- Stumped by Trump
I am a proud member of the reality-based community and an ardent fan of evidence-based thinking. I believe that if the facts don’t fit your narrative, then you should reassess your narrative.
Until recently, I had a narrative about the American political process and the American public, whose broad strokes went something like this: the United States is a democracy with two major political parties. While there have been extremists in both parties from time to time, the American people shy away from voting for them, by and large. Yes, they always receive a portion of the vote, but they typically fall by the wayside pretty early in the political process. In aggregate, Americans are pretty sensible and not drawn to extremes.
If I were going into more detail, my narrative might have noted that a politician who is egregiously offensive – overtly racist or sexist or a pathological liar – would quickly meet his or her demise in our political process; people would be too turned off.
So here we are in the Democratic and Republican primaries in the run-up to the November 2016 presidential election, and it is becoming painfully clear that I can either stick with my narrative or stay in the reality-based community, but I cannot do both.
In the 2008 and 2012 Republican primaries, we saw each of a series of unlikely candidates first rise in the polls to a “moment of glory” and then quickly “flame out.” In several cases, my reaction to their rise was one of incredulity. How could anyone not notice that this candidate is an “empty suit”? Many people had that reaction.
But the 2016 Republican primary season has taken things to a whole new level. Donald Trump rose in the polls … and has stayed there … for months. He won the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries and the Nevada caucuses by respectable margins. Then on Super Tuesday he won primaries in seven more states. As of this writing, he is on track to become the Republican nominee.
Now, Donald Trump is not your average garden-variety modern Republican candidate, which, to my taste, would be loathsome enough. No, Trump is a whole new phenomenon. He has pushed the term “empty suit” to its emptiest. What he lacks in actual experience in government, he more than makes up for in boundless self-confidence. Nor is he weighed down by a sense of obligation to provide actual policy proposals – or anything even close. When asked how he would accomplish something, he typically responds with some version of, “I’ll take care of it. You’ll see. It will be so successful, you’ll be sick of success.”
As Ezra Klein articulates so well in his short video, Trump is overtly racist and overtly sexist; he is a narcissist; he is a climate change denier; he has the “demagogue’s instinct for finding the angriest voice in the mob and amplifying it”; and he is a pathological liar. You may be unsurprised to find out that, as Klein notes, Trump has …
“just a complete lack of shame. Most people feel shame when they’re exposed as liars or when they’re seen as uninformed and cruel or when their political elders think that what they’re doing is wrong or dumb. It’s one way we keep politicians in check. We exploit their sense of shame. But Trump doesn’t seem to have this. … It’s … why he’s dangerous.”
We’ve never before had a presidential candidate like this (at least in my lifetime).
There has been a fair amount of commentary about Trump and what a Trump presidency would look like – mostly using words like “chilling” or “scary.” Some people have likened his rise to the rise of Hitler, especially when he started talking about banning Muslims from the United States – not because people think he will commit genocide, but because of his cruel and almost mindless demagoguery.
And his fans love it. He’s “tough”; he’s confident; he’s unapologetic. And the fact that there is usually no content in what he says doesn’t seem to bother them at all. Nor does his complete lack of experience in government. He’s tough and he doesn’t need the establishment. Exactly how this would work if he were president … I haven’t noticed anything that indicates his fans have thought that far.
The evidence so far is that none of this – the pathological lying, the demagoguery, the overt racism and sexism, the narcissism, the complete lack of experience or, often, even thought – seems to matter to them. They will apparently be delighted to vote for someone who gives every indication of being a total and unmitigated disaster. And here’s the kicker: He has a lot more fans than anyone would have anticipated.
Which means my narrative needs some adjustment. In my narrative, the American people will always reject a truly vile demagogue, typically earlier rather than later in the process – or, as the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank put it, “voters, in the end, tend to get it right.”, But so far, at least, voters in the Republican primaries are not “getting it right.” So far, no one is seeing a way to stop Trump. I keep (metaphorically) rubbing my eyes, but this phenomenon is not going away.
It has been difficult to accept what I’ve been witnessing. In fact, the main way I cope with the possibility of a President Trump is to convince myself that it simply cannot happen. Surely Americans will not vote for such a vile and vacuous demagogue. Surely Americans will vote for whomever the Democratic nominee is, if Trump is the other choice.
