Fred Siegel, Donald Trump and America’s Post-constitutional Politics.
Why has Donald Trump’s cult-of-personality candidacy—which so many professionals and pundits at first dismissed as a branding exercise—become a fever of sorts? Why has he been able to exploit the failings and foibles of both Barack Obama and of the Republican Party leadership? Why, asks Obama, has Trump received $2 billion in free coverage from the president’s acolytes in the media?
These questions have answers. Consider first the sharp decline in economic growth in the era of globalization. From the post-World War II years to 2000, United States GDP grew at a hearty 3.6 percent per year, on average. Since then, it has averaged 2 percent per year. Worse yet, since 2000, wages have declined while corporate profits remain robust. Wages for men have been flat since 1975.
Not surprisingly, popular discontent with government has grown. According to a recent McClatchy poll, 71 percent of Americans think that the country is on the wrong track. In four of the last five national elections—from 2006 through 2014—the president’s party in Congress has been clobbered. Only in 2012 was the pattern broken, and in that year, Obama won reelection with fewer votes than he got four years earlier—the first president to pull off that dubious feat. “We have not seen such sustained dissatisfaction,” explains electoral analyst Jay Cost, “since public opinion polling began. In fact, we’d have to travel back to the 1890s to discover so prolonged a bout of electoral distemper.” A quarter-century after the Soviet Union crumbled under the crush of U.S. power and an increasingly high-tech and international economy, politically correct America is suffering from global competition that has helped produce serious fractures. America’s bicoastal elites thrive, while the middle class labors under stagnating or declining incomes.
The controversial bailouts that followed the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008 only expanded under President Obama, the most divisive president since Richard Nixon. Obama poses as a champion of economic justice, even as the country suffers from the lowest percentage of people employed in 40 years. The president bemoans growing inequality while campaigning regularly among Hollywood celebrities and Silicon Valley and Wall Street billionaires. When Obama railed against inequality at the home of the aptly named Rich Richman, he should have been ridiculed; instead, he was treated with kid gloves by an adoring press anxious to join him on “the right side of history.”
In this context, liberal complaints that the “mainstream media” have given Trump extensive free coverage don’t add up to much. In truth, there has been no such thing as a “mainstream” press since 2008, when, in a manifestation of the country’s political polarization, much of the media enlisted in the Obama campaign. The presidents of CBS and NBC have siblings on Obama’s national security staff who helped orchestrate the catastrophe at Benghazi. Key members of the White House staff are married to prominent national reporters for ABC and CNN. The morning news at CNN is anchored by Chris Cuomo, son of former New York governor Mario Cuomo and brother of current New York governor Andrew Cuomo, who has considered a presidential run. George Stephanopoulos, the anchor for ABC’s Sunday morning show, is a former senior advisor to President Clinton and maintains a connection to the Clinton Foundation.
The winners in Obama’s America, where the stock market has doubled even as wages have stagnated, have been the big guys—big business, big labor, big government. Unelected bureaucrats have never had it so good. The Affordable Care Act, for instance, created 159 new boards, commissions, or programs. Elected officials more and more resemble these job-for-life bureaucrats, likelier to die in office than to be fired (or voted out) for cause. In 2014, 95 percent of sitting members of the House of Representatives won reelection, according to the Center for Responsive Politics; most of those who left went to work as lobbyists or political operatives. Washington, D.C. recently passed Silicon Valley as the richest region in the U.S.: seven of the nation’s ten wealthiest counties are in the D.C metro area. Not incidentally, Washington now has the highest rate of fine-wine consumption in the United States.
The federal government’s reach has become so vast that it suffocates informed debate and political accountability. No one in the Obama administration has been held accountable—as Richard Nixon’s operatives were—for using the IRS as a mechanism to punish dissenters. Nor have the administrators at the Veterans Administration been held to account for their criminal conduct in running the VA in Arizona. GSA bureaucrats held a lavish conference in Las Vegas, complete with clowns and psychics. They have not only gone unscathed; they’ve also been rewarded with bonuses.
