Monday, March 7, 2016

Provocation is a feature, not a bug

Josh Marshall at TPM is a smart guy and he's been observing our political system closely for some time. I've posted his commentary before, and he's always worth listening to.

Here he explains how the dynamic driving Trump's candidacy is all about his target audience, and why it's not likely to work as well in the general election (though he could still win, of course):
The key to understanding the Trump phenomenon - his ability to do all these things and pay no price - is that it has very little to do with Trump and almost everything to do with the portion of the electorate he is currently operating. The current Republican party is built in large part on roughly 25% to 30% of the voting electorate which is radicalized and revanchist - a topic I discussed here. We can think about the the nature of Trump's appeal in three basic ways.

First is simple political substance. TPM Readers are entirely familiar with that the fact that a large segment of the American right is animated by a belief that 'their' world, their America is being taken away from them - this includes everything from declining white racial dominance, having to choose whether you want to hear the phone tree message in English or Spanish, changing cultural mores. The whole package. This is the essence of Trump's campaign - beating back the external threat - the harsh anti-immigrant policies, Muslim bans, flirting with white supremacists, etc. This is the most visible and literal part of Trump's appeal.

Second is the appeal to power and force. Trump is the master of GOP 'dominance politics', the intrinsic appeal of power and the ability to dominate others. All of this has an intrinsic appeal to America's authoritarian right, especially in a climate of perceived threat, which has been growing over the last two decades - something political scientists are now catching on to. We might think of this as the embodiment and acting out of the policy drives noted above. The phenomenon of the imperiled, resentment right is something you're well familiar with if you're a close observer of American politics, certainly if you're a regular reader of TPM. ...

The third factor is I think the least obvious but for these purposes the most important. On the radicalized, revanchist right, provocation and transgression of norms isn't simply indulged. It functions as a positive good. It is a feature, not a bug, to use the tech phrase. What the mainstream electorate might view as an 'outrage' is actually signal of the willingness to tear down a corrupt order that is unwilling (Democrats and elites) or unable (RINOs, mainstream GOP) to turn back the tide of threat. So whether or not you think it's a good idea to kill terrorists families, saying you will is a signal that you won't accept limits. How can Trump break all the rules and pay no price? What's his magic? Changing your positions, obviously lying, taunting enemies - none of these hurt Trump because his core supporters are not seeing them through the same prism you likely are. They're not signs of deception, bad character or untrustworthiness. They all signal a refusal to accept the norms of the threatening order and thus a willingness to overturn it.

To put this more simply, you're being too literal. While the Trump movement is heavily tinged by racial backlash, it's not like all Trump backers would embrace outright white nationalists. But that's not the point. Provocation is a feature, not a bug. But this isn't how the great majority of the American public approaches the world or our national politics. Indeed, the divide is what's tearing the GOP in half at the moment. Because it's a very big chunk of the Republican party. To put this concretely, most Democrats will never support Trump for simple policy reasons, even if there are segments of the Democratic coalition that might. But what we are talking about here is a distinction between policy and political mentality, specifically a view of politics based on resentment and desire for revenge. And that operates with a large minority but not close to a majority of the electorate.

Well, I hope not, at least. Certainly, the people whose politics are based on resentment and desire for revenge are the most noticeable right now. They're certainly the loudest.

And Republicans are going to vote for Trump anyway, if he's the nominee. There's no way a large percentage of Republicans will vote Democratic, just because their nominee is a racist, fascist clown.

If racism really bothered them, they probably wouldn't be Republican in the first place. And Republicans tend to be very authoritarian, even if not actually fascist. Besides, Americans are polarized, and much of that polarization tends to be along party lines. Even those Republicans who despise Trump are likely to hold their nose and vote for him anyway.

On the Democratic side, resentment and the desire for revenge aren't completely absent, and I've been hearing a lot of angry talk by Bernie Sanders' supporters that they'll vote for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, if she wins the nomination.

I doubt if that's a significant number of Democrats, but it doesn't have to be. This election, like most of these elections in our polarized country, will be decided on the margins. Most Republicans, and most right-wing leaning voters, will vote Republican. Most Democrats, and most left-leaning voters, will vote Democratic. The result will depend on turnout and on the decisions of a relatively-small group of people who aren't already invested in a particular candidate or political party.

Democrats are notorious for being unreliable voters. Usually, they do vote in presidential elections, at least, which is why Barack Obama has won twice. But this time, if Bernie Sanders loses the nomination,... who knows? (Note that there's no question about Hillary Clinton supporters. I've never heard one of them say that he'd vote Republican, or just not vote at all, if Clinton didn't win the primary.)

Also, how appealing is resentment and the desire for revenge? How angry is the typical American voter? Angry enough to risk destroying our country, just to overthrow the 'establishment' (whoever and whatever you consider the establishment to be)? There are crazy people on the left, too, you know, and Hillary Clinton is nothing if not an establishment candidate.

Maybe Bernie Sanders will win the Democratic primary, but that brings other problems. His young supporters love him, but just how willing will mainstream America be to vote for an atheist socialist Jew (which is exactly how Republican propaganda will describe him, when they turn their well-funded attacks on him)?

The GOP propaganda machine has attacked Hillary Clinton nonstop for two decades now, and she has the scars to prove it. But they haven't even started on Bernie Sanders yet. Mud-slinging does work, you know. That's why they do it.

This is a frightening election. Donald Trump has done that much, at least. Ted Cruz would be at least as bad as president - probably even worse - but he wouldn't worry me nearly as much as a candidate. Even Republicans can't stand Ted Cruz, and he's such an extremist that I can't see him winning a general election.

Donald Trump is a clown, a bigot, and a fascist. He should be a complete joke. But,... we've stopped laughing, haven't we? If Republicans aren't willing to stop him - and they certainly haven't limited themselves to anything else in their desire for political power - America could be back in the 1930s again. Only on the wrong side, this time.


Mary said...

Another fantastic and impactful post! Why aren't you writing for a newspaper or a popular magazine on their editorial board? You have it down pat on why Trump is popular. You are missing the boat with few followers here. You have much talent and are an excellent writer.

WCG said...

Heh, heh. Mary, you've just become my favorite commenter! :)

Seriously, thanks for the praise, but I know my limitations (not to mention my lack of ambition).