The Coming of Trump
by Jon Harrison | Posted April 06, 2017
Donald Trump is president of the United States.
Few foresaw the Donald’s electoral triumph. Mavens from Nate Silver to veteran Republican strategist Mike Murphy to little old me (actually, I’m over six feet tall) were certain Clinton would win. With the exception of Allan Lichtman, no major American political scientist predicted a Trump victory. (I should mention that Doug Casey, whose name is on the masthead here, also predicted that Trump would win.) Even Trump and his people seemed, on election eve, prepared to face the agony of defeat.
How did most prognosticators get it so wrong? We simply didn’t foresee that Trump would break through to win the Rust Belt states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. That was the difference in the election; almost everything else went pretty much as expected. Trump did win Florida, which Obama had carried twice. This was something of a surprise, particularly since many of us believed that Hispanic voters (15% of the Florida electorate) would go overwhelmingly for Clinton. Yet Trump actually did better among Hispanics than Romney in 2012. He won almost 30% of the Hispanic vote, even though pre-election polls showed him with less than half that much support among Hispanics. Clearly there were some hidden Trump voters among this population — “good hombres,” from the Donald’s point of view.
Even Trump and his people seemed, on election eve, prepared to face the agony of defeat.
But hidden supporters weren’t the main reason why Trump outperformed Romney among minorities. More important was the fact that Trump wasn’t running against Barack Obama. A lot of minority voters who got off the couch twice for Barry couldn’t be bothered to vote for a white female Democrat, even though it probably would’ve been in their best interest to do so.
Conversely, the forgotten white voter — the working class whites in the upper Midwest and elsewhere who’ve been left behind in the post-industrial economy and feel threatened by the rise of women and people of color — turned out in unexpectedly high numbers. Economic, racial, and gender ressentiment motivated them enough to put down that can of Bud and drive the pickup over to the polling place.
In the summer of 2016 I had a conversation about the election with a prominent libertarian intellectual. I offered the opinion that the Trump movement represented a revolt of the lower middle class — of the people caught between the nouveau riche of the technology and information economy on the one side, and “coddled” minorities on the other. For years these white working class folks have seen themselves (rightly) as being taken for granted by the Republican establishment, and largely ignored by the Democrats.
A lot of minority voters who got off the couch twice for Obama couldn’t be bothered to vote for a white female Democrat.
A little later I discovered just how many white males without a college degree there are in the voting age population. I don’t recall the exact number offhand, but I do remember being surprised at how large it was. I also remember thinking that if a lot of those guys actually showed up at the polls, Trump could win. But I immediately dismissed that notion from my mind. A high percentage of those folks don’t vote, I said to myself. I believed they would simply continue to accept their fate. But these people, the American lumpenproletariat, saw in Trump a candidate who truly seemed to feel as they do about many issues. They believed that he could be a savior who would improve their lives and preserve their values. And on November 8 they came out to vote for him. Whether they will still support him in four years’ time, or even a year from now, may be another matter, but as of now their support remains pretty firm.
The effect of the Libertarian Party on the election is hard to quantify. Gary Johnson probably took more votes away from Trump, but I don’t see that he gave Clinton any states that Trump would otherwise have won. The Green Party, on the other hand, arguably cost Clinton the election.
I had expected that leftists would hold their noses and vote for Hillary. Given how scary Trump appears from their perspective, and given the example of 2000, when Nader and the Greens handed the election to George W. Bush, voting for Hillary would have been the Left’s best option. But I guess the far Left is as irrational about politics as it is about economics, social policy, human nature, etc. Had Jill Stein’s voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin cast their votes for Clinton, she and not Trump would have been elected. If the Trump administration crushes the hopes and dreams of American leftists, Jill Stein and her wooly-minded supporters will bear a good part of the blame.
An electoral upset of epic proportions was produced by a combination of apathy among many minority voters, enthusiasm for Trump among working class whites, and a few thousand votes cast by clueless leftists. There were in addition two other factors in Trump’s triumph. Two prominent Americans, a man and a woman, played outsized roles in the Donald’s march to victory.
The American lumpenproletariat saw in Trump a candidate who truly seemed to feel as they do about many issues.
The man in question is the late Antonin Scalia. The dead may not vote (outside of Chicago and a few other places), but Justice Scalia exercised, from the grave, a considerable influence over the outcome of the election. A lot of people in places such as the suburbs of Philadelphia were wary of having Hillary Clinton fill not just Scalia’s empty seat on the Supreme Court, but the next two or more vacancies as well. That’s a big reason why a majority of white women were willing to vote for a p***y-grabbing lech like Trump.
