Since the political class that routinely slams him is hermetically shielded from the struggles of Donald Trump’s middle class and working class supporters, it’s no surprise that the nation’s elite pols and pundits don’t speak a word of Trump-ish. Assuming, in the spirit of the holiday season, that at least some of the Republican front-runners’ assailants are actually interested in understanding the political earthquakes he’s set off and responding constructively, as opposed to buttressing their superiority complexes or stamping them out (frequently in response to special interest paymasters), here’s a handy two-lesson guide.
Special bonus: This post also goes far toward both interpreting the widely noted anger marking the nation’s politic today, and explaining why Trump’s bombshells keep boosting, not cratering, his poll numbers.
Lesson One: It’s been all too easy to condemn Trump’s various comments on immigration policy as xenophobic, racist, or both. Some have clearly been sloppy and/or impractical, which is why, as in the case of his deportation policy, or the original form of the Muslim ban (which didn’t distinguish between citizens and non-citizens), I’ve been critical. (For the former, see, e.g., this post. For the latter, I’ve expressed my views on Twitter on November 20 and December 7.) There’s also no doubt that much opposition to current, permissive immigration policies stems from the kinds of fears about threats to “traditional American values” that have animated explicitly discriminatory anti-immigrant movements in the past.
Yet the standard denunciations of Trump’s positions ignore too many features of his pitch and his proposals to be convincing. For example, if Trump is a simple racist, or white supremacist, why does he never mention the supposed threats from East or South Asian immigrants? And if these groups really are often conspicuously singled out as “model minorities” even by many immigration policy critics, how can they reasonably be lumped into the racist category? Further, why does Trump’s immigration plan emphasize the harm done by low-skill and low-wage legal and (especially) illegal immigrants to the incomes and prospects of so many low-skill and low-wage black Americans?
Similar observations debunk the portrayal of Trump’s Muslim ban as simple, ignorant, irrational Islamophobia. As I’ve pointed out repeatedly (e.g. this post) , for many reasons, Islam presents special problems for American national security and international interests. Even President Obama has accused the so-called moderate majority of the world’s Muslims and their leaders of failing to resist the fanaticism of ISIS and Al Qaeda strongly enough. And although Muslims have by and large integrated peacefully and successfully into American life – certainly more so than in Europe – Western, evidence of pro-terrorist activity and sympathy is too compelling for comfort.
So obviously, there’s much more to the Trump pitch and platform than mindless hating. In the case of immigration from Mexico and the rest of Latin America that’s overwhelmingly economically motivated, it’s the concern that business and other elite economic interests have so successfully and so long focused Washington on satisfying its appetite for cheap labor that the needs of native-born workers and their families, as well as the fundamental security imperative of maintaining control over national borders, have been completely neglected. Therefore, Trump’s pronouncements – including his call for a wall – are best seen as demands that American leaders prioritize their own citizens and legal residents in policymaking, and for restoration of border security arrangements essential for concepts like “nationhood” and “sovereignty” and “security” to have practical meaning.
In other words, when Trump and his supporters complain about Mexican or Latino immigrants, whether legal and particularly illegal, the candidate in particular, and arguably most often his supporters, are complaining not about newcomers with different skin colors or about foreigners as such. They’re complaining about immigrants who are serving exactly the same purpose as the picket-crossing scabs that historically have aroused heated – and sometimes violent – reactions from elements of the American labor movement: increasing the labor supply to further weaken workers’ bargaining power.
Of course, there’s another, non-economic reason for focusing on Hispanic immigrants that has nothing to do with racism or bigotry – though you don’t hear this point from Trump himself. It’s that worry about assimilation and American values referenced above. In turn, it springs from (a) both those groups’ distinctive insistence on concessions to bilingualism in daily life (when was the last time you heard about demands for Chinese language instructions on ballots, or Vietnamese announcements on subway P.A. systems?); and (b) from the eagerness many politicians show to accommodate them. The latter is in sharp contrast to official America’s handling of earlier immigration waves, when the overriding intent was to Americanize newcomers as soon and as completely as possible – and when demands for special treatment were far less common.
Similar non-bigoted messages are being sent by Trump’s Muslim ban and related opposition to admitting large numbers of refugees from Middle East war zones. Assimilation is clearly on the minds of his supporters. But security is an even bigger issue for both the candidate and his backers. Especially in the wake of the November Paris attacks and the ensuing San Bernardino shootings, many Republican and even some Democratic party leaders have understandably felt compelled to call out an Obama administration that has, in the face of all common sense, kept insisting that those fleeing areas of chaos could be adequately vetted – and that with equal stubbornness has demonized such prudence as prejudiced, callous, a propaganda windfall for ISIS, and un-American.
