The Death of Establishment Politics

donald-trumpDuring the primary battles Donald Trump made his attack on the Republican establishment a central feature of his campaign. With his strong populist message, he ultimately triumphed over all of his primary contenders and decisively clinched the Republican nomination.

Yet Donald Trump was a contentious figure from the very beginning.  Many prominent Republicans saw him as being so objectionable and abrasive that they could not support him.  Some claimed he was not a “true” Republican, citing the many years that Trump was a registered Democrat supporting Democratic candidates and policies, before becoming an Independent, and only a few years ago joining the Republican Party.

Establishment Republicans, incensed that Trump was taking the Party away from its traditional ideals, fought back.  They mounted a vigorous “Never Trump” campaign which, for a time, seemed to be gaining steam.  By the final weeks of the presidential campaign 275 prominent Republicans either currently or previously serving in federal state and party administrations had gone on record saying they could not in good conscience vote for Donald Trump.  Another 55 conservative academics, journalists and commentators had also declared their opposition to Trump.

bernie-sandersOn the other side of the fence, Bernie Sanders mounted a vigorous populist campaign from the left during the primary season against the favored establishment candidate of the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton.  The Sanders campaign strongly criticized the Democratic National Committee for siding with Clinton and working behind the scenes to ensure her nomination.  In the end, despite summoning large enthusiastic crowds wherever he went and winning 22 state primaries, Bernie Sanders had to yield to Clinton as the Democratic nominee.

Despite Hillary Clinton’s embrace of some of Sander’s progressive language, most observers were convinced that she actually represented the party’s establishment center and would remain faithful to its ideals if elected.

trumpclintonThe resulting contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as the official candidates of the two parties quickly devolved into a mudslinging match over personalities and trustworthiness rather than policy issues.  Americans as a whole were disappointed with both candidates.  In the tallying of last Tuesday’s vote it was discovered that many people had left the top of their ballots blank, voting for neither presidential candidate, while filling in the remainder of the ballot largely along party lines.

After all the votes have been counted (they are still being tabulated) Hillary Clinton, the Democratic establishment candidate, is expected to win the popular vote by some 2 million votes. However, Donald Trump has chalked up the most Electoral College votes, and in the early hours of Wednesday morning was proclaimed as the President-elect.

Laying a New Course

Donald Trump’s victory leaves a divided party in its wake.  Populism triumphed over conservative ideology, leaving many party conservatives on the outside looking in.  Commentators have noted Trump’s long record of vindictiveness toward those who publicly oppose him.  The experienced establishment old-hands within the party who had opposed him will have no place in his administration.

This divide extends to sitting members of Congress.  Following the shift in conservative ideology in Congress with the rise of the Tea Party in 2010 (typified by Ted Cruz and others), Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is seen by many as the last prominent torchbearer of Reaganite Republicanism.  But now that too is in jeopardy.

paul-ryan-800x430On the night of the election, as Paul Ryan was back in his home state of Wisconsin with his supporters celebrating his re-election victory (with Fox News coverage of the election playing in the background), Sean Hannity came on the TV saying that Paul Ryan should not remain Speaker of the House since he had not supported Donald Trump during the campaign.

This past weekend Donald Trump announced that Steve Bannon would serve as the chief strategist in his administration working on par with (rather than under) Reince Priebus who will be Trump’s Chief of Staff.  Bannon, who was senior editor of Breitbart News before becoming the head of Trump’s campaign team, has targeted Paul Ryan as the “the enemy” – the very epitome of establishment Republicanism. He called on his staff at Breitbart to destroy Ryan, pledging that he would be gone as Speaker by this spring.”

A battle for control of the House and Senate looms as Donald Trump and his administrative team prepare to take charge.  It is not the traditional battle between Democrats and Republicans – Republicans have a safe majority in both Houses following the election – but between sitting establishment Republicans and the Trump Administration.

A cardinal feature of traditional Republican ideology has been a commitment to small government and balanced budgets.  Yet Donald Trump has promised to repeal Obamacare and replace it with a comprehensive system of coverage that is “even better,” to launch a multi-trillion dollar infrastructure renewal program, and to end sequestering and dramatically increase military expenditures, all while reducing taxes.

David Frum. (CHUCK KENNEDY)The conservative critic David Frum has stated that Donald Trump is bringing the same business plan to government that he has used so successfully in his own business empire, namely, borrow as much money as you can from other people and never pay it back.

Will conservatives in Congress go along with Trump’s return to “big government” (Keynesian-styled) expenditures to expand the economy with its resulting huge deficits, or will they balk?  The next vote on the Debt Ceiling comes up in mid-March, shortly after Congress resumes sitting, so we shall soon see.

