Ted Grimsrud—May 15, 2020
[More than any other presidential campaign in my lifetime, I paid attention to and cared about the 2020 campaign. Beginning in January, I wrote a number of short posts on my Facebook page. There will be many more twists and turns before November, I am sure, but virtually all my hopefulness has drained away. I fear the people of the United States and the world are heading into a time of even deeper darkness. This post captures a bit of the up and down of my sense of hope. These are excerpts from the Facebook posts. Here’s Part I: Sanders Ascendent and Part II: Biden Takes Control.]
Part III: Taking stock
April 14, 2020
How did Trump get elected? [The first of three sections]
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that this year’s presidential election is the most crisis-surrounded one since 1932. No one knew then what kind of president Franklin Roosevelt would be. He was far from perfect, but he rose to the occasion and helped make things better. I have no hope for such an outcome this year. How should we think about this? Let’s start with the 2016 election.
Barack Obama won the 2012 election fairly comfortably, and most expected Hillary Clinton to follow suite. She did win the popular vote by about 2% but lost in the electoral college. My sense is that two key parts of the electorate that had supported Obama did not give Clinton the same support: (1) some white working class people who voted for Obama and then voted for Trump and (2) some younger people who voted for Obama and then didn’t vote for president in 2016 (e.g., supposedly in Michigan the number of people who voted but left the line for president blank was four times higher than Trump’s margin of victory). The numbers didn’t have to be huge, just enough to make a difference. It appears that Trump did not out-perform Mitt Romney (46.1% of the vote compared to Romney’s 47.2%); the difference was that Clinton under-performed Obama, especially among those two groups.
Clinton, it seems, ran a campaign focused more on putting Trump down than on offering a strong, positive vision that would give undecided people a reason to vote for her. She barely campaigned in the key rust belt states that turned the election. She showed inadequate interest in and empathy toward working people (white and black) who had been hurt by the economic crises of 2008-9. She did little to build bridges to Bernie Sanders’s constituencies. Her tone was that “everything is great” in America, something that may have felt tone-deaf to people who struggled to get by.
It appears in retrospect that Obama’s 2012 win had mostly to do with his personal charisma, without much spillover in favor of his designated successor. With Obama in office, the Democratic Party suffered deep losses in the House and the Senate, in governorships and state legislatures. Those losses likely had something to do with Obama’s turning toward the bankers and big corporations in his recovery strategies and leaving the needs of people towards the bottom of the economic ladder largely unaddressed.
It didn’t help that Clinton, unrepentantly, was closely linked with the very banks that had come through the economic crisis they helped cause largely unscathed. She also was complicit in earlier policies that had hollowed out the Democratic Party’s core constituencies—NAFTA, crime bill, welfare reform, and other pro-corporate items (not to mention her support for the war on Iraq).
Trump ran a ruthless, manipulative campaign. Even without a lot of enthusiasm from the Republican establishment, the Republican electorate was vulnerable to Trump’s bluster, arrogance, white supremacy, xenophobia, et al. Plus he benefited from the long-running demonization of Clinton by the right-wing media. Still, his main achievement was to hold on to the base, not to expand it. The one area of expansion was to attract just enough Democratic-leaning white working people alienated by Clinton to tip the key rust belt states.
So, I’d put Trump’s election mainly on the failures of the Democratic Party. Its betrayal of its base, its arrogance and lassitude, its squelching the emergence of an energetic left, its strategic myopia. In face of the failures of the Democrats in 2016, one would have expected they presumably would learn some good lessons given more urgency by the terribleness of the Trump presidency. So, why does it seem quite likely that Trump might win again?
April 15, 2020
Is Trump likely to be reelected?
Observing Donald Trump’s presidency is like watching a train wreck while helpless to stop it. He has shown that there are no effective constraints on a president’s power if that president has no conscience, no sense of shame, no concern about what most people think of him—and unconditional support from a majority in Congress. His approval ratings started at a historically low level and have yet to cross the 50% mark—yet they have not fallen further, no matter what failure or embarrassment he has been responsible for.
For the past two months, this unprecedented disaster of a presidency has shockingly only gotten unimaginably worse in the face of the coronavirus as Trump’s sinister ineptness has reached new depths. Yet, against all odds, his reelection remains astoundingly possible, even as the Democrats settle on a candidate and seem surprisingly unified.
Trump has not had to deliver many actual achievements to hold his base. He has kept it energized, often helped by the Democrats’ passivity, ineptness and continued fealty to the corporatocracy. House and Senate Republicans provided a united front (and the latter have appointed many judges). Trump has not grown his base but may not need to as he seems almost certain to get a high level of support from Republicans in November. The Republicans’ strategy involves doubling down on repressing the vote—direct moves to suppress the vote where they can, heightening the chaos to drive away voters everywhere. They hope that the combination of firing up their base and repressing as much of the Democratic vote as they can will be sufficient. And it may be.
