How Wrong I Was- Two Pieces I Planned to Publish if Hillary Clinton Had Won
Nobody likes being wrong. But everybody’s wrong sometimes. I’ve just had the unique privilege of being wrong most of the time (and thus, everyone should take my prognostications with a couple grains of salt. Drain the whole shaker and try not to puke.)
I had prepared two essays for submission to The American Interest post-election, both written under the presumption that Hillary Clinton would handily dispatch Trump in a landslide and that the GOP would lose its majorities in the House and Senate. That, clearly, did not happen.
I post them here for a couple reasons- first, because their analysis, I think, remains interesting and valuable for the future, and second, because sometimes you need to look in the mirror and figure out why, exactly, you were wrong. Here’s my analysis of the present situation, followed by the essays:
Quite frankly, I underestimated the frustration of swing-state voters and their willingness to gamble on a Trump vote, and I overestimated the utility of the Democratic Establishment’s financial and political power to shape electoral outcomes nationally. The Democratic Establishment had that power; but it was insufficient to overcome the will of a large group of American voters.
Whatever the election says about the latent cultural, racial, and gender prejudices of a significant portion of Middle America, and about the current wave of globalization and technological change and its effect on low-income and middle-income populations, I continue to believe that the primary importance of this election was a verdict on our bipartisan establishment by an electorally important segment of the American population. That verdict was a resounding vote of no confidence against both the Bush-McCain-Romney GOP Establishment and against the Obama-Clinton Democratic Establishment, and it had more to do with insider-outsider status, class, and culture than any economic or racial factors, important though those factors were.
Another important thing to note is that the majority of American voters voted against Trump. Trump lost the popular vote. The majority of American voters voted against Trump. But a majority of electorally significant voters- that is, voters in swing states, who happen to be largely Jacksonian- voted for him. Because that divide largely falls along lines of cultural geography– voters in Michael Lind’s “Densitaria” voted for Clinton, while voters in Michael Lind’s “Posturbia” voted for Trump, and while there were more voters in Densitaria, our system privileges the voting power of what has become Posturbia- this election also reveals the interesting phenomenon of our present cultural-geographic divide.
This divide is worrisome, in all senses, but most of all in the sense that aside from the insider-outsider divide between the neoliberal bipartisan elite and the vast working and middle classes outside that elite, there is significant division between the lower classes in different segments of the country. Class divisions can be overcome by enlightened pro-lower class populists coming to power in the elite. Regional cultural divisions are far harder to bridge, and usually portend cultural conflict that dwarfs the nascent class conflict. Talented statesmen are able to build political coalitions that overcome these divides, but as we have seen, there aren’t too many talented statesmen around these days.
In any case, there are a few realities we live in now. One of them is that the old neoliberal bipartisan establishment is out of power, though whether it’s dead is yet to be seen. The appointment of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to important positions in the Democratic Party suggests that the Obama-Clinton establishment is on its last legs, having lost legitimacy by failing in this election. In the Republican Party, insiders like Reince Priebus, Paul Ryan, and Mitch McConnell have new influence, and though Trump sits in the cockpit, it’s not clear that the GOP will fundamentally change unless it overreaches and collapses. So despite the formal public humiliation of the current establishment, it seems it will exert influence at the very least through the GOP.
Another reality is that we have an incompetent authoritarian buffoon in the White House, whose Presidency will more likely than not be ridden by scandal, overreach, and decadence, and will quite possibly end in impeachment, resignation, or electoral defeat, barring any surprise competence Trump may bring to the White House. This could possibly, hopefully, discredit the GOP and lead to massive defeats in subsequent elections, forcing reform.
I stand by my recent proclamations, that we’ve entered the Fourth American Revolution and that a radical rethinking and reformation of conservatism will be necessary in case the GOP implodes under Trump’s ego and Ryan’s policy ambition. I may be wrong, but I’ll be moving forward operating under these premises.
So there’s my present analysis. I stand by many of the assertions made in the below two essays, especially the decadence of the GOP Establishment and the question of Union or Nationhood as the fundamental premise of the 2016 election. I would add that the voters- the electorally significant voters, anyway- selected “Nationhood” over “Union” by choosing Trump, and that this means the Union is in for a tumultuous period of institutional change and upheaval.
Again, I was wrong in my basic assumptions, but I stand by my arguments for the future. We’re in interesting new times and we must rise up to them. Here are the pieces.
