Friday, 19 August 2016

Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Trumptanic

My god, is it Xmas already?  For pundits and comedians, the Trump campaign has been the gift that keeps on giving.  As someone on Fark put it, “I’m not sure I can handle this much schadenfreude so early in the day”.

And it’s Bill Clinton’s 70th birthday — coincidence?

Fark, as usual, scores with the best headline, "Paul Manafort has resigned from the Trump campaign in order to spend more time at his summer home in Kiev”.

If half the stories about his Russian connections are true, he may soon be flat-sharing with Snowden.  Perhaps, as one Farker suggested, they could do a sitcom.

Maybe I missed it, but I don’t recall the Clinton campaign bringing up Manafort’s dodgy past working for the corruption-laden pro-Russia party of Ukraine’s former president Victor Yanukovych.  Even Trump's illegal solicitation of foreign campaign contributions was dismissed as incompetence.  But you can imagine what a meal the Trump campaign would have made of any whiff of wrongdoing by a Clinton staffer.

Is Hillary even campaigning at this point or just sitting back and waiting for Trump to open his mouth again?  I’d say you could set your watch by his gaffes, but there may be more than one an hour.  His outreach to black voters could not have gone worse if David Duke had been manning the teleprompter.

Being a Trump advisor must be the easiest job in the world.  Since he listens to no-one and does exactly as he pleases, you just collect your cheque for doing sweet fuck all.  I’m currently job hunting.  If I had no morals or scruples whatsoever, I’d get in on a piece of that.

We've moved beyond dumpster fire to Port-a-Potty inferno.
As amusing as this is on some levels, it is also disheartening and alarming that there are people stupid and ignorant enough to vote for Trump.  No matter how thoroughly his campaign self-conflagrates between now and November, there will still be voters who will tick his name on the ballot.  If this Daily Show segment was not staged, I give up all hope for the future.  Some columnists, like Nicholas Kristof here, think that Trump is making Americans meaner.  Of course, he is merely serving as a catalyst to encourage latent attitudes to bubble to the surface.  The meanness, and the sexism, racism, and xenophobia, were always present in Americans but most major party candidates in the last 50 years had been careful to keep their calls to those voters at the proverbial dog whistle level.  The Republican party feigned chagrin when Trump made those appeals openly.  And everyone else delighted in their discomfiture (there’s a surfeit of schadenfreude going around this election season).  This is the party the Rethugs were creating by serving the policy interests of the rich by getting the poor to vote against their own interests with coded appeals to the basest social conservative attitudes.  

They had a great bait and switch game going:  Obscure the fact that your policies are making life harder for the majority of your voters by feeding into the rawest human instincts to blame the Other.  Scapegoating to deflect attention from their own policies has been their MO for decades.  And a black Muslim community organiser from Kenya as president just made it that much easier, not to mention a female candidate as their opponent.  Blame immigrants, blame blacks, blame women, and don’t look too closely at what we’re actually not doing to help you.  Then Trump comes along and misses the dog whistle part, embarrassing the GOP.  Except…it works:  The base the party has cultivated gives Trump the nomination.  Some prominent GOPers were gobsmacked.  Apparently, they’ve never heard the old expression “you reap what you sow”.

On the academic side, some political scientists, such as Larry Sabato, view Trump as an anomaly: "I'm old enough to have closely followed the 1964 and 1972 presidential campaigns, so I've seen the parties commit suicide before….the grass roots of the party can occasionally rebel and conquer the establishment, as Goldwater, McGovern, and most of all, Trump prove."  But other scholars, like rising star Matthew MacWilliams, warn that Trump is an omen of authoritarians to come: "Trump's authoritarian, ascriptive message is not an anomaly in American history. Its success in 2016, however, is and represents a potentially concerning development for Madisonian democracy (and civil society). Trump's core support is firmly rooted in authoritarianism that, once awakened and stoked, is a force with which to be reckoned. Democracy is about compromise. Authoritarianism is about us-versus-them."  The rest of that debate is here.

Trump himself even seemed a little surprised he got that far.  He didn’t give a flying fuck about the GOP platform (although he did tone down the clownish orange hair to a less risible trust-me-I'm-a-grandfather grey – someone overruled him there) but it somehow sank in that, as a Republican candidate, he had to parrot some basic Republican policy positions.  Except he doesn’t share these views or grasp the nuances of how the GOP uses them to appeal to social conservatives, so his parroting was more like a parody. When he pretended to be opposed to abortion (he is most assuredly in favour of it, especially for unattractive women and minorities), he made the logical leap to prosecuting women for having illegal abortions.  Except the GOP doesn't go there - the standard rhetoric is to punish providers but treat women as victims.  Oops, Trump didn’t get that nuance, and none of his advisors (he hires the “best people” doncha know) filled him in.  Then he paid perfunctory lip service to the current GOP campaign to defund Planned Parenthood because they provide abortions, but he made the mistake of saying they do good work for a lot of women, not realising he was supposed to vilify the entire organisation as a satanic tool of the anti-Christ.  Whoops again.  And so it goes.  His remarks on abortion and Planned Parenthood make a superficial kind of sense - if abortion were illegal, then why wouldn’t women who sought abortions be punished for violating the law, and if the objection to Planned Parenthood is that it provides abortions, why not distinguish that from its other healthcare services.  But the abortion issue is used by the GOP in a purely emotional way; there is no real desire on the part of the party to outlaw abortion or even reduce its occurrence.  It’s purely a vehicle for securing votes, not making policy; it isn't supposed to make sense.