The woman, of course, is Hillary Clinton. Some of the hate for her is doubtless based on pure misogyny, or fake news stories swallowed whole by the ignoramuses of America (such as the absurd claim that she was involved in child sex trafficking). But of course it goes well beyond that. Her Kennedyesque penchant for making up her own rules, her money-grubbing, her patronizing style and blatant ambition are all deeply unsympathetic traits. Of course, Trump personifies the same character flaws, on top of which he has no grasp of policy. But it turned out that the voters preferred an uninformed, boorish man to a fairly clever but calculating woman.
What effect Russian hacking had on the election is still unclear, and it’s by no means certain that the investigations now underway will throw real light on the matter. That Putin directed his minions to work against Clinton (and therefore on Trump’s behalf) is pretty obvious, but did the hacking actually change votes, or keep Clinton supporters away from the polls? I find it hard to believe that Russians decided the election. Russian intervention in our politics is certainly something Americans should be upset about. On the other hand, we’ve interfered in so many other countries’ elections during the post-World War II era that the karmic bill had to come due at some point.
The dead may not vote, but Justice Scalia exercised, from the grave, a considerable influence over the outcome of the election.
I happen to favor a friendlier US-Russia relationship. Putin is a gangster, but a friendly Russia would be very helpful in dealing with the two biggest geopolitical threats that we face in the early 21st century, namely Sunni jihadism and Chinese imperialism. The Russian annexation of Crimea (equivalent to the United States taking back Florida if we somehow lost it) and Putin’s little war in eastern Ukraine are not critical to the survival and prosperity of the American people. Russia’s friendship would allow us to make our way in the world with far fewer headaches. That appeared to be candidate Trump’s view, but President Trump has been far more circumspect. Certainly the members of his national security team, now that General Michael Flynn has been removed as national security advisor, are hardly pro-Russian.
We can’t simply ignore Putin’s interference in our election — which, far from being a one-off, was part of a larger, ongoing Russian effort to disrupt the Western alliance. So the future of US-Russia relations remains murky, given the division of opinion on the subject among US elites. Of course, if Russia really has compromising information on Trump, then we face a very different situation, one that could even lead to a constitutional crisis.
To sum up the election: Trump stunned the world. Hillary won the popular vote, but this was due entirely to her lopsided majority in California. In the other 49 states Trump outpolled her by nearly a million and a half votes. He garnered two million more votes than Romney received in 2012. He won 30 states. It was a fairly close election, but a clear victory for the Donald. Like it or not, the result was comparable to John F. Kennedy’s 1960 win.
* * *
As Trump entered office the Republican Party appeared triumphant. Republicans controlled the presidency, both houses of Congress, and more than half of the governorships and state legislatures. But the GOP is in fact in serious crisis. The Republican candidate for president has lost the popular vote in six of the last seven elections. Republican majorities in Congress are magnified by the ruthless gerrymandering carried out by Republican-controlled state legislatures. The core constituency of the GOP, non-Hispanic whites, is shrinking as a percentage of the total population. The party itself is riven by profound ideological divisions. The man who led them to victory in 2016 is probably best characterized as a conservative Democrat (he is of course a ruthless opportunist above all, and better at it than anybody else on the contemporary political scene). Personally and ideologically Trump has little in common with either the Paul Ryan wing of the party or the evangelical-social conservative faction. If he can hold the party together over the next four years, he will go down as the greatest political genius-manipulator since FDR.
Hillary won the popular vote, but this was due entirely to her lopsided majority in California. In the other 49 states Trump outpolled her by nearly a million and a half votes.
Some analysts see this as a real possibility. The creation of such a grand coalition would require that the GOP establishment embrace much of the economic agenda of Trump’s working-class supporters. This is simply not going to happen, as the fights over the repeal of Obamacare and the imposition of a border adjustment tax have shown. The Republican Party has been Balkanized; economic nationalists such as Trump and Steve Bannon are bitterly opposed by economic libertarians such as the Koch brothers and members of the Freedom Caucus in Congress, with Speaker Paul Ryan falling between the two camps (Ryan’s heart is with the libertarians, but he supports the border tax). At the same time, devotees of Wall Street crony capitalism control the main centers of economic policymaking in the administration.
The fact that Grover Norquist supports the border tax sums up the state of flux — or perhaps one should say the schizophrenia — that marks the GOP’s attitude toward economic matters these days. Where it will all lead in terms of policy implementation is anybody’s guess. Confusion or stalemate (or both) seem, at this time, the most likely outcomes.
