Leaders of both major parties are wrong to think of the 2016 election as some kind of fluke. I believe a political realignment is underway, and those who fail to discern its outlines could end up powerless and irrelevant.
With all respect to Hillary Clinton, her newly published memoir, “What Happened,” doesn’t really tell what happened. It is perhaps inevitable that she would focus on the daily twists and turns of the campaign. It is understandable that she would blame James Comey, Vladimir Putin and the media for damaging her prospects—and that she would downplay her own strategic and tactical missteps.
But take a step back and look at the election through a wider lens. Clinton, with all her vast experience and proven ability, was defeated by Donald Trump, a reality television star who had never before run for office, displayed near-total ignorance of the issues, broke every rule of political rhetoric and was caught on videotape bragging of how he sexually assaulted random women by grabbing their crotches.
That’s not just unlikely, it’s impossible. At least it should have been, according to everything we knew—or thought we knew—about politics. Yes, Comey’s last-minute revival of Clinton’s email scandal robbed her of momentum. Yes, her neglect of the Rust Belt was a terrible mistake. Yes, the Russians were working hard to defeat her, with the blessing—and at least the attempted collusion—of the Trump campaign.
But the election never should have been close enough for relatively minor voting shifts in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania to elect the likes of Trump. The election never should have been close enough for Clinton to lose Florida and barely eke out a win in Virginia.
In retrospect, the alarming possibility of an election-night surprise should have been apparent. Trump never should have won the Republican nomination over a field that included so many talented politicians. And Clinton never should have had to work so hard to win the Democratic nomination over Bernie Sanders, an aging socialist from Vermont who wasn’t even a Democrat until he entered the race.
None of what happened should have happened. And it is a mistake to blame Clinton’s character flaws, Trump’s mastery of Twitter or the media’s compulsion to chase every bright, shiny object. Something much bigger and deeper was going on.
My view is that the traditional left-to-right, progressive-to-conservative, Democratic-to-Republican political axis that we’re all so familiar with is no longer a valid schematic of American political opinion. And I believe neither party has the foggiest idea what the new diagram looks like.
I don’t think Trump can see the new spectrum either, as evidenced by the way his approval ratings have plunged since his inauguration. But both he and Sanders deserve credit for seeing that the old model has outlived its usefulness.
Look at the issues on which Trump and Sanders were in basic agreement. Both doubted the bipartisan consensus favoring free trade agreements, arguing they had disadvantaged U.S. workers. Both spoke of health care as a right that should be enjoyed by all citizens. Both pledged to strengthen, not weaken, entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare. Both were deeply skeptical of U.S. involvement in foreign wars, vowing to do their nation-building here at home. Both advocated mammoth, job-creating investments in infrastructure. Both contended “the system” was rigged to favor the rich and powerful at the expense of everyone else.
Leave aside for the moment the fact that Trump has not fulfilled his promises. The overlap in what he and Sanders said they would do is striking—as is the contrast between what both Clinton and Trump’s GOP rivals were saying.
Trump was uniquely transgressive on one issue—immigration. He addressed the anxieties of white working-class voters by presenting immigrants as all-purpose scapegoats.
The Trump and Sanders campaigns revealed that there are large numbers of voters whose views are not being reflected by Democratic or Republican orthodox positions. Are the parties adapting? Democrats seem to be inching toward support of truly universal health care, while Republicans have thus far thought better of taking health insurance away from millions of people. Perhaps this is a start.
But I see no evidence yet that either party is engaged in the kind of fundamental rethinking I believe is called for. So it is a mistake to assume that Trump is necessarily a one-term president or that Sanders is done politically. You know the saying: In the land of the blind, a one-eyed man is king.
EUGENE ROBINSON uses his twice-weekly column in The Washington Post to pick American society apart and then put it back together again in unexpected, and revelatory, new ways. …
Last December as the smoke was clearing from the electoral explosion and many of us were still shell-shocked and wandering around blindly searching for emotional shelter, Salon’s Matthew Sheffield wrote a series of articles about the rise of the “alt-right.” The movement had been discussed during the campaign, of course. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton even gave a big speech about it. Trump’s campaign strategist and chief consigliere, Steve Bannon — the once and future executive editor of Breitbart News — had even bragged that his operation was the “platform” of the “alt-right” just a few months earlier. But after the election there was more interest than ever in this emerging political movement.
It’s an interesting story about a group of non-interventionist right-wingers, who came together in the middle of the last decade in search of solidarity in their antipathy toward the Bush administration’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was a motley group of conservatives, white nationalists and Libertarians that broke apart almost as soon as they came together. The more clever among them saw the potential for this new “brand” and began to market themselves as the “alt-right,” and it eventually morphed into what it is today. The series is a good read and explains that the “alt-right” really was a discrete new movement within the far right wing and not simply a clever renaming of racist and Nazi groups.
This week, conservative writer Matt Lewis of The Daily Beast, a Trump critic, wrote a piece about the Libertarian influence on the “alt-right” and suggested that Libertarians work harder to distance themselves from this now-infamous movement. He points out that former Rep. Ron Paul’s presidential campaigns were a nexus of what became “alt-right” activism. Sheffield had written about that too:
Pretty much all of the top personalities at the Right Stuff, a neo-Nazi troll mecca, started off as conventional libertarians and Paul supporters, according to the site’s creator, an anonymous man who goes by the name “Mike Enoch.”
