Sunday, January 17, 2016

Double Standards in American Politics

Here in Washington, D.C., it is de rigueur to insult Donald Trump.  The only question is whether you compare him to Hitler (whose ability to stoke the emotions of racists was his calling card as a political candidate) or think of him as a less-dangerous, but still highly distasteful flim-flam evangelist, like an Elmer Gantry or Marjoe Gortner.  The key, according to conventional D.C. wisdom, is that Trump will say anything he has to say to inflame the prejudices of the least educated among us.   In other words, the meaner he is, the better he does with the stupid losers who support him.  In the words of one of our quintessential insiders, Washington Post columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner, Eugene Robinson, Trump’s “in-your-face bullying strikes a chord with the large segment of the Republican electorate that is tired of being polite – lower-middle-class, non-college-educated white voters who have not prospered over the past two decades and see demographic change as a threat.”  (Wash. Post – 1/12/16)   In talking about the Trump voter, Robinson was channeling the 2008 statement of then-candidate Obama, who in reference to those residents of industrial towns who were struggling economically, said that:  "They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment, as a way to explain their frustrations."

The truth is that I don’t know a single person in my hometown who supports Trump.  Even my Republican friends mock his brand of populism.   So recently, when I went on what is becoming an annual pilgrimage to Pasadena, California to watch Stanford University play in the Rose Bowl, I made sure to find out why it is that folks outside the Beltway were pulling for The Donald. 

How, you may ask, would I find such people at the Rose Bowl?  Aren’t Rose Bowl fans college educated, and aren’t Trump fans all illiterate?  Apparently, that’s not the case.  Two of my friends -- both of whom are affluent Stanford alumni -- are in his corner.  One told me that he supports Trump because he would be a disruptive force in a city that is, to be blunt, “full of shit.”  The other told me that he supports Trump because it would be “funny” to have him as President.   Clearly, neither of these guys is struggling economically, notwithstanding the stereotype of the Trump voter peddled by Robinson.  What they are struggling with is the ability to take politics-as-usual seriously.  They’re not looking for a reformist tinkerer.  They’re looking for a radical reformer.  They’re looking for someone who is willing to say what he thinks, whether or not it’s politically correct.  They’re looking for someone who, far from thinking that Washington, D.C. is the center of the universe, actually feels that it could use some shaking up.  And most importantly, they’re looking for someone whose name is neither Bush nor Clinton.   Clearly, they wouldn’t fit in where I live – a place that is extremely comfortable with the status quo in virtually every respect.

Here in D.C., we trust the spouses and children of former Presidents.  When they talk intelligently, they make us feel intelligent.  When they pander – in other words, when they peddle bullcrap – oh, you know, that just means they are “playing the game.”   As long as they’re in the Club, they can make whatever deceptive claim they want to make, and we’ll write it off to the exigencies of a rough-and-tumble campaign.  And when they engage in such tactics, our media moguls will do their best to downplay the topic, much like a Victorian does her best to downplay the importance of sex.  Here in Washington, the Clintons are royalty, and Donald Trump is dirt, and it’s really that simple.  You can call out a royal for a mistake, but you don’t dwell on it.  After all, they are our heroes, and when you mock them, you’re mocking us.

Take, for example, the recent controversy about the Clintons’ statements about Bernie Sanders’ health care plan.  Wait a minute, I misspoke.  There was no such controversy.  But there should have been.  According to Chelsea Clinton – the relatively un-credentialed young woman who was paid tens of thousands of dollars just to give a single speech – Bernie Sanders “wants to dismantle Obamacare, dismantle the CHIP program, dismantle Medicare, dismantle private insurance. … I worry that if we give Republicans Democratic permission to do that, we’ll go back to an era — before we had the Affordable Care Act — that will strip millions and millions and millions of people of their health insurance.”   Not to be outdone, Hillary Clinton joined in the chorus by saying that "if you look at Sen. Sanders' proposals going back nine times in Congress, that's exactly what he's proposed [i.e., eliminating government healthcare programs]."   The impression from these statements is clear: under Sanders’ plan, working-class Americans could be right back where they were before Obamacare when they lacked health insurance. 

