Trumpism today and tomorrow

Inroads has explored the emergence of populist politicians and movements in a number of European countries (this issue is no exception). They constitute a development we should not underestimate. Yet nowhere is there a populist constitiuency in a longstanding Western democracy as big and isolated from the mainstream as the Trumpites among our neighbours to the south.

This is the third consecutive issue of Inroads in which I offer commentary on American politics, a reflection of my obsession with Trumpism. This time I write in the weeks leading up to the midterm elections (see box). These comments set the stage for a report from Frances Boylston, recounting her impressions when visiting the United States at the end of September.

What we could see from afar in the late summer was that, while Donald Trump was alienating opinion leaders at home and abroad, he seemed to be consolidating his position among Republicans. This meant that Republicans in Congress had either to swallow the Trump line, retire voluntarily or be pushed out by Trump loyalists in primaries.

Conservative intellectuals were in a somewhat similar position. Many never warmed to Trump, and even many of those initially willing to give him a chance have abandoned him. For them, in contrast to Republican politicians, expressing critical views of Trump did not, as a rule, mean putting their careers on the line. What is remarkable is that expressing such views seemed to have little or no effect on those who – they assumed – read, watch and listen to them in forming their opinions.

I have made a habit of watching the CBS, NBC, ABC and CNN Sunday talk shows. Each of these shows allocates about half its time to panels of commentators which, traditionally, are balanced in their composition between conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats. As the Trump era proceeded, they increasingly had to abandon this format. The only defenders of Trump they could find, apparently, worked for him in the White House. It has become effectively impossible to find someone with intellectual credibility willing and able to defend Trump and his congressional enablers.

What about Fox News? While I do not know of any respected pro-Trump conservative intellectual who appears on Fox as a commentator, Fox is known for having pro-Trump hosts. Does that mean that the Trumpites have simply been following Fox’s lead? I doubt it; more likely, the relationship is the reverse, comparable to that of Republicans in Congress to the Trumpites. In avoiding criticizing Trump, Fox is playing to its audience, just as Republican legislators are playing to their base.

I suspect that if Fox News actually began to provide something close to fact-based reporting and commentary, the effect would not be to change the views of the Trumpites. Rather, Fox would lose viewers. They would discard Fox just as they have discarded Trump’s conservative critics and the few Republican politicians willing to criticize Trump.

Still, something is happening. On the generic congressional ballot, the Democrats’ advantage, which averaged 7 per cent through 2018, seemed to stabilize at around 9 per cent after Labour Day. More importantly, the proportion of voters identifying as Republican is going down, while the proportion of those calling themselves independents is up significantly. And independents are increasingly likely to say that this time they will vote Democratic. In sum, while Republicans still identify with Trump, there are fewer of them. Republican legislators seeking reelection cannot but be aware of this. But they have no choice: they have to stay on Trump`s slowly sinking ship, given that the only alternative is jumping into the ocean.

Whatever the results of the midterms, the long-term concerns remain: in a gerrymandered two-party system where votes in small – usually red – states count for more, an open invitation remains for demagogues to seek to mobilize Trumpite support not only to take over the Republican Party, but to take power in Washington as well.

— Henry Milner
October 31, 2018

Polarization with the edges blurred

I have just returned from a family visit to Georgia. I was last there two years ago about this time, in the period leading up to the 2016 presidential election.

In 2016, Georgia was an overtly polarized and vocally partisan place. In the election that year 45 per cent voted for Clinton, 50 per cent for Trump. Yard signs proclaiming Make America Great Again and advertising Trump rallies were not uncommon. Clinton signs and bumper stickers were less prominent but still visible. Trump signs were nonexistent in predominantly African American neighbourhoods, but even there Clinton signs were not too common. Was this a reflection of passivity or, as some suggested, of a fear of retribution?

Polarization was everywhere. It seemed that even ostensibly nonpolitical community groups were split along partisan lines. Library boards, churches, small business groups, neighbourhood action groups and the like were dominated by “likeminded” individuals: casual praise of one candidate and insults aimed at his or her opponent were the norm, while those with a contrary view feared being ostracized and were effectively silenced.

