It’s the oldest debate within the Democratic Party: what to do about a progressive insurgent candidate? Whether it’s Ted Kennedy’s challenge against Jimmy Carter in 1980, Howard Dean against John Kerry in 2004 or Bernie Sanders against Hillary Clinton, moderates and centrists always say the same thing: in order to win, you need those swing voters. That means you have to pick the moderate choice. The problem with that argument is that it never really works out in the general election. Kennedy and Dean’s voters stayed home in November. 3 to 4,000,000 Bernie Sanders primary voters never showed up for Hillary Clinton. Now the same argument is being floated again, this time in favor of Joe Biden.
All presidents suck so I hate them. But it takes a special something to trigger me into full-on Presidential Derangement Syndrome.
When you go from contempt to boiling rage at the mere thought of a president’s existence and less to his deeds, that’s PDS. When Reagan and one of the Bushes appeared it took Herculean effort to resist my urge to throw something heavy and lethal at the screen. The thought that two of these worthies are dead gives me nothing but pleasure; I hope to live long enough to witness the trifecta.
I hated their policies. But policies don’t trigger PDS. As a leftie I despise Democrats more than Republicans in the same way that the French loathed the Nazis but hated French collaborators more; Republicans are warmongering racist corporatist monsters but so are Democrats and they ought to know better.
I despised the transparent insincerity of Reagan’s “well, golly” phony folksiness juxtaposed against the viciousness of such actions as gutting the social welfare safety net to cut taxes for the wealthy. As with Reagan my visceral disdain for George HW Bush stemmed from his behavioral hypocrisy; how dare he play the civilized Connecticut preppy while he gleefully ordered a war crime, the massacre of thousands of Iraqis fleeing Kuwait during the Gulf War on the “Highway of Death”?
Bush Derangement Syndrome (about Dubya) pushed me over the edge.
Typically, the man’s politics were despicable. But it was his style, his stage manner, that really drove me nuts: his adopted Texas swagger and equally phony accent, the smirk, his manic cadence—above all, the look in his eyes that said: “I’m a dumbass and I like it.” I didn’t want to have a beer with him, I wanted him to move to the surface of the sun. The incurious idiot drove me to distraction and it shows in my cartoons from the Bush 43 era: angry, pedantic, ineffectual.
In Anglican-founded America, political satire is best served cold.
Living in New York most of my friends are Democrats. I empathize with yet do not share the Trump Derangement Syndrome that is rife throughout liberal-leaning media and among voters.
Trump, TDSers scream, is the worst president ever. They claim that his politics are uniquely ruinous, totally unprecedented, and represent an existential threat to everything good and decent about America. We are doomed! Pendant Trump, le déluge. Trump’s novel awfulness, they explain, is why they hate him so much they wouldn’t even consider having sex with someone hot if they owned a MAGA hat.
Liberals are mistaken. Like all Presidential Derangements, the Trumpian version is provoked by the man’s tone, not the substance of his policies.
No doubt, style matters. This president is the most uncivil, crassest, crudest, ugliest (in several meanings of the word) U.S. leader in memory. Maybe ever.
But style is only style. Style is not substance. Conflating Trump’s weird crazy demeanor with his generically Republican politics exacerbates a problem afflicting our national discourse, our pundits’ tendency to obsess over the distraction of personality rather than the politics that govern our lives.
Though repugnant, neither Trump’s politics nor his policies are significantly worse than those of his precedessors.
Trump separates and jails children at the Mexican border; the policy began smaller under Obama—who jailed and tortured children at Guantànamo (as did Bush). White government officials stole babies from Native Americans until the early 20th century.
Trump ignored Puerto Rico after it was destroyed by hurricanes; have we already forgotten Bush’s malign neglect after Katrina devastated New Orleans?
Trump’s White House staff reeks of nepotism and self-dealing. JFK appointed his brother, who never really practiced private law, as Attorney General. It didn’t take but Clinton tried to make his wife a healthcare czar.