Dear GOP Establishment: Change, or Die
Submission to The American Interest, for publication post-election
On November 8th, Donald Trump lost the Presidential race to Hillary Clinton, and he lost badly. The battle over the future of the Republican Party’s leadership, agenda, and identity has begun. Some have gone so far as to predict a ballot-box civil war between different components of the GOP’s already-tenuous and schizophrenic coalition of neoconservatives, theoconservatives, libertarian economists, big businesses, and working-class whites. There’s no reason to predict this won’t happen, and most Republican thinkers and operatives are either jumping ship, like liberal Republican Josh Barro did a few weeks ago and like principled conservative George F. Will did a few months back, or otherwise sharpening their weapons and rethinking their battle plans to prepare to pick up the pieces after the coming storm, as David Frum and Reihan Salam have pledged to do.
As one might guess, in this frenzy of activity, there’s a lot more heat than light. So let’s get a couple of things about this historic moment straight.
First- Despite the ubiquitously premature obituaries, the GOP is not going to disappear. The party’s apparatus is well-organized enough that even if it does become a rump party confined to the interior South and West, it will still hold seats and be competitive in rural areas, which make up a significant chunk of American electoral territory, particularly in the U.S. Senate. And most of the millions of registered Republicans out there believe, instinctively, in their party identity deeply enough that light and transient disturbances like Mr. Trump will be insufficient to push them over the fold. Even if the party, by some ahistorical act of the deity, does disappear, whatever center-right party emerges to replace it will be composed of former Republican voters and operatives and officials, and be Republican in all but name.
Second- Any Republican who supported Donald Trump at any time, in any way, will be incapable of earning the support of enough non-Republican voters to become President of the United States. (Bear in mind, no one shapes the parties so profoundly as sitting Presidents- in their hands lie their parties’ futures.) The Trump campaign has been so poisoned by the xenophobia and racism of its supporters, and the apparent use of racial animus by the campaign itself, that anyone who can be proved to have supported Trump at any time, or even accused of not having opposed Trump at all times, will have no national political future. The race question alone will drive away the rising multiethnic class of socially-progressive suburban moderates, period. That means Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, John McCain, Ted Cruz, and other part-time Trump bootlickers who reluctantly pledged fealty are now stuck under the glass ceiling of their own decisions.
Third- Any Republican who vociferously opposed Trump on policy grounds will not have a future in the GOP. That’s somewhat odd to say, because how much do Trump’s emotionally-driven voters actually care about “policy?” The answer is, they care about it to the extent that policy interacts or interferes with their politically, culturally, and economically nationalist values. And when conservative intellectuals shape the GOP into a party of “free trade, free markets, and free men,” when Marco Rubio talks about America as a nation of immigrants that should indiscriminately open its borders to all the wretched of the Earth, when Paul Ryan implies that it’s more important to balance our federal budget than to ensure that all Americans can find employment, these traditionalist voters rightly see airy elites poking their heads out of the pockets of Cato-Heritage-AEI-Hoover donors. Jacksonian Trumpistas don’t like snooty rich people pushing libertarian economic schemes onto them any more than they like snooty rich people pushing political correctness schemes onto them; and as the base has rejected such donors by choosing Trump, so they will likely continue looking for populist, anti-elite outsiders who are policy-wise like Trump in the future. Their hearts won’t be won by promises of massive concentrations of capital efficiently distributed across international borders.
Fourth- Due to these two pressures coming from opposite ends of the spectrum- the rejection by the American people of anyone who stood with Trump, and the rejection by the Republican electorate of anyone who stood against what Trump stood for- a lot of formerly heavyweight Republican champions are going to be wiped out of national consideration, if not out of office, in the next election cycle and in the further future. That means that Governor Kasich, Governor Romney, and Speaker Ryan aren’t going to be pulling the GOP from the ashes and restoring it to all its libertarian-neocon glory over the next few years. The Party of Reagan, Gingrich, Bush, McCain, Romney, and Ryan is dying and won’t recover no matter how many nostalgic op-eds Bill Kristol publishes. Something new must emerge.
The problem is, not a lot of people are seeing both problems- the reactionary social vision of Trump voters and the nostalgic policy vision of Romneyites. Many see only one side. Let’s look, for example, at Governor John Kasich.
