The Trump Base and Year 2

Trump’s much trumpeted first State of the Union address came and went… The event is traditionally meant to sum up achievements and challenges of the administration’s first year, setting the stage for the remaining three, all in the somber, live presence of the entire US government in all branches, with the rest of the nation tuned in through other means. But as even the BBC commentator quickly remarked, the luster of this special occasion has objectively long disappeared — and all the more so with this president who has missed few opportunities to communicate with his subjects far less formally, usually drawing (and duly receiving) attention by elliptic zingers in channels designed for frivolous social small talk. Now, sure, this speech was still promptly and critically combed over: relative emphases subtly weighed, numerous liberties with the facts meticulously inventoried, and trademark oxymorons (like “beautiful clean coal”) duly noted. But in the end, the carefully choreographed and executed event revealed little news, which frames it more as one of the occasional subliminal proofs that this chief US executive can still stick to the script, moderating Twitter with teleprompter, and ultimately, as another reassurance to his supporters among the masses (the “Base” for short here), that they can still count on him.  Which brings us then to some important broader questions as we enter Year 2 of this administration.

The main one, rather bluntly, is: how does this Base still persist? Really, there is no good reason for Trump to have a base any wider than the slim top of the wealth pyramid that he so blatantly represents. After all, in the broad spectrum of more modern right-wing populism — from a Thatcher to a Hitler — most had a modicum of lower-class personal pedigree that allowed some identification from rank-and-file followers. But there’s no such thing here, not even some sappy “rags-to-riches” myth — just inherited wealth, shrewd business dealings and pure, unabashed Veblenian “conspicuous consumption”, Mar-a-Lago style. This question is even starker in this post-Great Recession era when Reaganesque neoliberal fairy tales have lost most currency. Furthermore, these 15 months (just since the election, with many more before) of continuous faux pas, scandal and turmoil are objectively discrediting. Finally, this administration has by now really shed most of its “anti-establishment” veneer, revealing openly pro-elite, anti-public core policies. So, why has the Base not disintegrated yet? What is it in the Trump brand and message that actually still resonates with some broad segments of the proverbial “99%”? And what will it take to change that?

There are certainly no simple answers here, but we might turn for some clues to president’s apologist Newt Gingrich, who commented the day after the infamous January 11 immigration vulgarities:

Trump relies on the fact that his opponents are so nihilistic and elitist that they’ll react hysterically to something like this. […] And [Trump’s] base isn’t remotely corroded by this. Almost anything he does that is outside the establishment resonates in the end with people who say, well, at least he’s sticking it to the powerful.

Please parse this carefully. Ignoring details and exaggerations, it does accurately reveal the basic play: regardless of the ostensible recipient, Trump’s communication is mostly aimed at the Base: cementing at the core, extending around the edges. There is no need to cozy up to Republican party establishment. By now, they have no choice but to fall into line. No need to harangue the moneyed elites. They’ll be getting their payback and they know it. And no need bothering to soften up outright opponents. The message is targeted at reaffirming his populist brand directly, and even more so by eliciting predictable opposition reaction that reinforces that.

There is nothing particularly original about this age-old approach of divide-and-conquer. It was quite prominent in the US even in the post-Civil War era and ensuing Gilded Age. Among many others, Robert Reich articulated its pitfalls in his 1997 resignation speech. More recently, in her excellent  latest book, “No is Not Enough – Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need”, meticulously analyzing this kind of multilevel shock therapy, Naomi Klein states:

In truth, nothing has done more to build our present corporate dystopia than the persistent and systematic pitting of working-class whites against Blacks, citizens against migrants, and men against women.