Trump filled his cabinet with unqualified fools and officials who oppose the missions of the departments they lead. Nothing new there either: Reagan appointed a dentist as Secretary of Energy, a military general as the nation’s chief diplomat, a guy who wanted to eliminate the Education Department to run it and James Watt, who hated the environment, to lead the Interior Department.
Though it’s more style than substantial policy, Trump rightly earned contempt for legitimating the “alt right” in Charlottesville. Sadly, this is hardly new ground for a president. Reagan staged his 1980 campaign announcement rally in the tiny Mississippi town where the KKK murdered four Freedom Riders during the civil rights struggle in order to signal to racists that he was one of them. Nixon had his Southern strategy. Wilson (famously a racist) Taft, Truman and Ike tacitly approved of American fascists like Herbert Hoover and Joseph McCarthy as they hunted down “communists” who in many cases were not—and so what if they were?
Trump coddles dictators and tyrants like the Saudi prince who had a journalist murdered and sliced into pieces in a consulate but it would be difficult to identify any US president who didn’t maintain close diplomatic, financial and military ties with brutal dictatorships.
No. Trump is not a departure. He is a continuation of America’s insanely violent, classist, racist and militarist policies as pursued by every one of his predecessors.
The real reason liberals can’t stand Trump is that he’s vulgar. Everything from his ’80s-shiny too-tight suits and too-long cherry-red ties to his combover of death to the brass trimmings he favors in his hotels and his spray-on tan screams “used car salesman.” Obama, now he was a president: slim, trim, calm, professorial, multisyllabic. Anyone who liked Obama and hates Trump is kidding themselves if they don’t admit it: they’re can’t stand President Trump because he’s a terrible casting decision.
Politics has very little to do with it.
I hate Trump, but no more than previous presidents. Actually, there’s something I really like about him.
There’s little disjoint, no disconnect, between his disgusting policies and his equally gross persona. Trump is the president America, specifically American politics, deserve. You can’t help but look at that mean greedy pompous bloated orange flag-hugging idiot and think: here, at last, is the perfect embodiment of who we are and what we do to ourselves and the world.
We’ll probably get another “normal” president after Trump. The awful politics will stay the same, the rich will keep stealing from the poor, the bombs will keep raining down on the brown people and Democrats will go back to sleep.
I will miss him.
(Ted Rall, the cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)
“Too soon!” That was a standard response to my criticisms of John McCain following his death.
My cartoon and social media posts reminded readers that McCain had volunteered to bomb innocent civilians in an illegal war of aggression to prop up a corrupt and reviled regime at the time of his capture. The real heroes of the Vietnam War were the tens of thousands of draft dodgers forced to give up their lives to flee to Canada and the many conscripted veterans who came home appalled by what they saw and did and spent the rest of their lives fighting for peace.
McCain, on the other hand, learned nothing from his experience. He never met a war — or a possible war — he didn’t like. McCain voted for war against Afghanistan and Iraq. He criticized Bill Clinton for limiting his war against Kosovo to airstrikes; he wanted ground troops too. He supported arming the Islamist jihadis in Syria and Libya, expanding the civil wars there. He threatened war against Iran. He sabre-rattled against Russia. North Korea and even China were in this deranged right winger’s sights.
These were not minor failings in an otherwise distinguished life. They were defining acts that erased the myths on which McCain built his career — his military service and his “maverick” persona. The war he fought in was disgusting and now widely considered a mistake. McCain was a run-of-the-mill right-wing Republican warmonger. His straight-talk shtick was fake as hell.
Media accounts sanitized the myriad of very bad things McCain did throughout his life. So I did my part to help counter the tsunami of BS.
“Do not speak ill of the dead.” This dictum, attributed to the 6th century BCE philosopher Chilon of Sparta, may be appropriate at your uncle’s funeral; who wants to hear that the dead man’s widow discovered foot-fetish websites in his browser history?
Public figures are different.
In cartoons and the written word I have attempted to counter the fulsome praise that followed the deaths of people like Ronald Reagan. I wasn’t trying to be mean to Nancy Reagan. Though I doubt she read my work.