Members of Congress must choose their sides carefully.  Donald Trump has displayed a well-established pattern of retaliating against all those who publicly oppose or criticize him.  If members don’t side with Trump, will their access to campaign funds be cut when they seek re-election?  Will they be primaried out of the nomination?  The pressure on them to back Trump’s agenda will be immense – even if it flies in the face of traditional conservative Republican values.

On the other hand, if the Republican members of Congress closely align themselves with the Trump administration and the economy tanks, or inflation spikes, or the anticipated job numbers don’t improve, or the US becomes mired down in another war, or Trump is brought down in a major scandal – in short, if the Trump revolution falls apart for any of a variety of reasons – will voters blame his supporters in Congress for the mess?  Will these Republicans be able to survive the next election referendum?

The Challenge for Democrats

Democrats also face a number of challenges in the days and months ahead.  In backing the widely disliked establishment candidate from their own party in the 2016 election, they have not only forfeited the presidency, but also both houses of Congress.

Just as the Republican Party did after their 2012 election loss to Barack Obama, they will need to conduct a thorough post mortem to determine why they lost this election so unexpectedly and decisively.  They will need to identify their own winning coalition of voters for the next election and decide how they can best appeal to them.

bernie-crowdIf they are wise, they will revisit the Bernie Sanders phenomenon of the primary season and identify the factors that so enthused his base (Hillary had her loyalists, but she never succeeded in enthusing the masses).  One basic factor is already evident: Bernie excited younger voters; they turned out for him in huge numbers.  They identified with him in a way that they never did with Hillary Clinton.  Polls show that if Bernie Sanders had been on the ticket opposite Donald Trump he would have won the election handily.

The nation’s demographics are changing.  The baby boomer generation is retiring and will soon be dropping in numbers while the millennial generation continues to grow in size and influence. One remarkable map drawn up after the election shows how the electoral college vote would have gone if one only counted the votes cast by 18 – 25 year olds.  It would have generated an enormous landslide of 504 votes for the Democratic candidate to just 23 for Donald Trump.

youth-vote-2016The Sanders faction is not waiting around for the next election.  They have launched campaigns to replace party officials in many states and are actively lobbying for the selection of a new Chair of the Democratic National Committee who will be more supportive of their concerns.  And they are already lining up progressive candidates for the next presidential election in 2020.

The 2016 election marked a remarkable sea change in American politics.  In a very real sense, the primary division is no longer between conservatives and liberals but between establishment and populist candidates.  In this election the establishment candidates – on both sides of the aisle – lost out, while voters rallied around their populist choices.

In the coming months we will witness parallel contests within the Republican and the Democratic camps for control of the party machinery moving forward to the next election.  Will the establishment forces be able to wrestle control back from the populist insurgents?  Or will the populists – on both the left and right – become the new face of both parties?

Photo credits: APP/Getty Images; Jim Watson/AFP; Chuck Kennedy; AP

Trump’s Victory Is Only Temporary

2016 Election TrumpI am still in a state of shock over Tuesday’s election results.  Never in a million years could I even conceive of Trump winning the election.  It was worrisome enough that he had been steadily polling at over 40% support for some weeks. That alone I found incredible.

It was like the entire country was oblivious to Trump’s true character, his erratic conduct, his inflated ego, his dangerous demagoguery, his racist and misogynistic views, his record as a sexual predator, his dishonest business dealings, his personal vindictiveness, and his steady stream of lies.  The false equivalence between his public record and that of Hillary Clinton was, to me, astounding and quite unbelievable.

david-dukeBut it has actually happened. The first African-American president has been succeeded by a candidate endorsed by the KKK.  Incredible! David Duke, a former KKK Grand Wizard, tweeted out, “This is one of the most exciting nights of my life.  Make no mistake about it, our people have played a huge roll in electing Trump.”

marine-lepenOne of the first congratulatory messages from a foreign leader came from Marine LePen, leader of France’s far-right National Front. Vladimir Putin was also quick to applauded Trump’s win. And, perhaps most disturbing, it was welcomed by Al-Qaeda and Egyptian Jihadis. “Trump’s victory is a hard slap to those promoting the efficiency of democratic systems,” the spokesperson for the Syrian affiliate of Al-Qaeda, tweeted. “Starting today we won’t need media releases clarifying the West’s machinations, All we need to do is retweet what Trump says.”

Thousands of protesters have since taken to the streets in many American cities to protest Trump’s election, shouting “He’s not my president.”

election-protests-seattle

I have spent much of the past day sifting through various media reports on the election results, trying to understand what has just happened. I find that international commentary provides a much better perspective on Trump’s victory than most of what comes out of the U.S. right now.  (Americans are notoriously blind to the international implications of their actions.)

the-guardian-logoIt turns out that my own thoughts are quite accurately expressed in the following strongly worded article in Wednesday’s Guardian from England:

We thought the United States would step back from the abyss. We believed, and the polls led us to feel sure, that Americans would not, in the end, hand the most powerful office on earth to an unstable bigot, sexual predator and compulsive liar.

