Thursday, March 31, 2016

Trump Exposes the Hollow Core of the Tea Party Movement

Remember how the Tea Party was going to remake America through the principles of constitutional conservatism? From the famous rant by CNBC Reporter Rick Santelli in 2009 (when he proclaimed on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade that taxpayers should not be forced to bail out irresponsible holders of subprime mortgages) to the anti-tax protests by conservatives in tri-corner hats to the wave of “Teapublicans” elected to Congress in the 2010 midterms on platforms to oppose Obama and the bailouts, a new conservative movement (with Fox News, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh at their back) appeared poised to upset the Washington establishment from the right.

All that seems so, so long ago. In just a few short years, the new freshman Tea Party class became tainted with their own inevitable association with “Washington insiders.”  A surprisingly large proportion of the TeaParty class of 2010 has already been booted or have otherwise retired--18 out of the 84 who won office on the Tea Party wave have already left.

In fact, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz (both elected to the Senate on a broad wave of Tea Party discontent) have been faced with the conundrum of how to deliver to their constituents while maintaining near impossible standards of ideological purity. The two freshman senators took different routes. Rubio tried to deliver on the goods. In the process, however, he compromised his ideological bona fides (and his chances at the White House, according to many Tea Party supporters) with his effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform as a member of the famed ‘Gang of Eight.’ Cruz, on the other hand, sacrificed his constituent interests on the altar of ideological consistency, making a name for himself by helping to shut down the government in 2013 in an effort to defund Obamacare.  Although earning the contempt of nearly all of his colleagues in the Senate, Cruz set himself up nicely for a presidential run with the support of a very pissed off conservative base.

Today, the Tea Party struggles to remain relevant in Trump’s America. For years, the movement has been in decline. From a high of 52 percent in late 2010, the popularity of the Tea Party among Republicans alone has dropped to 38 percent in 2014-15. Today, only 17 percent of Americans identify with them overall, although they remain a sizeable (and mobilized) group in the GOP.

Enter Trump. From the time he descended on that elevator to announce his candidacy in June 2015 to the present, Trump has not only divided (and thus neutered) the evangelical voting bloc in the primary, but he also reveals the hollow core of the Tea Party movement.

The majority of Tea Party supporters today support Trump, many positions of whom run almost directly counter to fiscal conservativism. A Feb. 25 poll by Quinnipiac University found that Trump had the support of more than half of Republicans who identified as Tea Party supporters. Cruz had 28 percent among that group. Rubio, who was carried into the Senate in 2010 with Tea Party support, was backed by just 13 percent.

Trump represents an odd choice for those who identify as libertarians.

The Tea (“Taxed Enough Already”) Party had been founded on the principles of lower taxes, reducing the size of government, reduced regulations, and challenging the constitutionality of entitlement programs. Below are the 10 points of the 2010 Contract from America. Penned by a Tea Party activist, these are widely taken to be articles of faith of the Tea Party as a whole, having been culled from thousands of ideas solicited from the rank and file. 

  1. Identify constitutionality of every new law:
  2. Reject emissions trading:
  3. Demand a balanced federal budget:
  4. Simplify the tax system:
  5. Audit federal government agencies for constitutionality:
  6. Limit annual growth in federal spending:
  7. Repeal the health care legislation passed on March 23, 2010:
  8. Pass an 'All-of-the-Above' Energy Policy:
  9. Reduce Earmarks:
  10. Reduce Taxes:
The Koch brothers and their well-heeled associates played a key role in curating the list, and their hand can be seen at every turn--points 2 and 8 are about deregulating energy production and sales; points 1, 3, 5, 6, and 9 are about limiting the federal government, and no. 4 and 10 are about reduced taxation. These are the long-held policy priorities of the two billionaire oil tycoons. In fact, in his 1980 presidential run, Charles Koch railed against taxes and vowed to tear the government out "by the root."

However libertarian positions are not nearly so beloved by the Tea Party base, and Trump has since blown apart the fragile policy alliance.

To Tea Party supporters and other traditional GOP voters, Trump has made a diametrically opposite pitch. His biggest selling point in the election cycle has been his much-derided “big beautiful wall,” which would be erected on the southern border with Mexico to keep “illegals” out. He also supports deporting the 11 million-odd undocumented residents in the US, enacting protectionist policies to support American businesses, preventing the offshoring of American jobs, using torture against "our enemies," using the threat of nuclear weapons in negotiating with hostile powers, and "taking out" ISIS and their families through a massive bombing campaign. As for the constitution (much revered by Tea Party supporters), Trump appears to regard it as little more than inconsequential regulations standing in the way of his policy agenda--whether it be eliminating birthright citizenship (actually in the constitution itself!) or achieving policy change through executive orders (thus circumventing Congress). Trump is anti-free trade, anti-free borders, and favors a strong and intrusive executive leader, much like Vladimir Putin, whose virtues he has in the past extolled.  Apparently, the feeling is mutual

How could self-described fiscal conservative free traders (as Tea Party supporters claim to be) throw their enthusiastic support behind a populist nationalist who supports generous use (or threat) of trade barriers, a giant physical wall on the southern border and a ban (however temporary) on Muslims traveling to the United States?