Reagan hurt and killed a lot of people. As much as Reagan’s admirers didn’t enjoy my reminders that he (we believed at the time) murdered Moammar Gaddafi’s daughter or that he didn’t care about victims of HIV-AIDS, Americans who lost friends and relatives to the “gay plague” deserved to be acknowledged in assessments of Reagan’s life and legacy. The media pretended Reagan’s crimes never happened. I corrected the record.
The “too soon” and “can’t you wait until the body is cold?” arguments fall flat. What better time to point out and discuss a dead leader’s flaws than the time immediately following their death? That’s when obituaries appear, the eulogies are said and the nation is focused on the issues and policies they affected and effected. A few weeks later, no one cares.
Presumably referring to himself, former president Theodore Roosevelt argued in a 1910 speech that men of action — those “in the arena” — matter and their critics do not.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better,” Roosevelt said. “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Soaring oratory! But self-serving and obsolete.
If effort and taking chances is all that matters when assessing a person’s life, the firefighter who enters a burning house to save a baby has no more worth than the serial killer who sneaks inside to kill it. Hitler and Stalin and Osama bin Laden all had grand visions they strove valiantly to turn into reality. They were daring. They achieved. They counted, but so what?
These days it’s the “timid souls” who stand aside, keeping mum while the mass media wallows in sordid orgies of mawkish praise for problematic figures like Reagan and McCain. Adding perspective and nuance to assessments of mass adulation requires courage. In this age of relentless propaganda and unmitigated BS, the critic is in the arena just as much as a dead senator.
(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)
This past week more than 300 American newspapers colluded — if the word fits… — to simultaneously publish editorials declaring themselves, contra Trump, not “the enemy of the people.” Shortly thereafter the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution declaring that it too did not consider the press to be, in a phrase that evokes the rhetoric of the former Soviet Union, state enemies.
The Boston Globe organized this journalistic flash mob.
“The greatness of America is dependent on the role of a free press to speak the truth to the powerful,” the Globe‘s editorial board wrote. “To label the press ‘the enemy of the people’ is as un-American as it is dangerous to the civic compact we have shared for more than two centuries.” President Trump has repeatedly derided the media as “the enemy of the people” and purveyors of “fake news” on Twitter and at campaign rallies.
The First Amendment guarantee of press freedom, the Globe wrote, “has protected journalists at home and served as a model for free nations abroad. Today it is under serious threat.”
Is it really?
The surprise election of Donald Trump has elicited more the-sky-is-falling handwringing than any other political event in my lifetime (I will turn 55 next week). Very Serious People have warned in Big Important Newspapers that the rise of Trump harkens the transformation of the U.S., and other Western democracies, into fascist states. Even before he took office, the ACLU called Trump “a one-man constitutional crisis.”
No doubt, Trump’s rhetoric evokes the president’s authoritarian instincts: deriding his foes as anti-American, calling for and ordering mass deportations, supporting torture, and yes, press-bashing showcase the mindset of a man who doesn’t support democratic values and probably doesn’t even know much about the history or philosophy behind them.
But let’s separate Trump’s crude rally remarks and crass online rants from his Administration’s policies. What is he actually doing? How does his day-to-day governance represent a radical departure from the norms established by presidential precedents?
When you set aside Trump’s talk in order to focus instead on his walk, it is hard to conclude that he is an outlier by American standards. A better analogy, a friend observes, is Kaposi sarcoma, a cancer commonly associated with AIDS. It can kill you. But it’s not the main reason you’re having problems.
In other words, Trump isn’t — despite what 300-plus newspaper editorial boards would have us think — a root cause of American crisis. He is a symptom of preexisting conditions. This is important. Because if we delude ourselves into thinking that getting rid of Trump will fix what ails us, things will only get worse.
Running down the list of what offends people about Trump, there is nothing here we haven’t seen before — and ignored when other presidents did them.
Trump stands accused of colluding with Russia to steal the 2016 election. There is still zero evidence that this happened. It’s still just vague insinuations leaked to newspapers with histories of cozying up to the CIA-FBI-NSA by anonymous CIA-FBI-NSA spooks.