“We were all libertarians back in the day. I mean, everybody knows this,” he said on an “alt-right” podcast last month. [Note: This podcast seems to have been deleted.]
It wasn’t just obscure neo-Nazi trolls. Virtually all the prominent figures in or around the “alt-right” movement, excepting sympathizers and fellow travelers like Bannon and Donald Trump himself, were Paul supporters: Richard Spencer, Paul Gottfried, Jared Taylor, Milo Yiannopoulos and Alex Jones. (The latter two deny being part of the “alt-right,” but have unquestionably contributed to its rise in prominence.) Paul’s online support formed the basis for what would become the online “alt-right,” the beating heart of the new movement.
In fact, Ron Paul — then a Texas congressman and the father of Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky — was the original “alt-right” candidate, long before Donald Trump came along. Paul was also, by far, the most popular Libertarian in America.
Those of us observing the Paul phenomenon and Libertarianism from the left always found it curious in this regard. Paul’s racism was simply undeniable. It was documented for decades. He hid behind the “states’ rights” argument, as pro-Confederate racists have always done, but it was never very convincing. If you are a principled Libertarian who believes in small government and inalienable individual rights, what difference does it make whether a federal or state government is the instrument of oppression?
Most of us thought a lot of Paul’s appeal, especially to young white males, came down to a loathing for the uptight religious conservatism of the GOP, along with Paul’s endorsement of drug legalization. That made some sense. Why would all these young dudes care about the capital gains tax?
And let’s face facts, it wasn’t just Libertarians who could be dazzled by Paul’s iconoclasm. There were plenty of progressives drawn to his isolationist stance as well. But as it turns out, among that group of “Atlas Shrugged” fans and stoners were a whole lot of white supremacists, all of whom abandoned Ron Paul’s son Rand in 2016 when Donald Trump came along and spoke directly to their hearts and minds.
Is there something about Libertarianism that attracts white supremacists? It seems unlikely, except to the extent that it was a handy way to argue against federal civil rights laws, something that both Paul père and fils endorsed during their careers, legitimizing that point of view as a Libertarian principle. (In fairness, Rand Paul has tried to pursue more progressive racial policies in recent years — which may also have helped drive away his dad’s supporters.) Other than that, though, it seems to me that Libertarianism has simply been a way station for young and angry white males as they awaited their “God Emperor,” as they call Trump on the wildly popular “alt-right site,” r/The_Donald.
Still, Libertarians do have something to answer for. While principled Libertarians like Cathy Young certainly condemned the racism in their ranks at the time, but others who supported Ron Paul failed to properly condemn the rank bigotry undergirding the Paul philosophy.
Lewis’s Daily Beast piece certainly provoked some reaction among Libertarians. Nick Gillespie at Reason objected to the characterization of Libertarianism as a “pipeline” to the “alt-right,” writing that “the alt-right — and Trumpism, too, to the extent that it has any coherence — is an explicit rejection of foundational libertarian beliefs in ‘free trade and free migration’ along with experiments in living that make a mess of rigid categories that appeal to racists, sexists, protectionists, and other reactionaries.” So he rejects calls to purge Libertarianism of “alt-righters,” since he believes they were never really Libertarians in the first place.
Gillespie does, however, agree that Libertarian true believers should call out such people “wherever we find them espousing their anti-modern, tribalistic, anti-individualistic, and anti-freedom agenda.” (It would have been easy to include “racist” in that list but, being generous, perhaps he meant it to fall under the term “tribalistic.”)
Meanwhile, over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Jonathan Adler addresses some Libertarians’ “misplaced affinity for the Confederacy,” a phenomenon I must admit I didn’t know existed. Evidently, there really are Libertarians who take the side of the secessionists, supposedly on the basis of tariffs and Abraham Lincoln’s allegedly “monstrous record on civil liberties.” Adler patiently explains why this is all nonsense and wrote, “Libertarianism may not be responsible for the alt-right, but it’s fair to ask whether enough libertarians have done enough to fight it within their own ranks.”
Good for these prominent Libertarians for being willing to confront the currents of racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia that at the very least have contaminated their movement. We await the same honest self-appraisal from the conservative movement and Republican leaders as a whole.
Heather Digby Parton, also known as “Digby,” is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.
How did it come to pass that of the two political parties, the Democrats — who have long fought for the underdog, civil rights, consumer protections, universal health care, the minimum wage and for unions against powerful interests that try to crush them — have now been branded in large swaths of the country as the party of the establishment and the elites?
And how did it come to pass that Republicans — whose policies, regardless of stated intent, benefit polluters, entrenched interests and the upper brackets of American wealth — are now seen by many as the anti-establishment populist party which delights in flipping off elites on behalf of the Everyman?
For the moment, keep Donald Trump out of this conversation — after all, Democrats have been hemorrhaging seats in statehouses and Congress for decades. Also set aside any talking points about which party’s policies truly benefit forgotten Americans or which short-term trends show up in the polls.
More important for Democrats is whether they can rewrite the political narrative that now has them on the side of the establishment and Republicans on the side of sticking it to the man.