People all around the world had watched and waited, through the consecutive horrors of the 2016 election campaign, believing the Trump nightmare would eventually pass. But today the United States – the country that had, from its birth, seen itself as a beacon that would inspire the world, a society that praised itself as “the last best hope of earth”, the nation that had seemed to be bending the arc of history towards justice, as Barack Obama so memorably put it on this same morning eight years ago – has stepped into the abyss.

Today the United States stands not as a source of inspiration to the rest of the world but as a source of fear. Instead of hailing its first female president, it seems poised to hand the awesome power of its highest office to a man who revels in his own ignorance, racism and misogyny. One who knows him well describes him as a dangerous “sociopath”.

And what awesome power he will soon have. Republicans did not just defy almost every projection, prediction and data-rich computer model to win the presidency. They also won the House of Representatives and much of the Senate. Trump will face few checks on his whims. A man with no control of his impulses will be unrestrained, the might of a superpower at the service of his ego and his id. …

The most obvious impact will be on the country he will soon rule. Just think of what he has promised. A deportation force to round up and expel the 11 million undocumented migrants who make up 6% of the US workforce. A ban on all Muslims entering the country, later downgraded to a pledge to impose “extreme vetting” on anyone coming from a suspect land. A giant wall to seal off the Mexican border. “Some form of punishment” for women who seek an abortion. And prison for the woman he just defeated.

This will be America’s ordeal primarily. But it will affect all of us. A reality TV star with no experience of either politics or the military will have the nuclear button as his toy. This, remember, is the man who reportedly asked several times, during a military briefing, why the US didn’t use nuclear weapons since it had them. This is the man who has said “I love war”. Whose proposed solution to Isis is “to bomb the shit out of them” and steal the oil.

Think of the anxiety this morning in Riga, Vilnius or Tallinn. In the summer, Trump told the New York Times he did not believe in Nato’s core principle: that an attack on one member should be met by a response from all. He seemed to see Nato as a mafia protection racket: unless the little guys paid up, they should be left undefended. Vladimir Putin – Trump’s hero, admired as the very model of a leader by the president-elect of the United States – will not need more of a hint than that. The Russian dictator will surely see his opportunity to invade one or more Baltic states and expand his empire. … A trade war looms with China, the imposition of tariffs that could imperil the entire global trading system. America is about to turn inward, towards protectionism. …

And what about our planet? Trump believes climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. He will do nothing to reduce emissions: he does not believe they exist.

But beyond all that, there is another consequence of this terrifying decision, no less dark. Trump’s success has delighted white nationalists and racists in his own country and beyond. His victories in the key battleground states were hailed by David Duke, a former luminary of the Ku Klux Klan: “God Bless Donald Trump,” he tweeted. “It’s TIME TO TAKE AMERICA BACK.” The Dutch nationalist Geert Wilders was in similarly cheery mood: “The people are taking their country back,” he said, “So will we.” Marine Le Pen will feel the same jubilation, as will every other populist or nationalist who traffics in hate.

The most powerful country in the world is to be led by its most dangerous ever leader … [FDR] once told Americans they had “nothing to fear but fear itself”. That is not true today. America and the rest of us have plenty to fear – starting with the man who now stands on top of the world.

vox_website_logoThe best American commentary I have found comes from Ezra Klein, writing on Wednesday for Vox. He, I think, provides a very realistic view of Trump’s impulses, but also the limits to his power. And he provides some very sound advice for the Republican Congress as they try to work constructively with Trump.

Donald Trump has won the election. Now it is up to America’s institutions, and the people within them, to check his worst instincts.

There is danger in Trump. He’s a man with authoritarian impulses, a conspiracy theorist’s bent, and a taste for vengeance. He has an alarming temperament, little impulse control, and less decency. He has a demagogue’s instinct for finding enemies and a bully’s instinct for finding their weaknesses. He is uninterested in policy, unrestrained by shame, and unbound by norms. He surrounds himself with sycophants and enablers, and he believes both the facts and the falsehoods he finds congenial.

But he is entering an office that is weaker than many realize. For all the same reasons Barack Obama could not bring about the change he had made people believe in, Trump cannot wrench America to his vision of greatness. He is constrained by the House and the Senate, by the Supreme Court, by the executive agencies, and — in ways less formal but no less powerful — by his own staff and party.

There would be more comfort in this if there were more opposition inside these institutions. But Republicans control everything — the House, the Senate, and, after an appointment, the Supreme Court. If Trump is to be checked, it will be because his own party checks him.

