A meditation on Donald Trump and political realignment …
I’m not alone in wondering why we haven’t experienced a political realignment in the past decade or so.
If the purpose of a political system is to govern effectively, both national parties must be judged long-term failures. Our political gridlock is only the logical outcome of a dysfunctional system more interested in scoring rhetorical points and demonstrating ideological correctness than actually getting something done. Poll after poll has shown ordinary Americans are in response increasingly disconnected, alienated, disaffected.
But political realignments are very, very rare. It’s not at all easy to uproot a long-standing political system that spreads its tendrils root and branch from Washington to Lansing to Marquette County. The last big realignment came in reaction to the earth-shaking events of the Great Depression and World War II, later augmented by the civil rights movement.
This is more of a guess than a prediction, but I think we’re entering a period of political realignment that’s responding to fundamentally new realities that are hitting every citizen over the head every day and seem impervious to any individual’s ability to say “Stop!”
The Internet and Social Media: The web killed the mainstream media as the institution that defined and propagated generally accepted fact. It’s replaced Walter Cronkite and the New York Times with a splintered cacophony of blogs in which everybody on a computer keyboard is a publisher and nobody is an editor. Most people now get their “news” (if you can call it that) via social media, often instantly parceled out in 140-character tweets that provoke mostly knee-jerk reaction to visceral stimulus.
It may well be that the country became essentially ungovernable ever since cell phones became ubiquitous and flash mobs could be created in moments out of thin air. Intermediating social institutions that traditionally help absorb shocks ‒ church, neighborhood, family – are hobbled by political and social movements (not to mention rumors) that propagate in a matter of hours.
Terrorism: Triumphant beheadings and wholesale violations of civilized behavior are the stuff of certain strain of Islamic fundamentalism. Paris and Brussels. The World Trade Center and San Bernardino. Nearly three quarters of Americans now believe we will be hit again by more terror incidents. And the waves of immigration now sweeping around the world – think Mexico, think Europe and the Middle East – are essentially doing away with the old notion of secure borders.
Whether terrorism is of the Islamic variety or inflicted merely by crazy people, the compounding fact is that essentially anybody who wants can now get a semiautomatic weapon about as easily as going down to the corner store for a quart of milk.
But every fundamentally new thing requires a personalized carrier to make it real, to focus attention and to ride the tiger of unprecedented change. Enter Donald Trump.
I won’t go into just what Trump is saying – I can’t keep up with what’s spewing out of his mouth day after day. But it isn’t the content; it’s his emotional appeal that is so powerful.
From the time Trump became a candidate, the political wise guys have said, “Just you wait, he’ll fold.” Well, he hasn’t. In fact, he gets stronger the more outrageous things he says. The weekend’s CBA-New York times poll had him at 35 percent of probable Republican voters, nearly doubling Ted Cruz’s 20 percent. Frank Luntz, just about the smartest political analyst of them all, emerged over the weekend from a three-hour focus group, saying that he had never seen anything like it. “Each time you say something critical or nasty, Trump’s approval goes up again.”
Trump is a perfectly designed carrier of the political realignment virus. He’s deeply experienced on TV, with a fantastic ability to draw attention to himself. His campaign is so far largely self-funded, so he doesn’t have to pander to the billionaires and graybeards of the establishment. As a practical matter, if you’re not a billionaire or a corporate titan or the head of a big union, the establishment political system isn’t much interested in listening. And it sure looks as though the heavies of the establishment don’t seem to have managed very well the things that are shaking our world today. Trump taps into the fear and alarm of many people – and not just no-college-degreed white males – who are scared of what’s happening in the world today and see no ability in the political establishment to cope.
Think about it. The Democrats are largely out of ideas, with President Obama standing on the sidelines, wringing his hands. The Republicans are caught in a self-purifying ideological whirlwind of conservative purity. No wonder Trump’s favorite insult is “weak”. To folks who are confused and scared, it’s a very powerful word.
I’d guess Trump will gain more and more strength as time goes on. He may well get to the Republican convention with a plurality of delegates pledged to him. If GOP topsiders manipulate the convention to deny him the nomination, he’ll bolt, start a new party and ruin Republican changes next fall. If they stick with him, they’re in a narcissistic and unpredictable briar patch that likely will split the party. They can’t win with him. They can’t win without him.
I’d guess a long game available to Trumpism is to foment an anti-establishment movement that will drive experienced pols, both Democratic and Republican, together into a new fusion party. Because conventional political divisions of right and left arose historically from economic debates stemming from the Depression, the emerging new world of politics won’t be right versus left, but it’s likely to contrast the nativist know-nothings of a new mass movement with the experienced pols of the elite establishment.
I’m 77, so I probably won’t live long enough to see how all this plays out. But I’ll be fascinated to watch for as long as I’m able.