If Democrats want to regain their electoral stride and recapture defiant voters who once saw the party as their advocate and voice — the same voters they need to establish a sustained governing majority throughout the land — they must think less about policies per se than about how those policies translate to messaging and brand.
Just as consumers purchase products not merely for what they do but for what they say about the people who buy them, voters are drawn to narratives, brands and identities as much as the policies that affect their lives. These narratives give voters meaning, define who they are, and become an essential part of their identity and self-image.
What’s most toxic in American politics today — as it has been throughout our history — is to become the party associated with domineering overlords and supercilious elites who seem to enjoy wielding power over the rest of us.
To some extent, the Democrats have only themselves to blame for their elite, establishment image.
Few question the party’s need to build its campaign coffers in what is now an arms race for political dollars. But by cozying up to Wall Street and the privileged — and appearing more at ease hobnobbing among them than among those who work in factories, small businesses and call centers — Democrats have sent a subtle message about the people they prefer to associate with and seek out for advice. To many Americans, it reeks of hypocrisy at best.
Republicans, who unapologetically celebrate wealth as a symbol of American dynamism, face no such messaging dissonance.
But perhaps more important is the jujitsu maneuver that Republicans have used to turn one of the Democratic Party’s strengths — its good faith use of government to level the playing field and help the little people — into a weakness.
From the New Deal through the ’60s, the Democrats were able to show that government was an essential tool to correct market inequities, protect the little people from unchecked power and special interests and ensure that the American birthright included safeguards against crippling poverty and misfortune.
Government, most Americans believed, was their defender and their voice. In 1964, according the the American National Election Studies, more than three-fourths of Americans said they trusted government most of the time or just about always. It was the Democrats that stood for grass-roots change and the Republicans who represented the powerful and resistant establishment.
Democrats then expanded their vision of a righteous government by exercising its power to fight segregation, discrimination, environmental blight, corporate malfeasance and consumer hazards — and to advance health care as a right and not a privilege. All of that seemed to follow the New Deal script of government as a force for good.
But with Richard Nixon channeling George Wallace’s racialized anger at the federal government and Ronald Reagan saying that the only way to christen our shining city on a hill is to free up aggrieved entrepreneurs and ordinary citizens stifled by burdensome red tape and regulations, the Democratic association with government began to turn noxious.
As Reagan put it in his 1981 inaugural address, we should not allow “government by an elite group” to “ride on our back.”
For four decades now, Republicans have succeeded in framing Democrats as the party that uses government to bigfoot rather than aid the American people. Democrats may celebrate public servants for keeping our food safe and our lakes healthy, but Republicans have successfully portrayed them as a humorless bureaucrats who salivate at the urge to exert power and control over taxpaying Americans.
And Republicans have very artfully created a counternarrative, turning the market into a synonym for liberty and defining it as an authentic expression of American grass-roots energy in which small businesses and entrepreneurs simply need freedom from government to shower benefits on us all.
Of course the market’s magic may be more mythical than real — given that powerful corporations and interests dominate and exploit it often at the expense of workers — but that inconvenient fact is immaterial to the brilliant messaging advantages Republicans have derived from it.
Indeed, in the Republican playbook it’s the teachers, unions, environmental groups, professors and civil rights organizations that constitute the establishment whereas Koch and other industry-funded astroturf groups are the real gladiators fighting the status quo.
But it’s not just the Democratic association with government that Republicans have used to brand it as the party of the establishment and elites. Republicans have also turned the table on the liberal values that Democrats embrace.
Beginning in the 1960s, liberals have sought to flush prejudice, bigotry and discriminatory attitudes from society by turning diversity into a moral value and creating a public culture intolerant of misogyny and intolerance. On the surface, that should be a sign of national progress.
But conservatives — with help from an unwitting or overly zealous slice of the left that too often overreaches — took these healthy normative changes and cleverly depicted them as an attempt by condescending and high-handed elites to police our language and impose a politically correct finger-pointing culture.
In effect, conservatives have rather successfully portrayed liberals and Democrats as willing to use cultural and political power against ordinary Americans. They want to take my guns, regulate my business, dictate who I can hire, and tell me what I can buy, which doctors I see, how I live, when I pray and even what I say — so goes the conservative narrative.
That their definition of “ordinary Americans” is quite narrow — meaning whites and particularly men — is beside the point because it’s the political branding that matters, not the fact that liberal economic policies and efforts against bigotry and discrimination have helped millions of ordinary Americans.
Our nation was founded on resistance to power, and it’s part of our political and cultural DNA to resent anyone who exercises or lords that power over others.
Taken together, Republicans have successfully defined Democrats as a party of bureaucrats, power brokers, media elites, special interests and snobs who have created a client state for those they favor, aim to control what everyone else does and look down their noses at the people who pay the taxes to fund the same government that Democrats use to control their lives.
And why is this so damning for Democrats? Because our nation was founded on resistance to power, and it’s part of our political and cultural DNA to resent anyone who exercises or lords that power over others.
Read past the first paragraphs of our Declaration of Independence and it’s all about King George III and his abuses of power. Our Constitution encodes checks and balances and a separation of powers. Our economic system rests on antitrust law, which is designed to keep monopolies from crushing smaller competitors and accumulating too much power.
