The Eight(eenth) Brumaire of Donald Trump: Tragedy and Farce. Newsletter #8

Jeff’s Newsletter, Volume 8 

I had a bunch of regular links and books planned for this week, but I guess I was naive to expect a regular Wednesday. I’ve finally cobbled together some thoughts on the only topic worth discussing right now. 

Why did Trump win? You should be skeptical of any explanation that offers a single reason. To say that white voters elected Trump is a description, not an explanation. Jamelle Bouie, David Remnick, and others have written eloquently and harrowingly about the the victory of white ethnic nationalism. White nationalism is a real, dangerous force we must contend with. But I suspect it aptly characterizes only a portion of the Trump electorate. Moreover, I think the racism and xenophobia many voters express is largely epiphenomenal: very real and scary, to be clear, but a product of something more fundamental. My working theory is that rural whites have been motivated by cultural isolation and a sense of diminished status; they then project their anger indiscriminately onto various minority groups whose status seems to be rising. Now, I actually think misogyny gets incorrectly lumped together with racism and xenophobia even though these prejudices work in different ways. Rural America’s rejection of feminism seems harder to square with my diminished status story (and is thus perhaps more deeply-held). And the topic of misogyny brings us to the other half of Trump’s victory: Hillary Clinton. Fair or unfair, she was a tremendously unpopular candidate. Democrats must stock future primaries with more than one legitimate contender (hopefully including some younger candidates), and must take negatives more seriously when thinking about electability. My admittedly anecdotal sense is that Trump’s success among college-educated whites was due more to widespread distrust of Clinton than to his own appeal. 

Trump won. He owes it to some bad luck in how our population is distributed across the Electoral College, but he won. And his presidency will probably be very bad. One of the prevailing tropes in post-election soapboxing has been to reassure our liberal friends that this is just a setback, and we will keep fighting tomorrow, and the arc of the moral universe is long. You can hear President Obama’s next few speeches already. And while we have no option but to keep fighting for liberty, equality, and human flourishing, it’s only fair to acknowledge that dark times are ahead. Paul Ryan and Mike Pence will have free rein to govern. The executive agencies will be manned by a clown car of hateful has-beens (Rudy Giuliani), crooks (Chris Christie), and, well, clowns (Ben Carson). America will abandon its moral role as a voice for human rights and international cooperation, instead pursuing a cynical accommodationism towards Russia, China, and other autocratic regimes. And this is all without mentioning the illiberal politics of repression and vengeance that should be anyone’s worst fears. Can you imagine President Trump not using government resources to undermine his electoral opponent four years from now? 

It’s so important to enforce the rules of fair play because, on the merits, Democrats have a way better shot at the next two elections than Tuesday’s results might suggest (also, the popular vote). One thing we’ve learned is that politics is simply not about policy. It’s about validating people and boosting their status. In 2018 and 2020, Democrats can win over a large enough chunk of the Trump coalition. I suspect parts of the Bernie message will be necessary–a passion for common people, a devotion to reversing inequality, a fastidious avoidance of special interest ties. But where Bernie looked to the solutions of the past, I hope the next wave of Democrats can envision a future where all Americans have dignity, purpose, and security in a world upended by technology. Those may sound like buzzwords, but I’m trying to drive at a very specific idea: people find meaning and validation through both work and group identity, so political messages must operate simultaneously on economic and sociocultural levels. This is something I expect to write a lot about in future newsletters.


1. Get your takes, here!
If you’re not sick of hot takes on the election, there were plenty of good ones. Jamelle Bouie says this was white revanchism, pure and simple. I especially appreciate his historical frame, comparing Southern retrenchment after Reconstruction to white backlash post-Obama. David Remnick writes beautifully about being on the doorstep of fascism. He rebukes those who call liberals smug and out of touch, insisting that Trump deserves every name we’ve ever called him–but it’s not clear to me that both things can’t be true. Several months ago, Brian Beutler imagined two possibilities for a Trump presidency: the despotic one we’re all talking about, and one where Trump’s inconsistent policy preferences ease partisan division and lead to a clean fracture of the Republican party. It’s a convoluted, imaginative picture, but unfortunately I think Trump and the party leaders are well on their way to making peace, and Trump probably doesn’t hold his anti-conservative positions with much conviction, anyway. David Frum predicts how Trump’s apparatus of repression will fall into place: not by deliberate ideological design, but in response to journalistic investigations of his much more mundane efforts to shovel taxpayer money into Trump enterprises.  

2. Before they burn the books…
In the future, I’ll discuss books that suggest a path forward for liberals. Today, I thought I’d mention a few books that help us understand how we got here. Chris Hayes’s Twilight of the Elites has rightfully earned a lot of praise this election season for its prescience. Published in 2012, it argues that our belief in meritocracy has clouded the reality that a corrupt, incompetent Boomer elite has entrenched itself atop most significant institutions–and those institutions are failing. I have not yet read but will rush to read Kathy Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment. Set amid the Scott Walker saga, Cramer articulates a rural political consciousness rooted in resentment of urban elites. Finally, if you want to think deeply about ethnic nationalism, you can do no better than Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism.Organized in three sections, it can be read as three separate books. The first is a history of anti-Semitism–useful, we hope, mainly as history. The second, a history of ethnic nationalism in central and eastern Europe, explores how nationalist parties enact a sort of institutionalized racism. The final section is a catalogue of the techniques and practices of a totalitarian regime. I hope they remain unfamiliar.  

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