The reason is that Tea Party base was never really on board with the corporate or corporate-backed funders of the movement such as Koch Brothers, Americans for Prosperity, Heritage Action, and FreedomWorks. Researchers have discovered, in fact, that the Tea Party movement has not been so much animated by fiscal conservativism, but rather by reactionary reactionary movement by the white majority who see themselves falling behind, and by strong elements of social conservatism and right-wing authoritarianism. It turns out that many Tea Party supporters (like many in the current Republican base) actually prefer a strong authoritarian leader who promises to return them (disproportionately white, male, older) to a time when they were on top, when they didn’t have to think about—let alone share power with—women, minorities or non-Christians. A time when their beliefs about the correct social order matched that of reality.

Simply put, the Tea Party base never really took its proclaimed principles to heart. Journalist Matt Taibbi conducted research the movement and observed that Tea Partiers were anti-tax and anti-entitlement, except when it came to their own entitlements. He concludes:

“the whole miserable narrative boils down to one stark fact: They're full of shit. All of them. At the voter level, the Tea Party is a movement that purports to be furious about government spending — only the reality is that the vast majority of its members are former Bush supporters who yawned through two terms of record deficits and spent the past two electoral cycles frothing not about spending but about John Kerry's medals and Barack Obama's Sixties associations. The average Tea Partier is sincerely against government spending — with the exception of the money spent on them.”

What are they motivated by? Tribalism, pure and simple:

“The core of the Tea Party was little more than a them-versus-us thing. They know who they are, and they know who we are ("radical leftists" is the term they prefer), and they're coming for us on Election Day, no matter what we do — and, it would seem, no matter what their own leaders like Rand Paul [and lately, Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz] do.”

In the end, the Trump insurgency is probably just one more step in the gradual collapse of the GOP coalition. However, it is also possible that it heralds something more serious and much more dangerous. That we may be in the midst of a fascist moment is a possibility raised by a number of commentators. Noam Chomsky spoke of just such a danger decades ago

“The marginalization of the population and its separation from institutions could potentially lead to a mass base for a fascist movement. We’ve been extremely lucky in the United States that we’ve never really had a charismatic leader who was capable or organizing people around power and its use. There were people who came close, but most of them couldn’t make it... In a depoliticized society with few mechanisms for people to express their fears and needs and to participate constructively in managing the affairs of life, someone could come along who was interested not in personal gain, but in power. That could be very dangerous.”


Monday, February 29, 2016

It’s the Economy, Stupid!—2016 Redux

Journalists and analysts are shocked, shocked that the GOP voting base has apparently thrown their support behind a rabble-rousing troll hate-spewing twitter troll with a Queens accent who speaks with a fourth grade vocabulary.  Many also appear flummoxed that Democrats have bestowed so much of their support to an elderly Socialist Jew from Brooklyn who wants, like Jesus (another Socialist Jew), to throw the moneychangers out of the temple.

The sense of outrage and dismay is palpable in nearly every political talk show and across news networks from Fox News to MSNBC. Even President Barack Obama admitted that he was surprised by their popularity, but felt that the race would ultimately give way to more "serious" candidates.

Election analysts have proven rather flat-footed this election cycle. David Karol, co-author of The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform (which argues that in the U.S. parties play a crucial role in winnowing election choices) acknowledged in an interview that “Donald Trump is really a unique candidate. It just has to be said: He doesn’t fit a lot of…paradigms and models. In some ways every election is different.”  According to Political Scientist Larry Sabato, however, “If Trump is nominated, then everything we think we know about presidential nominations is wrong.”

Nate Silver, statistical Wunderkind who has predicted numerous US elections with scary accuracy, gave Trump only a 5 percent chance of winning the nomination as late as December. He too declared Trump not a serious candidate and has only recently conceded that he might have underestimated Trump's chances of winning the GOP nomination. 

What everyone can agree on is that this is the year of the “outsider.” The reasons given for Trump's rise in particular have ranged from differing amounts of free media coverage (Trump has by far the most) to an irresponsible media that privileges ratings over its traditional watchdog function to failure of establishment to take on Trump to no one actually taking Trump seriously as a viable candidate.

The actual supporters of "outsider" candidates, meanwhile, are widely derided in the media. Sanders supporters are unrealistic and "becoming a problem." Trump supporters suffer significantly more contempt for supporting a candidate who is poorly qualified for the job and unlikely to represent their interests. These voters are "living in a childlike fantasy land"and may also be idiots and racists.  