Meanwhile the social conservatives (some of whom are economic nationalists, while others align with the libertarians) have been thrown a few bones by Trump, such as the abandonment of Obama rules protecting transgender schoolchildren, and the push to defund Planned Parenthood. But social conservatives are toxic in two ways. First, they tend to be absolutist; they despise compromise when it comes to certain issues. Yet in a country as big and diverse as America, compromise is usually necessary. Second, they turn off a lot of people, and not just secularists, when they begin to get their way. Nobody likes moralizing hypocrites (and hypocrites they are — imagine their reaction if Obama’s voice had been heard on the p***y-grabbing tape, yet Trump was given a pass) except perhaps others of their ilk, and the majority of Americans are not moralizing hypocrites. For Trump to keep the social conservatives on board without alienating the rest of us will require a very fine balancing act. And in 70-plus years of life, Donald Trump has not displayed the acumen and tact that such a balancing requires.
At the moment the party is so dependent on Trump, or rather his white working-class supporters, that there’s little it can do but tolerate his personal and policy eccentricities. Nevertheless, many (indeed, most) Republican politicians would much prefer to have Mike Pence sitting in the big seat. The congressional leadership, the people who ran against Trump in the Republican primaries, the internationalists and free traders, and many social conservatives loathe Trump the man, though very few of them have so far dared to say so openly. For the moment they are with him; they have little choice but to support him. They know that without Trump’s working-class support the GOP is doomed to become a minority party nationally, even given the disarray among the Democrats. But if Trump should falter, the party will dispense with him and turn the presidency over to Pence. Trump’s many ethical and legal conflicts, simmering on the political backburner, can be used to ruin him. If his core supporters should abandon him, a scandal or scandals will be brought before the public, followed by congressional and other investigations, ending in resignation or impeachment.
For Trump to keep the social conservatives on board without alienating the rest of us will require a very fine balancing act. And in 70-plus years of life, Donald Trump has not displayed the acumen and tact that such a balancing requires.
Last year I published an essay in Liberty that discussed the existence of “Deep Politics” in post-World War II America. The Trump period, however long it lasts, will be a time of deep political intrigue on a scale unseen since the Nixon years. Only political and policy success — and perhaps not even that — can keep Trump in office for a full term.
* * *
Will Trump’s policies succeed, will his popularity with his core supporters remain high? There are plausible scenarios under which a Trump administration does in fact “succeed.” Yet it’s clear that Trump is the least qualified person to be elevated to the position of leader of the Western world since Elagabalus was made Emperor of Rome in 218 CE. And then there’s the coterie of advisors who surround him.
The attorney general, Jeff Sessions, was rejected for a federal judgeship by the Republican-majority Senate Judiciary Committee in 1986 because there were indications that he might be a bigot. Bigoted or not, he supports policies that are for the most part reactionary and bound to excite opposition. We may see a new front opened in the War on Drugs, specifically against states that have legalized marijuana (ironic in that this administration will otherwise appeal to “states’ rights” in order to shift policy). Sessions also wants to imprison more nonviolent criminals, even though we already have the highest incarceration rate of any country on earth. He would have made a good attorney general for Woodrow Wilson in 1917, when that president was trampling on the rights of Americans in the name of winning World War I. But Sessions is probably not the man for the America of 2017.
The secretary of defense, retired Marine General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, was a good fighting general in the Patton mold. He’s a scholar, too, with an extensive private library. But he’s no administrator. He will find it difficult, and perhaps impossible, to master the vast bureaucratic complex he’s been called upon to oversee. Nor is it clear that his intellect and forceful personality will wear well over time with the Ignoramus-in-Chief. His tenure as defense secretary may well end before 2020.
Trump is the least qualified person to be elevated to the position of leader of the Western world since Elagabalus was made Emperor of Rome in 218 CE.
The new secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, was CEO of ExxonMobil for a decade before becoming our nation’s top diplomat. Many readers of Liberty will be pleased to learn (if they don’t already know) that he’s a devotee of Ayn Rand. Others may agree with Steve Coll that Tillerson’s appointment confirms “the assumption of many people around the world that American power is best understood as a raw, neocolonial exercise in securing resources.” Tillerson, a former Eagle Scout, does not appear well-equipped to perform the duties of the nation’s top diplomat. During his confirmation hearings he created an international incident by threatening China with war in the South China Sea.
Now, I’m very much in favor of taking a stronger line with China, but I don’t believe that a hot war in the South China Sea or the Taiwan Straits is in our interest. Tillerson, with the rich oil and gas resources of the South China Sea in mind, may think otherwise. Additionally, Tillerson has complicated connections to Putin and Russia that may leave him open to charges of conflict of interest as he seeks to manage that very important bilateral relationship.
I am happy to say that Trump’s initial choice as national security advisor, retired Army general Michael Flynn, has disappeared from the scene as a result of ethical lapses and conflicts. His successor, Army general H.R. McMaster, is superbly qualified for the job. A man of courage and integrity, with a fine record of combat leadership in Iraq, he’s also probably the foremost intellect among currently serving general officers. Together with Mattis he should be able to keep Trump’s foreign policy on an even keel.