“…If the Republican Party does not evolve, the Republican Party is going to die.” Ohio Governor and former presidential candidate John Kasich directed these words at the right-wing Trumpista side of the Republican Party. But they come from a statesman who should take his own advice. The Republican Party and the country would be better off for it.
Governor Kasich has had a long and illustrious career of public service, from the halls of Congress in the 1980s and 1990s to the Governorship of Ohio from 2010 to the present. He’s many moderate Republicans’ beau ideal of a statesman- fiscally conservative, as demonstrated by his advocacy of a balanced budget amendment and his overall management of Ohio, yet socially open and welcoming, though not at all liberal. His prison reform work and moderate disposition towards LGBT issues demonstrates this. He meets the Eisenhower test- “conservative about money, liberal about people.”
The John Kasich of the 2016 campaign trail exhibited these principles and was immensely popular among better-off Republicans and even some moderate Democrats unable to stomach Hillary Clinton. Kasich is in many ways a throwback to the bipartisan halcyon days of the 80s and 90s, which were his formative political years. More than conservative favorites Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, across his career Kasich exhibited the (usually-misunderstood) political virtues of the conservative saint, Ronald Reagan- he prized optimism and unity over divisiveness and jeremiads, he worked across the aisle with Democrats in pursuit of higher goals, and though he spoke like a prophet, he governed like a businessman. Kasich, like Reagan, is not a man who would have shut down the government just to boost his chances of getting elected President.
If John Kasich is basically the real Ronald Reagan applied to the problems of 2016, why was he so roundly ignored and rejected by everyone outside of the Democratic Party and the Republican donor class? Why would the GOP base reject the real reincarnation of its patron?
Quite simply, there are two things the Republican electorate is rebelling against- first, the modern “Republican Establishment” Reagan himself put in place, and second, the globally-oriented bipartisan political order of the last 25 years. Kasich represents both, and his campaign basically promised to continue both if he were elected President.
But this is neither what the American people want (witness Hillary Clinton, that Establishment’s poster-child, and her extremely high unfavorability ratings) nor what the Republic needs right now.
So what is it that Kasich and Clinton represent that the American people don’t want?
Basically, economic neoliberalism in domestic policy, expressed through bipartisan commitments to financial deregulation, low taxes, open borders immigration policy, and expanded free trade; and liberal internationalism in foreign policy, represented by bipartisan commitments to nation-building exercises in the Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa, humanitarian intervention as a lodestone of American strategy, and a perceived naïve sense of oscillatory American hubris and American self-loathing at the Presidential level, most extremely displayed by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
In the same interview that Governor Kasich admonished the Republican Party to evolve, he endorsed two long-standing GOP articles of faith- free trade, by supporting the TPP, and American global hegemony, by proposing a more assertive and values-based stance against Russia- and subtly hinted that opponents of these policies are, respectively, protectionists and isolationists.
If this says anything about Governor Kasich, it’s that he’s not (currently) particularly interested in reforming the GOP’s Reaganite “neocon-libertarian” policy agenda, and is more concerned with improving its messaging and voter outreach. This is not sufficient for either party survival or national flourishing in the post-2008 financial crisis world, and certainly not in the newly multipolar international order that became evident sometime between 2011 and 2014. Pushing the solutions of 1984 and 1994 onto the America of 2016 is futile, especially given that the solutions of 1984 and 1994 1) are presently unpopular among huge swathes of Americans and 2) have contributed much to the present slow-motion crisis.
The Governor, and all prospective GOP reformers, should look at all the tenets of Bush-McCain-Romney Republican orthodoxy- free markets, deregulation, American hegemony, fiscal austerity, and all the rest- from a critical point of view, and rather than trying to justify and expand these failed, stagnant measures, should look to other ways to manage the American system and better serve all its citizens.
The election of 1896- Red voted for populist Democrat William Jennings Bryan, a coalition that would later provide votes for New Deal and Vital Center Democrats like Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson. These Southern and Western states would largely flip to the Republican Party of Richard Nixon during the partisan realignment of 1968-1972.
The election of 2012- Red voted for plutocratic Republican Mitt Romney, presumably under the presumption that he would be somewhat better than progressive Democrat Barack Obama. The Republican electoral map has looked largely Southern and Western since Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon stole it from the crumbling New Deal-Vital Center Democrats in the 1960s. Though these Jacksonian voters vote for “limited government,” their prior New Deal Democratic affiliation suggests that they would be amenable to “big government” if it served their interests.