Some in the Beltway media are scratching their heads over the degree of populism and anger in the electorate. People should be more content. After all, consumer sentiment is at a multi-year high, unemployment at a multi-year low (at 4.5 percent), and people have made boatloads of money in one of the longest bull markets in American history.

What these analysts and pundits miss—and what both Sanders and Trump get on a visceral level—is that, for a large swath of voters, the economy (and their living standards) really are not fine. The middle and lower classes have had stagnating wages for several decades. Particularly since 2000, their productively has continued to increase linearly, while wages and median family income have not kept up.

It may be objected that wealth inequality and stagnating wages are a multi-decade, structural problem, and therefore cannot explain the voter revolt of 2016. But in fact, the problems—though long-festering—may have even gotten worse since the Great Recession of 2008 when Obama was first elected. Voters on the happy side of the economic divide have largely recovered from the recession, having gained back their stock losses and then some. On top of this, they generally have job security, excellent employer-provided benefits (including good health insurance), and the like. For them, a Rubio or Clinton victory offers what they want--basically, the status quo.

For voters on the wrong side of the economic divide, however, most of their wealth has been in home equity, not stocks. And millions of Americans lost their houses after the crash, or have mortgages that are now unaffordable or underwater. Many others are in a situation where buying a home is not an option but rents are sky-high, while their income and wealth never really recovered from the losses of 2008.

The above chart shows that the percentage of people suffering significant ongoing economic hardship is both substantial and has not really declined since the Global Recession. Meanwhile, all but the wealthiest Americans have experienced wage stagnation.

Reporting on a 2014 survey by Pew Trust, Clayton Browne said, “One of the most troubling findings in the new Pew survey is that the rate of Americans falling behind financially remains stuck at 56%. This statistic hit an all time-low of 57% during the financial crisis of 2008, and refuses to budge upwards despite all of the economic “good news” over the last six years.” 

These two charts show that a large chunk of the public is still in the same or worse economic position as in 2008-9, and they also believe that America is going on the wrong track--an excellent proxy for voter dissatisfaction with the institutional status quo.

This dissatisifaction extends to the presidential race. 

On the left, Clinton has staked out a moderate position, promising to build on the achievements of the Obama administration. Speaking to supporters in Alabama, the New York senator offered, "Although I'm not running for my husband's third term or Obama's third term…. I will proudly carry forward the record of Democratic achievement." According to one of Clinton's surrogates, "Hillary is a pragmatic progressive--she's not an advocate...She quietly pulls people together and gets things done. Even though that's not in vogue right now, i think that' what voters will want in the end." 

On the right, current establishment favorite, Senator Marco Rubio, stands for mainline GOP party positions, including building up the military while slashing all other government spending to 2008 levels, promoting rights of unborn fetuses, repealing Obamacare and offering tax credits for people to buy private insurance, opposing climate change legislation, and opposing net neutrality.  It is worth noting that there are not many programmatic differences between Rubio and those remaining in the GOP field

The outsider/insider divide maps onto class differences. Rubio enjoys the backing of people who have college degrees and are wealthy, while "outsider" Donald Trump does best with poorly educated and working class voters. On the Democratic side, Clinton enjoy the support of older and wealthier voters. Exit polls conducted in the New Hampshire primary indicated that Sanders won every demographic group except voters who made over 200,000 dollars a year, who went for Clinton.   A CNBC poll even had her winning a hypothetical match-up against Jeb Bush among millionaire voters

Whatever you may think about Trump and Sanders (who are polar opposites politically and in nearly every other way), they appeal to disaffected Americans on both ends of the political spectrum. The very promise of revolutionary change (no matter how apparently ill-conceived) is becoming ever more attractive to the growing percentage of Americans who find themselves shut out of the American Dream.

Many Americans do not understand these sentiments, in part because they are not living it--the economic status quo is serving them quite well. However, this year the winds of change are stirring, as many Americans no longer willing to buy what the establishment is selling. 

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Donald Trump Really is a Master Brander

By now it should be clear that the unholy figure of Donald Trump--against all known laws of politics and reason (including my own)—has turned out to be a remarkably good politician. He is well-positioned not only to win the early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, but even to secure the GOP nomination itself.

There are people who took Trump seriously from the very beginning (see here and here). However, many scholars and analysts dismissed Trump's chances based on historical patterns that suggest that no candidate of a major party has gained that party's nomination without at least tacit the support of the party elite. In America’s lengthy electoral process, early risers often go through a process of “discovery,scrutiny and decline,” which can lead to candidate “boomlets” (think Herman Cain during the last election or Ben Carson during this cycle) that quickly go bust. Trump was expected to follow a similar pattern. As his lead built over the course of months, legendary political prognosticator Nate Silver continued to give Trump a small percentage chance of winning the GOP nomination, mainly due to establishment opposition. 

