The following article was first posted on 15 February 2016.
Donald Trump is a crypto-fascist and Bernie Sanders is a closet communist. Their main support is coming from racist or delusional people on the political fringes. They’re popular for now, but neither has a remote chance of becoming President. Just goes to show how stupid Americans are.
That’s about what passes for analysis of the current US presidential race in elite opinion across much of the world.
The condescension is particularly heavy in Canada and towards Trump. One noted columnist described the Republican field as “the weakest team of pretenders, third-raters, ideologues and nobodies since this primary business began”. Trump was not really a Republican “but a one-man ego trip”. Another called Trump’s policies “a mishmash of right and left, united only by their crudeness and their emphasis on his own almost mystical abilities as leader.” A third said he was “a charismatic single-issue candidate whose single issue is bigotry and intolerance”. All ascribed Trump’s success to his appeal to “overwhelmingly white and uneducated” members of the “middle and lower-middle-class” resentful of “their diminished place” in society.
In fact, Trump and Sanders represent different strands of an enormously powerful social force in the mainstream of American politics, and both stand an excellent chance of winning their party’s nomination and the presidency. Just goes to show how little opinion leaders understand the temper of their times.
The American crisis of identity
The explanation for the rise of Trump and Sanders is not to be found in analysis that relies on sound bites and debate rejoinders over the past year, but in a crisis of American identity which stretches back several decades. In his 2004 study Who Are We?, the late Samuel P. Huntington of Harvard University, arguably the greatest political scientist of our times, documented the erosion of what he called “the American Creed” which had defined the American identity since Thomas Jefferson. The main elements of the Creed were:
The English language; Christianity; religious commitment; English concepts of the rule of law, the responsibility of rulers, and the rights of individuals; and dissenting Protestant values of individualism, the work ethic, and the belief that humans have the ability and the duty to try to create a heaven on earth, a “city on a hill”.
In Huntington’s view, it was these values and the opportunities they opened up which had attracted immigrants to America and had transformed the United States into a global power.
In the second half of the 20th century, however, Huntington found that the national identity of the overwhelming majority of people was no longer shared by the country’s business, professional, intellectual, and academic elites. The process of globalization had “denationalized” them. They and their ideals were now “transnational”. They believed in global social and economic integration; national boundaries were an obstacle, national governments “residues from the past whose only function now is to facilitate the elite’s global operations”. They also believed in the moral superiority of “humanity at large” and were critical of the concept of national sovereignty. “The moralists advocate the supremacy of international law over national law, the greater legitimacy of decisions made through international rather than national processes, and the expansion of the powers of international institutions compared to those of national governments.”
The transnationals, Huntington wrote, constituted the nucleus of an emerging global superclass, which the management consulting firm A. T. Kearney once labeled “Davos Men” – the kinds of people who attend the intellectually glitzy annual World Economic Forum in Switzerland.
The great divide
The widening divide between the people and the elites had consequences. In A Future Perfect, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge of The Economist noted that:
The cosmocrats are increasingly cut off from the rest of society: Its members study in foreign universities, spend a period of time working abroad, and work for organizations that have a global reach. They constitute a world within a world, linked to each other by myriad global networks but insulated from the more hidebound members of their own societies.
In the early 1990s, Robert Reich, the future secretary of labor in the Clinton administration, hinted at what was to come. “America’s highest income earners … have been seceding from the rest of the nation”.
More recently, David Brooks of the New York Times and Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute have published studies which reported very similar findings.
In Bobos in Paradise, Brooks described the cultural separation which had developed between the upper class and mainstream America. The bobos were a new elite class of “bourgeois bohemians” who practiced a “higher selfishness”, having reconciled living comfortable and privileged lifestyles with saving the earth.
In Coming Apart, Murray documented the divergence in core values and behaviours of the two classes. Increasingly, they lived in different cultures, with the powerful upper class surrounded only by their own and ignorant about life in the mainstream, and the lower class suffering the erosion of community and family life at the heart of their American dream. The growing isolation of the upper class, Murray wrote, “has been accompanied by growing ignorance about the country over which they have so much power.”
Inevitably, the views held by the general public on a host of issues began to diverge significantly from those of the elites. Where the public, overall, was concerned about the preservation of national identity and customs, the elites considered these concerns secondary to “participating in the global economy, supporting international trade and migration, strengthening international institutions, promoting American involvement abroad, and encouraging minority identities and cultures”. With a host of public opinion data to support him, Huntington concluded:
Growing differences between the leaders of major institutions and the public on domestic and foreign policy issues affecting national identity form a major cultural fault line cutting across class, denominational, racial, regional, and ethnic distinctions. America remains a democracy because key public officials are selected through free and fair elections. In many respects, however, it has become an unrepresentative democracy because on crucial issues, especially involving national identity, its leaders pass laws and implement policies contrary to the views of the American people. Concomitantly, the American people have become increasingly alienated from politics and government.