Elites in both parties had little to say about the almost 200 illegal immigrants with convictions for homicide, 426 with sexual-assault convictions, and 16,000 with drunk-driving convictions, who, instead of being deported, have been released into American communities. Altogether, over the last seven years, the Obama administration has let 104,000 people who by law should have been deported remain on American soil. The Republican congressional leadership dueled with Obama over immigration reform, to scant effect. Unable to come to an agreement with the opposition, Obama invoked executive privilege, bypassing the Constitution and Congress in an effort to legalize 5 million illegal immigrants—that is, future Democratic voters.
In his presidential announcement speech last June, Trump seized on the issue of illegal-immigrant crime, especially from Mexican illegals:
When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.
But I speak to border guards and they tell us what we’re getting. And it only makes common sense. . . . They’re sending us not the right people.
Republican presidential candidates such as former Texas governor Rick Perry and Florida senator Marco Rubio excoriated Trump for his intemperate comments. But the New York real-estate developer had separated himself from conventional politicians, who either spoke sotto voce or not at all about illegal immigration. Trump, who grew up in a privileged family, played outer-borough tough guy. His political version of Andrew Dice Clay tapped into authentic anger from working-class voters, white and black, whose children found themselves in failing schools where a quarter of the kids couldn’t speak English.
Two weeks after Trump announced his presidential run, just 15 percent of Republicans supported him for president in a YouGov poll. But then Trump’s anti-illegal immigrant warnings were given ugly embodiment. On July 5, 2015, 32-year-old Kate Steinle, posing with her father for a photograph on a San Francisco pier, was struck dead by a bullet. Her devastated family discovered that the man who fired the fatal shot was Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, an illegal immigrant from Mexico convicted of seven previous felonies and five times ordered deported from the United States—but who had cleverly taken refuge among the bien pensants of San Francisco, a sanctuary city that refused to cooperate with federal immigration officials. President Obama stayed resolutely silent on the Steinle killing and San Francisco’s nullification of federal law. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had nothing to say about the murder. She did, however, move a fundraiser scheduled at the home of the Steinle family lawyer to a new location.
By contrast, Trump furiously denounced the flouting of federal law that had resulted in Steinle’s death. The shooting helped send his poll numbers soaring. By the third week in July, Trump’s support had almost doubled, to 28 percent.
In fall 2015, a few months away from the Iowa caucuses, Trump’s momentum seemed to be stalling. Ben Carson was nipping at his heels. Trump was the lead political story on only three of the 50 days before the mid-November 2015 Paris terrorist attacks that killed 130 people.
In the wake of those attacks, though, Trump moved from 28 percent in the polls to 35 percent, helped again by Obama’s ideological tomfoolery. Reacting to worldwide concern about the ISIS threat, Obama was insouciant, insisting, evidence to the contrary, that his “ISIL strategy was working.” When Obama did make it to Paris a few weeks later for the G-20 summit, he argued that fighting climate change was just as important as undermining ISIS.
Two weeks after the Paris massacres, Trump’s candidacy got more fuel from the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, which killed 14 people and wounded 24. It was the bloodiest attack on U.S. soil since 2009, when psychiatrist Major Nidal Hassan had, after numerous warnings—and an inaction born of political correctness—killed 13 soldiers and wounded 32 at Fort Hood in Texas. The families of Hassan’s victims suffered twice—first when they lost their loved ones, and again when Obama designated Hassan’s jihad “workplace violence.” The administration declined to call Hassan’s Koran-inspired killings terrorism, because to do so would be “unfair to the victims.” Try to follow the reasoning on that one.
After San Bernardino, Obama resorted to more euphemisms. While news reports referred to the Islamist ties of the two terrorists, one of whom was a recent immigrant to the U.S., Obama spoke of two individuals who had “gone down the dark path of radicalization, embracing a perverted interpretation of Islam.” That raised the question of how Obama felt competent to judge what was and wasn’t legitimately Islamic. Worse, his strongest concerns were voiced not about the danger of future jihadi attacks on American soil, but rather the Islamaphobia he feared boiling up in the American population. There is almost no evidence of it: Jews are far more likely to be the victims of hate crimes than Muslims. Obama’s talk of Islamophobia was a none-too-subtle reference to white voters drawn to Donald Trump. Attorney general Loretta Lynch, keeping the First Amendment at arms’ length, suggested that the Justice Department might prosecute people for criticizing Islam.
