An open apology to Ross Douthat for causing Donald Trump

>> Tuesday, March 01, 2016

The spectacle of the Republican Party’s Trumpian meltdown has inspired a mix of glee and fear among liberals — glee over their rivals’ self-immolation, and fear that what arises from the destruction will be worse.

What it hasn’t inspired is much in the way of self-examination, or a recognition of the way that Obama-era trends in liberal politics have helped feed the Trump phenomenon.
- Ross Douthat, "From Obama To Trump"
The New York Times, February 27th, 2016.

Dear Mr. Douthat, 

I am not actually a New York Times subscriber, so I don't read your column very regularly unless someone points an article out to me.  But I do visit Slate pretty regularly, and William Saletan wrote a response to your February 27th editorial that steered me over to that piece, which I read with some interest.

I have to confess that there is some dim truth to your first two paragraps where I, personally, am concerned; I have not viewed the "spectacle of the Republican Party's Trumpian meltdown" with a mix of "glee and fear," so much as with a mix of what I would call "amusement and horror," but it is utterly true that I have not engaged in much "self-examination" or "recognition of the way that Obama-era trends in liberal politics have helped feed the Trump phenomenon."

In part, that may be the result of not seeing the Obama era as being terribly liberal, except (perhaps) in contrast to the exaggerated conservatism of the post-Reagan years, during which Bill Clinton was passed off as a Democrat and Obama, a thoroughly center-right politician whose policies can't be described as radical departures from those of such commie Molotov-cocktail-tossers as Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, has commonly been labeled a socialist.  I should add here that I've liked and admired the President, despite his obvious role in creating Donald Trump, and have largely approved of his Presidency, despite being far to his left on so many issues; I suppose President Obama has been exactly the kind of moderate conservative that I could see actual Democratic Socialists in a parliamentary system forming temporary and even semi-permanent coalitions with; the kind of moderate who cares about people and policies (in that order, too) and so can be worked with.  (Perhaps explaining in a nutshell why Bernie Sanders, an actual Democratic Socialist, caucuses with Democrats in Congress, has publicly supported while simultaneously critiquing the President, and currently runs for the Presidency as a Democrat.)

But I digress.

The point is that I hadn't given much thought to self-examination or recognition of how Trump was really Obama's fault--or, ultimately, my fault--because it just hadn't occurred to me that Trump wasn't the ultimate manifestation of a number of larger trends in the American political system combined with some long-standing trends in Republican politics.

I mean, Mr. Saletan makes all kinds of excellent points about Republican obstructionism during the Obama Presidency, and about how Obama has had to resort to executive orders to deal with an obstinate Congress and how bizarre it is that Congress has gone to extremes to reject their own ideas just because they came from the Obama White House (we're talking about the ACA, natch).  But one could go back even further and wider when looking at Trump's rapid takeover of the GOP.

One could, for instance, take his anti-intellectualism and his propagandistic "it is what I say it is" approach to "truthiness" as being the logical endgame of the conservative media critique that engendered Fox News.  Liberals (and I realize these are generalizations and there are exceptions) tend to criticize the media for perceived omissions (the mainstream media aren't reporting on this or that because they're afraid they'll lose their access to persons or institutions, or because they're afraid of alienating sponsors or owners); conservatives, meanwhile, have bought into a far more toxic (in my opinion) critique that the mainstream media is simply lying, altering or misreporting facts in order to promote a liberal agenda.  Never mind whether either of these critiques is true, or how true: the point is that if there's a widespread belief on the part of conservatives that the media is actively lying about things (as opposed to simply not taking on controversial topics that might make individuals, agencies, or corporations look bad), it's no wonder that many of those same conservatives wouldn't care that the media is reporting that only around 7% of the things Donald Trump says are "true" or "mostly true."  The mainstream media--or "lamestream media," as I believe Ms. Palin calls them--lies pathologically and doubtlessly smears Trump as part of a larger agenda to support establishment (and preferably liberal) candidates for office.

And speaking of Ms. Palin: as another f'r'instance of what one might have thought was blowing in the wind, surely the sudden and astonishing rise of Sarah Palin from Governor of an eccentric, provincial, backwater state (sorry, Alaskan friends, but I suspect you agree with me) to Vice-Presidential nominee and reality TV star is a harbinger of the Trump sweep?  Our dear Ms. Palin was promoted out of obscurity by a gaggle of conservative journalists and pundits who saw in her a charismatic conservative blank slate, with no real record to work against her.  Of course, the former pageant winner and TV sportscaster showed them, quickly embracing the lights and cameras of the national spotlight when she became John McCain's running mate.  It somehow seems worth noting, as you know, that she was McCain's petulantly made second choice after McCain's advisors completely vetoed McCain's first choice, Joseph Lieberman; say what you will about Lieberman (or McCain), that would have been the kind of party-crossing, principled, over-the-aisles nomination that a lot of people suggest they want when they complain about how partisan everything is these days (so unlike our golden, non-partisan past).  With all due respect to Trump's alleged status as the sometimes-so-called "first reality show candidate," he's surely the second, at best.