So if large numbers of Americans see Democrats as the party of entrenched elites who exert power over the little people, then Democrats have lost the messaging battle that ultimately determines who prevails and who doesn’t in our elections.
And let’s be clear: Donald Trump didn’t originate this message in his 2016 campaign; he simply exploited, amplified and exemplified it better than almost any Republican since Ronald Reagan.
The Bernie Sanders answer, of course, is to train the party’s fire at banks, corporations and moneyed interests. After all, they are the ones exerting unchecked power, soaking up the nation’s wealth and distributing it to the investor class and not the rest of us.
And to some extent that has potential and appeal.
But remember, most Americans depend on corporations for their jobs, livelihoods, health care, mortgages and economic security. So it’s much more difficult today to frame big business as the elite and powerful establishment than it was when when workers manned the union ramparts against monopoly power. Working Americans today have a far more ambivalent relationship with corporate America than they did in the New Deal days.
Somehow Democrats have to come up with their own jujitsu maneuver to once again show that theirs is the party that fights entrenched power on behalf of the little people. Liberals have to figure out how to merge their diversity voice with the larger imperative of representing all of America’s underdogs. These are not mutually exclusive messages.
Democrats can preach all they want on health care and Trump and the environment. But if they don’t correct the larger narrative about who holds power in America — and who’s fighting to equalize that power on behalf of us all — then whatever small and intermittent victories they earn may still leave them short in the larger battle for the hearts and souls of American voters.
Paul Ryan; Donald Trump; Kevin McCarthy (Credit: AP/Getty/Salon)
On Thursday, Republicans in the House of Representatives voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act in order to give the richest Americans and corporations billions of dollars. To accomplish this, Republicans will deny tens of millions of Americans who have chronic and preexisting health problems access to affordable medical care. The Republican Party’s plan to punish the sick and to kill the “useless eaters” has expanded its targets to include women who have been victims of sexual assault or domestic violence or suffered from post-partum depression. The Republican plan will also hurt disabled people, senior citizens, new mothers, pregnant women, children in special education programs and babies. It is estimated that at least 43,000 Americans a year will die if the Affordable Care Act is repealed.
This is quite literally the politics of life and death. Republicans in Congress have chosen to place their fingers on the scale in favor of the latter.
After finding “courage” prior to their vote from watching the movie “Rocky” and supposedly drawing inspiration from Gen. George Patton, these Republicans — a group largely comprised of rich, old white men — basked in the glow of their “success” while they drank beer and took photos with President Donald Trump in the Rose Garden. In all, it was a macabre and perverse bacchanal of plutocratic greed and civic irresponsibility.
The Republican Party is sociopathic: If you didn’t know that already, the health care bill should make it clear
The vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act was also a reminder of two very frightening and disturbing truths that most of the mainstream corporate news media will ignore.
Conservatives lack empathy for their fellow human beings. The Republican Party’s hostility to the poor, the working class, the elderly, immigrants, Muslims, refugees, the homeless, the vulnerable, gays and lesbians, children, people of color — and yes, the sick — is not an aberration or deviation from their voters’ basic desires. For those not of the right-wing tribe, a decision to strip away health care from millions of people does not make rational political sense. But for those inside the right-wing echo chamber, such a decision speaks to basic psychological and social impulses: It reinforces the demarcations separating “us” and “them,” the deserving and the undeserving, the righteous and the sinful.
The more interested in politics a conservative is, the lower his (or her) level of empathy. Liberals move in the opposite direction: the more interested in politics they are, the more empathetic. … In the 2010 election, 42 percent of voters identified themselves as conservative; 38 percent said they were moderate; and 20 percent said they were liberal. If that division obtains in 2012 and beyond, the proportion of conservative to liberal voters in the electorate should give liberals pause, especially insofar as they expect elected officials to propose and pass legislation the underlying purpose of which is to help those most in need.
Iyer’s observations would prove prophetic. In the 2016 presidential election, the empathy divide motivated millions of white conservatives and right-leaning independents to support Donald Trump: The opportunity to punish the Other paid a psychological wage, even if Trump’s actual policies would economically hurt the “white working class” voters who installed him in the White House — with the help of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Republican Party is sociopathic. As detailed by the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, exhibiting three or more of the following traits is sufficient for the diagnosis of sociopathy:
Callous unconcern for the feelings of others
Gross and persistent attitude of irresponsibility and disregard for social norms and obligations
Incapacity to maintain enduring relationships, though having no difficulty in establishing them
Very low tolerance to frustration, a low threshold for discharge of aggression, including violence
Incapacity to experience guilt or to profit from experience, particularly punishment
Markedly prone to blame others or to offer plausible rationalization for the behavior that has brought the person into conflict with society
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders adds these two qualifiers:
Deception, as indicated by repeatedly lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure
Impulsiveness or failure to plan ahead
The Republican Party’s policies on health care, the economy, the social safety net, law enforcement and racial issues, and its attitudes toward women, gays and lesbians, and other vulnerable and marginalized groups fit many of these criteria. In their reactionary, revanchist and destructive approach to political community and the commons, modern American conservatives in general also exhibit many sociopathic traits.
Organizations and communities elevate to positions of power those individuals who best embody their values. So it is no coincidence that the Republican Party’s current leader, Donald Trump, exemplifies many of the traits common to sociopaths.