Americans worry that Obama doesn’t understand the jihadist threat, in part because he keeps saying that it isn’t much of a threat. He said that the Islamic State—whom he had previously dismissed as a “jayvee team”—was “contained” on the eve of the Paris attacks, and that the U.S. homeland was safe shortly before San Bernardino. He really seems to believe that the problem is guns, more than the jihadists who use them. Obama’s effort to assure Americans that ISIS will be destroyed by the same tactics that have only strengthened the group has been buoyed by Trump’s successes in the GOP primaries. Trump’s candidacy allows Obama to run the clock out on his inept policies in Mesopotamia. Journalist Jeffrey Goldberg reports that a rattled Obama has taken to wandering the halls of the White House, reminding his staff that “terrorism takes far fewer lives in America than handguns, car accidents, and falls in bathtubs do.” And the president claims, shaman-like, that the arc of history—evidence be damned—will vindicate his policies.
Still, the president’s half-educated, semi-Marxist pronouncements about history aren’t as balmy as those of postmodern academic feminists who support his climate arguments. A dashing new study from the University of Oregon is titled “Glaciers, gender, and science: A feminist glaciology framework for global environmental change research.” The abstract explains that the lead “researcher” daringly merges “feminist postcolonial science studies and feminist political ecology, the feminist glaciology framework generates robust analysis of gender, power, and epistemologies in dynamic social-ecological systems, thereby leading to more just and equitable science and human-ice interactions.” Though this sounds like a parody worthy of Alan Sokal, the authors seem to be in earnest. In a more serious vein, at the suggestion of Democratic senator Sheldon Whiteside of Rhode Island, the Justice Department is considering bringing racketeering charges against scientists who question the Obama administration’s pronouncements on the imminent danger of global warming.
In an October 2015 Fairleigh Dickinson University poll, 68 percent agreed with the proposition that “a big problem this country has is being politically correct.” The sentiment was shared broadly across the political spectrum—by 62 percent of Democrats, 68 percent of independents, and 81 percent of Republicans. Among whites, 72 percent said they felt that way, but so did 61 percent of nonwhites. But it wasn’t until the first GOP debate in August 2015 that a major political figure—that is, Donald Trump—declaimed PC as a way of ducking a question from moderator Megan Kelly, whom he went on to abuse in his patented boorish style. “I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct,” Trump said. “I’ve been challenged by so many people, and I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time, either. This country is in big trouble. We don’t win anymore. We lose to China. We lose to Mexico both in trade and at the border. We lose to everybody.”
Leaving Trump’s incoherence aside, James Kalb, writing in Chronicles, was right to argue that “political correctness is a genuine threat to any tolerable way of life. . . . domination of public life by p.c. elites has thus made it impossible for ordinary people to assert their complaints publicly in an acceptable way, so their objections can be shrugged off as the outbursts of ignorant bigots who will, in any event, soon become demographically irrelevant.” Writing in the Daily Beast, Tom Nichols notes that part of Trump’s success is that his fans love his refusal to be politically correct: “Trump’s staying power . . . is rooted in the fact that his supporters are not fighting for any particular political outcome, they are fighting back against a culture they think is trying to smother them into cowed silence.” The American Left is composed of academia, media, and cultural elites, who, for decades, have tried to act as the arbiters of acceptable public debate and shut down any political expression with which they disagree. “To understand Trump’s seemingly effortless seizure of the public spotlight,” Nicols continues, “forget about programs, and instead zero in on the one complaint that seems to unite all of the disparate angry factions gravitating to him: political correctness.” Because liberals couldn’t stop attacking conservatives as “sexists, racists, and imbeciles,” Nichols maintains, “they paved the way for a jackass who embodies their worst fears.”
Emerging in the midst of a sluggish economy, the Trump phenomenon has been based on bravado, on the candidate’s willingness to identify the elephant in the room—whether illegal immigration, the underside of global trade, declining wages, Islamic terrorism, or political correctness. Events—and Obama—have repeatedly placed pachyderms in the public square, but most politicians either avert their eyes or describe the elephants as diminutive mammals. It may be true, given the candidate’s stumbles of late, that Trump is finally imploding. But his success up to now, as one supporter puts it, has come from barking when most pols are whispering.