A friend and I have periodic email exchanges about politics. He’s conservative but smart. We used to have these discussions over dinner, but the cost in broken plates was getting too high.
Yesterday, he wrote to ask whether, given the struggle among Democrats to generate broad-based enthusiasm for a candidate, the “Anybody but Trump” sentiment will be sufficient to turn out voters to beat him.
It’s a good question. Here’s my reply.
Being against something usually evokes less enthusiasm than being for something. Unless the something we oppose is perceived as a big enough threat. German occupiers in WW II roused the resistance, as did the English colonization of India. Our instinct is to throw off the yoke of foreign occupiers. Some of us would put Trump in that category.
There is plenty of enthusiasm for Sanders, and not just among the young. He is currently the only ascendant candidate generating much passion. But most of us don’t want socialism and don't believe the country wants it. If we're right, Bernie will lose, probably badly.
So we cast about for someone we think can win. For someone who, other than Bernie, can generate the kind of enthusiasm that gets people out to vote, as Obama did.
I don’t know if we will settle on such a person, or who it might be. If our nominee is uninspiring, whether Trump wins will turn on how badly non-supporters want to get rid of him.
That depends, in my opinion, on how well people focus on the danger he poses to our democracy, environment and opportunities for anyone not rich. Those are seen by many as either abstractions or problems for the future, and we’re not so great at focusing on problems that aren’t right in our faces: see, eg, climate change.
The anticipated benefits of a Trump presidency are not panning out for many of his supporters, despite the roaring economy. Coal has not made a comeback, nor rust-belt manufacturing. Healthcare is getting more and more expensive for, and less and less available to, people who are poor or of modest means, many of whom are also waiting for the revival of their industries that Trump promised.
What is unclear to me, still, is how strong Trump’s cultural appeal will be in this next election. A lot of people, for over-diagnosed reasons, are racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, and want to keep the little woman barefoot and pregnant. Trump's rhetoric tells them that he is too. Will they continue to be led by those prejudices, or will they realize they’ve been following a con man? We’ll see.
Of course there are plenty who think they have a legitimate self-interest in having Trump in office. Certain well-off segments of society, fossil fuel businesses, Second Amendment die-hards, Christian fundamentalists. Personally, I think his policies will backfire for even those groups, or many of them. Climate change will hurt their businesses. The huge deficit will beggar our infrastructure and leave us handcuffed to respond to the next downturn. Cutting off immigration will turn us into Japan, given our slowing population growth rate. Huge class divides are not good for anyone’s business, long term. Consider what happened in France about the time our little country was getting started.
Then there’s the war risk. Trump is brutish in his approach to other nations. That worked for the Romans and the Vikings, but it’s not a good strategy in these days of nukes rattling around the world.
I used to think Trump was the problem. Now I worry it is us. Who are we? What do we stand for? I was surprised when he got elected. I blamed him. If he gets re-elected, there will be no one to blame but ourselves.