A lack of empathy and an embrace of sociopathy has helped to make the Republican Party in its current form largely exempt from the rules governing “normal politics.” The Republican Party now represents a form of right-wing politics that has more in common with extreme religious fundamentalism than it does with post-Enlightenment rationality. In combination with a compliant American news media, gerrymandering, voter suppression, a highly effective propaganda machine, manipulation of the rules governing procedures in the House and the Senate, and a large conservative base that has been conditioned toward compliance, lies and authoritarianism, the Republican Party will likely maintain control of the United States on a local and state level for the foreseeable future.
The pundit and chattering classes want to believe that the “adults” in the U.S. Senate will stop Donald Trump and the Republican Party’s latest effort to destroy the Affordable Care Act. They also think that Trump’s voters will turn on him once his policies begin to negatively impact them in material and tangible ways.
These so-called experts have little to no credibility: They are the same people who believed that Trump would never be elected president. These supposedly astute observers of the American scene misunderstand this cultural moment because they presume reason and human decency where there is only madness, greed, bigotry, rage, racism, sexism and nihilism. To acknowledge these matters is not to surrender to them. It is necessary, if good and decent human beings who believe in the best of America are to equip themselves to fight back and win.
Trey Gowdy; Paul Ryan; Kevin McCarthy (Credit: AP/Susan Walsh/J. Scott Applewhite/Reuters/Gary Cameron)
On Thursday, Republicans in the House of Representatives will attempt to force through a health care “reform” bill that is likely to leave millions of Americans without health insurance, especially those who suffer from chronic illnesses such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease. It has been estimated that if the Republican Party is successful in eliminating the Affordable Care Act that at least 43,000 Americans a year will die from lack of adequate health care.
It is abundantly clear that Trump and his party possess a deep disdain for sick people, the poor and other vulnerable members of American society and wish to do them harm.
For example, several days ago Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., said this during an interview on CNN:
My understanding is that [the new proposal] will allow insurance companies to require people who have higher health care costs to contribute more to the insurance pool. That helps offset all these costs, thereby reducing the cost to those people who lead good lives, they’re healthy, they’ve done the things to keep their bodies healthy. And right now, those are the people — who’ve done things the right way — that are seeing their costs skyrocketing.
These comments are abominable. Does Brooks believe that babies and children with serious illnesses deserve their fate, or that those who have “done the things to keep their bodies healthy” and still develop chronic diseases like cancer have done things the “wrong way”? The Republican Party’s war on the American people and the common good should be condemned by all decent human beings. Any Republicans who vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act should be publicly shamed and voted out of office.
But an important set of questions still remain: Why do Republicans and conservatives have such disdain for the weak, the vulnerable and the sick? Why do they want to kill the “useless eaters?” What does this tell us about how Republicans and conservatives view the world, as well as their relationships and obligations to other human beings?
In assessing why some people are poor, 53% think it is because of circumstances beyond their control, while 34% attribute it to a lack of effort. There has been little change in these opinions in recent years, according to a survey in December.
By about three-to-one (66% to 21%), Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say hard work, rather than a person’s advantages, has more to do with why someone is rich. By nearly as wide a margin, Democrats and Democratic leaners say the opposite: 60% say a person is rich because they had more advantages than others, while just 29% say it is because they have worked harder.
As with many other issues, partisan differences in views of why people are rich and poor have increased in recent years. Since 2014, the share of Republicans who say a person is rich more because they have worked harder than others has risen 12 percentage points, from 54% to 66%. Democrats’ views have shown less change.
This survey from Pew continued:
Republicans are more likely to say the reason someone is poor generally has more to do with of a lack of effort (56%) than circumstances beyond a person’s control (32%). By 71%-19%, more Democrats say that circumstances beyond one’s control are generally more often to blame for why a person is poor. The share of Democrats who link a person being poor to a lack of effort has declined since 2014 (from 29% to 19%).
A belief in the “just world hypothesis” is a unifying theme in Pew’s findings: Republicans and conservatives are more likely to hold the erroneous belief that good things happen to good people and that individuals who suffer disadvantages in life that are out of their control are somehow responsible for their circumstances. The just world hypothesis is a fallacy.
In reality, people exist in a society where their life trajectories are largely determined by impersonal social and political systems. Nevertheless, the just world hypothesis can be compelling. It allows the privileged, the powerful and the rich to rationalize their opportunities: “I earned it! Those people are lazy!” “Good things happen to good people! Those people are immoral and made bad choices unlike me!” “Their problems aren’t my responsibility!”
Pew’s recent findings also demonstrate the enduring power of the Horatio Alger myth and the conception of meritocracy in America society.
The Horatio Alger myth — a belief that hard work and motivation determine success in America — had its origins in a series of dime-store novels written between 1860 and 1899. These absurd stories of success during the Gilded Age were derided and mocked even then by serious social reformers as well as luminaries such as Mark Twain.
The claim that America is a meritocracy, where talent and hard work are more important than good fortune or accidents of birth, goes far back into our history. It was also captured in a famous dystopian short story from 1958 by Michael Young, about a world in which people were constantly evaluated by tests and other means to ensure that the “best” people rose to the top. Of course, this supposed meritocracy was grossly unfair and unequal to the vast majority of citizens.
