The Rise of the Trumpen Proletariat Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love “the Don”

I admit it: I thought Rubio would win. I said it years ago, put down money at long odds, and watched smugly as my horse came from way back in the pack to make a run to the front. In fact I used to be a horse betting man and those who came from the back at long odds make up some of my favorite memories from my youthful flirtation with the Sport of Kings. But a few days ago I liquidated my position, took my profits from my previous Rubio bets, and put my money on The Donald. Rubio made his move but, as I wrote in my New Statesman piece, the establishment has likely run out of race track to haul in the frontrunner. As Roxette so rightly anticipated, “it must have been love but it’s over now“.

So often when we make predictions we highlight those that succeed and quietly ignore those that didn’t come to pass. Unless you owe a steak dinner to a gloating friend (as I will do if the GOP now likely lose the General in November), most people never need find out about it. Like the work of Prof Tetlock, though, I think keeping track is both part of the fun and can help us make better predictions in the future. (For the record, I have made a speculative bet that Hillary will pick Sen. Kaine D-VA for her running mate at decent odds. We shall see!). I had laid Jeb Bush’s chances, sold Rand Paul’s odds like he was “New Coke“, made a decent wedge from Cruz winning Iowa, and still made a tidy sum from Rubio’s run from the back of the pack. But, it would be foolish to deny that I didn’t see Trump coming. What went wrong? And what does the rise of Trump mean? No one suspected that Trump would be on the verge of being the Republican nominee way back when, but the outlines of what got him there are easy enough to see in retrospect.

Tangent

First of all, a quick tangent: how sure are we that Trump actually wins? Perhaps Marco Rubio is the Red Rum of this politics/horse racing mash-up? It’s possible, but not likely. There are three states that award all of their delegates to the candidate who polls the highest coming up soon: Florida (where Rubio hails from), Ohio (Gov. Kasich’s home turf) and Texas first of all (where Sen. Cruz is locked in mortal combat). Polls show Trump either in the lead or close in all of them. He’s looking like the favorite to win a plurality in most of the others. Neither Cruz nor Kasich look like dropping out any time soon. And Carson’s catfishing of the conservative base continues unabashed by its obviousness.

The governing alternative theory of the race (one of which I was a vocal proponent like some hipster….before it went mainstream) was that there would be an establishment candidate and a conservative candidate, and the establishment candidate would likely win. This then became an establishment candidate, a conservative candidate, and Trump. However the latter was widely considered to be boosted by polls which were recording the support of likely non-voters and he had a presumed ceiling of support of about a third of the GOP primary electorate. Rubio was an establishment candidate with a conservative voting record and Tea Party bona fides. He would eat enough into Cruz’s lane of evangelicals and libertarians, and Trump’s inability to go beyond the Know-Nothings would render Rubio’s ascendancy a matter of his not screwing up (again). It was elegant, based on decent reasoning, widely held, and conducive to a happier ending then a fascist winning the nomination. Whatever. Nevada killed that theory stone dead. Trump was thought to be a candidate reliant on very conservative support in less moderate states. Instead he is appealing across the Republican party and in states like Massachusetts.

Prospect Theory tells us that those in the “domain of losses” (e.g. those down chips in a poker game) are more “risk tolerant” (i.e. are more willing to take more risks) than those in the “domain of gains”. I write before a Republican debate where Rubio can hope to land a punch like Buster Douglas and turn things decisively around. Instead, the excellent Politico email alert I just received says the following:

LAST CHANCE SALOON: As POLITICO’s Alex Isenstadt reports tonight is a potential last, best chance for GOP contenders to make an impression and stymie what looks – based on current polling – like a super Super Tuesday for DONALD TRUMP.

Here’s who’s up to what:

RUBIO’s PLAYBOOK: As Isenstadt notes, “Rubio has yet to aggressively engage Trump – and those briefed on his strategy say he’s unlikely to do so on Thursday night. The Florida senator has concluded that going after Trump would accomplish little because the businessman’s supporters are deeply committed and unlikely to swing Rubio’s way.”

Politics is full of what-ifs. But playing it safe is surely not what I would advise Senator Rubio at the moment. Perhaps he is resigned to his fate and is content to not antagonize Trump supporters he’ll likely have to court when he runs against Hillary in four years’ time. However, when the tide is against you, you better paddle much faster if you don’t want to be swept away. Rubio needs to roughen up his boyish looks and show some steel. He needs to persuade Trump voters to defect or not show up en masse. So that means going after Trump’s brand with working-class Americans. They don’t care that he is not a philosophical conservative, they do care feeling like he is taking them for a ride. Trump has dominated every news cycle and put his opponents on the back foot. Rubio needs a plan to start dominating news cycles, putting Trump on the back foot, and drowning out any attempts for Kasich and Cruz to get in on the act. But you can’t do it in a wimpish and Jeb-like manner. Voters are attracted to Trump’s strength. To turn this around, Rubio needs to look strong and make Trump look weak. I don’t think Rubio has it in him, but there’s plenty of material for high-profile stunts to put Trump on the back foot:

Back to our Scheduled Programming

I remember picking up the syllabus/booklist for a political theory paper when I was at Cambridge a couple of weeks before exam time. My eyes chanced upon something called “The Frankfurt School Reader” and I figured I’d read it from beginning to end and ace the exam. It was a few years afterwards that I got to most of the Frankfurt School (and, unsurprisingly, I never did ace that exam!) but I do remember being very impressed by Adorno’s “Freudian Theory and the Patterns of Fascist Propaganda“. I challenge anyone to read it now with Trump in mind and not come out the other end more enlightened as to his appeal.