In the present context, this generally might mean: Stop playing the Trump game and falling for his tricks, provocations and divisiveness. Stop being reactive.  A sensible resistance should start defining its own frame and game. Somewhat more specifically, offered are three interrelated modest suggestions:

Look at the big picture and stop preaching to the choir.  It’s a globalized world out there, with the many well known negative effects ranging from the “race to the bottom”, all the way to global climate impacts and beyond. This is a deeper subject, but suffice it to say that the same basic systemic problems of the political economy that have generated countless refugees fleeing wars in large swaths across Africa and Asia, along with scores of economic migrants fleeing destitution in other parts of the Global South, have also adversely affected various US “demographies”, including much of the Base. Mobile global capital can play many games, but few are net-gain, with most being zero-sum and the discontents paying the price far out of sight.  As such, raising the awareness of these global connections, and shifting the primary focus away from specific underprivileged groups, might take some wind out of the deleterious anti-immigration populism sails and rock the Base. To quote Klein again:

Instead, the overarching task before us is not to rank our various issues – identity versus economics, race versus gender […]  It is to understand in our bones how these forms of oppression intersect and prop each other up, creating the complex scaffolding that allowed a kleptocratic thug to grab the world’s most powerful job […].

Granted, this is not easily done. However, one step in this direction is to stop knee-jerk rallying to the cause of one identity group — just because Trump baldly singled it out — at the effective expense of other ones.

Let go of the 2016 election. The spectacle of the heavily politicized Mueller investigation, with its sometimes byzantine complexity, claims and counterclaims, should be left squarely out of this discussion. This might seem even harder with the just announced bombastic indictments of “13 Russian nationals”. To be clear, this is not to say that alleged campaign illegalities should not be duly investigated: perjury, obstruction of justice, whatever…  nobody should be above the law. But nothing here seems to really go beyond the boundaries of a seriously flawed electoral system, and a legacy of smear campaigns that runs deep in US politics. The stubborn insistence on some hackneyed, game-changing “Russian interference” belies the Democratic establishment’s effort to exonerate its own, much more evident, consequential and damaging culpability in shifting the 2016 election away from the high road paved by the Sanders campaign. Period. The Base understands that pretty well, and such hypocrisy plays right into the hands of reaffirming it.

Never forget foreign policy. When the going gets rough, the one staple entry in the US executive playbook is the good ol’ “rally ‘round the flag”. Not foolproof — thankfully — but still tried, tested and dangerous. Under the guise of benevolent global hegemony and axiomatic American exceptionalism many scapegoats can be found, with rather facile bipartisan support and perilous consequences. Ample modern evidence has shown that behind semi-abstract “wars” (on Terror, Drugs, etc.) lie identifiable targets; and the most recent mainstream media pronouncement of “Russian plot to disrupt America’s democracy“ is ominous enough. More generally, “America First” could be interpreted as a focus on domestic needs at the expense of fewer foreign adventures or something much more sinister. Seeking clarity here might go a long way to disarming one of the administration’s levers on the Base.

In the end, the “Trump base” is not some mystical bunch. They are an amorphous and heterogenous group of flesh-and-blood humans. We all know some personally. Many certainly suffer from various prejudices. But leaving extremist fringes aside, probably most are decent people, with at least a general sense of fairness and a healthy dislike for hypocrisy. Admittingly or not, many are part of that group simply for apparent lack of better options.  To a significant enough degree, these are bona fide members of the proverbial “99%”. To paraphrase what Gore Vidal (and many others) once astutely said, the challenge is to make them realize and vote their own interests.  Of course, none of this will be easy nor can it yield quick results. The (often perceived as paramount) drive to galvanize Democratic base support and “get out the vote” for next election cycle can easily be tempted by the lowest hanging fruit of patently scandalous Trump administration excesses.  But to be effective, an American progressive movement (broadly understood) must dissociate itself from the trite “merely liberal” tropes with a much narrower, “major-partisan” agenda, a significant contributor to the deeper problems of which Trump is but a symptom. As Andre Vltchek recently lamented on these Dissident Voice pages (albeit with an emphasis beyond just the US):

It is now absolutely clear that the Western left lost patently and shamelessly. It has almost no power, it has no courage to fight or to take risks.

Among other risks to be taken in Year 2 is to get out of the comfort zone and engage Trump at his very base.

Dr. Radmilo Bozinovic is a computer professional who has worked in the Silicon Valley since 1988. During that time, he has also been involved in numerous public interest projects, ranging from serving on two non-profit boards, to improving language access in state courts and public education. A native of ex-Yugoslavia, he has actively worked to uncover the truth about its civil war and the foreign role played in its breakup, and other conflicts. Read other articles by Radmilo.