Social scientists have repeatedly demonstrated that American (and Western) society is extremely hierarchical and that family wealth and income — as well as race and gender — are more important than “hard work” in determining a given individual’s intergenerational class mobility.
Pew’s findings echo in the debate about health care policy, which reflects the belief among Republicans and conservatives that those who seek assistance from society have no right to receive it. If people do not have the resources to provide adequate health for themselves and their families, that’s their own fault. Most important, the sick deserve their illnesses; the healthy and strong have earned their advantages.
Once again, the repeated efforts by the Republican Party to repeal the minimal protections offered by the Affordable Care Act serve to remind us that conservatism is a type of socially motivated cognition that minimizes any sense of human obligation and connection to other people, outside a narrowly defined kin or other peer group.
Today’s version of American conservatism is also a celebration of selfishness — and a belief that true freedom and liberty are based on a perverse individualism with little sense of common decency or linked fate with someone’s fellow citizens. Today’s American conservatism also embraces an extreme form of neoliberalism whereby human worth and dignity are determined by profit-and-loss statements and capitalism and democracy are confused with one another. Ultimately, American conservatism is a value system that is antisocial, anti-democratic and anti-freedom.
There is a moral obligation to speak plainly and directly in a time of crisis. To wit: The Republican Party’s so-called health care reform is designed to kill, injure and bankrupt the poor, the sick and the weak, in order to line the pockets of the 1 percent. As Republicans have repeatedly shown, the supposed “party of life” is actually the “party of death.”
It is long overdue that the American people begin to use this more accurate language to describe the Republican Party, Donald Trump and the right-wing voters who support them. The debate about “repealing and replacing” the Affordable Care Act is not about normal political disagreement or budgetary priorities. It is about who should live and who should die and whether that should reflect how much money you have in your bank account.
(Credit: Getty/Saul Loeb/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Photo montage by Salon)
President Donald Trump’s ridiculous plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act would be slightly less disgusting if we were confident that he knew what the hell he was talking about. Throughout the past two years, though, it’s impossible to point to a single instance in which anyone, including Trump’s staff and supporters, could say that he totally nailed the nuances of the issue. Not once — ever.
Sure, he’s regularly claimed that the ACA is collapsing, contrary to the recent scoring by the Congressional Budget Office. He’s also mentioned that the ACA is a disaster. Same situation. He’s mentioned that under his replacement plan, everyone will have coverage that he or she loves and will save a lot of money in the process.
Oh, and he said something about keeping the ACA’s language about pre-existing conditions and “children living with their parents.” He noted the latter on a small, seldom-watched show called “60 Minutes,” despite the fact that there’s nothing in the law about covering kids who live with their parents. Yeah, it’s one of the top two most popular aspects of the ACA, and he couldn’t accurately describe it: The law allows adult children to stay on their parents’ insurance until age 26 — regardless of where they live.
Perhaps Trump’s ignorance about the law is allowed to slide because his supporters know even less about the ACA than he does. Though it’s not just when Trump talks about the ACA that he sounds like an eighth-grader bluffing his way through an essay exam. That describes everything he says about health care in general. The president who chose health care reform as his big legislative goal in his first 100 days doesn’t know anything about how health care works.
As part of his effort to resurrect a major legislative crash and burn, what’s been nicknamed “Trumpcare,” the president fielded a question last week about the status of his negotiations with the House Freedom Caucus, the far-right hotheads largely identified with members of the Tea Party.
During a joint press conference with the president of Italy, Trump said, “The plan gets better and better and better, and it’s gotten really, really good. And a lot of people are liking it a lot. We have a good chance of getting it soon; I’d like to say next week, but it will be — I believe we will get it, and whether it’s next week or shortly thereafter.”
Words have no meaning for Trump.
“It’s gotten really, really good” isn’t the language of a man who’s familiar with the details. In fact, he can’t say anything specific about anything related to health care, for two reasons. First, he just doesn’t know. Generally, the ongoing rule about Donald Trump is that he knows nothing. Second, the details of Trumpcare, at least in terms of what’s being discussed partly in secret, totally undermine his promises for universal, affordable coverage. Discussing those details out loud would expose the game. Oh and incidentally, “gotten really, really good” might sound familiar because it’s the same awkward phrase Will Ferrell once used in a George W. Bush parody video back in 2004 (check the YouTube clip at 40 seconds in). In other words, at least until recently, describing how things have “gotten really, really good” was merely a joke at the expense of stupid people. Now the actual president talks like that. Hashtag Make America Great Again.
Nevertheless, if Trump were to actually tell us what’s in the latest version of Trumpcare, he might have to acknowledge that there’s no legislative text; there’s no actual bill yet. Nothing exists on paper. He’d also have to acknowledge that this new iteration won’t be more affordable and indeed that many more people will be kicked off their insurance policies under the new “really, really good” version of Trumpcare than would have lost insurance under the now-defunct American Health Care Act.
Donald Trump literally knows nothing: The moronic fiction of his “really, really good” health care plan is now obvious.
The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson called Trumpcare 2.0 “comically bad.” But that language understates the awfulness of what’s being debated. Robinson reported last week that proponents of this new version are claiming it would protect essential health benefits (covering things like “hospitalization, maternity and emergency care” according to Robinson) and protect people with pre-existing conditions.