The most problematic of Trump’s appointments may be those to his economic team. Steve Mnuchin as secretary of the treasury and Gary Cohn as director of the National Economic Council should disturb many of Trump’s most devoted followers. You will perhaps recall how some of those followers berated Ted Cruz on national TV, simply because the senator’s wife worked for Goldman Sachs. Well, the new treasury secretary and the head of the NEA are both Goldman alumni. Until his appointment, Cohn had for many years been Goldman’s second-in-command. Of course, since many of Trump’s most devoted supporters are, objectively speaking, intellectually deficient, the Goldman connection may cause nary a ripple — at least at first.
Rex Tillerson does not appear well-equipped to perform the duties of the nation’s top diplomat.
Trump will need to deliver on his populist promises of more and better jobs, better and cheaper health care, and no cuts to Social Security and Medicare, or he is almost certain to lose the support of the working-class whites who put him in the White House. If he fails, then the cry of “Down with the plutocracy!” will be heard across the land, and none will be shouting it louder than the working class.
Perhaps even more important than the Cabinet members are the councilors who will surround the new president. Of these the most important are White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, chief strategist and senior counselor Steve Bannon, and Trump’s son-in-law and “senior advisor,” 36-year-old Jared Kushner.
Priebus is the link to Paul Ryan and the Republican leadership in Congress, and to the Republican establishment. A modest man who has much to be modest about, he is likely to be a coordinator rather than a maker of policy. How well he can control, or rather restrain, the Donald remains to be seen. The initial returns are not promising. I would not be surprised if Priebus becomes little more than a cypher, with Bannon and Kushner, more forceful personalities, monopolizing the boss’s ear.
Bannon needs to pick up his game, and soon, or he’ll be back at Breitbart News, writing screeds attacking his former colleagues and boss.
Bannon has been widely castigated as a racist, a fascist, an anti-Semite, etc. He is in fact none of these things. Though a bomb-thrower to be sure, he nevertheless has a great deal of worldly experience and the capacity to look at issues with a fresh (and sometimes withering) eye. He should not be underestimated by his opponents on the left (or the right). He probably sees the best way forward to achieving a successful first term. Like Mattis, McMaster, and Kushner, he should be a very important actor in the unfolding of the Trump administration.
On the other hand, the botched attempt to ban entry to the US by Muslims from seven designated countries, which not only endangered the lives of people who had been of great help to us in Iraq but is still tied up in the courts, and the failure of the badly written bill designed to repeal and replace Obamacare, were largely Bannon’s fault. He needs to pick up his game, and soon, or he’ll be back at Breitbart News, writing screeds attacking his former colleagues and boss.
By all accounts Kushner was a key player in the Trump campaign. Being married to Ivanka Trump further fortifies his position. Yet he’s clearly untested when it comes to both domestic and world affairs. As with many young people, what he knows, he knows well. But what he doesn’t know he hasn’t yet begun to suspect exists. This could be a recipe for trouble, particularly should he come into conflict with more seasoned advisors to the president.
* * *
A successful Trump presidency could provide some satisfaction to libertarians. Lower corporate and individual taxes and less regulation are bedrock principles for most libertarians. But beyond that. . . . Remember, Trump’s margin of victory was provided by white working-class voters. These voters expect certain things from a Trump presidency that are not on the libertarian agenda.
For these folks a successful Trump first term will require that he indeed passes a trillion-dollar infrastructure program that provides millions of $20-$30 per hour jobs in construction and related fields. It will require that some manufacturing jobs come back to America from Mexico and elsewhere (although we know that any major return of such jobs to the United States is, for several reasons, an economic impossibility). It will require that he replace Obamacare with something that gives average Americans the same or better coverage, and at lower cost. It will require that not a cent of Social Security or Medicare benefits be cut, now or in the future. Can Trump do this?
Trump may get his trillion-dollar infrastructure program passed, and given the fact that interest rates are still very low, now would indeed be a good time to borrow that money and do the work. But the rest of what Trump needs to do to secure his presidency and build a new, nationalist Republican Party based on the working class is not only anathema to most libertarians and mainstream Republicans but pure pie-in-the-sky economically.
He is, in short, likely to fail. And if he fails his working-class base will disappear like snow in an oven. And then the knives will come out, and all the people the Donald has traduced and humiliated will have their revenge. The investigations will begin, dirt will be found, and the huckster and showman will no longer have an audience to applaud and bay at his every rich slander and outrageous lie.
Should this scenario become reality, how the final act will play out is far from certain. It’s not likely that Trump will go quietly, as Nixon did. On the contrary, Trump appears to know no limits when it comes to preserving his self-image as a conquering hero. What this may portend for America’s future is difficult to contemplate.
Jon Harrison, a former Liberty contributing editor (2008–2014), is a freelance writer and editor.
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