Lesson Two: This one, concerning Trump’s insulting comments towards fellow presidential hopefuls, journalists, and other individual critics (whether they’ve been truly critical or not) should be much easier to understand – though perhaps more difficult for the targets to take to heart. In a perfect world, or even close, office-seekers, anyone in public life, or anyone in public, shouldn’t call others “stupid,” or “losers” as Trump has, and it’s even worse to disparage people because of their looks or use sexist slurs against women.
But this is not only a world that is far from perfect. It is a world – and country – in which the wealthy, the powerful, and the influential enjoy privilege that is almost unimaginable unless you know or have seen it personally. Far too often, to a degree not known in America for decades, their position has come at the expense of fellow citizens so remote financially, culturally, and even geographically from them that the latter might as well as invisible. And even more infuriating, the occupants of America’s commanding heights seem to stay securely in place – and even more securely in place – no matter what failures and even catastrophes they inflict on the country. Increasing signs of nepotism and even dynasticism foul the picture further.
In other words, there’s no shortage of reasons for many Americans to refer to their current leaders, their wannabe leaders, and all their varied courtiers without the level of courtesy to which we’ve become accustomed. Indeed, there is every reason for a big bloc of the electorate to view them as outright crooks, incompetents, or some combination of the two. And when Trump treats them as such, a strong case can be made that, even though he’s coarsening public discourse, he’s also sending the Beltway crowd and its fans and funders across the country messages about millions of their countrymen that they urgently need to hear and understand. For example, Trump backers
>are completely unimpressed with monuments to unearned status like former Florida Governor (and presidential relative) Jeb Bush, and former Senator and Secretary of State (and First Lady) Hillary Clinton;
>view failed or failing presidential rivals like Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Ohio Governor John Kasich as shills for the corporate cheap labor lobby and its mass immigration plans, not as courageous champions of more inclusive conservatism;
>and wonder who decreed pundits like George Will and news anchors like NBC’s Chuck Todd or Fox’s Megyn Kelly to be arbiters of political, social, and cultural acceptability.
In other words, Trump’s supporters believe that spotlighting the disastrous records, wrongheaded positions, or hollow reputations of many individual American leaders and media notables is vastly more important than protecting their delicate sensibilities. In turn, the specificity of this harsh treatment reveals something important about much of the anger pervading American politics today. It’s not simply aimed at abstractions like “politics as usual” or “Washington dysfunction” or “the system” or even “corruption.” That’s because in addition to being almost uselessly vague, these terms conveniently permit practically any individual or even any particular category of individuals involved in public life to assume that the problem lies elsewhere.
Instead, today’s anger is directed at specific individuals and groups who large numbers of voters blame for the country’s assorted predicaments, and who Trump supporters read and see routinely belittle their frustrations and therefore condemn their chosen spokesmen as know-nothings, clowns, bigots, and even incipient fascists.
Trump’s blast at Kelly right after the first Republican presidential debate in Cleveland in August was especially revealing. Even I first described it as needlessly personal and petty. But looking back, it’s also clear why so many Trump acolytes and (then) undecideds seemed to ignore it and its seeming implications about Trump’s personality and judgment.
For in the actual debate, they heard Kelly pose what they surely viewed as a second-order “gotcha” question – about Trump’s previous insults of women. And they also heard an answer from the candidate that immediately pivoted to some of their top priorities. “I don’t frankly have time,” Trump responded, “for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either. This country is in big trouble. We don’t win anymore. We lose to China. We lose to Mexico both in trade and at the border. We lose to everybody.”
And the more political rivals and other establishmentarians harrumphed or inveighed about Trump’s crudeness, the more backers and sympathizers viewed Kelly not mainly as a bullied female, but as another out-of-touch media celebrity and even an elitist hired gun, and the more they scorned Trump’s critics as selfish plutocrats more concerned with protecting one of their own than dealing seriously with pocketbook and other core issues.
Therefore, as with his populist policy stances, Trump’s language and its appeal are confronting his establishment opponents with a fundamental choice if they want to keep these approaches out of American politics. They can try to learn Trump-ish, and respond constructively to the legitimate economic and non-economic concerns fueling it. Or they can remain self-righteously ignorant, and continue vilifying him and his backers. Since the insults directly threaten not just the elites’ prestige but their lucrative perches, I feel pretty confident that they’ll choose the latter. What’s anyone’s guess is how long, and even whether, they can keep succeeding.