But here’s the catch. States will be able to opt out of covering essential health benefits. We can assume most red states will opt out, not unlike the way they opted out of the Medicaid expansion, for no other reason than they hate Obama. Smart. (By the way, the new version preserves the slow phaseout of the Medicaid expansion.) States can also opt out of the pre-existing conditions language as long as they create “high risk pools.” Of course this is totally unacceptable because Trumpcare 2.0 doesn’t prevent insurers from charging dramatically higher premiums for people with pre-existing conditions — basically rebuilding the pre-ACA system of gouging and usury against people who need health care the most.
Making matters worse, especially in the near term, it appears as though Trump is planning to use subsidy payments to customers with existing ACA marketplace policies as potential ransom in the forthcoming battle over a potential government shutdown. To put it another way, if the Democrats don’t agree to support appropriations to build Trump’s ridiculous border wall, Trump will withhold subsidies for literally millions of ACA customers. That means Trump haters in blue states and, yes, Trump fanboys in red states, too. Everyone living below 400 percent of the federal poverty level will lose their subsidies unless the Democrats vote for Trump’s pointless wall, which (not insignificant) was supposed to be financed by Mexico.
If both sides fail to agree, the government will be shut down as of Saturday. So Trump is basically saying, “Yeah, I promised Mexico will pay for the wall. But now that I’m reneging on a major platform plank like the weasel I am, I’m going to hold the lives of millions for ransom.” Yes, this is the bargaining position of the chief executive who pledged in his inaugural address to be the people’s president. America first, etc.
Really, really gotten good? You decide.
Again, we have no choice but to wonder whether Trump has even the slightest idea what’s at stake. Does he know how many of his red-blooded MAGA-hat wearing loyalists will lose their subsidies in this ludicrous cash grab for the border wall? Do his loyalists know? I doubt it. Does he even understand how and why the ACA subsidies are distributed? Does he realize how obvious it is that he’s entirely clueless about what will happen in a government shutdown or that his health care plan will lead to far worse outcomes than the current situation — even if the ACA marketplaces collapse, as he has predicted?
Does he know that the marketplaces are only a part of a more comprehensive pair of Obamacare-related bills containing critically important consumer protections, which are supported by majorities of Americans? No way. He knows none of it. It’s worth repeating this maxim because the more we internalize it, the more we embrace the horror, the better: Trump knows nothing.
Bob Cesca is a regular contributor to Salon.com. He’s also the host of “The Bob Cesca Show” podcast, and a weekly guest on both the “Stephanie Miller Show” and “Tell Me Everything with John Fugelsang.” Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
Next week we will mark the 100th day that Donald Trump has been president of the United States. Tens of millions of Americans are still in a state of shock. These 100 days have made them feel like enemy outsiders in their own country.
It was said some years ago that “when fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” This left the American people unprepared for how neofascism came instead in the form of Donald Trump, a reality TV star, racist, bigot, con artist and professional wrestling aficionado.
How did the United States arrive at this moment?
The American news media betrayed its sacred role as guardians of democracy who inform the public so that they can be responsible citizens who make informed political decisions.
There is a deep crisis of faith and trust in America’s political and social institutions. America’s political culture is highly polarized and divisive. The Republican Party has embraced a strategy of destroying the existing political rules and norms that make effective governance possible. Today’s conservatism is regressive and reactionary. It is an enemy of the commons and of the very idea of government.
But none of these forces would have been so powerful if not for a deeper cultural rot and moral weakness in American society. This is what philosopher Henry Giroux has described as the “culture of cruelty.” It is the intersection of creeping authoritarianism, militarism, surveillance, violence by the state against its citizens, gangster capitalism and extreme wealth inequality, the assault on the very idea of community and government, widespread loneliness, and social dominance behavior against the Other.
How did the culture of cruelty help to create the political and social circumstances for the election of Donald Trump? Is the United States now a fascist and authoritarian state? What are the issues that could potentially unite the American people to create a more humane society and to resist the cultural and political forces that helped to elect Trump? Are Trump’s voters victims? Is American democracy in a state of crisis and permanent decline? What should resistance look like in this moment?
In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with Giroux, a professor of English and cultural studies at McMaster University in Canada. He has written dozens of articles and books, including “America at War with Itself” and the forthcoming “The Public in Peril: Trump and the Menace of American Authoritarianism.”
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. A longer version can be heard on my podcast, available on Salon’s Featured Audio page.
What does it feel like from your point of view, having written so much about the culture of cruelty and authoritarianism, to watch it unfold in the United States in real time?
I’ve been writing about the potential for authoritarianism in the United States for 20 years. This is not a new discourse for me. What has often surprised me is not that it unfolded or the new liberal orthodoxy that increasingly made it appear more and more possible. What shocked me was the way the left has refused to really engage this discourse in ways that embrace comprehensive politics, that go beyond the fracturing single-issue movements and begin to understand both what the underlying causes of these authoritarian movements have been and what it might mean to address them.