There is, on the other hand, ample evidence that Ronald Reagan colluded with Iran to delay the release of the 52 American embassy hostages held in Tehran in order to destroy Jimmy Carter’s reelection chances.
Richard Nixon colluded with a shadowy Taiwanese business executive with ties to South Vietnam in order to scuttle the Johnson Administration’s last-ditch attempt to negotiate peace between South and North Vietnam just before the 1968 election. Nixon squeaked by the Democratic nominee, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, by 0.7%. LBJ said Nixon was guilty of “treason,” but nothing happened.
Trump has been criticized for mass deportations of illegal immigrants, including separation of children from their parents, and rightly so.
But there is nothing new about Trump’s actions on immigration. Bill Clinton deported 12 million people, George W. Bush deported 10 million and Obama deported 5 million. (Obama’s numbers were lower but more robust because he ordered ICE to charge illegal immigrants as criminals. They faced prison if they returned. Previous presidents merely sent them home on buses and planes.)
As the National Immigration Law Center points out, “President Trump is exploiting the tools and infrastructure set in place by previous administrations to (1) expand the definition of who should be banned and deported and (2) militarize federal agencies and build up the deportation machine.”
Separating children from their parents at the border began under Obama, albeit in smaller numbers.
Trump has legitimized the “alt-right,” i.e. the psychotic right-wingers we used to call Nazis, Klansmen and fascists. Even after a fascist murdered a woman and injured others at an alt-right riot in Charlottesville, the president wallowed in false equivalence: “You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.” Coddling racists is disgusting. But it’s not new to American politics.
During the 1990s then-First Lady Hillary Clinton called some African-American youth “superpredators.”
Reagan relied on racist dog-whistles during his 1980 campaign, which he launched in the small Mississippi town where the Klan murdered four Freedom Riders during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. “I believe in states’ rights,” Reagan said. States right was political code for supporting racial segregation.
On substance, legislation and regulation, Donald Trump is virtually indistinguishable from his predecessors, many of whom are responsible for far more serious attacks on democracy.
George W. Bush alone is guilty of far more heinous crimes. He introduced the dangerous explosion of “signing statements” in which the president signs a bill into law and then crosses his fingers behind his back, secretly ordering that the law not be enforced. And he invaded Iraq preemptively, an extreme violation of international law, which states that nations may only go to war in self-defense or when faced with a grave and imminent military threat.
Where Trump differs from previous presidents is in tone. He is obnoxious and obscene. He lies — loudly. At least in public — they all swear in private — Americans like their leaders calm, deliberative and low-key.
It isn’t surprising that Trump’s trash-talking is freaking people out. But we shouldn’t conflate rudeness with an existential threat to democracy. Democracy, decency and civility were never real American values in the first place. That, not Trump, is the real problem.
(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s independent political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)
Many progressives are stupid. Unless they get smart soon, “The Resistance” to Donald Trump will fail, just like everything else the Left has tried to do for the last 40 years.
Stupid progressive thing #1: letting yourself be shocked by Trump.
Far too many lefties still can’t believe that the Orange One won the election, or that as president he’s so stupid and mean and right-wing.
Know the cliché, “if you’re not angry you’re not paying attention”? If you didn’t see Trump’s victory coming, you weren’t paying attention to the anger of your fellow citizens — and neither was the Democratic Party. NAFTA cost a million Americans their jobs. Since the 1970s automation has put 7 million people out of work. Democrats marketed themselves as the party of Joe and Jane Sixpack, but Bill Clinton pushed for and signed NAFTA, a Republican idea. Neither Clinton nor Obama lifted a finger to save the Rust Belt; as a candidate Hillary Clinton didn’t care either.
For those who opened their eyes to see, every aspect of Trump’s “surprise” win was visible in plain sight.
Democratic disunity was another big factor. But the schism between Hillary Clinton corporate Democrats and Bernie Sanders progressives directly paralleled the 1980 split between Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy.
Shocked by Trump’s radical anti-intellectualism? That his only qualification for the nation’s highest political office was celebrity? Don’t be.