Of course, mentioning John McCain reminds me: you know how everyone talks about how mean and personal Trump's attacks on his rivals are?  It is so unprecedented, you know.  It isn't like anybody ever, say, oh, just randomly and plucked from thin air, it isn't like anybody ever ran for the Republican Presidential nomination and made a grab for South Carolina's delegates by accusing another candidate in the race of possibly being mentally ill because of his tenure in a POW camp during the Vietnam War.  Yes, Trump is definitely unique in his abrasive, insulting approach to politics, saying whatever he wants about others even concerning matters in which it isn't hard to see those others as his betters.  One might think--this is our purely hypothetical candidate, here, and not Donald Trump (we're merely making a comparison)--that an imaginary candidate who avoided the draft during the Vietnam War by joining the Air National Guard and then apparently spent much of the rest of the war running a family friend's unsuccessful Senate campaign would have some nerve insinuating that his rival was crazy from getting shot down over North Vietnam, having his body almost completely broken in the crash, and spending years in a prison being tortured.  Such an imaginary person--thank goodness nobody this crass and craven has ever shown up before Trump--who insults those who served in his place would have to be a pretty low-down son-of-a-bitch, pardon the expression.  Fortunately, such sad tactics would never work in the real world, at least not until now, in the age of Obama.  It's only now that being a mean asshole gets you anywhere.

Thanks, Obama.

We should probably talk, of course, about what I should do about Donald Trump's racism and xenophobia.  I don't know where he gets it from.  Well, I mean, obviously he gets it from Obama and me.  Because he's our fault and our responsibility.  I have to admit, though, I feel this--I hope forgivable and understandable--urge to deflect blame.  And I have to admit, it doesn't work, because of course you have to dig around a bit, right?  After all, I could try to deflect the criticism I so hugely deserve by trying to pin Trump's appeal to racist voters by dredging up Kevin Philips, Richard Nixon's 1968 campaign strategist who is often credited with inventing the Southern Strategy.  But that was a million years ago.  Or forty-eight.  Same difference.  Point is, it's a long time ago and ancient history and can't possibly be relevant.  Plus, Nixon is dead and so we should say nothing but nice things about Richard Nixon; e.g., "Richard Nixon was a pathologically insecure creep who probably did more to undermine democracy than any President since James Buchanan" is definitely not something we should ever say, but, "Richard Nixon is dead," is okay, since it's a nice thing to say about Richard Nixon and De mortuis nihil nisi bonum and all that.

Or I could try to make some kind of excuse that Trump's appeal to racist white Republicans is merely reaping what Lee Atwater sowed during the campaigns of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.  Which would be silly of me, I know, because Reagan was a saint, a saintly man, the next bestest thing to Jesus on Earth, and if he ever went around any county fair in Mississippi talking about his belief in States' Rights--secessionist code since, what, the 1850s?--or giving speeches about "young bucks" and "welfare queens," well, nobody would ever take that as blowing a dog whistle.  Nobody sensible, and we know how sensible voters down here in the South can be, give or take a Federal fort or schoolhouse or college campus or two.  And Willie Horton is so 20th Century, who could get bothered by that anymore, when George H.W. Bush is a skydiving grandfather and what a clean old man.

I would also like very much, Mr. Douthat, to praise you before I get to the on-my-hands-and-knees part of this letter, for your brilliant assessment of how Obama has turned the Presidential race into mass entertainment--

First, the reality TV element in Trump’s campaign is a kind of fun-house-mirror version of the celebrity-saturated Obama effort in 2008. Presidential politics has long had an escalating celebrity component, a cultish side that’s grown ever-more-conspicuous with time. But the first Obama campaign raised the bar. The quasi-religious imagery and rhetoric, the Great Man iconography and pillared sets, the Oprah endorsement and music video and the Hollywood stars pledging allegiance — it was presidential politics as one part Aaron Sorkin-scripted liturgy, one part prestige movie’s Oscar campaign.