Trump has been attacked as not really a conservative and on not being too nice to George W. Bush, but Jeb (and Mike Murphy) showed that they don’t really understand the appeal of conservatism. Conservatives have loved deficits and hated deficits, loved stimulus and hated stimulus, loved healthcare exchanges and hated healthcare exchanges,and loved cap and trade and hated cap and trade. Most conservatives do not read National Review or know anything about Edmund Burke. To understand Trump one needs to read Rick Perlstein’s “Nixonland“, understand Hofstader’s “Paranoid Style in American Politics“, watch viral videos which raise conservative hackles, and talk to actual conservatives (and many non-liberal Americans). A few years ago I helped run focus groups across America and groups of conservatives, liberals, Hispanics, African-Americans, and whites, thought welfare was being abused, that the debt was too high, and that immigration was a problem. They all uniformly disliked the political class and Washington D.C. Most liberals run the risk of running afoul of the (apocryphal) Pauline Kael mistake of thinking that their lived experiences are the same as most Americans.

This “walk a mile in my shoes” challenge helps explain liberal befuddlement after the Financial Crash. How do deregulation, neoliberalism, the financialization of the economy, and the 1% get off scott-free when they were the major causes of what ails us? Unsurprisingly, most people don’t have time for seminars in political economy, don’t know what we mean by the 1%, and look for causes and scapegoats nearer home. People they actually see. Not people they read about in Michael Lewis books or high-minded economic treatises. What was true in extremis when the KPD and the Nazis waged street battles during Weimar, is true now. Culture >>> Economics when it comes to giving voters an explanation of what ails us.

Orwell, when writing “The Lion and the Unicorn” as German bombs rained down on England, saw the power of tribalism over universalism:

One cannot see the modern world as it is unless one recognizes the overwhelming strength of patriotism, national loyalty. In certain circumstances it can break down, at certain levels of civilization it does not exist, but as a positive force there is nothing to set beside it. Christianity and international Socialism are as weak as straw in comparison with it. Hitler and Mussolini rose to power in their own countries very largely because they could grasp this fact and their opponents could not.

Take the rise of UKIP and their political insurgency in the U.K. (ably chronicled by Matthew Goodwin for those interested). You’re 80. You live with your wife in Leamington Spa. You take pleasures in the small things in life: your local football club, your local pub, your local friends, and your family. Is it so hard to imagine empathetically the sense of powerlessness which comes from immigration changing the fabric of all this as rising debt and house prices moving your family away? Change is scary and we’ve never changed more quickly. Some reading this maybe voted for David Cameron, who is a star purveyor of the new Robin Hood myth that the feckless poor are stealing from “the hardworking family” of political speech cliche. He claims that migrants are “swarming” and uses dog whistles constantly about race, welfare and “the other”. Why object to the chocolate cake when you like a Mars Bar pretty often?

It was a lefty- Marx, actually, the original lefty- who said that with capitalism “all that is solid melts into the air”. That includes free markets in labour (as Karl Polanyi masterfully points out in “The Great Transformation”). I just finished Michel Houllebecq’s “Submission“, a novel that satirizes and underlines the sense of nervousness around the pincer movement of Islamic militancy and the far-right. David Goodhart caught flak for asking whether multiculturalism undermined solidarity.

Whatever ones normative commitments to multiculturalism, immigration, ecumenicism, tolerance, equality etc, it does not behoove those on the left (or on the non-Trump Right) not to face the facts that confront us. Some accuse the Left of “loving humanity but not human beings” and Stuart Hall was pinned as the progenitor of New Labour for asking the Left to take Thatcherism’s appeal seriously, but is putting fingers in ears and muttering about class consciousness really an option? Is doubling down on economic critique helping Corbyn?

Now back to Trump. First of all, start with watching this political ad.

Racial politics in America have always been contentious. From Andrew Jackson, to Woodrow Wilson, to George Wallace, the politics of white resentment with populist economics has a long history. Anyone who has seen or read “All the King’s Men” will recognize Trump as a postmodern Russell or Huey Long.

Now add in the worst recession since the Great Depression, Black Lives Matter and police shootings dominating the airwaves, media attention to students championing race and gender equality, disfunction in Washington, marches for and against immigration, gay marriage, rising opiate addiction, and flatlining wages for working people.

ib330-figurea-538

The debt binge which closed the gap is now over. Japan-style stagnation is likely the order of the day. The eurozone is in danger of rupture. China is tottering.