This time I travelled through much of the state, though I did not spend any time in Atlanta, an increasingly diverse metropolitan area where the African American community is numerically and politically significant and where the pro-Trump forces have never held sway. In visiting small-town and suburban Georgia this September, I found that polarization is still there. Only this time the edges are blurred by a public façade of apolitical interactions.

The main change is far less public admiration for Trump. Indeed, it is not uncommon for people to express discomfort with his language and insults toward people and especially toward women. Still, when I pressed them, they were not ready to say that they could shift to the Democratic Party. This is a result partly of support for certain policies (anti–gun control, anti-abortion, crackdown on immigration, etc.), but even more of negative partisanship – their loyalty is still tinged with dislike for Clinton and Obama.

A not uncommon expression was, “He is a terrible embarrassment but imagine how terribly corrupt Clinton would have been.” Surprisingly, tax cuts were not seen as something to win them over to Trump. As one Walmart employee put it, “All sorts of talk about tax cuts, but I don’t see anything in my pay cheque. It is still a struggle to pay the bills. Nothing changes for the good.”

Overall there was a real reluctance among the small-town, white Americans I met to talk about Trump. While I didn’t pose questions about local issues there was more interest in the Georgia gubernatorial race, where there were two candidates with dramatically different positions. Republican Brian Kemp promised to sign tough anti-abortion legislation while Stacey Abrams (Georgia’s first African American woman candidate) supported the right to choose. Kemp is a strong proponent of gun rights, while Abrams vowed not to accept any financial support from the NRA. Kemp talked about rounding up “criminal illegals” and “taking them home,” while Abrams favoured “immigrant justice” and support for refugees.

But even with such dramatically opposing views, there seemed to be less polarization around the gubernatorial campaign than I expected. This even though Kemp received Trump’s endorsement and his TV commercials were straight out of the Trump playbook – claiming, among other charges, that Abrams supported pedophiles taking pictures of “your child without your permission.” Yet campaign signs that dot the front yards only had Kemp’s name on a blue background; no “Make America Great Again” slogans or references to Trump. Similarly, Abrams had the same low-key name-only signs. Notably absent also were bumper stickers, which in the 2016 campaign were omnipresent. It is as if people wanted to keep their views close to the chest and avoid engaging with others.

Unlike in 2016, attitudes in the small towns where I stayed seemed to display cross-partisanship – or more accurately nonpartisanship. Even during the widely viewed Kavanaugh/Ford committee hearings, discussions at the local diners and coffee shops seemed to avoid the topic, in favour of safe subjects like gardening, dogs, hunting and shopping. It seemed clear that people were avoiding anything that might alienate others. As a result, there was very little exchange of views or understanding of the views of others – and thus no bridge over the partisan divide.

The polls for governor indicated that the race was very close, with much depending on turnout, which supposedly favoured the Democrats, who have been mobilized to use their vote to oppose Trump. Some claimed that the Kavanaugh saga mobilized Republicans, but his confirmation should further mobilize Democratic voters, especially among the young.

— Frances Boylston

The day after

The results of the election proved to be pretty much what was expected. Turnout for a midterm, at almost 50 per cent, was remarkably high. The House went to the Democrats who won 231 (and still counting at press time) of the 435 seats, while the Republicans strengthened their position in the Senate. Very impressive mobilization efforts to bring voters who never vote in mid-terms to the polls fell just short, notably by Beto O’Rourke against Senator Ted Cruz in Texas and in Georgia where Brian Kemp squeaked through as Governor over Stacey Abrams. But as Carol Anderson of Emory University wrote the next day on The Atlantic website,

“If the Georgia race had taken place in another country – say, the Republic of Georgia – U.S. media and the U.S. State Department would not have hesitated to question its legitimacy, if for no other reason than Kemp’s dual roles as candidate and election overseer. Of course, there were other reasons. As of this morning, he led by about 75,000 votes; more than 85,000 registrations were canceled through August 1 of this year alone.”

The effect of such efforts to keep minority voters off the lists, as well as blatant gerrymandering of House districts, counters Democrats’ success at getting women to vote (and run and get elected) in the suburbs of big cities. Moreover, Republicans’ domination of rural white America gives them a big advantage in the Senate and, less so, in the Electoral College. 2020 is no sure thing.