And it worked. But because it worked, now we have the nearly-inevitable next step: presidential politics as a season of "Survivor" or, well, "The Apprentice," with the same celebrity factor as Obama’s '08 run, but with his campaign’s high-middlebrow pretensions stripped away. If Obama proved that you can run a presidential campaign as an aspirational cult of personality, in which a Sarah Silverman endorsement counts for as much as a governor or congressman’s support, Trump is proving that you don’t need Silverman to shout "the Aristocrats!" and have people eat it up.

How true!  Of course, I'm too young to remember Richard Nixon appearing on Laugh-In in 1968, so I can't argue with you at all about Presidential candidates rolling with changes in technology and culture, especially as they try to appeal to younger voters and to voters of any age who might rely on newer forms of mass communication in lieu of older media formats and who might have more interest in a popular TV show than in newspapers.  I have some dim, nagging memory that a Presidential candidate possibly appeared on a late-night talk show in the early 1990s, something--this will sound absurd and you can laugh at me, Mr. Douthat, but I have this distinct impression that the Presidential candidate played a flugelhorn or clarinet or some other kind of blowy-into-ey musical instrument for the benefit of a national audience of mostly younger, hipper viewers, and that this candidate was roundly criticized for this and yet appearances on late-night talk-shows nevertheless became the norm for aspiring politicians.  This is, of course, silly of me.  Delusional.  Nobody did this before Obama, who was also the first President to acknowledge pop culture ephemera like George Lucas movies and Bruce Springsteen albums in his speeches.  There is no way on Earth, anyway, that an aspiring Presidential candidate could appear on a comedy program and get elected twice, much less once.  (Yes, that last sentence was written that way on purpose.  For some reason.)

Anyway, this brings us to the nitty gritty of it, which is that I would like to be the first liberal to reflect and self-examine and admit that your party's decision to give a strong showing to Donald Trump is my fault.  It is true that I have never voted for a Republican beyond supporting a few friends' local, non-partisan judicial campaigns because I knew them socially and professionally.  It is true I am registered independent, that I identify as a Democratic Socialist most of the time, that my top two choices for President would be Jill Stein or Bernie Sanders, and that I would rather have eaten a bag of nails slathered in fecal sauce than voted for Mitt Romney or George W. Bush.  It is true, too, that I think Ronald Reagan was an awful President, and that Richard Nixon should have been indicted.  That I am thoroughly disgusted by the kind of Southern Strategy politics that Trump has adapted into a national campaign, and that I feel the Democratic Party (which I am not a member of) is ultimately better off without the Dixiecrat-ish "Democrats" whose parents and grandparents remained with the party of national secession out of inertia and habit even after Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson turned it into the party of the New Deal and Great Society--or at least until Nixon and Lee Atwater wooed them over to the former party of abolition (that great historical reversal and realignment of party politics that is so vital and so complicated to explain).

These things may be true, but they evade a more fundamental and vital truth, which is that those things were then and this is now, and surely there's no point in looking backwards when we're always twirling towards freedom (to paraphrase a fictional Presidential candidate).  And the here-and-now-and-oh-look-shiny is that Barack Obama is President.

Nixon is forgiven, Reagan is a saint, Bush the Elder is a little old geezer, and Bush the Younger an awfully nice chap to have a beer with, am I right or am I right?  Heaven knows, not one of these guys would blow a racist dog whistle, not one of them would smear an opponent with weird and ironic ad hominem attacks on their fitness for office, not one of them would make a campaign moment out of going after a network anchor, not one of them would ever say something that might be patently less-than-true.  Not one of them would have pitched to ignorant and frightened voters convinced that the fix was in, convinced that they'd never noticed who the suckers at the table were until they figured out they were the suckers.  Not one of them would have tried to convince voters they weren't on the losing end of social change, that there was a silent majority who agreed with them, that there was a new morning in America just waiting to dawn.

And not one of them would have ever tried to appeal to a phobic, insecure, feeling-un-enfranchised white lower-middle-class voter worried about changing demographics and a rapidly shifting borderless economy where ideas are manufactured in America by a few people with degrees and shipped abroad for production in developing world sweatshops with consolidated, on-sight supply chains.

So I apologize.  I am sorry, so very, very sorry that I caused your party to go to Hell by following the path it's been set upon since Barry Goldwater's 1964 bid for the White House.  I am so sorry that I'm not likely to fulfill my obligation to save you from yourselves by voting for Marco Rubio instead of selfishly voting for Bernie Sanders in the open primaries.  So, so, so sorry.  Like, Tenth Doctor sorry.

Wait.  No, hang on.

I meant, I'm Roy Bean sorry.

Sincerely (or not),
R. Eric VanNewkirk
Standing on the Shoulders of Giant Midgets


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