Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Uh oh: Trump has a coherent narrative

Donald Trump is a kind of idiot savant of demagoguery. Too lazy, ego-driven and solipsistic to analyze the facts of any business deal, let alone policy question, he does have an acute radar for the kinds of scapegoating that large numbers of people will respond to.

So far, though, with the American public as a whole, his credibility has been undercut by his boasting, his schoolyard insults, his lack of impulse control, his whining. Policy aside, a disinterested six-year old should be able to see through him. as 70 percent of Americans have to some degree.

Now, however, in the wake of Britain's primal scream, someone has put together for him a more coherent narrative that I fear could be very powerful, delivered today in a speech in a steel and aluminum shredding plant outside Pittsburgh. Never mind that the narrative fundamentally false -- it has enough elements of truth in it to seem plausible.

Like Obama's speeches, this speech has a historical sweep from the country's founding through Obama's presidency (and Hillary Clinton's tenure as Secretary of State).  While it projects a duce-like can-doism, it eschews direct boasting, as well as racial or religious scapegoating. The enemies are American elites and foreign nations, with the Clintons as the chief avatars of the domestic despoiling class. Trump is always all about blame, but here the domestic betrayers overshadow the overseas cheaters and predatory migrants.

The speech begins with a stab-in-the-back narrative:
The legacy of Pennsylvania steelworkers lives in the bridges, railways and skyscrapers that make up our great American landscape.

But our workers' loyalty was repaid with betrayal.

Our politicians have aggressively pursued a policy of globalization - moving our jobs, our wealth and our factories to Mexico and overseas.

Globalization has made the financial elite who donate to politicians very wealthy. But it has left millions of our workers with nothing but poverty and heartache.
It borrows the "system is rigged" rhetoric of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, equates immigration with betrayal of dispossessed workers of (implictly) all ethnicities, and casts the Clintons as riggers-in chief:
The people who rigged the system for their benefit will do anything - and say anything - to keep things exactly as they are.

The people who rigged the system are supporting Hillary Clinton because they know as long as she is in charge nothing will ever change.

The inner cities will remain poor.

The factories will remain closed.

The borders will remain open.

The special interests will remain firmly in control.

Hillary Clinton and her friends in global finance want to scare America into thinking small - and they want to scare the American people out of voting for a better future.
It puts the founding fathers on the side of the angels (and yes, business-friendly parties from the country's founding through the nineteenth century were protectionists). It also mingles Republican love for low taxes and deregulation with renewed protectionism:
George Washington said that "the promotion of domestic manufactur[ing] will be among the first consequences to flow from an energetic government.”

Alexander Hamilton spoke frequently of the "expediency of encouraging manufactur[ing] in the United States." The first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, warned that: "The abandonment of the protective policy by the American government… must produce want and ruin among our people."

Our original Constitution did not even have an income tax. Instead, it had tariffs - emphasizing taxation of foreign, not domestic, production.

Yet today, 240 years after the Revolution, we have turned things completely upside-down.

We tax and regulate and restrict our companies to death, then we allow foreign countries that cheat to export their goods to us tax-free.

As a result, we have become more dependent on foreign countries than ever before.

Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s time to declare our economic independence once again.
It borrows rhetoric from Obama -- looking back to a time when public policy was committed to shared prosperity -- and from Elizabeth Warren, declaring that galloping inequality was a result of political choice, not global economic forces:
America became the world's dominant economy by becoming the world's dominant producer.

The wealth this created was shared broadly, creating the biggest middle class the world had ever known.

But then America changed its policy from promoting development in America, to promoting development in other nations.

We allowed foreign countries to subsidize their goods, devalue their currencies, violate their agreements, and cheat in every way imaginable.

Trillions of our dollars and millions of our jobs flowed overseas as a result.
It has just enough truth to glue the lies together.  Admitting China into the WTO spurred manufacturing job flight. GDP growth has slowed in this century. Hamilton and Lincoln favored protective tariffs.  Hillary Clinton supported past trade deals. She will also probably find a fig leaf to approve the TPP.

Its solutions are simplistic: negotiate better trade deals, impose punitive tariffs at will. Cut taxes and regulation like so many Gordian knots.

But again: there's no boasting, no ethnic scapegoating, no promises of violence or rights violations. Just a blame-the-elites narrative that echoes Elizabeth Warren's meta-message (with mostly different policy content): policies favored by U.S. elites have triggered galloping inequality.

I would hope that Trump has personally discredited himself enough, and will continue to do so, for a majority of American voters to reject him. But I wouldn't swear to it.  And a better, less me-focused right-wing nationalist might put a narrative like this over the top in the not-too-distant future.

Laugh if you will at the backdrop of aluminum scrap behind Trump -- a literal heap of garbage, as wags on Twitter put it. But if this speech signals a makeover that Trump can stick to --and past history suggests he can't -- we may be entering a dangerous new phase of the campaign.

Update: Nate Cohn, the New York Times' political polling analyst, cites evidence today that Trump's economic message "holds considerable appeal to white working class Democrats."

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