Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Why Are Fortress America Politicians So Universally Bad?

And since I can't seem to leave the topic of Donald Trump, here are some links I found revealing. Jonathan Chait wrote a recent comment on the remarkable similarity between Donald Trump and Sarah Palin as candidates.  The difference, he says, is that Republican commentators are not as automatically falling in line behind Trump:
Trump’s candidacy has given them the chance to debate the merits of an ignorant demagogue, rather than defend him reflexively. Many of them have decided that a president who knows things about public policy, and does not indulge conspiracy theories from email chains, has a certain charm.
He then attempt to link to conservative columnist Matthew Continetti criticizing Donald Trump.  He accidentally links a puff piece on Trump, dated July 24, 2015.  The piece salutes Trump, like earlier candidates Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot and Sarah Palin as the voice of the "radical middle."
A brash showboat and celebrity, self-promoter and controversialist, silly and mocking, a caricature of a caricature, Donald Trump is no one’s idea of a serious presidential candidate. Which is exactly why the radical middle finds him refreshing. Not an iota of him is politically correct, he plays by no rules of comity or civility, he genuflects to no party or institution, he is unafraid of and antagonistic toward the media, and he challenges the conventional wisdom of both parties, which holds that there is no real cost to illegal immigration and to trade with China.
. . . . . . . 
Trump would enjoy press coverage no matter what he ran on. But the fact that he has chosen, perhaps unwittingly, illegal immigration to be his cause makes the coverage all the more polarizing, visceral, contentious, spiteful. He dared say what no one of his wealth and prominence ever says—that illegal immigration is not limited to DREAMERs and laborers and aspirational Americans, that it is not always, as Jeb Bush put it, an “act of love,” that also traversing our southern border are criminals, rapists and narcotics traffickers and human smugglers, displaced souls from illiberal cultures who carry with them not only dreams but nightmares, bad habits, and other costly baggage. . . . . It is immigration—its universally celebrated benefits and its barely acknowledged costs—that is the third rail of U.S. politics, with repercussions from the border to Eric Cantor’s district in 2014 to courtrooms and the Republican debate stage today. Trump didn’t step on the third rail; he embraced it, he won’t let go of it, and in so doing he’s become electric.
. . . . . . . 
These voters don’t give a whit about corporate tax reform or TPP or the capital gains rate or the fate of Uber, they make a distinction between deserved benefits like Social Security and Medicare and undeserved ones like welfare and food stamps, their patriotism is real and nationalistic and skeptical of foreign entanglement, they wept on 9/11, they want America to be strong, dominant, confident, the America of their youth, their young adulthood, the America of 40 or 30 or even 20 years ago. They do not speak in the cadences or dialect of New York or Washington, their thoughts can be garbled, easily dismissed, or impugned, they are not members of a designated victim group and thus lack moral standing in the eyes of the media, but still they deserve as much attention and sympathy as any of our fellow citizens, still they vote.
In short, Trump voters, though emphatically not liberal, are not especially conservative on economic issues, or on the social issues that interest organized Evangelical churches.  Instead their issues are ones that no one in Washington addresses, what I have called "fortress America" issues -- the desire to disengage from the rest of the world, whether in the form of immigration, foreign trade, war or diplomacy.  Continetti clearly sympathizes with these voters, their issues, their aspirations, their lack of a voice in any public policy circle and (it does not seem too much of a stretch to say) their authenticity and real American-ness.  And he appears to approve, not just of Trump, but of Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot, and Sarah Palin, the politicians who appeal to "fortress America" voters.  I would add possibly Ron Paul and even George Wallace.

Ah, but Continetti appears to have thought the better of it in the past here.  Here is the the column Chait wanted to link:
This [Trump] is not a good man. This is not a stable man. It is in the self-interest of no rational person to have him near the situation room. . . . . Trump and his supporters overstate his competitiveness by conflating the wishes of the Republican primary electorate with those of the general electorate. Trump will replicate his success, they say, by continuing to do the things that won him the Republican nomination: “telling it like it is,” accepting “the mantle of anger,” not being “politically correct.” This is a huge error.  
. . . . . . . 
What disturbs me most is the prospect that Donald Trump is what a very large number of Republican voters want: not a wonk, not an orator, not a statesman, not even a leader, really, if by leader you mean someone who persuades and inspires and manages a team to pursue a common good. They just want a man who vents their anger at targets above and below their status. 
How cathartic it is to give voice to your fury, to wallow in self-righteousness, in helplessness, in self-serving self-pity. 
Well, yes, quite so.  People on my side of the aisle have been saying that for some time.  Continetti appears to sympathize with the frustration of Trump supporters who have seen their priorities ignored, mocked, or denounced as bigotry.  He sympathizes that they are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.  He may even sympathize with their desire to find a leader who can vent their fury.  But being President calls for more than just venting people's fury.  That is what Trump supporters don't seem to understand.

I am glad that Continetti understands this.  I am glad he also understands that Republican primary electorate, though they may consider themselves particularly authentic and real American, are not the general voting public.  They may be justified in their anger at being shut out of the political process altogether, but that is different altogether than saying that they are automatically entitled to win all the time.

But he doesn't go far enough.  He sympathizes with the "radical middle," or, as I prefer to say, the "Fortress America" crowd's frustration, but wishes they would pick a leader with something constructive to offer instead of basically just a talk show host.

But he doesn't consider the generally awful run of leaders the Fortress Americans have supported in general.  Besides Buchanan, Perot and Palin, more successful and mainstream leaders he says have appealed to the "radical middle" are Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich.  But Reagan was not exactly a Fortress American.  Quite the contrary, he seemed quite friendly toward both immigration and foreign trade, and, although he refrained from starting any serious wars, he engaged in a lot of covert ones and ended up embracing diplomacy.  As for Gingrich, I suppose he appealed to the "radical middle" in the sense of doing his best to de-legitimize the Democrats, but his basic agenda in power was to seek to turn Washington into a wholly owned subsidiary of the Chamber of Commerce, not exactly a Fortress America/radical middle goal.

As for the others -- well, Buchanan was an unabashed anti-Semite who flirted with Holocaust denial. Sarah Palin was utterly unqualified to hold the Presidency or any national office and based her appeal mostly on the same venting that has been so much of Trump's appeal.  Ross Perot, by contrast, did have a good grasp of national issues and serious policy positions to offer.  Unfortunately, he had markedly authoritarian tendencies, as well as symptoms of outright clinical paranoia.  Finally, I would throw in Ron Paul as well.  Granted, Ron Paul was an extreme libertarian and as such not part of the "radical middle," but he was also opposed to immigration, foreign trade, and war, all of which had an obvious appeal to the Fortress America crowd.  He also had wacky goldbug ideas and a past history of appealing to the lunatic fringe.

In short, the "radical middle"/Fortress Americans politicians seem either to have been mainstream figures like Reagan or Gingrich who did not address their issues, or decidedly unsavory characters like Buchanan, Perot, Palin, and Trump.  At some point, it is fair to ask whether this is a coincidence. Do Fortress America politicians just happen to be unsavory because of the odds stacked against them, or are they representing an inherently unsavory ideology?  Is the Fortress America crowd's tendency to choose unsavory politicians, or politicians who do nothing but vent, an understandable expression of frustration at being shut out of the process, or is it a reflection of something inherently unsavory about Fortress America's voters?  I am not sure of the answers myself.  But Contenetti, and conservatives in general, are not even asking the questions.

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