Not that I have my finger on the pulse of public opinion, or even opinion in the political and media establishments I try to monitor, but the current Trump Moment strikes me as being different, and more serious politically than its predecessors.
You know which ones I mean. The presumptive Republican presidential nominee’s statement about Mexico sending criminals and rapists into the United States. His trashing of Arizona Republican Senator John McCain’s years as a Vietnam War POW. His statement that “There has to be some form of punishment” for women who undergo abortions. His proposal to ban foreign Muslims from entering the United States. His apparent mockery of a reporter with a physical disability.
Of course, these items by no means exhaust the list of outrageous or at least bizarre and/or unnerving Trump-isms. And their impact on his campaign so far seems to be negligible. But his allegation that Judge Gonzalo Curiel is incapable of presiding impartially over one of his Trump University trials because of his Mexican heritage appears to have touched off condemnations from his opponents and frustration among his supporters orders of magnitude greater than those sparked by previous remarks.
I have no idea if This Time It’s Different or not, but the current uproar prompted two thoughts I hope you agree are worth sharing. First, if by some jaw-dropping turn of events, Trump is forced out of the race or is denied the Republican nomination at the Cleveland convention by delegates overcome with buyers’ remorse, all serious talk of two major issues corroding the vitals of America’s economy and its politics almost surely comes screeching to a halt. I’m talking about trade and immigration.
Presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has spent the entire campaign trying to out-pander her intra-party rival, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, as a champion of ever more reckless Open Borders policies. And her opposition to the next big job-killing trade agreement to come down the pike – President Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has all the trappings of election-year expediency. In fact, in her foreign policy speech in San Diego last Thursday, the former Obama administration Secretary of State left little doubt that she’s chomping at the bit to revive the push for such offshoring-friendly globalization agreements. Why else would she take such pains to condemn Trump for seeking a “trade war with China” and dredging up the red herring about such moves materially worsening the Great Depression in the 1930s?
Sanders, of course, has staunchly opposed not only the TPP but all of its predecessors. So if Clinton’s irresponsible handling of classified information and/or damaging disclosures about her family foundation’s operations wind up derailing her candidacy, a bona fide trade policy critic would still be running for the presidency this fall. But as suggested above, Sanders has become as ardent an advocate of highly permissive immigration policies as any card-carrying member of the corporate cheap labor lobby. So the odds of American workers losing their livelihoods or suffering wage decline because of cheap or subsidized foreign competition could go down. But the odds of these harmful results coming from cheap domestic competition would stay high.
The second thought concerns all the allegations of demagoguery and fascism that have been leveled against Trump. I’m sure at least many are sincerely believed, even by some of the Never Trump Beltway Republican and conservative stalwarts. Few have expressed any problems with the at least equally dangerous and anti-democratic practices of making policy behind closed doors at gatherings of politicians and plutocrat lobbyists. All, however, have dusted off their European history books to insist how fragile the foundations of democracy can be at a time of widespread economic distress.
And yet the example of interwar Europe is revealing in ways the anti-Trump-ians either don’t recognize or don’t want to recognize. Those societies were not only devastated economically by depression and, in the case of Germany, hyperinflation. They had suffered losses during the Great War that are literally unimaginable for Americans (unless they immigrated from those countries at that time). And except in Britain, democracy’s roots were shallow or weak.
Economic times today unquestionably are hard for far too many Americans, but otherwise, the United States in no way fits the description of a country about to reject representative government or the rule of law. In fact, precisely because the national situation is so entirely manageable in comparison, it’s nothing less than striking that the avowed champions of democracy, who profess to be so terrified about the Trump-ist threat, have taken virtually none of the decidedly modest steps that surely would have sufficed to slow Trump’s momentum, possibly halt it altogether – and quash the danger for the time being.
Yes, Clinton has abandoned the TPP. But even many Democrats don’t believe her conversion will have legs. Yes, the Beltway Republicans and conservatives have jumped on the Border Security train. But their still heavy dependence on Big Business donations will surely tempt them to support a relatively permissive immigration reform bill shortly after the election – and as long before the next presidential cycle as possible. Moreover, their surrogates in the (corporate-funded) think tanks and the establishment media keep doubling down on their own arguments that returning to maximum trade liberalization and mass immigration are essential for varying combinations of partisan political, economic, and strategic reasons.
In fact, here’s a rule of thumb I feel pretty confident about. The more stridently these Democratic and Republican establishmentarians defend the trade and immigration status quos, the louder and more often they’ll condemn public anger and resentment as signs of incipient fascism.