You have to ask yourself, what are the forces at work in the United States around civic culture, around celebrity culture, around the culture of fear, around the stoking of extremism and anger about issues? About a media that creates a culture of illusion, about the longstanding legacy of racism and terror in the United States. I mean, how did that all come together to produce a kind of authoritarian pedagogy that basically isolated people, and made them feel lonely? All of a sudden they find themselves in a community of believers, in which the flight from reality offers them a public sphere in which they can affirm themselves and no longer feel that they’re isolated.
Are Donald Trump’s voters victims?
I think the notion of victim is really a bad term because it takes away any pretense for agency and social responsibility.
I try to crystallize it down to, “They voted to hurt people.”
That’s right. Exactly.
The corporate news media has refused to admit this. They want to rehabilitate these folks as having “buyer’s remorse.” That is absurd. The vast majority of Trump’s voters do not regret a damn thing. When you actually go out and look at the data it is clear that Trump is a Republican. Trump supports their agenda and conservatives are happy he is doing their bidding.
We know the anger that most of Trump’s voters were supposedly mobilized around was not against the rich. It was not about income inequality. It was about racism. It was about white supremacy. It was about inflicting pain on people. It was about taking away social provisions that even they would benefit from in the name of a false appeal to “individual freedom” and “liberty.”
This also gets us to how American liberals and progressives are seemingly unable to craft powerful narratives.
My take is that if they go to the root of the problem, they indict themselves. I think that language becomes for them simply a question of coding that often hides what they’re basically responsible for in terms of the culture of cruelty, barbarism and violence. When you talk about the mass incarceration state, you’re talking about Democrats. If you want to talk about drone strikes and private armies, you’re talking about Democrats. I think people who look to liberals for some sort of salvation in this country are fooling themselves. We need a third party and we need to stop equating capitalism and democracy.
What do you think will happen in America in the future?
I think that what we’re going to discover is that no society can exist when there’s no social fabric to bring them together. The emotional quotient has been so lowered, the bar is so low now that the only thing that people feel basically is around questions of violence and idiocy. That’s a lethal combination. It’ll be interesting to see how people talk about this issue in the future, in ways where they try to understand how the very notion of agency itself was destroyed, commercialized, commodified and turned into something that was weaponized.
Donald Trump is the crystallization of everything wrong in this country. It is funny to watch the talking heads on television and elsewhere wring their hands. They are trying to argue that Trump won despite being a misogynist, sexual abuser, bigot, racist and white supremacist. I argue that Trump won precisely because he was all of those things.
Donald Trump is the distillation of an attack on democracy that has become more cruel, more brutal and more poisonous, more militarized and more violent since the 1970s. To simply view him as eccentric, to view him as some kind of clown who now has tapped into a certain element of the culture, is to really miss the point.
What do you think are three or four specific policy goals or initiatives that could potentially bring together Donald Trump’s voters and the majority of Americans?
The first thing that has to be talked about, without any question whatsoever, is a national health care plan. Second, we need a social wage, a universal wage. Third, we need a jobs program.
Bernie Sanders was talking about many of these issues. Why do you think they did not resonate enough to win him the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination?
It did not resonate because he is seen as part of the Democratic Party. He was a fool. I do not understand why he did this. Once Hillary Clinton won the nomination, it became embarrassing. All of a sudden Sanders is talking about issues that the Democratic Party hates. He’s talking about issues that the Democratic Party runs away from. Yet he’s arguing for issues that are basically very progressive within a structure that’s incredibly reactionary. What the hell is wrong with him? Does he not get it?
To return to questions of language, the news media has decided to legitimate white supremacists by calling them the “alt-right.” I view this as an act of surrender and cowardice.
I never use the word “alt-right” in my work. Never. I talk about white supremacists. I don’t use the words “fake news.” I talk about lies — state lies, state-manufactured lies.
What do you think resistance should look like against Donald Trump and his regime?
Direct action. We need to talk about an economic strike. You need to bring groups together all over the country to shut it down. The country has got to become ungovernable. There are going to be moments here that even you and I will be shocked by. Trust me: This is coming. You are now living in a terrorist state. This is what the essence of totalitarianism is about. It’s organized around terror, and that’s exactly what this administration is about. I think more and more people will organize and more and more people will realize that this can’t be simply about local demonstrations. I think the only way that the Trump administration can deal with dissent is to attempt to humiliate people — but even more importantly, under Attorney General Jeff Sessions there will be a systemic expansion of what I call “punishment creep,” where every facet of society will be criminalized.
If you were to give a diagnosis for the health of American democracy, what would it be?
It’s a democracy that’s on life support. It can’t breathe. I don’t think we are tipping over into neofascism. I think we’ve tipped over. It’s just a more subtle form of neofascism than anything we’ve seen in the past. The argument that we have to have concentration camps to talk about fascism is nonsense. As any theorist of fascism will tell you, if it comes to America, it will come in different forms.
Are you ever afraid? Do you ever say to yourself, “My God, how did we get here?”
I remember in 1980, watching Ronald Reagan get elected. I remember being around friends. At the time, I was teaching at Boston University. I thought, “Holy shit! This is really a turning point.” But it didn’t hit me existentially the way the Trump election did. I woke up the next day and I felt paralyzed. I felt that we had entered into something so dark, so real, so evil that there was really no precedent for it in terms of its all-encompassing possibilities for death, destruction and violence. I had a hard time functioning for about a week. I think in some ways there’s a residue of that I can’t shake, that now informs my work.