Trump is merely the logical culmination of a trend that goes back at least to celebrity politicians John Glenn, Clint Eastwood, Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jesse Ventura and Al Franken, all of whom exploited their celebrity to defeat more experienced public servants. Though George W. Bush and Obama both had legislative experience, neither man accomplished much before running for president. Both famously adjusted their voices and accents to come off as dumber than they were.
Trump wasn’t a surprise. He wasn’t an anomaly. American politics won’t get nicer or smarter after he’s gone. He’s crazy and mean and dangerous — but he’s not a bizarre departure from the American norm.
Stupid progressive thing #2: viewing Trump’s politics as significantly more dangerous or extreme than, say, Obama’s.
Worried that Trump will pull a Greg Stillson (“the missiles are flying”) on North Korea? Me too. But please get real. Trump’s needlessly bellicose rhetoric and gleeful overuse of the war machine hardly represent a radical shift in foreign policy from his predecessors. Obama gleefully ordered a political assassination (Osama bin Laden), financed civil wars that destroyed Libya and Syria, slaughtered thousands of civilians with drones and joked about it. All Trump did was alter the tone of U.S. propaganda from fake they-made-me-do-it to his more honest I-like-it.
Stupid progressive thing #3: always reacting, never acting.
Benghazi wasn’t a real issue that Americans cared about. Fox News zeroed in on it, pimped it, and pounded away at Obama-Clinton’s alleged responsibility for the deaths of American diplomats in Libya until it gained traction and ultimately became a Thing. Republicans know how to alter the playing field.
Contrast that to issues progressives actually care about, like Trump’s pardon of former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio. Aware that his decision would be controversial, Trump released the news late Friday — a classic media dump. Not only that, Hurricane Harvey was about to hit Houston. The Arpaio story got swept away by a flood of Houston headlines.
It’s so easy to play progressives.
Weekends pass. So do hurricanes. Why didn’t progressives schedule some big anti-Arpaio/Trump demonstrations for late the following week? Just put a reminder into your phone! Because they’re used to reacting. Progressives will never win unless they steal a page from the GOP playbook and start setting the agenda — and pounding away at it relentlessly, lack of reaction be damned.
Stupid progressive thing #4: never learning from past mistakes.
Fighting the last war — fixing the mistakes you made last time without anticipating the challenges of the next encounter — is a classic error of strategy. But progressives aren’t even good enough to make that error. They don’t even learn from their previous screw-ups.
Inspired by Tahrir Square, the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement suffered from its lack of centralized leadership, a lack of formal demands, its welcoming of the homeless and mentally ill and a rift between revolutionary and reformist wings. But OWS’ biggest mistake was calendrical.
They occupied public parks. Parks are outside. OWS began in the fall. The weather got cold, occupiers drifted away, morale turned sad. By the time Obama smashed the encampments with federally-coordinated violent raids, there wasn’t much of a movement left to destroy.
Here we go again.
Refuse Fascism has a plan to get rid of Trump. “On Saturday, November 4—approximately a year after President Donald Trump’s election—members of the Resistance will descend on America’s major cities,” reports The Politico. “They’ll march and demonstrate, as they have in the past, but this time, say organizers, they won’t go home at the end of the day. Instead, the plan is to occupy city centers and parks and not leave until, and only until, Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have fallen.”
It’s cold in November.
I know, I know — it’s easy to criticize. Which is why I chose criticism as a job. So let me offer a concrete suggestion.
Starting in November? Occupy indoor spaces.
(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall) is author of “Trump: A Graphic Biography,” an examination of the life of the Republican presidential nominee in comics form. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)
“A shining city on a hill,” Ronald Reagan called America (by way of the Puritan authoritarian John Winthrop). “We are great because we are good,” Hillary Clinton said during the campaign (via Tocqueville). Michelle Obama, earlier this year: “This right now is the greatest country on Earth.”
You may have heard of “mansplaining,” which is when a dude patronizingly explains something to a woman, often concerning a subject about which she knows more than he does (c.f., rape culture, workplace discrimination, etc.). Other spin-off portmanteaus mocking pompous people of privilege include whitesplaining (white person explains racism to black person), straightsplaining, Millennialsplaining, and even (during the primaries) Bernie-splaining.