So far, the GOP has not shown much interest or ability in standing up to their standard-bearer. Top Republicans closed ranks around Trump despite believing him fundamentally unfit for office. Their embrace did not, however, lead to Trump surrounding himself with more professional staff, developing sounder policy, or moderating his worst instincts.

Already, the Trump campaign has leaked that they will fill their administration with the most supportive staff they can find, not the best. But the number of jobs they appear to have candidates for is slim. They will need many more bodies to fill both the White House and the executive agencies. This is a place where the Republican Party could potentially play a role in surrounding Trump with calmer, wiser advisers who could provide him better information and curb his worst impulses. …

House and Senate Republicans know that Trump’s success is their success, that his strength is their strength. The same goes for his staff, and his appointees. The question is whether they can structure a version of success for him that keeps the country safe, and whether they will be willing, if the worst comes to pass, to cross their president for their country.

If there is hope, it is here: The incentives of governance are different from the incentives of opposition. The Republican majority will have to face the voters in 2018, and then again in 2020. If they have taken health insurance from tens of millions of people without replacement, if they have ripped open families and communities with indiscriminate deportation, if they have embroiled us in disastrous wars or confrontations, if they have sent the economy into tailspin, those elections will not be pleasant.

Perhaps this is a weight Trump will feel in a way he has not over the course of the campaign, and he will change his behavior accordingly. But even if he doesn’t, Republicans have a majority, and it will be one they hope to keep. To keep it, they will need to govern well, or at least convince the electorate they have governed well. And to govern well, they will need to keep Trump’s worst tendencies in check. Now we see how strong the American system really is.

Klein’s article pushes a bit beyond the limits of my own optimism. I do not see the Congress successfully reigning in Trump.  On some legislative matters he will not care what they do, and may gladly sign their legislation into law. But on other matters I expect there to be a real confrontation.  Donald Trump has promised a better health care plan for everyone, massive spending on infrastructure, a return of good-paying jobs, and massive increases in military spending. In other words, a return to (or continuation of) big government spending.

113 Congress1But Congress controls the purse strings, and one would expect the Republican-led Congress to insist on reducing government expenditures, having even lower taxes, and keeping a lid on the deficit.  The next vote on the debt ceiling is scheduled for March 17, 2017, just two months into Trump’s term.  It should prove interesting and quite revealing to see which side will yield on these expenditure issues.

My guess is that Donald Trump is so inexperienced in the ways of politics and completely resistant to following the advice of others, that he will quickly make some major missteps.  When called on it, he will place the blame on others. If challenged, he will lash out against any who defy him.  That is his nature. That is how he acts.

Donald Trump already has a number of opponents within the Republican Party. There are many who accuse him of not being a ‘true’ Republican. (He was a registered Democrat, then an Independent, before running for president under the Republican banner.) Will one see a widening fissure along ideological lines? Or will it simply become an open contest for power? Politics is all about power, after all. And in the end, which faction will emerge as the true standard-bearer of Republican values? It’s all up for grabs. Expect to see your idea of Republicanism become radically redefined.

trump-supportersMore importantly, what will happen in 2 years’ time when the multitudes of the anger-filled supporters who put Donald Trump in the White House to “make America great again” find that he has accomplished little to make their situation better? Who will be blamed for his unfilled promises – Trump himself or the Republican members of Congress? As Ezra Klein says in his article,

The Republican majority will have to face the voters in 2018, and then again in 2020. If they have taken health insurance from tens of millions of people without replacement, if they have ripped open families and communities with indiscriminate deportation, if they have embroiled us in disastrous wars or confrontations, if they have sent the economy into tailspin, those elections will not be pleasant.

It looks very much like a lose-lose situation, and all parties are going to have to tread very carefully to avoid another angry revolt by the electorate against those currently in office. The new Republican hegemony could end up being very short lived.

This is far from over. In fact, the next stage of massive voter alienation is just getting underway. Trump has made too many grand promises and raised expectations far too high for him to get away with backing out of them now. I predict that it will not end well.

Mind you, this is not just going to be a problem for Republicans. As Aaron Blake noted in Wednesday’s Washington Post, with Hillary Clinton’s loss, the Democrats are now a party without a leader or direction, and will have to work hard to redefine themselves before turning to the voters again for support. I expect to see a contest between ‘establishment’ figures and the progressives within the Democratic Party emerging by the 2018 midterm election that will be much more intense than the one in the recent primary campaign. And by 2020 it may be in full force – a counterpart to the newly radicalized ‘non-establishment’ faction that helped put Donald Trump in office.

The next voter revolution may not be far away.

Photo credits: John Locher/AP; Martin Bureau/AFP; Reuters; Gettyimages