The Democrats have failed to mount an effective resistance. It remains to be seen if they can mobilize the electorate in opposition. The profound antipathy toward Trump that many feel still might fuel a Democratic wave—or at least a narrow presidential victory. However, a Trump reelection is way more likely than it should be.
One big problem is that the Democrats’ organized opposition to Trump has focused on trying to revive the Cold War. Russiagate and impeachment have not proved to be mobilizing issues—plus they have embarrassingly mostly failed and now seem to have sunk without a trace. In the meantime, Trump has decimated environmental protections, stacked the judiciary, resisted any kind of accountability, flouted anti-corruption laws, intensified Obama’s already scandalous anti-immigrant policies, sounded one white supremacist dog whistle after another, and intensified Obama’s bowing down to the corporatocracy and warism. Yet the Democrats have simply not found ways effectively to resist, or it seems, to present a coherent alternative vision.
As if to intensify their failures, the Democrats chose as their opponent to Trump one of the worst possible options. Joe Biden has articulated even less of a positive vision for the country than Hillary Clinton did, is complicit in the worst of the policies that paved the way for Trump, and may neuter many of the possible critiques of Trump (e.g., nepotism, sexual harassment, corporate corruption, warism, racism, hostility toward immigrants). Trump can actually run to Biden’s left on warism and free trade. Biden somehow was given the nomination without gaining any enthusiastic support. And as if simply to rub everyone’s noses in our despairing situation, the candidate remains noticeably quiet in the midst of probably the worst internal crisis the US has faced since the Civil War, so far unable to provide a clear alternative to the extraordinarily inept current president.
I don’t predict Trump’s reelection. But I do predict a weak and uninspiring campaign from Biden. And if Biden manages to get elected, I have no hope that he will be an effective president who can bring healing and needed changes to a hurting nation. His long record of support for the corporatocracy and for warism is depressing and hardly likely to inspire a groundswell of electoral support and energy for positive change.
April 16, 2020
What then might be done?
I believe that the most important thing right now is to work at our perception—to recognize both the nature of our crisis and the central elements of a humane worldview. We live within a domination system, a corporatocracy, that shapes us profoundly toward death in ways we usually don’t realize. The recent months of the Democratic primaries have underscored what students of propaganda have said for years—the people most susceptible to propaganda are the well-educated and intelligent who don’t imagine that they would be thus susceptible.
With clear perception, we will be freer to address our biggest problems: warism, climate crisis, white supremacy, greed, and lack of access to health care. These, of course, are all interrelated, and others could easily be added. The need to address these problems is greater than simply the need to defeat Trump. That is why it is so important to challenge the Democrats when they don’t address the actual problems.
The coronavirus lays bare the huge cracks in the foundation of our society and the corruption and inhumanity of the Republican Party (though let me note that a few outliers such as governors DeWine and Hogan have shown much needed competence). Likewise, it lays bare the corruption and inhumanity of the Democratic Party (witness how the Democratic legislature and governor of New York, in face of their failures in overseeing one of the world’s worst COVID-19 hotspots, can respond to the financial needs of their situation by taking billions from the already underfunded Medicaid program, heightening the vulnerability of those who are already bearing the heaviest brunt of the crisis).
The corporatocracy is in an extraordinarily vulnerable spot right now due to all the craziness, but, sadly, instead of having the momentum of a successful Sanders campaign to utilize that vulnerability, we have a Democratic Party that took a decisive step away from taking on some of the deep-seated problems that have made us so susceptible to our current catastrophe.
It is true that in November we who are committed to a more humane society have a clear choice. Biden obviously is the lesser of two genuine evils, and for that reason those who vote should certainly cast theirs for him (at least if they live in a state in which the race is close—those in solidly red or solidly blue states could decide not to vote for such a warist and vote for a third party candidate). I think, though, that for many of us it is also important to recognize that our task is to work to indeed move things in a more humane direction and not think that voting for someone who will surely make things worst is our main responsibility. I think it is important to fight right now for humane policies—including challenging Biden as much as possible.
It seems to me that right now we are in the midst of a kind of corporatist coup where the propagandists have fanned the justifiable fears of Trump to ensure that the Democratic Party not be an agent of actual change. That coup needs to be resisted, even if only by voicing protest against possible Biden failures to move toward what we need (e.g., he could repudiate his past efforts to cut Social Security benefits, his past support for warism, his easy acquiescence to Republican pressure, and his legislative efforts to make things harder for working people and easier for corporations).
I think the general sensibility that we are doomed if Trump is reelected is disempowering. Rather, we should plan how we can resist another Trump term should it happen. And we should call on the Democrats to figure out how to be effective in their opposition. And, even more, we need to articulate a positive vision for how our society can become more humane. Working for that vision matters more than simple loyalty to the Democratic Party. It has been made clear once more that the Democratic Party is not an agent for good in the world. I believe it can be made better, and I admire the people who focus on doing that. I also admire the people who are working for a humane society outside the Democratic Party.