March 7, 2016

DAVIES | Diagnosing Donald

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Having in recent years charted a presidential trajectory from intellectual, old-guard conservative father to boisterous, compassionate neoconservative son, today’s Republican party looks set to fracture along deep-seated fault lines. The impetus and animus felt among the Trump tribe towards the GOP’s landed gentry has brought another of those rifts into sharp relief.

Frankenstein’s monster bears more than a passing resemblance to the ideological mutant that is the Republican Party. Since the Reagan era, fiscal conservatives have shared the mantle of the right with their more socially concerned brethren, a group that, before Trump rustled many of its members into his more nationalist fold, found its electoral darlings in Tea Partiers like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.).

Wedded to these strange bedfellows are libertarians — the last few stops on the line east from the aforementioned more moderate, more Bushy candidates. Ideologically, Ron Paul, and, politically, Sen. Rand “Ayn Rand” Paul (R-Ky.), are the most well known specimens.

Finally, as soil among roots and iron filings around poles, the right-of-center political lumpen exists among these principled factions. These are people who treat voting solely as a process of selecting the candidate who would be best for them rather than as a vehicle for expressing and advancing a political philosophy. Pro-business views, religious beliefs or libertarian ideals hold little sway among these Americans whose primary concern is how much of their money the government is going to take away.

America’s bifurcated two-party politics has forced these groups together, frequently into contradiction. They have been compressed into an entity that advocates small government while introducing undue burdens on abortion, decries government meddling while corroding individual privacy rights. The faction in power, helmed and crewed by those upstanding, Rockefeller Republican Romneys and Bushes (though the Jeb! model is little better than a potted plant), is so far removed in its ideals and interests from Iowa’s farmers and Alabama’s bigots as to have overlooked the fraying threads that held the whole vessel together.

In a political system comprising only two (electorally realistic) fiefdoms of vote farmers and election merchants, a vote for a party does not imply unconditional endorsement of that party’s candidate, platform, or ideology. When your grandpa votes for Trump because of his plans for a Mexican death wall, defended with nuclear mines and illegal immigrants serving penal sentences, that doesn’t fate him to perpetually demean you on Twitter or urgently describe his genitals on national television. Political elites have forgotten this dissonance between the party elected and its voters’ ideals.

The two-party stricture seals off choice on a number of political issues on which Democrats and Republicans agree. On free trade the parties distinguish themselves only through the means they each would use to herd the nation towards a Rust Belt future. Democrats would tax those who really win from more open trade in order to help those who lose out, but only at such a rate that speaking fees, and those all-important stocks and salaries, would continue to sate appetites for boardroom cocaine and aircraft carriers.

Their Republican colleagues would dream up all kinds of regressive taxes (see Gov. Sam Brownback’s (R-Kan.) experiment. Commentary by one Mr. Donald Drumpf, “Terrible, really, just terrible. This guy made bad deals — loser! vote for Trump and win good deals.”) with the stated justification that ISIS hates income redistribution. This levy would steal at a sufficiently palatable rate that the lower classes would continue to turn a blind eye to the crack cocaine and foreclosed homes and class conflicts over inequality. Rather, as workers narrow their eyes and tilt their heads, clocking out on the day the steel mill closed, a man who looks like them will whisper into their scorched ears that next year’s extra $200 tax refund will make up for Washington’s chess games and China’s steel industry.

So many of those at the bottom of the heap in 1960 remain at the bottom of the heap in 2016, a suggestion of societal stability (or stagnation). But American culture has transformed itself over recent memory — the groups who we think of as being at the sharp end of American life, at the precipice of the American ideal, have shifted. No longer is the white lower class the object of discourse on welfare policies. So well treated and so well pitied through the 20th century, Middle America now sees its position as the beneficiary of the nation’s collective betterment usurped by people with strange names and un-American ideals.

Donald Trump is simultaneously the fruit of this loss and its farmer, harvesting white working class resentment at losing societal and cultural territory. In one hand he offers a simplification of politics, society, and human relationships, while in the other he holds a promise to shame and demean the long indifferent establishment.

By neutralizing politics as an arena for intellectual debate, Trump has reduced people’s conception of the democratic process to groupings of emotion and instinct rather than logic and reason. He feeds upon a deep, apolitical bitterness — that feeling so prevalent among Americans that he who is below the professor, the tycoon or the senator must be greater in spirit.

Trump is dangerous. He has ushered America halfway aboard the train to fascism. But he is a product of a mainstream cultural discourse that has shunned the crowd who think Obama is a Muslim and that immigrants are criminals. In spite of their cultural defeat these people have remained strong in their belief that terrible things lie ahead for America. The Short-Fingered Vulgarian has merely assumed the throne of leadership in the campaign of the Forces of Great against the Forces of Terrible (and their low energy allies the Forces of Loser and the Forces of Decency).

Alex Davies is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at ajd253@cornell.edu. Have I Got News For You? appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

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