There are some important things to keep in mind. First off, the Republican Party’s voter base will never return to elite free-marketing, entitlement-cutting Middle East interventionists for inspiration. Two and a half decades of wage stagnation, family breakdown, and meteoric rises in the cost of living have hurt Working-Class White America’s pocketbooks, and repeated national humiliations abroad have hurt their pride. They’ll either go for demagogues who promise them what they want to hear, like Donald Trump, or may, perhaps, be swayed by enlightened leaders who truly have their concerns at heart.
A look at the electoral map shows the stark divide. The same coalition that voted for Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson- culturally conservative economic nationalists, all- has completely abandoned the neoliberal and culturally progressive Democratic Party of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Its voters, accustomed to big government that served them and their families, will not long tolerate East Coast conservative think-tank rhetoric about the invisible hand and such.
Second, the Democrats are now the elite, neoliberal, interventionist party. Figures like Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Jerry Brown, and their heirs should not be seen as populist tribunes of “the people,” but as Ross Douthat and Joel Kotkin have noted, as well-credentialed members of America’s culturally liberal socioeconomic elites. Their backers have hard interests in financial deregulation and lower tax rates on capital gains, and more to win from the TPP and TTIP than most lower-class Republican voters do. And the culturally sophisticated human rights types in the D.C. think tank circuit are more likely to turn to Democrat internationalists when lobbying for a humanitarian intervention than to most surviving Republicans.
Third, as the post-2008 global economy and post-2011 multipolar world order further fragment, the old dream of a primarily rules-based international order with America as the policer-in-chief is no longer reflective of reality, even if it may have been desirable while it existed. International integration and globalist norms are being rejected by publics from Britain to Colombia, and American working-class voters are no different. This is not “isolationism.” It is merely a recalibration of foreign policy to adjust for an increasingly multipolar world and, correspondingly, an unfortunately less powerful America. This is the situation Nixon and Kissinger faced in 1968- an overextended America divided against itself as predatory great powers prowled the fringes of Eurasia- and no one would call their “Grand Design” and recalibration “isolationist” today. The fact that the public, it seems, demands more prudence in our foreign policy ought to be reassuring.
The implication of all this should be obvious. There’s a dramatic partisan and policy realignment underway, and it has up to this point been spearheaded by a proto-fascist numbskull with no sort of public service on his resume whatsoever. There’s an opportunity there for enterprising politicos and rising statesmen in the GOP to ride the nationalist wave, to bring out the higher angels of its nature, and to direct it towards higher ends than mere tariffs and border walls. Whoever in the GOP establishment figures this out- that the American people and especially the Republican electorate want something that looks a bit like Trumpism- will be in a very good place to build the next great Republican coalition. But to do that they’ll have to shed the illusory Reaganite scales on their eyes.
And that will be the hardest thing. People don’t like to admit that the core beliefs and principles they’ve dedicated their lives and careers to advancing are frankly wrong, outdated, and useless for new times. No one wants to convert out of their cherished religion to something strange and new. And that will handicap most of the Republican Establishment for some time.
The Reformicons. Yes, they are in George Mason’s Gunston Hall in Northern Virginia, posing as latter-day Founding Fathers. George Mason was one of the most outspoken of the Anti-Federalists, the small-government types of the Founding Era. That the Reformicons selected his abode for their photoshoot might demonstrate how serious they are about “reforming conservatism;” but their work is still interesting.
The first step to solving a problem, as my former boss Duf Sundheim has told me time and time again in reference to the California pension crisis, is admitting that there’s a problem. And that is something the GOP establishment- being the large coterie of political professionals that generally subscribes to Reaganite policy ideas like free markets, American primacy, and social traditionalism, while eagerly defending the George W. Bush Presidency and the John Boehner and Paul Ryan Speakerships- absolutely refuses to do. Show me any establishment GOP group trying to “reform” the Republican Party’s policy agenda, and I’ll show you a reactionary club of older men and their sunny-faced interns desperately trying to convince themselves that there was nothing wrong with the Bush tax cuts, the attempted democratization of Iraq, the Gang of Eight immigration reform package, or the free-trading principles behind NAFTA and the TPP. The Conservative Reform Network comes, perhaps, closest to breaking the mold. But they do not question the efficacy of free markets and “market-based solutions.” Unfortunately for them, no one gets mushy over a tax cut or a wage subsidy.