Mad As Hell
In light of the foregoing, it ought not to have surprised anyone that a populist revolt would someday ensue. Populism is deeply rooted in the history of the United States, but the new populism has taken a very different form from that of earlier times. The common themes have been distrust of government and business, and anger towards how government and business have worked against the interests of “average” Americans and working-class families. But where earlier movements were limited in size, scope, and impact, and faded quickly, today’s populism is much broader in appeal, more virulent, and changing the political landscape.
In their 2010 study, Mad as Hell, noted pollsters Scott Rasmussen and Doug Schoen describe a situation in which only about a fifth of Americans believe the government operates with the consent of the governed, i.e. their consent. “For the first time in recent history”, they write, “the majority of Americans qualify as populists”. So the discontent is not, as elite opinion would have it, confined to noisy but small groups on the political fringes – whether the Tea Party on the “right” or Occupy Wall Street and MoveOn.org on the “left”.
As Rasmussen and Schoen point out, the Tea Party is neither an adjunct of the Republican Party nor a bunch of right-wing extremists or racists. Their polls show that it is “avowedly nonpartisan”. “The Tea Party members were initially animated by frustration with the Bush Administration’s taxing and spending policies. And close to one-third were once supporters of Barack Obama, and many held out great hopes for him at the beginning of his Presidency, hopes that they believe have not been realized”. Some 57 percent call themselves Republicans, 28 percent Independent, and 13 percent Democratic.
What drives the populists of both the right and the left – and has fetched up so many anti-establishment candidates in the current US presidential race – is a consensus “regardless of ideology … that government is unresponsive and controlled by special interests. As American industries dry up, and jobs are sent overseas at their expense, they have come to share a common belief that the country’s economic arrangements work against their interests”.
But where they diverge, Rasmussen and Schoen explain, is in their prescriptions. “The fundamental difference between the two strands is that right-wing populists believe that government is the problem, not the solution … They are aghast at big government spending. They see a deficit that is out of control, social programs that don’t seem to work, and a level of taxation that appears to be confiscatory”. On the other side is a smaller group who believe that “the only cure that can fix our broken system is greater state involvement in the economy and the day-to-day life of ordinary people”.
What particularly galls American populists today, according to Rasmussen and Schoen, is that “the political elites in Washington and affluent communities across America have been entirely dismissive of the populist movement … To a large degree, the political elites mistake the anger of populists for ignorance. And the reason is simple. They are living in a different world.”
Trump and Sanders
Enter the “anti-establishment” candidates for president, with the elites naturally bewildered over their intrusion, disparaging the Republican interlopers as “pretenders, third-raters, ideologues and nobodies” and the Democratic challenger to their favoured candidate as “the socialist senator from Vermont”. Hence their confusion and fear that Donald Trump has been drawing huge crowds to his political rallies, and their despair that Bernie Sanders has been doing so too – 8,000 in Dallas, 11,000 in Phoenix, 27,000 in Los Angeles, and 28,000 in Portland – meaning he might just be “electable” nationally. With their strong showings in Iowa and convincing victories in New Hampshire, Trump and Sanders have the ruling class on the run.
What particularly attracts people to these two candidates are three qualities which have set them apart. The first is that they see the problems which beset the United States very much the same way.
In Crippled America, Trump describes a set of conditions with which the general public is very familiar but appears to be beyond the ken of the country’s elites: Some 46.5 million people living in poverty, a labour participation rate that is the lowest in 40 years, real unemployment in the high teens, jobs and whole industries being lost to other countries, the great majority of Americans barely able to afford their homes or having lost them, a tax code which is biased toward the rich and “takes too much money from the people who need it the most”, a health care system which eliminates people’s choice of doctors and has skyrocketing premiums to boot, an education system ranked 26th in the world featuring a dumbed down curriculum and no grading, religious beliefs being assaulted in public , infrastructure in decay with one out of nine bridges structurally deficient, high speed internet ranked only 16th best in the world.
Sanders points to a similar litany of problems about which Americans should be “embarrassed”. “Do we continue the 40-year decline of our middle class and the growing gap between the very rich and everyone else, or do we fight for a progressive economic agenda that creates jobs, raises wages, protects the environment and provides health care for all? Are we prepared to take on the enormous economic and political power of the billionaire class, or do we continue to slide into economic and political oligarchy?”
