So wonders Christopher Lydon on Radio Open Source. Lydon's recent guest, Ron Suskind, provides one of the more compelling, and chilling explanations of the Trump phenomenon that I have heard.
Suskind harkens back to the Bush White House. The Bushites, he says, were in the business of making reality, inventing stuff on the ground. They were faith based; or fantasy based. They created reality, they did not feel constrained by it. Think "weapons of mass destruction," think "mission accomplished," think about the exploitation and exaggeration of the terror threat during the 2004 election cycle. The Bush White house felt itself loosed from the barriers and bonds of reality. Their words didn't necessarily mean what they said: they were using code words, tapping into deep nativist urges, into people's senses of their identity and dislocation. They showed the way. They showed that conjuring a fictional reality works in today's America.
Suskind means that the Bush White House, like the GOP more generally was playing to Middle America. Middle America, he says, is a different culture from what we have on the West Coast and in the Northeast corridor. In many ways these cultures are as different as the North and South before the Civil war.
Trump is carrying this realization forward. It results in a map like this, below. It represents 55 million Trump voters:
"Those people on the coasts, they are on the updraft of of the global economy," says Trump. Not "you." "Don't worry about these shiny objects like abortion, gay rights, or affirmative action," says Trump, "but do worry about immigration."
"You are in a race to the bottom with people who are happy to get $3/day" says Trump to Middle America. "You are left behind. I'm going to be the guy who bloodies everybody on the coasts on your behalf: the cognoscenti, the establishment (even though I lived among them and I have golden towers on both coasts)."
The folks in Middle America are not idiots, says Suskind. They're just like we are on the coasts. They vote based on their self-interest and Trump's playing to it. But it's a curious kind of self-interest: it's the self interest of destructively lashing out, it's the self interest of getting back at "those people on the coasts." Trump is foolish, he's lying, he doesn't know what's what, he doesn't know his history.... but all that doesn't matter. He's pissing off the people on the coast, and that's enough.
Like football, Trump occurs in the media, on television. What will he do next? We can't take our eyes off him. What will he say next...., it doesn't matter; the more outrageous, the better. It's reality TV values. Just make sure the eyes are always on you! Even if what you say is nonsensical, even if you lied, even if you flip flop a hundred times... they can't take their eyes off you. We are frozen in the high beam of Trump's occurrence. He understands this power.
In real life people make mistakes. We apologize; we move on; we try to do better. But in politics we have this fantasy: we expect our politicians to run the table and never say anything wrong. Politicians forced to cater to this fantasy get diminished over time. They get smaller and narrower, they get whittled down. We have been whittling Hillary Clinton down to size for 30 years.
But Trump has broken free from the straightjacket of reality. What he says is racist, pure bigotry, it's misogynistic.... and it vanishes. No apologies, no scandal. What happened to "rapists, murderers," what happened to the Khan's and the Gold star mother? .... vanished. We've moved on... What's next?
Hillary Clinton is up against a master of creating "reality" on cue, in the glare of Television. He's everywhere. "It's the feat of Sheherazade," says Suskind, "Trump is managing to tell a story over and over in different ways so as not to get his head chopped off."
And he's very hard to counter. For Hillary Clinton, who is not easily authentic and fresh on cue, on camera, it's particularly hard. "Clinton represents the establishment that has largely failed in the eyes of many Americans," says Suskind. There is a yearning for structural and fundamental change in the United States, and Hillary Clinton does not represent change. "Trump, to many people, represents change: it could be disastrous change, change that ruins America for years to come, but he is change and she's not."
Trump is here to overthrow the status quo at a time when many people feel the status quo is inadequate to America's needs; Clinton is here to defend the status quo. In Texarkana, Ohio, the hills of Kentucky, and many places in this country, economic issues have festered and worsened over decades, and we have not addressed it. And people in Middle America don't see a better life for their kids. They don't see a way forward. It's not working for them and so they are receptive to flipping the existing order. "I want someone who will bloody all of you," says the Trump voter, "someone who will punch you all in the nose on my behalf." Trump is that man. They don't know what Trump wants to do, but he'll bloody the people on the coasts and punch them in the nose. And the more he drives us crazy, the louder that we protest about the dangers of Trump and how horrible he is, the louder they cheer. The more they love him.
Trump is their voice. He's created a narrative that the disenfranchised and left behind in Middle America feel comfortable with, says Suskind. He's their avatar, their ombudsman, their talisman. They like the way he walks and the way he points; and they don't read the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, ever. They love it that he drives people on the glorious coastlines on the updraft of the global economy crazy.
Suskind was telling an anecdote from Mark McKinnon, a Bush advisor, when Bush was president. But Suskind meant this anecdote to apply to Trump: "You people on the coasts think he's an idiot. Keep attacking him for the malaprops, the things he said, because, you know what they don't like? They don't like you. So when you attack him it's good for us; our numbers go up. Keep it up."
It's the song Kellyanne Conway is singing.
"Trump gets that," says Suskind. "He understands that every time he gets attacked he seems more and more of them and not of us, and his numbers rise."
Will there be a reveal from Trump? Has he himself planned the closing act? "Sure," says Suskind. "Trump must think about this all the time."
Probably when you get into October, maybe late October, he's going to have a moment of crafted intimacy, which is going to be his reveal; where he's going to say, look, I've said things that I regret. It's a show, folks. Here's what I really believe. I'm really you're guy. Let me tell you why. And he'll go low in that register. And he's good; he's got a very strong cadence like an actor. He's practiced. And he'll do that and he'll seem to be evolving in a way that will kill off some doubts and engender some sense of possibility. People want change. That's what Hillary has to worry about. She needs to beat him to that punch if she's gonna win that popular vote.He could win it. But I think not.
Bernard Avishai listens to this and says Hillary needs to take control of the story of this election. Easier said than done. These candidates will remain the record holders for highest disapproval ratings. They have both smashed the previous record set by Barry Goldwater in 1964.
This campaign promises to stay negative. As to the remaining states in Middle America it seems unlikely that Clinton can significantly sway them her way. The good news for us on the hated coasts is that even with every state that is significantly in play in Trump's column, the Electoral College is likely to go to Clinton according to Nate Silver.
The current chances of Hillary Clinton winning any of the electoral votes from Middle America are de minimis, to use a highfalutin term from the coasts riding the updrafts of the global economy:
Idaho (1.0%) Montana (17.0%) North Dakota (6.8%)
Wyoming (1.5%) South Dakota (12.0%) Utah (3.0%)
Nebraska (5.0%) Kansas (9.0%) Missouri (11.8%)
Kentucky ( 2.0%) Indiana (5.9%) Tennessee (1.5%)
Texas (8.6%) Oklahoma (0.7%) Louisiana (1.7%)
Wyoming (1.5%) Mississipi (2.6%) Arkansas (1.8%)
Missouri (11.8%) South Carolina (9.2%) West Virginia (1.8%)Hillary Clinton is not going to make a play for these Middle America voters this election. The question is, will she be able to engage them once she's president? The golden lining for her may be that she'll work from a very low level of expectation. Her unfavorability ratings, one would think, can only go down.
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