As anyone with eyes can see, millions of GOP voters- tens of millions of them- disagree profoundly with all of these policy “solutions.” Are these millions of Republican voters comparatively uneducated, are they unskilled in the arts of statecraft, and do they get their “news” from Alt-Right sites like Breitbart?
More likely than not.
But do those three facts mean that their opinions do not matter? And that these misinformed voters should not be playing a part in our democracy, should not be exercising their constitutional rights in ways that threaten our elites’ conceptions of the world? That the conservative clerisy knows best and should continue to govern as such?
No, no, no, and no. These voters may be racist, they may be loony, and they may be willing to throw their votes to a trigger-happy demagogue who casually threatens to subvert their beloved Constitution every other day. But they are still Americans, and like all Americans of every walk of life, every race, every religion, they deserve to be heard and represented in Washington, not shepherded into complacency by a Best-and-Brightest elite of social engineers and do-gooders. Good leadership is necessary to temper their boisterousness, sure, and that leadership doesn’t appear to be on the near horizon. But it’s necessary, and the first thing it must bring to the table with Trump’s electorate is compassion and understanding for a mass of people who’ve been ignored by the cultural left and the libertarian right for several decades.
One Republican operative argued to me that these voters must be “excised” from the Republican coalition, that they need to be cleared away so the dutiful voters who vote the proper way can elect responsible governing figures.
This is lunacy, first off because these Jacksonian Trumpistas continue to make up the core of the Republican coalition and will continue to do so. But more importantly, this viewpoint is devoid of the compassion and love of countrymen necessary for true statesmanship. Anyone who would simply wish the Trump voters away is useless for the future of the Grand Old Party.
There’s an ultimatum out there for the Republican Establishment that no one in particular but history in general is giving- to paraphrase the famous Revolutionary-era propaganda bit, “Change, or Die.”
Invariably there’s going to be a whole boatload of finger-pointing over the next few months. Every faction in the GOP coalition will blame all the other factions for not bending to its precepts, which, according to each, are in line with the Rousseauian “will of the [American] people.” But politics is not a question of ideas defeating other ideas, of how to best order the castle in the sky that ideologues wish our polity would become (if not for pesky human nature.) Politics, as the Publius well understood, is a question of how to keep factions from destroying each other, in order to preserve liberty; and such a task lends itself to amoral pragmatism rather than principled idealism.
As applied to the post-Trump Republican Party, this means we have a lot of ideological de-conditioning to do, and a lot of power-balancing to figure out. The point shouldn’t be to develop a new ideology for the Republican Party of the 21st Century, though invariably one (probably a few) will emerge. The point, rather, should be to develop a broad-based political program whereby the diverse factions of the GOP opposed to the Obama-Clinton Democratic elites can unite and represent the segments of the American people with alternative visions thatn Clinton’s neoliberal-globalist progressivism. Invariably, some factions of the old GOP will probably find themselves agreeing more broadly with Hillary Clinton’s Democrats than with the Republican voters and their tribunes, and that’s fine. The neoconservatives may well end up working with Democratic Right-to-Protect internationalists, while the last of the pro-immigration, pro-deregulation Republican financiers might join their Democratic counterparts on the left. All fine- Americans have a right to join the coalitions in which they feel more comfortable.
The remaining bulk of GOP voters will likely be more socially traditionalist (though not necessarily conservative) and economically populist than the former elites, and their interests and concerns should be balanced with those of the oil and manufacturing industries opposed to Clintonian environmental regulations, the religious conservatives with literally no other home, and whoever else happens to fit into this new coalition. And the GOP should consistently reach out, post-Trump, to moderate new voters or disillusioned centrist Democrats who don’t fit fully in the Clinton machine. Latinos, for example, are not always for massive immigration from Latin America; minorities in the inner cities are terribly ill-served by the incompetent Democratic machines of Chicago, Los Angeles, and other metropoles; the upwardly-mobile middle classes of the great suburban rings around every major city, particularly those in the Sunbelt, have plenty of reasons to support cheap energy, lighter housing regulations, job-protecting industrial policy, and socially moderate politics. There are plenty of voter bases out there.