Yesterday, I confronted my mother about these statements, which even the Clintons must know are misleading.  If the unemployed, uneducated rural white male is the stereotypical Trump voter, my mom is the stereotypical Clinton supporter.  She’s female.  She’s college educated.  She’s a native New Yorker.  She’s a died-in-the-wool liberal.  And she’s 94.  She knows full well that Bernie Sanders won’t take away anyone’s health insurance – except to the extent he replaces it with another type of health insurance.  In fact, unlike Hillary, she supports Sanders’ single-payer health care plan.  But that doesn’t mean she would support Sanders over Hillary.  In fact, my mom quickly came to the defense of the Clintons’ statements, saying that they “were just being politicians.”  In other words, when the Clintons insult our intelligence in order to garner our support, it’s OK, because that’s the way the political game is played, whereas when Trump does the same thing, it’s shameless demagoguery.   

Eugene Robinson knows that the Clintons’ comments about Sanders’s health care plan are misleading and, to his credit, he has said as much in a recent column.  But he would never insult the Clinton voter – God-forbid – quite like he’d insult the Sanders’ voter.  In the above-referenced article about Trump, Robinson described Sanders as “[t]he other candidate [aside from Trump] touching a nerve with the cultural and economic left-behinds – minus the racism.”   Let's leave aside the fact that Robinson's statement is likely baseless (Sanders' base is composed largely of white progressives, who are no more left-behind than anyone else, and he is viewed as unlikely to compete with Hillary among those minorities who are poor),  Imagine a Washington insider writing that about a Bush or a Clinton.  We would never treat our monarchical families, or their core supporters, with such disrespect.

Washington, D.C. is supposed to be a place for publicly-spirited people.  In theory, they flock here to serve, meaning that they wish to honor the citizens of all 50 states by devising ways to help them live prosperous lives, all the while respecting the values of justice and liberty.   In practice, however, the manner in which we campaign for the support of these citizens has gone completely haywire.  We look down our noses at the very citizens we claim to serve, we insult their intelligence and their values, we mislead them with bogus campaign rhetoric, and we essentially tell them which phony politicians to vote for and which ones to mock.  Under the circumstances, when people out in the “field” (as we Washingtonians call the outside-the-Beltway residents) support rebel candidates, should we blame them, or blame ourselves?

In closing, I’m reminded about a moment this past week when candidate Trump really did have a moment in the sun.  As the ever-giving Rick Perry once said, “even a broken clock is right once a day,” and this was that time for Trump.   Ted Cruz had accused him of representing “New York values,” and Trump responded by pointing out that New York was part of the United States of America, the scene of 9/11, and the place where countless public servants gave up their lives to save others … and Cruz could stick his divisiveness where the sun doesn’t shine.   In that one instant, ironically, Donald Trump spoke for every citizen of this country who has felt insulted by others who would question their patriotism simply because of their race, color, sexual preference, political ideology, or hometown.   Democrats seem to appreciate Trump’s point, which is why they would never say something as stupid as Cruz said about “Texas values.”  We Dems don’t discriminate on the basis of race, color, creed or geographical origin.  Sadly, though, we do appear to discriminate on the basis of educational level or economic status.  And whenever we do, we sound every bit as ugly as Cruz did – and a hell of a lot more elitist.  


Ira said...

<< Democrats seem to appreciate Trump’s point, which is why they would never say something as stupid as Cruz said about “Texas values.” >>
It seems to me that they would and they do. I can't count how many times I have heard Washinton Democrats stereotype Texans as gun toting right wingnuts. Or were you being facetious???

Daniel Spiro said...

Informally, Democrats say all sorts of things. But publicly, I haven't heard, say, Democratic Presidential or Vice Presidential candidates talk that way. By contrast, Republican candidates have indeed made such statements over the year. Sarah Palin comes to mind.