That is apparently what many establishment Republicans fear – and what some Democrats also think. But when you look at the “fundamentals” of this election, it is no slam dunk for Democrats. It is, as blogger Kevin Drum put it, “wishful thinking in the extreme.” Interestingly, although Trump is running as a Republican, the prospect of a Trump presidency is discussed in apocalyptic terms by establishment politicians in both parties.
- Comforting Lies and Unpleasant Truths
Someone recently shared a brilliant cartoon on Facebook. It showed two men, each sitting behind a table; each table had a sign. One sign read “Comforting Lies;” the other sign read “Unpleasant Truths.” A long line of people stood in front of the “Comforting Lies” table; no one stood at the “Unpleasant Truths” table.
America faces many unpleasant truths right now. And many Americans are afraid or angry or both. Along comes Trump, who tells them a comforting lie: “I am tough. I will fix everything. When I’m in control, everything will be great.” And this simple narrative is apparently sufficiently compelling to win their votes.
Which has revealed the unpleasant truth that it’s not so hard for a racist, sexist, blowhard like Trump, with no actual answers to important questions and no experience in government, to rise to the top of the heap of Republican presidential candidates. There is, so to speak, a long line of Republicans at Trump’s table of comforting lies.
- The Big Promise vs. Pragmatic Solutions
A different (and less simple-minded) narrative has developed on the Democratic side, and a lot of progressives have eagerly bought into it. In this narrative, Americans are yearning for a president who will lead a political revolution in which the people will wrench their political system out of the clutches of the plutocrats and the politicians they “own.”  Under the right leadership, Americans will demand policies that greatly reduce the obscene levels of income inequality that have left the middle class in tatters and have, for many, turned the American dream into a nightmare. This political revolution will happen when millions and millions of people become newly active in our political system – starting with going to the polls and voting … for Bernie Sanders.
Like many progressives, I love Bernie. I love that he sees what has happened to this country, and that he articulates it so clearly and passionately. I love that he is sincere, that he has tremendous integrity, and that he is not beholden to Big Money. I agree with his analysis of what has happened to America and I want exactly what he wants. I feel “swept up” when I hear him give a speech.
A lot of Americans share Bernie’s anger and dismay at what has happened to this country. When he rails against big corporations and calls for breaking up the big banks that have been “too big to fail,” a lot of people’s response is, “Hell yes!!” And so is mine.
But the “magic ingredient” to Bernie’s “political revolution” actually succeeding is those millions and millions of Americans getting involved in the political process, those masses of people rising up to say, “We’ve had enough!” And so far, that isn’t happening.
In fact, in the four states that have had their Democratic primaries (or caucuses) and for which there are turnout data as of this writing – Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina – the turnout in 2016 was substantially less than in 2008.
Sanders’s rival for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton, hasn’t made big promises nor does she envision a political revolution of the “people rising up” variety. She is not as inspiring as Bernie (at least to me and to many other people I know). Still, she is impressive. She is super smart, she works hard, and she does her homework. She is probably more knowledgeable about the subjects relevant to the presidency than any of the other candidates.
Hillary is pragmatic. She doesn’t promise things she knows she cannot deliver. In contrast to Bernie’s grand vision, Hillary gets into the details and looks for solutions that are doable. And she understands the importance of a strong party and has done her part to strengthen the Democratic Party. These are not the kinds of things that inspire people, but they are the kinds of things, it turns out, that matter – the kinds of things that have brought real and important changes in the past, as Kevin Drum reminds us:
“If you want a revolution, don’t fall in love with someone who talks big. Fall in love with someone who cares about the same things you do and knows how to get them done. And help us get a Democratic Congress. It’s not sexy, but that’s where revolutions are born.”
So we might imagine another two tables. Bernie Sanders sits at one, and Hillary Clinton sits at the other. Each table has a sign. The sign at Bernie’s table reads “The Big Promise”; the sign at Hillary’s table reads “Pragmatic Solutions.” There are a lot of Democrats standing at each table – although not as many as there are Republicans standing at the “Comforting Lies” table. For a while, I was hanging around the Big Promise table; more recently I’ve been edging towards the Pragmatic Solutions table.
- The Big Decision
But the question of what either of the Democratic presidential candidates would do once in office – which one I think would make a better president – is ultimately not all that important to me compared to another question.
Of all the presidential elections in which I have voted – and I’ve voted in them all since I came of voting age many years ago – this upcoming one, I believe, will be the most consequential by far. The difference between the two political parties is so extreme at this point that the fork in the road at which the country now stands is very wide indeed.