The Republican Party, with its new constellation of lower-scale voters, will likely oppose the globalist project that has been pursued for the past quarter-century and more. Immigration enforcement and lower levels of low-skilled immigration, export-oriented trade deals rather than unilateral free trade, and the reassertion of a distinctly amalgamationist, socially open, and fiercely proud American national identity provide a powerful counterpart to the cosmopolitanism of the coasts. The decentralization of decision-making on infrastructure, housing and environmental regulations, the structure of social programs, education and healthcare, and other policy areas to the states and counties and cities, away from Washington D.C., will renew the American people’s sense of control over their own destinies. National industrial policy and support for the energy, manufacturing, shipping, and other “build-stuff” industries will revive the Hamiltonian core of the economy, even as reasonable regulatory policy- especially financial regulatory policy in the national public interest- will restore a sense that the market is subservient to human needs, and not the other way around.
These areas and associated policies should all be up for debate moving forward, but they are some general contours that an economically populist and socially moderate GOP composed of lower-middle-class voters and strategic productivity industries might pursue. Getting beyond small government and free market economics will be a tough sell for activists, but is probably necessary if the GOP is to start a conversation about how to best serve its voting constituents while opposing the progressive overreaches and neoliberal-globalist dreams of the Clinton Democrats.
The country needs two responsible governing parties, and, more importantly, a powerful counterweight to the Democratic machine currently in charge. The Republican Establishment can provide and become that- but not if it keeps spouting the failed platitudes of the past quarter-century. The American people, and those giants who have gone before us, and all posterity to come after us, deserves better.
And, if the GOP Establishment is to survive, it must seriously rethink itself before it is replaced.
Clinton or Trump? Union or Nation?
Submission to The American Interest
The 2016 election has been described as many things, often brilliantly. Over at The National Interest, Robert W. Merry considered it as a clash between “globalists” and nationalists,” a theme Jonathan Haidt examined in these pages recently. Over at the New York Times, Michael Lind called it a verdict on the policy futures of both parties, with the Clintonian Democrats being socially progressive and economically neoliberal, and the post-Trump Republicans being economically populist and socially nationalist. Meanwhile, at RealClearPolitics, Joel Kotkin argued that the election is revealing primarily the economic differences between Heartland and Coast- the “Build-Stuff” economy of energy, manufacturing, shipping, and construction prevalent in the Heartland, and the trade-and-immigrant friendly “Think-Stuff” economy of finance, tech, and entertainment of the coastal hubs. I sympathize with all of these views, analytically at least.
But none of them cut to the root of what 2016 means. I predict that this election and the turmoil of its aftermath will go down in the annals of American history as more important than a mere contest between two ways of life; syncretic historians of American identity might even consider it a referendum by the American people, on what the purpose of the American experiment is. And at a fundamental level, that boils down to the question- is America first a nation, or is America first a union?
By nation or union, I mean: is America based on the flesh-and-blood American people and their will, or on the Constitution and the institutions that have followed in its wake for the last two and a half centuries?
Basically, Trump is the nationalist, and Hillary is the unionist. Trump sees the American cultural nation as a sovereign people unto itself, more ultimately important than whatever regime rules over and serves them. Hillary, perhaps more traditionally, sees America as a project and an experiment in governance, not linked so much to culture and flesh-and-blood human beings as to the great founding documents and the institutions that have been built up around them and amended for the last two-and-a-half centuries. (Conservative “constitutionalists,” of course, will retort than Hillary doesn’t give a damn about the Constitution. That may be true; but her primary duty is nonetheless to the Union, the governing framework and system established by that Constitution, rather than to the direct wishes and whims of the people.)
Trump, like Jackson and Bryan before him, sees a corrupt system doing disservice to the American people- the rich control the system, effectuate “corrupt bargains,” and rig elections in their interests rather than in the broad interests of American workers and farmers. He promises to be a tribune of the common people, bypassing the Congress, the elites, and if necessary the institutions of the past up to and including the Constitution, to “make America great again” and bring back jobs and restore American respectability in a dangerous world. It’s a populist vision first and foremost, and its roots are in not the Weimar Republic but the Jacksonian Era. It’s troubling that Trump has proposed such anti-constitutional courses of action as contesting election results, but then, this is populist politics at its finest- witness Old Hickory’s denial of the validity of the 1824 election.
