Several decades ago, Kevin Phillips, the erstwhile Nixon strategist, remarked that while other countries have revolutions, Americans have elections. Hyperbole aside, the 2016 presidential campaign has certainly lived up to that adage—and, as I write, the year is barely half over. An avowed socialist in his mid-seventies won millions of votes, hundreds of delegates, and inspired more Democrats than the cautious centrist who actually won her party’s nomination. An arrogant tycoon, raised in luxury and known mostly for being outrageous and well-known, seduced Republicans with promises about jobs he could never create, a wall he could never build, and mosques that, thankfully, he can never close. The fall campaign to come may be the most tumultuous one since 1968 and with good reason: if elected, Donald Trump would become the most powerful individual in the history of the world. How did we get here?
For most Americans, the early twenty-first century has been an era when the federal government failed them. President George W. Bush and his advisors failed to prevent the attacks of 9/11 and then manipulated fears of terrorism to blunder into two unending wars with Muslim nations. The Great Recession began on Bush’s watch but stretched into Barack Obama’s first term, leaving in its wake mass bitterness about lost houses and livelihoods. While the Republicans who vowed to make Obama a one-term president did not get their wish, they did mobilize angry white voters to take back Congress and most state legislatures. Although the resulting “gridlock” was a GOP concoction, voters, following the more thoughtless media, cursed both parties for heedless squabbling in the midst of crisis.
In fact, Obama’s performance in office was neither as radical as conservatives claim nor as utterly disappointing as some on the left allege. He did achieve a pathbreaking reform of the healthcare system, took major steps to regulate investment houses and curb climate change, spearheaded the legalization of same-sex marriage, and spoke out against economic inequality more forcefully than any president since Franklin D. Roosevelt. What’s more, the first black president retained his dignity, his humor, and much of his public standing while enduring constant assaults on his patriotism and even on his very legitimacy to hold the office. Anyone who minimizes the significance of Obama’s ability to overcome such full-throated ignorance and bigotry does not appreciate the heavy burden of American history.
Yet Obama did fail to live up to the transformative rhetoric that had helped lift him into the White House. He spent his first two years struggling to end the worst economic crisis in seven decades and to pass the highly controversial but poorly understood Affordable Care Act. While the financial markets recovered nicely, the same cannot be said for the incomes of most wage-earners. As a result, Obama committed a cardinal political error: he demobilized his base while emboldening his enemies. Meanwhile, in the perpetual “war on terror,” Obama’s substitution of drones for troops did nothing to promote peace or democratic change either in the chaos of the Arab world or the civil war in Afghanistan. And the president’s reluctance to end the warrantless surveillance of U.S. citizens contradicted promises he made during his 2008 campaign. As a consequence of such shortcomings—and the GOP’s disciplined resistance to working with him at all—voter cynicism hardened. And the race to succeed Obama featured two brash, independent-minded candidates, each of whom vowed to expose the rotten system and erect a stronger, more effective, and perhaps even fairer one in its place.
Trump and Sanders have nothing else in common besides that vague “anti-establishment” impulse—and a suspicion of “free-trade” agreements. The Vermont senator was the most outspoken major-party candidate for social and economic decency—the core values of the left—in decades. The “revolution” he touted was, in truth, just the logical extension of the New Deal and Great Society—social democracy, American-style. But Sanders represented millions of people, particularly young ones, who yearned to see the unfulfilled promises of Barack Obama and other liberal Democrats made more specific and then realized. He thus emulated radicals in the 1930s and 1960s who sought to close the same gap between a well-meaning president’s presidential rhetoric and the limits of his accomplishments. If Hillary Clinton hopes to win a sweeping victory this fall and begin erecting a new liberal order, she will have to demonstrate that she sincerely understands the appeal of the ambitious agenda put forth by the ever-earnest, white-haired lefty from Flatbush.
Trump’s victory, on the other hand, demonstrated the bankruptcy of the brand of conservatism that ideologues on the Republican right have been peddling since Ronald Reagan first ran for office half a century ago. The orange-maned celebrity mobilized an army of the resentful, but it was one that despised the leaders and pundits of the Republican Party nearly as much it did Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The GOP, wrote Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein in 2012, had become “ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.” Trump managed to articulate this toxic mindset without endorsing such cherished policies of its architects as privatizing Social Security and outlawing abortion. And he brilliantly exploited the mistrust Republican voters have towards politicians as a group. After hearing for years that the government is run by liars, crooks, and traitors, why would they have rallied to a politician like Bush, Kasich, Rubio, or any of their fellow accomplices in civic crime?
Trump’s triumph was also a sign of how easily stardom in mass culture can be spun into electoral gold. However abhorrent his policies, the relaxed egomaniac is an extremely talented entertainer. He nearly always says what he thinks and does what he wants, or at least he performs that way. And a man of almost seventy who surrounds himself with beautiful women and can buy anything he desires embodies one version of the American dream for untold numbers of people, most of them heterosexual males.
During the 1960 presidential campaign, Norman Mailer wrote a perceptive essay he hoped would help elect John F. Kennedy president. The title was “Superman Comes to the Supermarket.” Mailer observed that “the Democrats were going to nominate a man who, no matter how serious his political dedication might be, was indisputably and willy-nilly going to be seen as a great box-office actor, and the consequences of that were staggering and not at all easy to calculate.” A similarly commanding image lifted both Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger into high office. If Trump is elected, the consequences will likely be a good deal more “staggering” and dangerous than that shrewd novelist could have imagined.
Each of the articles in this special section examines a different, equally essential aspect of American politics in a hopeful, frightening time. Harold Meyerson explains why Bernie Sanders galvanized so many voters and how his followers might transform the Democratic Party in the near future. Liza Featherstone critiques the campaigns of both Clinton and Sanders for their superficial endorsement of vital feminist goals. Brandon Terry analyzes how Obama’s presidency both increased the racialization of American politics and helped create a new wave of black activism. Manuel Pastor traces the long struggle to define Hispanics as a political constituency and assesses the chance that the fast-growing ethnic group will finally turn its numbers into decisive political influence. Michelle Chen details the extraordinary political successes of the Fight for $15 movement and suggests what it will take to turn its gains into enduring changes in public policy. Finally, Matthew Sitman explains how he shed the working-class conservatism of his youth in central Pennsylvania for the egalitarian politics of the left.
Taken together, these pieces should stir debate about the state of U.S. politics now—and into what one hopes will be a future in which Donald Trump gets lost on one of his many golf courses and is never heard from again.
Michael Kazin is co-editor of Dissent.
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