Any of the Republican candidates, if elected, will try to reverse Obama’s course on climate change. This alone will have unspeakable consequences for the country and the entire world – and for many generations to come. As scientists are more and more urgently warning us, we have only a small number of years remaining in which to stem the tide and avoid catastrophic climate change. We don’t have time to reverse course and then, maybe, perhaps, some time down the road, realize we were wrong to do so. We don’t have time for a Republican president to continue the “climate change is a hoax” charade for another four to eight years.
And then there’s the Supreme Court, whose ideological tilt for many years to come will most likely be determined by the next president.
So the consequences of this election are enormous, and my top concern by far is that we get a Democrat into the White House – any Democrat. Which brings me to the “ultimate question”: Who is more electable: Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton?
I will state right now that I would be happy to have either of them in the White House. Despite the vilification I’ve heard from some Democrats of the candidate they do not support, I think they would both be very good (albeit not perfect) presidents.
I will also say up front that, although I have an opinion about who has a better chance of winning the White House, I am by no means certain. Politics has a way of “throwing curve balls.”
So who is more electable? Bernie supporters point to polls that pair up each Democratic candidate with each of the main Republican candidates (currently, Trump, Cruz, and Rubio) to see how they would fare if the election were held tomorrow. As of this writing, Bernie seems to be doing better than Hillary.
But the Republicans have not yet started to attack Sanders. In contrast, they’ve been attacking Hillary Clinton for over twenty years, ever since her husband Bill Clinton was president and she was First Lady. And she is still standing; she is nothing if not resilient. But all those attacks have taken their toll. Her “negatives” are much greater than Bernie’s. And the fact that she has taken money from Wall Street hasn’t helped her win the hearts and minds of progressives.
If Sanders wins the Democratic nomination, it won’t be long before another narrative springs to life – quickly and virulently. This narrative will emerge out of the Republican Party, probably within nanoseconds of Sanders’s having won the Democratic nomination. I’ll call it the Scary Story.
Sanders is a self-described “socialist” or “democratic socialist” – by which he seems to mean basically the model used by the Scandinavian countries. To the extent that Americans know about life in those countries, my guess is that they would agree it’s rather nice. However, coming out of the mouths of Republicans and their right-wing propaganda machine, “socialist” will sound more like “communist” (and the word “democratic” will get dropped entirely). The likely “flavor” of the Republicans’ attack is nicely captured in this excerpt from a piece by David Roberts:
“They’re going to ask when [Sanders] stopped being a communist, and when he objects that he was never a communist they’re going to ask why he’s so defensive about his communist past, why he’s so eager to avoid the questions that have been raised, the questions that people are talking about. And when Sanders and his supporters splutter that it’s inaccurate and unjust and outrageous, the right will not give a single fuck.”
Republicans will tell their Scary Story over and over and over again. And it will resonate with the already-negative feelings of many Americans. A 2015 Gallup poll asked, “If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be _______, would you vote for that person?” When the blank was filled in with “Catholic,” 6% said they would not; when it was filled in with “Black,” 7% said they would not; when it was filled in with “Muslim,” 38% said they would not; when it was filled in with “a socialist,” 50% said they would not – the highest percentage of all the categories.
Whether the Republicans’ Scary Story about Sanders will ultimately triumph over Sanders’s Big Promise, should Sanders become the Democratic nominee, is anyone’s guess. The Big Promise is at least possible, if not plausible. The Scary Story is just a scary story. The Big Promise speaks to people’s hopes; the Scary Story will speak to their fears – and their ignorance. Unfortunately, we now have plenty of evidence that speaking to people’s fears and ignorance can be shockingly effective.
If Hillary Clinton becomes the Democratic nominee, we will hear endlessly about Benghazi and her emails. The “question” of her trustworthiness will be front and center. All the usual tactics used against women who try for positions of power will surely be used against her, as they have been for many years. Whether all of this will ultimately be successful for the Republicans is also anyone’s guess. (Of course, the Republican candidate will come with some outsized “negatives” himself – especially if that candidate is either Trump or Cruz.)
- The Democrats’ Big Problem
It has been pointed out that, in the end, the outcome of the presidential election will come down to whether enough Democrats actually go to the polls and vote. It may sound obvious that Democrats will go vote, but once again the evidence suggests otherwise.
