Reading the Political Tea Leaves

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As best I can tell, the primary force driving Donald Trump’s political decision making will be maintaining his popularity among the white working class voters in the Rust Belt who pushed him to victory in the election. While Trump will do this purely for egotistical reasons, his chief political advisor Steven Bannon has altogether more ambitious goals of realigning Western politics along ethno-nationalist lines. In America, he is hoping to forge an unbreakable white voting bloc that permanently delivers the Rust Belt into the orbit of Red America.

Trump’s strategy for maintaining his edge among Rust Belt whites will be driven exclusively by the pursuit of short-term political gain. Under no circumstances will he ever make a difficult, unpopular decision that would actually be in the long-term interests of this constituency or the country at large. Instead, he will rely upon his considerable skills as our entertainer-in-chief. He will continue to make liberals gasp through his non-PC, racially insensitive, freewheeling brand of rhetoric. Establishmentarians will continue to howl at his complete disregard for the democratic norms, conventions and traditions of the country. If past is prologue, this will benefit him politically with the constituency that elected him. Trump will spin minor, symbolic victories of negligible influence on the broader trends that are actually impacting the lives of Americans, something like his recent “deal” with the Carrier factory, and turn them through his penchant for self-promotion into dramatic personal triumphs. He will tell his audience whatever it is they want to hear, never what they actually need to know. And of course, he will have a full stable of scapegoats (illegal immigrants, criminals, elites, Muslims, the Chinese, Obama, etc.) from which to choose whenever the need arises to blame someone for something that goes wrong. Politically, this strategy has the possibility of being devastatingly effective.

The question arises, how should we deal with such a strategy? To boil it down further, assuming they can hold on to all the States Hillary won, how will the Democrats in 2020 lure back the roughly 80,000 voters spread across Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania who delivered those States to Trump? Firstly, of course, the Democratic party has to unify and regain the loyalty of its base. It has to turn progressives out in 2018 for the midterms. This probably entails a leftward shift in terms of policy. However, hopefully this will take the form of an all-encompassing, a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats economic message that promotes a stronger social safety net without disregarding entrepreneurship and growth, and a celebrates of diversity while still offering a welcome embrace to white working class voters who once made up the core of the party.

That being said, I don’t think it is ultimately policy that matters at least in terms of electoral politics. What Trump seems to instinctively understand is that many voters are not voting on policy, but on a gut feeling that a candidate is in their corner. Somehow the next Democratic candidate is going to have to get people in the Rust Belt to believe that he or she believes in them, respects them and will fight for them. This is a rare political skill, rarer still to be married to a true leader who understands policy and also understands that truly respecting voters sometimes means taking unpopular stances when you know it is the right thing to do.

Perhaps the greatest political challenge Trump will face, at least initially, will come from the Republican Party in Congress. Paul Ryan never bothered to hide the fact that he supported Trump because he thought he could be used as a vehicle to promote his ideologically radical conservative agenda. This poses a problem for Trump because his working class white constituency in the Rust Belt, many of whom who have voted for the Democratic Party in the past, do not support this agenda. They do not want Medicare to be privatized. Many of them get healthcare through Medicaid, and will not be very happy to be kicked off it. Many of the older voters who went for Trump will not be very happy of ideologues in Congress begin to fiddle with their Social Security Checks. It will be interesting to see whether the Trump White House will be able to prevent establishment Republicans in Congress and within the Cabinet from misreading the “Mandate” and pursuing a radical conservative agenda that could very well succeed in drawing many currently disaffected whites back into the Democratic corner.

If Trump gets his infrastructure bill passed (which perhaps includes his wall), raises spending on the military while totally disregarding debt and spending, continues and takes credit for Obama’s successful route of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, deports illegals with criminal records and engages in showy spectacles of personally saving a few jobs here and there in dramatic episodes, he will be a formidable candidate indeed. Given the totality of all Trumps policies, I believe the long-term consequences for our country will be terrible, but all he needs to do to win another term maintain the allegiance of the white working class in the Rust Belt. The Democrats need to regain this allegiance through reforming the party and perhaps with an assist from a Republican Party intent on misreading the Trump election as an endorsement of their radical, conservative platform of privatization and slashing social programs.

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