May the victory of Donald Trump mark the long overdue death of Ameri-splaining — when American leaders like Clinton and Obama (and not a few ordinary citizens) pretentiously declaim our nation’s supposed exceptionalism to people in countries that do a better job than we do.
First and foremost, I’d like to thank Trump for his campaign slogan: Make America Great Again. Granted, he wasn’t talking to blacks and other oppressed segments of society for whom the past is more about pain than nostalgia. Trump’s campaign was aimed at whites. Nevertheless, Trump deserves credit for acknowledging that — at least at this time — America is not so great. “A Third World country,” he calls us. Keep reading and you’ll see that he has a point.
The first step is acknowledging that you have a problem.
Problems? Where to start?
Our economic structure sucks. We’re the world’s richest nation. But because we also have the most horrendous wealth inequality, most Americans are poor. According to the UN, our poverty rate is worse than 17 of the 19 OECD countries. We have the highest rate of childhood poverty. But the rich pigs in charge don’t care. Which is why we have the worst social safety net.
Maybe we should stop letting people die of cancer because they’re poor before Ameri-splaining human rights to Iran, where free RouhaniCare for everyone (!) rolls out in 2018. Similarly, we might want to stop executing children before telling the Iranians they’re wrong to do the same thing.
Our infrastructure is outdated and poorly maintained. It would take an additional $3.6 trillion to bring our existing highways, bridges, dams, sewers, water pipes, rail and so on up to code — yet spending on repairs is at a 30-year low. That doesn’t count the $500 billion or more it would cost to build a high-speed rail system like they have in Europe and Japan — you know, modern countries.
Rather than harassing China over their ridiculous little fake islands, perhaps U.S. officials could invite the brilliant civil engineers creating a high-speed train system to Tibet, complete with pressurization like a plane as it soars through and around some of the biggest mountains on the planet, to show us how to bring our trains into the 21st century.
What is with us? Why do we talk down to the rest of the world from the depths of the lowest swamp below the moral high ground? At his penultimate State of the Union address, President Obama Ameri-splained to Russia’s Vladimir Putin over his “aggressive” annexation of Crimea. At the time, the U.S. was in its 14th year of occupying Afghanistan and its 12th of occupying Iraq. It was bombing the crap out of Yemen. Obama’s death drones were killing thousands of people, most of whom he thought were innocent.
When you stop to imagine what we look like to the rest of the world, we’re lucky we got away with just one wee 9/11.
Will Ameri-splaining continue under Trump? You’d think not, but since he’s already swiveled 180 degrees on so many other issues, he easily could revert to Bush-Obama-style triumphalism from his current, refreshing pessimism. The difference now is, no one — not even here in America where no one reads anything — can possibly take the U.S. government seriously when it scolds some country for, say, torturing people. Whereas Obama condescendingly tells his successor that torture doesn’t work (but not that it’s immoral, or that he still allows the CIA to use it), Trump has said of waterboarding “I like it a lot.”
The United States has always been corrupt, savage and brutal. It has always been wildly dysfunctional and hypocritical. But now, thanks to a president-elect who is loudly ignorant and utterly devoid of impulse control, the mask is off. The horrible truth about the United States can no longer be denied.
Trump epitomizes truth in advertising. We’re a nasty, crappy country.
President Trump suits us fine.
(Ted Rall is author of “Trump: A Graphic Biography,” an examination of the life of the Republican presidential nominee in comics form. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)
American conservatives are staring down the barrel of a future that looks increasingly bleak for them due to two major demographic shifts: the country is becoming more ethnically diverse, and younger voters – Generation Xers, Millennials, and presumably whoever comes next – are left cold or even repelled by the Republican Party’s Christian evangelical base and “social issues,” i.e. its obsession over who everyone has sex with. Anticipating their imminent irrelevance, some on the right say it’s time to reboot conservatism by bringing it more in line with the increasingly tolerant tone of most Americans on social issues, and by addressing their economic concerns.