So, we have the overt appeals to the basest tendencies of the base, and the bungled parroting of GOP policy stances.  That’s two ways Trump has embarrassed the party for which he is technically now the party leader.  But we’ve saved the best for last: He pretends to take the side of the working classes, promising to promulgate (not that he knows that word) policies that would help them.  He doesn’t vow to end Social Security and repeal Obamacare; he says he is going to protect SS and replace Obamacare with "something great, something terrific”.  Now, to be fair, previous GOP candidates learned to tone down their rhetoric on gutting entitlements, especially Medicare and Social Security.  They could safely campaign on cutting off those deadbeats on welfare and foodstamps, but too many GOP voters were at or near 65 and glib calls to privatise Social Security or cut Medicare benefits proved to be political suicide.  Instead they kept up the rallying cry of tax cuts and more tax cuts but promised to preserve the entitlements that hardworking seniors had paid into.  How?  Well, they were always a bit circumspect about that part, maybe by cutting veterans’ benefits and education funds, eliminating the EPA, and that always convenient line to find money by cutting waste and fraud.  But Trump took it a step further by promising to help the working class economically.  The GOP had always persuaded the poor to vote against their economic interests using appeals to the socially conservative tendencies created by their ignorant myopia and religiosity.  The party never had to explicitly promise them anything economically; they didn’t have to be that disingenuous.  Just mention abortion or "states' rights" and they had the votes.

None of Trump’s promises are reality-based, such as ending free trade and bringing back blue collar manufacturing jobs, and of course he has no affinity with nor concern for the working class whatsoever, but combine these simplistic promises with his openly sexist, racist and xenophobic rhetoric, and the base goes wild.  He is telling them exactly what they want to hear.  Some pundits warn against being so scathingly condescending toward Trump’s supporters, to which I reply, why not?  They don't have a collective IQ of room temperature, and contempt is not tantamount to complacency.  The GOP, like a lawyer selecting a jury, has always favoured the uneducated and ignorant because they are easier to manipulate.  If you own an oil company, you want a populace who is taught creationism in the schools.  Much easier to convince such people that climate change is a liberal hoax than people who have had any science education.

Trump’s success has waned after the primaries in part due to his lack of understanding of electoral politics.  A certain percentage of the electorate, let’s call it 45% on each side, although that is just a simplification for explanatory purposes, will always vote R or D.  A tiny fraction of those one-party voters will bother to vote in the primaries, likely those who are most rabidly partisan.  In the primaries, candidates are trying to distinguish themselves from other members of their own party with whom they presumably share broad agreement on policy.  Usually, but not always (see: 2016 Republican primary) after the vitriolic dust settles, the parties pick the most moderate, presidential-looking and well-funded candidate.  The far-right and far-left fringe candidates on either side get weeded out as unviable and unpalatable to the majority (bye, bye Bernie).  The nominees then pivot to the general, where they are both going for the exact same voters: The 10% in the middle who are undecided.  The entire general election is about these undecided voters.  Now, it is more complicated than that when you factor in motivation — there are both undecided and firmly partisan voters who may not bother to go to the polls, and candidates need to inspire them, especially in swing states.  But the point is that in the general election campaign, both candidates need to fall all over themselves to seem as moderate and inoffensive to every constituency as possible.  They don’t have to worry about alienating their base — the dedicated D and R voters realise that campaign rhetoric is 50% bullshit and 50% horse shit, and they trust their party’s candidate to roughly toe the party line once elected (which does not translate to following the party platform, which is generally ignored by everyone and probably never even read by most candidates, let alone voters).  So far, there has been no sign that Trump is moderating his campaign rhetoric for the general or that he is even aware that this is a thing that candidates do and why.  Granted, if you're still an undecided voter in this election, you are too stupid to be allowed to vote.

Candidates also don’t waste money and time campaigning in all 50 states.  They skip states whose electoral votes have usually gone to the other party and appear likely to do so again.  According to Politico, 33 states have voted for the same party in the last five presidential elections.  The candidates know to focus on the larger swing states, such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida.  If the Electoral College were eliminated and the presidential election decided by the popular vote, it would dramatically change campaigning, likewise if more states gave out their electoral votes proportionally.  As it stands, candidates can target their ads and their appearances to only the swing states with the most electoral votes at stake.  Well, apparently Trump missed that memo, too.  He has been campaigning in blue states, including NY, CT, ME, and OR.  His staff says he is planning to go to Ohio at some point, but it doesn't seem to be a priority.

As Trump’s campaign continues to self-destruct, it's tempting to get complacent.  Don't.  No-one thought he'd win the primary either.  And there's another old saying: 

If you're sick of hearing about the election, (and, at this point, I think most of us cheered when comedian Lewis Black, on one of the final Nightly Show episodes, ordered: "If you wanna do it this long, then it has to stop Memorial Day weekend until Labor Day.  JUST SHUT UP!  It's the fucking summer, okay?") and you read just one story about the Olympics, make it the one about Steele Johnson.

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