It Can Happen Here

Posted on January 18, 2016


And it will. Unless…

I have what’s called a Cassandra Complex. Back in 1980 I knew that a washed up B-movie actor riding high on his evisceration of California in the name of a tax revolt was a serious contender for President. In 2000, I knew W. would ride well above any doubts as to his fitness to be anything more than a manager of a Taco Bell. No one would listen to me. I guess that’s because most of whom I’d talk to were optimistic progressives and liberals.

So, I’m calling it here and now. Donald Trump might very well become the 45th President of the United States. This is something I desperately do NOT want to happen. But everything is falling into place for him. What people need to do is to start thinking pragmatically about how to head him off.

Even though Trump’s the Republican front runner, everyone to the left of him politically scoffs at his chances (except for me, and some others). But here are some worrisome signs:

  • The havoc wrought by Scott Walker in the name of disaffected white voters in the historically progressive state of Wisconsin. The Republican right has done exceedingly well to get that block of middle- and under-class white voters to wrongfully see them as their saviors instead of the source of their malaise and dissatisfaction. This scenario is being played out nationally.
  • Taking this dissatisfaction to another level, Tea Party candidate Matt Blevin runs against the Affordable Care Act in one of the states (Kentucky) that has benefited the most from the act. And won. Even though the polls had him losing.
  • The behind-the-voting-curtain effect, which is when people may not be inclined to say they are voting for a candidate who might not meet general approval will do so in the privacy of the voting booth. Polls can underestimate the strength of these “undesirable” candidates.

Those signs should generate some concern. However, the major factor is theater. What greatly influenced politics in the twentieth century are the cumulative effects of the media. As the primary arenas for political campaigns shifted from newspapers and whistle stops, we moved from less substance to more style. Newsreels didn’t exactly hurt creating an image of a dynamic (in spite of his illness) and aristocratic and sophisticated FDR. A forceful Ike presented a better image than school-teacher-ish Adlai Stevenson. And of course, if it weren’t for the televised Kennedy-Nixon debates, Catholic Kennedy would not have stood a chance against Protestant Nixon. And, eight years later, Nixon learned from his mistakes how to use that medium to outmanuever a flat-footed Hubert Humphrey. Ronald Reagan embodied theater. As a B-movie actor, he knew the moves. He knew it was not substance but sounding right that worked. The theater of his debates with Jimmy Carter and his “there you go again” were all he needed. The people were less concerned about his ideas making sense and facts being correct, and were more concerned about him capturing their mood. Reagan knew how to do that. And Trump knows theater, knows how to play to a crowd. His business negotiating style is built on swagger and larger-than-life personae. He’s a fired B-grade television actor who built his reputation on the tag line “You’re fired!” He knows too well that people don’t want substance. They want style. They want the semblance that whomever is speaking speaks with command, and speaks to them. Mussolini and Hitler also realized the power of the newsreel and spectacle in politics. Bread and circuses. (It’s also quite remarkable that Trump’s chin jutting upward and his hand gestures are so reminiscent of Il Duce’s. Trump must have studied some old newsreel footage, but thankfully he did not pick up on Benito’s habit of haranguing for hours.)

Theater. Even the surprising choice of Sarah Palin by the McCain camp does not seem so surprising when you take into account theater. Touted as someone who spoke her mind, she was excellent drama on the campaign, and a vital counterpoint to ol’ McCain. Pro or con, everyone wanted to hear what she said next, or did next. Reality television to the max. Picked because if you compared Obama to McCain on style, McCain was certainly lacking dynamics.

And it’s theater now. It’s no mistake that Trump refers to his supporters as his fans — not voters. That every event has to have some drama and spectacle — cute little white girls dancing in flag outfits, throwing protesters out into the cold without their coats, firing the AV person who set up his microphone, saying something ludicrous that will get onto the evening news. Master showman. That’s what’s really worrisome. His fans are oblivious to his lies because he dares to speak openly the lies they speak to themselves, and to them that’s telling the truth.

So you combine theater — this understanding and manipulation of style and drama over substance and policy — with the Republican knack of getting the middle-class and the lower middle-class to vote against their interests by supporting the big bosses and the corporations who are throwing away their jobs and hogging any money that could trickle down, and couple that with Republican gerrymandering and efforts to disenfranchise those who disagree with them, and you’ve got a downright apocalyptic scenario. I don’t care what the polls say now, when push comes to shove, Trump has all the cards stacked in his favor.

Here’s where the Cassandra Complex kicks in. Progressives and liberals are so damned smug right now that Trump can’t win. In fact, many welcome Trump as Republican candidate, thinking that any Democrat will trounce him.

On the one hand, it doesn’t matter so much whether Bernie or Hillary wins the Democratic nomination. Either way, they have to realize this campaign will be played out on stage, and Trump’s controlling the script. Democrats need to figure out how to provide a message that’s both style and substance. They can’t take the high road and ignore theater. They need to make it work for themselves. (Saying this doesn’t mean creating a demagogue of their own, but how to reach and engage people with a message that resonates. It’s time for the Democrats to whip out their crack Mad Wo/Men and get to work.)

Another thing Democrats need to deal with is sour grapes. Ralph Nader belatedly realized his path of taking the high road in 2000 gave us W. In his naivete, he didn’t think W. would have been that bad. We don’t need that happening again. If W. was bad, Trump would expand that destruction at least one order of magnitude. The Affordable Care Act is on the line. The direction of the Supreme Court for another generation is on the line. The U.S. economy will not last another four years of Republican hegemony because none of them learned anything from the collapse of 2008. Social Security and Medicare are on the line. We don’t need more needless wars and more terrorists. With Trump, we’ll truly see the destruction of whatever makes America great, and there’ll be little left after he’s done.

If Bernie does not win the nomination, his supporters cannot drop out (nor start a third-party movement). Those lost votes will make it even harder for Hillary to win. Same goes if Bernie wins the nomination. The most any sane person could hope for is that Trump starts a third party, but at this point in the game he’s smart enough to know that his best chance of becoming President is winning the Republican nomination.

I really really really don’t want to be right about this, but if people outside the Tea Party don’t wake up, dystopia will be ours. No joke.

“Look there, see what is hovering above the house…”