One rightist getting attention these days is Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative think tank. He’s out pimping a new book, “The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America,” which “shares his insights as to how conservatives can reach skeptical voters, smash stereotypes about conservatives and recast the political playing field,” according to The Washington Post.
It’s an interesting read. So are Brooks’ interviews to promote it. But the reason it’s interesting probably wouldn’t please him; what makes the current “conservative reform movement” worth knowing about is that it reaches the very heights of the human capacity for self-delusion.
At its core, conservatism is an ideology dedicated to the status quo. As such, it reflexively resists suggestions that the system is less than perfect, that things could be better, that the leadership caste isn’t deserving, or that there is inherent unfairness or injustice in the current state of affairs. The main thing about conservatism is, it doesn’t have a heart. To conservatives, and I know many of them, fail succeed ought to blame themselves – too lazy, too dumb – rather than structural impediments like racism or endemic poverty.
Parenthetically, the one point even my smartest conservative friends and acquaintances can’t refute is inheritance – how can capitalism be fair if Donald Trump starts his life worth millions, and you were an abandoned crack baby?
Conservatives trying to make their message more palatable to the country furious about the depredations of the top 1%, who have stolen 99% of national income in recent years, are faced with a set of options, none of which are likely to get them where they want to be, beloved by the electorate.
They can continue to defend big business and its prerogatives, and spin that policy with their traditional “a rising tide lifts all boats” meme. The problem there is, no one believes in trickle-down anymore.
Alternatively, they can embrace a new set of priorities and policies, which put ordinary American workers first. No more NAFTAs, no outsourcing, higher wages, protect the ability to unionize. But then, you’re not really conservative anymore. Even worse, you’ve abandoned your base of support, big business, in order to court a new constituency that will never trust you as much as liberals and progressives.
Boiled down to its essentials, the argument of would-be conservative reformers like Brooks is that it sure would be swell if capitalism could be made fairer. But the thing about capitalism is that unfairness isn’t an unfortunate side effect of this particular economic system. It’s a core feature.
Capitalism without unfairness and built-in inequality isn’t capitalism; it’s socialism. You don’t have to be Karl Marx to have been able to personally observe the tendency of power and money to aggregate into fewer and fewer hands over time, what we call monopolization, and to leverage those advantages in order to gather an even greater share.
Brooks tries to obscure this in an interview with the Dianne Rehm show on NPR. “About 2% of the American public considers income inequality, per se, to be the biggest economic problem that we have in America,” Brooks said. “Everybody believes, including President Obama because we have discussed this, believes that opportunity inequality is a real crisis. So what I would recommend to Democratic office holders and aspirants to higher offices that they pivot from their emphasis on income inequality, which is about a 2% issue, to an opportunity inequality, which is about 100% issue and then we can have a realistic competition of ideas between right and left on how to increase opportunity and mobility in America.”
On this point, I think most people can agree with Brooks: the core of the problem is a lack of class mobility. At this point in US history, it’s harder for someone born poor to get ahead and break into the middle class or upper class than it is in Europe, a continent that many of our grandparents and great-great-grandparents fled due to lack of opportunity.
So how do conservative reformers propose to give the chance to get ahead to everyone?
Brooks: “And the answer is not just the redistribution of income, although that has to happen, such that we can have goods and services for the poor. The answer is for — to find better policies so people can earn their success through education reform, through serious cultural conversations about the predicates of success.”
I give Brooks credit: he admits that “redistribution of income…has to happen.” That is for damn sure.
Education reform? No, that’s never going to do it. Nor will right-wingers agree to the federalization of education that would be necessary to ensure that a kid in Compton went to a school as good as one in Bel Air.
Cultural conversations? Don’t make me laugh.
Redistribution of income. And wealth. That’s the ticket to solving income inequality. When the time comes, however, I’m going to trust my local Communists – who have been pushing for and thinking about it forever – a hell of a lot more than the reform conservatives who think Ronald Reagan, who trashed the social safety net, was some kind of hero.
(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and the cartoonist for The Los Angeles Times, is the author of the book “Snowden,” the biography of the NSA whistleblower, to be published August 18th. Want to support independent journalism? You can subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)
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