In the run-up to the 2014 mid-term election, another political cartoon, this one by David Horsey, was published in the Los Angeles Times and made the rounds on social media. It showed an angry older white male with a button on his shirt, which read “GOP base” and a young white female with a t-shirt that read “Democratic base.” The bubble coming from the Republican said, “I’ll walk on hot burning coals and swim a piranha-invested river to get to a voting booth to prevent Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and that Kenyan communist Obama from enslaving Christian America!” The bubble coming from the Democrat said, “Vote? Again? Can I do it on Facebook?” 
That sums up the Democrats’ biggest problem. It’s worse in mid-term elections, but the relatively low numbers of voters in the Democratic primaries so far is a worrisome sign for the 2016 presidential election.
- Help! My Narrative is in Crisis!
I started this essay by saying I believe that if the facts don’t fit your narrative you should reassess your narrative. But that can be a real downer. My narrative of the American political process is really taking a beating lately. The reality-based community can be a depressing place to be.
Surely, I tell myself, when the stakes are this high – when the fate of a livable planet for humanity and the ideological tilt of the Supreme Court for many years to come both hang in the balance – surely Democrats will bestir themselves to get to the polls and vote this time. Surely they will walk on hot burning coals and swim a piranha-invested river to get to a voting booth to make sure a Democrat – either Democrat – ends up in the White House for the next four to eight years.
And those Democrats who are passionate about their candidate – if that candidate does not win the Democratic nomination, surely they will not let the perfect be the enemy of the good; surely they will vote for whichever Democrat is the nominee!
Then again, until quite recently I thought, “Surely there could never be such large numbers of Americans who would vote for an overtly racist, sexist demagogue who is a know-nothing pathological liar … Surely such a person could never win the nomination of a major political party … This isn’t pre-Nazi Germany, after all … surely …
The 2016 presidential election is making me crazy, and we’re still only in the primary season. It is demonstrating how a democracy can “go wrong” – how a demagogue can rise to power by playing on the fears and hatreds of ordinary people while the apathy of so many other people means they might fail to vote and stop him – even when the stakes are incredibly high.
When we are children in elementary school, we are given a “narrative” about our country that is gentle enough for a child’s ears, scrubbed of any “unpleasantness.” (This was certainly true when I was a kid, back in the 1950s; I’m assuming it’s still basically true.) I may have had more than my share of naiveté when I was a kid, but my picture of America and its political process was quite rosy indeed. (Honestly, I wasn’t really paying much attention; I was much more focused on my stuffed animals – but I think it actually was rosier back then.)
My child’s storybook narrative, such as it was, was succeeded by my young adult narrative, in which the political candidates present their beliefs and policy proposals to the American people, and the American people critically and rationally assess them and vote accordingly. Hahahahahahahaha! I’m embarrassed to admit how old I was by the time I realized that it doesn’t work anything like that. Joke’s on me.
I just don’t want to have to replace that narrative with one that says the American political system is a pathological free-for-all in which the most manipulative and monied candidate wins – and the American people always lose. I don’t want my narrative to end with, “It can happen here.”
*Photo Credit: DonkeyHotey. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
 If you have read some of my essays, you already know this.
 It is not yet a done deal, but it is close.
 See, for example: http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2016/jan/24/bernie-s/yes-donald-trump-really-did-tweet-climate-change-h/ — although on this point Trump doesn’t particularly stand out from the Republican crowd.
 Milbank, like me, is having second thoughts. See: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/a-majority-of-republicans-didnt-vote-for-trump-but-they-may-get-him-anyway/2016/02/22/0a78146a-d993-11e5-81ae-7491b9b9e7df_story.html?postshare=9071456187841582&tid=ss_fb
 Of course, in my judgment the re-election of George W. Bush in 2004 belies that notion.
 There is a lot written about this. See, in particular, Larry Bartels.Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age, http://press.princeton.edu/titles/8664.html; and Gilens and Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.” https://scholar.princeton.edu/sites/default/files/mgilens/files/gilens_and_page_2014_-testing_theories_of_american_politics.doc.pdf
 This is why the Republicans in several states have put so much effort into enacting “voter suppression” laws that largely affect Democratic-leaning demographic groups.
 There has been a lot of commentary, mostly but not entirely on the left, noting that the Republican Party has been cynically stoking those fears and hatreds for several decades now for its own political gain. I think there is a lot of truth to that. Ironically, the Republican establishment is as aghast at Trump as the rest of us, worried that he will destroy their party. I’m worried he will destroy the country.