Hillary, on the other hand, is a pure technocrat dedicated to the preservation and improvement of the status quo, which includes the present socioeconomic elites’ preeminence, the post-New Deal executive-heavy constellation of power in the American Constitutional system, the American Constitutional system itself, and the existence of the United States as a powerful globalized nation governed by experts. She’s the true conservative, in the sense that she proposes no great break with the past. I personally have my doubts as to whether Clinton cares more about the destinies of the American nation or about her own reputation and future legacy, but functionally that does not matter- she will defend the old guard, the present American system and its governing class, and the status quo regardless, and will spend her presidential career following such a path.
Contrary to libertarian delusions about the “statist” sameness of Clinton and Trump, the difference between the candidates is clear.
Trump, when push comes to shove, would gleefully strip the protections and institutions of the recent and further past, up to and including the Constitution, of all their power if he thought so doing would advance the interests of the American people. Trump’s sole professed concern in politics, setting aside his own self-aggrandizement and enrichment, is the greatness of the American people, and he has a distinctively populist vision of what that greatness would entail. He is, as many have argued, precisely what the Framers were controlling against in the Constitutional Convention. He is also, as many have noted, a familiar phenomenon in American politics which, when controlled, has done more good than harm.
Clinton, when push comes to shove, would set aside the “will of the people” in the interest of the preservation of our system of government, our standards of living, our federal union. That system of government Clinton proposes to defend is contradictory, dysfunctional, and beyond easy repair; and it includes residues from past eras that might not be useful in the present era, and recent innovations that, it can be argued, go against the spirit and letter of the Constitution itself. Nonetheless, it is our system of government and it is the same government that has governed this nation since the adoption of the Constitution, and Clinton stands as its unwitting defender. This establishmentarian phenomenon is just as much a familiar phenomenon in American history as the populist phenomenon- witness William McKinley, John Quincy Adams, and others.
Clinton, when you boil it down, is for the preservation of the Union. Trump, when you boil it down, is for the will of the Nation.
In a sense, Clinton vs. Trump is a debate we’ve been having since the Constitution was signed and George Washington ascended to the Presidency. And the answer matters immensely for the future of the Republic. In the binary choice of Clinton or Trump, we as an electorate don’t only ask ourselves if we are cultural nationalists or cosmopolitans, economic nationalists or neoliberals, defenders of Reagan-Clinton politics or Roosevelt-Johnson politics. Those are all at stake, but they’re not the biggest issue.
The biggest issue here is- is America a project in governance? Or is America a nation entitled to popular sovereignty?
As any thinker indirectly influenced by Karl Marx would say, there’s got to be a synthesis. You can’t go to either extreme, you must synthesize both choices into a greater whole so far as is possible.
Unfortunately, in 2016 such a synthesis is not possible- Trump is not about to Clintonize and Clinton is not about to Trumpify. Judging by the polls, etc., Clinton will bury Trump, and the answer to that great question- at least for the next few years- will be “America is a Union and a system of government, an experiment- not a people with a will and popular sovereignty.” The tension will be resolved in favor of Union over Nationhood, and presumably some public dissatisfaction and possibly low-scale violence will result.
But the electoral results on November 9th, 2016, do not have to spell the final verdict. Just as the question of states’ rights or Union was set aflame at Fort Sumter and not truly resolved until Appomattox, it’ll be a great, long struggle to find the final answer for “Union, or Nation?” for this particular moment in our national history. And in the post-election chaos, as the Republican Party rebuilds itself and as the Democrats struggle to govern, a new consensus can emerge.
The greatest tradition of American statesmen has not been, of course, the tradition that produced Andrew Jackson and William Jennings Bryan on the one side, and John Quincy Adams and William McKinley on the other (great as those statesmen were.) The greatest American statesmen have, instead, synthesized the best of both the populist tradition and the establishmentarian tradition. They have preserved the federal union while aligning its aims and purposes with the will of the American people. They have governed America as a Union and led it as a Nation. The greatest of them, President Abraham Lincoln, synthesized it best- while fighting to preserve the American system of governance from the secessionist depredations of the planter elite, he equated the Union’s moral purpose to “government of the people, by the people, for the people…” and aligned American populism and nationhood with the existence of the Constitution itself. Several decades later, as it became clear that oligarchs were hijacking the American system for their own ends, the next great synthesizer, President Theodore Roosevelt, preserved the Republic and the Constitution from populist and even socialist uprising, and saved it from plutocratic conquest, by setting up the reforms of the Square Deal and the New Nationalism. Theodore Roosevelt was a preservationist of the Union; but none believed more passionately than he in the existence and sovereignty of the American Nation, perhaps best expressed in his demands of democratic citizenship. And President Franklin Roosevelt, of course, updated Theodore Roosevelt’s methods and policies into a New Deal for the American people, protecting the Republic from both internal dissension and international crisis while aligning the American people’s interests with those of the Union itself.
