it by the grass roots. The piece, by correspondent Noam Scheiber, reported a “form of anxiety…weighing on some union leaders and Democratic operatives: “their fear that Mr. Trump, if not effectively countered, may draw an unusually large number of union voters in a possible general election matchup. This could, in turn, bolster Republicans in swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, all of which President Obama won twice.”
And according to Scheiber, these Democratic stalwarts weren’t blaming American workers for succumbing to racism, xenophobia, etc. In their view, “The source of the attraction to Mr. Trump, say union members and leaders, is manifold: the candidate’s unapologetically populist positions on certain economic issues, particularly trade; a frustration with the impotence of conventional politicians; and above all, a sense that he rejects the norms of Washington discourse.”
There’s of course a distinct possibility that none of this will matter on Tuesday morning. Perhaps a Trump loss in Iowa – even a close one – will puncture the aura of invincibility and even inevitability that some believe is surrounding him, and trigger a collapse of his White House hopes. Or Trump could finally hurl one bombshell that turns off even his hard-core supporters. Or maybe once enough of his competitors drop out of the race, one of Trump’s remaining rivals could consolidate enough of the anti-Trump vote under one banner to send him to defeat. (Trump has never so far won a majority of Republican primary voters in any poll.)
But even if Trump flames out at some point, it’s increasingly clear that “Trump-ism” will remain with us. And if it finds a champion who can combine Trump’s passion with some softer personal edges and a somewhat thicker skin, both wings of the chattering class may regret that they don’t have The Donald to kick around anymore.