Notably, Bill Clinton was never dismissive of Trump as candidate. Former President Bill Clinton declared Trump a “master brander” in an interview with Fareed Zakaria. Trump, he believed, had successfully branded himself in the race and connected this brand with the voters—an invaluable asset in a crowded field. Bill believes he could win.

Trump the Master Brander

In fact, branding is what The Donald does best. Indeed, Trump’s true business acumen lies in his strategy of name-branding, which he credits with a significant share of profits. Trump’s financial records list the value of his “real estate licensing deal, brand and branded developments” at over 3.3 billion as of 2014. Trump has lent his name to everything from apparel, beauty pageants and real estate courses to hotels, golf courses, and vineyards. 

Many of his licensing agreements guarantee that Trump garners a share of revenues in Trump branded businesses, whether or not that business makes money. In the meantime, Trump pursues a parallel campaign of suing critics and anyone else who threatens his brand identity.

He has now carried his branding acumen and strategy over to the political arena.

Make America Great Again™

Beyond his charisma and single-minded focus on WINNING, It is Trump’s branding genius that has helped to separate him from his rivals on the stage. He began by appropriating Reagan’s brand.

As many know, Trump lifted his “Make American Great Again” presidential slogan directly from the 1980 Reagan/Bush electoral slogan. Immediately after the 2012 election, Trump trademarked the slogan for his own use. To protect his branded identity, Trump filed a trademark application to protect against its use by other candidates’ campaigns or political action committees. He later criticized Cruz and Scott Walker for dropping the phrase in their campaigns, asserting that the slogan "is my whole theme."

Trump is savvy enough to have coopted the Reagan brand, one that enjoys universal support among GOP voters and has cross-party appeal to the white working class ‘Reagan-Democrats.’

In case anyone missed the association, Trump had his volunteers circulate the following photo to potential supporters prior to entering the race. (It is worth noting that Trump had no real relationship with Reagan, as the latter’s staff worked to keep the real estate mogul at arm’s length.)

Not exactly subtle.

Next came Trump's Nixon-era slogan “Silent Majority Supports Trump.” This historical allusion is no accident, but rather a fairly naked appeal by the Trump campaign to downwardly-mobile whites in the party.  In 1969, President Richard Nixon coined the phrase in a speech wherein he appealed to the “silent majority” of Americans to support him in the Vietnam War.

Trump has repurposed the vaguely racial slogan to appeal to Tea Party sensibilities of many in the modern GOP who want to “take the country back” (from immigrants, minorities and all those believed to have benefited at the expense of hard-working rule-abiding Americans). The slogan resonates especially well with older GOP voters, many of whom actually remember and are still rankled by the anti-war activists, feminists, civil rights activists of the 1960s.

Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland, said in an interview with NPR, “The silent majority is always going to be a state of mind. It's a feeling. You know, it's a feeling of dispossession. And that feeling of dispossession can come about most dramatically in times when, you know, things seem to be changing, you know, when all that's solid melts into air.”

Trump has hit the sweet spot in the GOP base.

Finally, like any brander, Trump understands that the message should be simple, evocative, vague, and above all repeated again and again—in order to tap into the reptilian brain. You can hear his core message on the stump and at every debate.

Here are excerpts of Trump's closing speeches at the thirdfourth, fifth, and sixth GOP debates:

"If I become president, we will do something really special. We will make this country greater than ever before. We'll have more jobs, we'll have more of everything."

"We will fight, we will win and we truly will make this even more special. We have to make it better than ever before, and, I tell you, the United States can actually be better than ever before."

"Nothing works in our country. If I’m elected president. We will win again. We will win a lot. And we’re gonna have a great, great country. Greater than ever before."

"If I’m president, there won’t be stupid deals anymore. We will make America great again. We will win at everything we do. Thank you.”

That is what is known as staying on message. 

Meanwhile, Trump has negatively branded everyone else in the race, shunning surrogates to drive the point home to the voters. Jeb Bush and Ben Carson are "low-energy," Ted Cruz "a nasty guy" and "an anchor baby in Canada," Rubio is a "boy" and a "kid."

Larry Sabato, head of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, wrote last week that Trump--lacking broad-based establishment support, a disciplined and nationally-integrated campaign, and a bare modicum of political prudence--should be selected out of the process: “If Trump is nominated, then everything we think we know about presidential nominations is wrong."

Trump may defy all the odds to secure the candidacy. If he does, only time will tell whether his success is a one-off event or whether it signals further party retrenchment as the GOP becomes ever more the party of the disaffected white majority.

What is sure is that this is going to be one wild ride.