It’s hard to picture candidate Donald Trump similarly aligning the interests of the Constitution and the Union, diverse as it is, with the interests of the American cultural nation, which he seems to believe is being oppressed by its intellectual overlords in New York and Washington. It’s harder to picture him being a preservationist of any sort; he seems more likely to trample over decades’ and centuries’ worth of governing tradition out of concern for the people’s voice than to strike a usable balance.
On the other side, it is hard to picture the technocratic forthcoming President Hillary Clinton being anything like a populist tribune of the people capable of mixing the people’s will with a system that has for decades gradually become less and less functionally democratic. If it’s hard for Hillary to do in rhetoric, it will be harder to do in policy. Being more concerned with the smooth functioning of our dysfunctional machine of government, and the imposition of her roundly neoliberal and culturally liberal agenda, Hillary seems even less likely than Trump to restore the Lincoln-TR-FDR sensibility of synthesis to American politics. But at least her election will preserve the old regime for the next four to eight years. (Then again, the dearth of reform will probably make room for the next Trump to be even worse.)
This means that the election of 2016 will preserve our republican, constitutional system of government, sick and dysfunctional as it is. Meanwhile, the social fabric of the nation will continue to fray and national unity will be harder to maintain, while concerns over representation will increasingly disillusion more and more American citizens. At one level, that’s exactly the way to address the dual problem- it would be wrong to take the lunatic West Coast Straussian route of blowing the whole thing up in the interests of “the people” and rebuilding a new order from scratch. So we must preserve the continuity of the Republic and work to align it with “the people’s will” over time, which can be done by tolerating four to eight years of Hillary Clinton and finding new leaders more amenable to the Lincoln-TR-FDR style of political leadership and Union-Nation synthesis. Which, of course, will require a further cultural change and new thinking on the part of populists interested in preserving the Union and establishmentarians interested in serving the will of the people. Someone’s out there; they just need the intellectual infrastructure.
The truth of the matter is that America is both a Union, a system of government with a Constitution and a set of institutions, and a Nation, a flesh-and-blood people with culture, aspirations, a way of life, and a legacy and heritage to promote and protect. Clinton, by ignoring the Nationhood aspects of American identity, is not doing anybody a favor and is hurting the American experiment in the long run. Trump, by preaching an unsophisticated version of Nationhood and ignoring the importance of our Union and institutions, is doing a good deal of harm and hurting the American experiment in the short term.
America has always been a conversation of diverse ideas and imperatives rather than a journey with an end point. The plurality of end points desired by different groups in our body politic has made American statecraft a question of balancing these different ends and different ideals, achieving parts of some and parts of others, and keeping, at different times, four to six, or ten to twelve, distinct regional and ethnic cultures, each with as much a claim on the name “American” as all the others, in the same body politic in harmony together, preventing any one from leaving and preventing all from destroying each other. So far we’ve kept them all from leaving, but have had a harder time keeping them from destroying each other. That’s the project of Union, and that’s what Hillary Clinton is representing as a historical force.
At the same time, enterprising leaders- including Lincoln, TR, and FDR- have always realized that a transcendent “American” identity tied to democratic citizenship and civic nationhood is, though a noble lie and fundamentally a myth, nonetheless a useful tool for bringing disparate groups together and uniting them around common principles, common customs, and a common American identity. That doesn’t do away with the age old problem of keeping Yankees and Scots-Irish from killing each other; but it does, at least, make it a little bit easier to fulfill that goal, and it additionally helps turn immigrants from other cultures into citizens we can deal with in an American context. The noble lie of a unified American identity, tied to popular sovereignty and a popular will, is the project of Nationhood, and that’s what Donald Trump is representing as a historical force.
Anyone who denies the importance of American Union, or the importance of American Nationhood, is inviting the eventual collapse of one or both. And that would be a shame.
The next great statesman shouldn’t emulate either Trump or Clinton too closely. But, for those readers hoping to run for President in 2020, it might be a good idea to take seriously Trump’s appeals to Nationhood and Clinton’s insistence on regular order and Union. That’d be good for the country.