If you are a working-class white man (and this goes for other working class and middle class people too but the ideal type is middle-aged, working class and male) who earned a good and rising standard of living, your status might be at an all-time low. It doesn’t matter what the objective correctness of liberals’ claims for racial progress are, your status is insecure with the promise of only rough weather ahead. Do you want to blame originators of credit default swaps? Or will you lash out at the cultural trends that make for more immediate opportunities for anger?

Then Trump comes along. He has swagger. You might be insecure, but he certainly doesn’t seem like it. He promises greatness again. A better yesterday. To smite your enemies and hold you up as the paragon of virtue you always knew you were. All the right people hate him, but he spits out indignant, politically correct barbs like King Kong swatting biplanes. In the NS, I described the rise of Trump like a fever dream. He is. He’s the Freudian id of conservatism come to life. Corey Robin excavates conservative thought down the centuries and identifies a common theme: the need to maintain hierarchy. Not low taxes or market-based solutions for Medicare. Trump is more conservative than most conservatives. Mainly because many conservatives don’t have the honesty that Hayek had to say that they are, in fact, radical and not conservative at all. Indeed, much of the material conditions that lead to Trump (or Sanders on the Democratic side) are because of the decidedly non-conservative economic policies of the establishment. You reap what you sow. But most of the commentariat (and, let’s face it, me and you reading this) don’t bear the brunt of this. Even when debt was massaging the failure of wages to rise, policy had made economic life far more risky for many American families. Now the economic tide has gone out, many feel pretty naked.

Whither Trumpism?

So if Trump is the nominee does he become President? Is this 1972 all over again (especially if Bernie wins… which he won’t)? The reassuring answer is no. Or rather, probably not. To understand why, one needs to refer to an old dusty tome which did the round of Democrats in the early 90s: The Emerging Democratic Majority. It argued that an electorate that was much more white and conservative had helped create a period of conservative supremacy (hence why Bill Clinton ran from the center-right in order to win) but that the rise of Latinos and non-white populations had changed the electorate to the extent that Democrats should expect their moment in the sun. The Republicans could win the white vote, but that was no longer enough. Instead Republicans would have to regain the levels of Hispanic voters that George W. Bush enjoyed before the Republicans turned immigration hysteria up to 11. Or they could court the white vote and rely on an enraged base to send them to victories in low-turnout elections but lose the Presidency. Hillary might not be popular, she might be a lousy candidate with no sign of a message other than “I’m Hillary!“, but it is hard to see Trump winning so many more white voters to offset Hillary’s margins with Hispanics, Asian-Americans, African-Americans, and moderate whites who can’t stand a toupeed blowhard in the White House.

That was the allure of Rubio. He was “the future” versus Clinton’s “past”, he was young, he was Hispanic, he had worked for immigration reform. But what might have been a dominant strategy in the General was a losing strategy in the primary. It’s unlikely that conservatives will rationally process Trump’s loss as an American repudiation of Fox News hysteria and culture war rebarbative paranoia. The repulse response is embedded in the conservative make-up. But the GOP has a history of rewarding “the next man up” and Rubio can make a political claim based on demographics that Republicans will be hard pressed to deny. What about the long-term? Well, mixed-marriages are making more people consider themselves “white”. Integration and assimilation- what scares so many Trumpistas– might well be what saves the GOP in the end.

I am sure Donald won’t mind. Even after losing, he’ll make sure that he turns the whole experience into “money, money, money, money….MONEY”!

****UPDATE

It seems that the Rubio team did indeed take my advice! The trick will be now to start dominating news cycles with this stuff so that everyone, and not just politics hobbyists who watch debates, start questioning whether Trump is actually on their side.

****UPDATE II

This shows Rubio’s strategy was based on a similar diagnosis of Trump’s appeal (but a similar sober view of Rubio’s chances of pulling this off):

PLAYBOOK FACTS OF LIFE – Rubio’s revenge: One of the wisest Republicans in the land told us two weeks ago the only way to beat Trump is to bully the bully, mock the mocker, punch the puncher. Rubio, the supposed robot who mechanically ducked any conflict with Trump, bullied, mocked and punched his way to a two-person race. And he did it with a smile, self-confidence and surprise.

Rubio advisers telegraphed he would play it safe. ‘Twas a brilliant lie. Rubio doesn’t really improvise, as anyone who really knows him will tell you. He premeditates and he premeditated his finest debate performance, one that has the Trump-haters swooning. Cruz wanted to do what Rubio did, but looked like a scold instead of happy warrior.

BUT, BUT, BUT … Acing one test doesn’t get you an “A” in delegate math. A well-wired Republican friend of Playbook emails: “D.C. is going to celebrate … big time because they finally started swinging at Trump, which is long overdue. But I think D.C. and the sane anti-Trump people who were near ready to slice their wrists … are letting their emotions cloud better judgment on the net effect. Where I think Marco did help himself is minimizing Cruz. Remember, Bush cleaned Trump’s clock a few weeks ago.”

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