Hillbilly Elegy: J. D. Vance’s Personal Take on White Working-Class America

J.D. Vance’s recent book, Hillbilly Elegy, puts a spotlight on the crisis of white working-class America. It is a memoir of a young man who grew up in a culture of poverty and dysfunction but who, with a little help and some grit, eventually escaped it. The author’s anguished personal story provides insights into the challenges of pursuing success in that world. Unfortunately, it is short on realistic solutions to the underlying social and economic problems that people face there.

Although the book, published in the summer of 2016, does not mention Donald Trump, it describes a climate of anger and frustration that could be easily exploited by a demagogue. In this sense, the book helps to explain Trump’s appeal in places like rural Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

The story centers on J.D. Vance’s early life in Middletown Ohio, a community struggling to be middle class. Like many of the town’s inhabitants, his family has its roots in Appalachia–in its own case, the depressed community of Jackson, Kentucky. Accordingly, it must constantly struggle to shake off the self-destructive mindset of a culture of poverty. The book describes in detail Vance’s dysfunctional family life, personified by an unstable mother and multiple live-in fathers. It is a life filled with anger, violence, alcoholism, and drug addiction. Growing up, Vance is thus constantly haunted by anxiety and  a search for authority figures he can trust. After years of chaos, he gets a bracing wake-up call when his addicted mother demands that he pee into a bottle so she can submit a pure urine sample for a job application. To his credit, he refuses and moves in with his grandmother.

Vance attributes his redemption in large part to this elderly substitute mother, whom he calls “Mamaw.” She was no angel herself, a volatile personality, and a bad mother with her own children. But the second time around, she uses some of her hard-won lessons to enforce discipline in the young teenager and instill the importance of education.  The timing of this change of authority was fortunate, comprising Vance’s three final years of high school. An important turning point for him was when she bought a graphing calculator for him for $180, a major sacrifice, to allow him to excel in math. It was the kind of commitment on her part that ignited his own resolve and ambition.

The rest of his story is pure Horation Alger. After high school he spends four years in the Marines, where he gains confidence and learns responsibility. By the time he enters Ohio State University, he is on a tear. He  takes on two part-time jobs and gets through college in two and one-half years. He goes on to Yale Law School, finding his way to the top by listening to mentors, getting onto the Law Review Board, and learning how to develop connections. His ascent into the world of the elite confirms that mobility still works, at least for some, in today’s America.

Vance is very hard on the culture of deprivation he has left behind. People in affected communities seem resigned to despair and find excuses for failure. They typically lack ambition, resolve, or follow-through. Even when they have decent jobs, they often overspend and go into debt. Loyalty to family and a sense of honor still exist, but these attributes are warped by violence and sexism. Rather than facing up to hard truths and taking responsibility for outcomes, many blame outside forces or focus resentment on fellow citizens who take advantage of the system. It is hardly surprising that politicians like Trump attract such voters, who have little commitment to the existing system and little to lose.

Vance’s escape narrative focuses on the importance of personal factors in getting out of the morass: a helping hand (in his case, his grandmother) and the vital role of individual motivation. But, although these factors are undoubtedly necessary for personal success, they are not easily replicated without changes in the underlying social and economic conditions of depressed communities. These the author fails to address adequately.

Vance, who now writes for National Review and holds to small-government conservative maxims, makes a half-hearted reference to public involvement but basically pans it. “Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us,” he states. True, no government can simply “fix” stuff. But it is surely appropriate to recognize that government can bring in funding and raise morale by showing that poor communities have not been abandoned. Public schools, which serve as ideal community-builders, need to be properly funded, early intervention programs for children need to be introduced, jobs need to be lured through well-targeted government initiatives, and so forth.

Even in the worst of circumstances, government does more than it gets credit for. Vance does not consider, or takes for granted, the role of  tax dollars in providing at least base-line support in depressed communities: Social security, Medicaid, Medicare, and welfare provide a fundamental lifeline for their inhabitants. Moreover, he ignores the role of government in his own success. The Marine Corps, which taught him responsibility, is a tax-supported institution. To a lesser extent, so is Ohio State University. Even Yale Law School is funded partially with public dollars and is known for the public servants and justices it has produced.

Vance’s book helps to draw our attention to a problem that has been shrugged off for too long. His own life is an example of how personal initiative allows some to escape it. But to ignore the potential aid that we as a nation can bring to such communities is to condemn the vast majority of their inhabitants to a future of frustration and despair.

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Some Questions for Betsy DeVos

Everyone has a right to their own opinions. This statement applies to billionaire Republican Betsy DeVos as much as any American. Nonetheless, Mrs. DeVos’s record as an aggressive lobbyist of tax-subsidized private education and her open hostility to public schools raises obvious questions about her qualifications to be Secretary of Education, for which she has been selected by Donald Trump.

Mrs. DeVos’ use of her large fortune to promote vouchers and unregulated charter schools in her home state of Michigan is hardly a secret. She has been a major funder of the Great Lakes Education Project, an organization committed to sheltering the charter school industry from undue public oversight. She and her husband have been major supporters of taxpayer-subsidized school vouchers, spending over five million dollars in support of a ballot initiative to make vouchers legal in Michigan through a revision of the state’s constitution. And she has consistently attacked public education because it is, well, public.