The second quality Trump and Sanders share is that they agree on the cause. In brief, it is Washington. The federal government, they both believe, has been captured by special interests and their lobbyists, and no longer works in the interests of citizens, if it ever did. Politicians are bought and sold by those who finance the electoral campaigns which put them into office and keep them there. Both Trump and Sanders believe the corruption of the political system is what accounts for the enormous waste and inefficiency. Both are livid over the mistreatment of veterans, Sanders having been the co-author with Sen. John McCain of the landmark Veterans’ Access to Care Act of 2014. (McCain said it had been a pleasure “to do combat with him”.) Despite this singular success, Sanders has been untainted by Washington politics. He has been a loner throughout the 25 years he has served as either Congressman or Senator, maintaining until recently his official designation as Independent. As he likes to say, “I work in Washington, I live in Vermont”.
In his biography, Why Bernie Sanders Matters, Harry Jaffe of the Washingtonian recounts an exchange Sanders had with the chair of the Federal Reserve at an Appropriations Committee hearing in 2003. Alan Greenspan had dismissed Sanders’s concerns that America was losing jobs to companies abroad. “The incomes, the purchasing power, are far more important than what it is we produce”, he said. Sanders responded that by suggesting manufacturing in America didn’t matter Greenspan had shown he was “way out of touch with the needs of the middle class and working families in our country”. Straight out of Huntington, Brooks, Murray and Mad as Hell.
Third is believability. Both Trump and Sanders come across as authentic in a way few other politicians have done in recent years. They speak about what matters to mainstream Americans, and in their own language not that of the politicians they despise. And both are clearly not establishmentarians in disguise. In short, people believe they will do what they say they will do. If either becomes president, few doubt that the days of “all talk, no action” will end. Trump often cites sheer incompetence as a factor in the failings of government. What America needs, he says, is “smart business people who understand how to manage”. Todd Gitlin of Columbia University writes that the secret of Sanders’s appeal is that he delivers “a moralistic politics that takes seriously the democratic proposition that elected officials must deliver results”.
Trump has shocked many with the language he has used, sometimes employing terminology better suited to the locker room or boardroom than a public platform. But his plain talk, even when offensive, appears to have served his purpose of connecting with people. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders – the product of a difficult early life in Brooklyn and decades of toiling in the political wilderness – has not been less plainspoken. After one debate in Congress, he commented: “Same old lies. Same old bullshit”. Americans may have to get used to a new political vocabulary.
Why Trump and Sanders matter to Canadians
Developments in the United States impact Canadians in two ways. The first, often overlooked, is that great political and social movements in the US tend to spill over into Canada sooner or later. So we shouldn’t be surprised if, at some point in the near future, Canadians start talking about “taking back our country” from unresponsive governments, inactive Parliaments, and minority elites imposing themselves and their views on “ordinary Canadians”.
Populism has a history in Canada too – in fact, a present. Not long ago (2013), Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson wrote The Big Shift, documenting what they described as “the seismic change in Canadian politics, business and culture”. Their thesis: For most of its history, Canada has been run by the political, media and business elites of Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal, whom Ibbitson labelled the “Laurentian Consensus”. But while these people still believed they shaped public policy, in fact power had shifted away to a whole new group of Canadians with very different values and aspirations.
The second impact will be of a more immediate kind. Should Trump become president, Canadians should not expect anything like a special relationship with the new administration. Trump has said American interests will come first, second and third. As he writes in his book, “That level of commitment is what has been missing for so long in our foreign policy, in our trade policy, in our immigration policy. Somewhere we started worrying too much about what other countries thought about us.” Nor would the relationship be business as usual. It would be business. No special favours, just fair dealing where both sides have something to gain or there’s no deal. In America’s own interest, Trump has written, “Our first priorities need to be approving the Keystone XL Pipeline and starting to drill everywhere oil is accessible”.
How a Sanders administration might approach foreign or trade policy or relations with Canada is largely unknown at present. Sanders shares Trump’s focus on the economic and social concerns of Middle America, and is as careful as Trump about US international engagements – though both have taken strong positions on the need to destroy ISIL. But Sanders would have an ideological affinity with the current Liberal government which could help the relationship over hurdles at least in the short term.
America is in the midst of a social revolution. Trump and Sanders are currently the leading edge of the change. Both are highly intelligent and adept politicians of a new kind. Neither is a charlatan. They should be taken seriously. One of them could very well be the next President of the United States.
The feature image is from www.ktvu.com, the San Francisco affiliate of Fox News.