In spite of a few bumps in the road (the pro-voucher referendum lost by a landslide), the DeVos family can feel pleased by the results of its two decades of activism. They have been perhaps the major force in bringing about the deregulation and partial privatization of Michigan’s education landscape. Unfortunately, because the privatization has been accompanied by an almost total lack of transparency, the state’s citizens have little idea of how their tax money for non-public schools is being spent. And for many parents, children, and teachers, the changes have brought chaos with no corresponding improvement in quality. Stephen Henderson of the Detroit Free Press, who is not normally predisposed to oppose charter schools (he sends both of his children to one of the better ones), uses terms like “wild West”, “free-for-all,” and “illusion of choice” to describe the educational situation in Michigan.

It goes without saying that any Secretary of Education needs to be concerned about more than ideology and pet projects. Students who go to public schools in the U.S. make up approximately 85% of the total. Any competent Secretary of Education must deal open-mindedly with public as well as non-public education and, at the very least, retain a balanced approach. Given Betsy DeVos’ controversial background, the Senate Health and Education Committee will need to hold her feet to the fire in the confirmation process. Following are some of the kind of questions that might be asked:

1. The  annual DPK/Gallup poll consistently (here, here, and here) shows large majorities of Americans supporting their neighborhood public schools. It shows Americans’ strong opposition to taxpayer-subsidized vouchers for private schools. And it shows Americans strongly preferring working to improve their public schools rather than replacing them. How would you respect these mainstream views?

2. Some states have public school systems that rate highly by international standards. Studies show that Massachusetts, New Jersey, Virginia, and several other states are competitive with some of the highest scoring countries in the world. Are you open to studying their success stories as a way of improving the nation’s public schools?

3. Public schools have long been required to be accountable and transparent to taxpayers. Yet many reformers seek to exempt charters, also funded by taxpayer dollars, from the same standards of accountability and transparency. Most charters are either for-profit or run by private management companies. Why shouldn’t these entities reveal the salaries of their top executives, the rent they charge for school buildings, competitive bidding practices for services or lack thereof, and other matters of possible abuse? And why shouldn’t charters be required to adhere to standards of academic performance in the same way as public schools?

4. This fall, the NAACP, which has long been open-minded about charter schools, called for a moratorium on opening more of them. One of their major concerns was that choice in many communities has helped to perpetuate, and even accentuate, de facto segregation. This is because it has caused a form of self-segregation where whites have used so-called choice to flee integrated schools. If this is indeed true, how would you respond to it?

5. And finally, how transparent do you intend to be as a federal administrator and what kinds of benchmarks would you have to allow the public to both understand your goals and assess your furtherance of those goals?

 

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Team of Wreckers

Donald Trump campaigned as the man who would shake up Washington. He was the anti-candidate, the enemy of political correctness, the scourge of the establishment, the “only one” who could turn things around. With hyperbole and swagger, Trump presented himself as the agent of upheaval.

Although many hoped he would lean to the mainstream once elected, Trump has shown he will govern the way he campaigned. In his recent choices for cabinet secretaries and White House positions, he has exacted a kind of revenge against all those who opposed him. Mitt Romney, in front of whom he dangled and then withdrew the job of secretary of state, was a symbol of his larger purpose. Disdaining the wisdom of experience, Trump has used surprise and even whimsy (e.g., his choice of the unqualified Ben Carson for HUD and the clueless Rick Perry for the Department of Energy) to humble his opponents and project his uncontested authority.

The candidates themselves, a combination of wealthy tycoons with top-down leadership styles and ideological extremists inimical to compromise, generally echo Trump’s overbearing approach. In sync with the President-elect’s promise to change Washington, the candidates seem more likely to whip and chasten the departments they will lead than make them work according to their given mission.

Among this Team of Wreckers, for example, are billionaire Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education, an avid opponent of public schools; Senator Jeff Sessions for Attorney General, a narrow interpreter of voting rights and proponent of deporting undesirables; Congressman Tom Price for Secretary of Health and Human Services, a hard-liner determined to get the government out of health and human services; fast-food magnate Andrew Puzder for Secretary of Labor, a libertarian who opposes unions and a livable minimum wage; and Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt for head of the Environmental Protection Agency, a climate-change denier currently suing the agency he would lead.

Perhaps even more consequential, Trump has appointed two individuals who perfectly represent the wrecking philosophy to critical positions in the White House, neither requiring Senate confirmation: Steven Bannon to the office of White House Strategist and General Michael Flynn to National Security Advisor.

Bannon, former head of Breitbart News and enabler of the alt-right, would be the Trump administration’s demolition expert. Bannon has described himself as “virulently anti-establishment,” someone who “wants to bring everything crashing down,” and, perhaps with some bravado, a “Leninist.” He sees the world in bipolar terms and shares Trump’s zero-sum view of winners and losers. As Breitbart chief, he has given the country a clinic on how to wage a war on the establishment he despises: through the targeting and discrediting of enemies and out-groups, the dissemination of conspiracy theories, and the mobilization of an army of alt-right sympathizers.

Bannon’s way of defining the “establishment” serves his purposes well. For him, the term includes not just the progressive left but the “institutional Republican Party.” It does not include, oddly but apparently, the sort of plutocratic elites and Republican rightists that his boss has picked to administer his government. Gannon’s anti-establishment battle translates into an effort not simply to disempower its leaders and opinion-makers. It would seek to discredit the mainstream worldview that they and most Americans accept, one that embraces optimism, freedom, inclusiveness, and today’s globalism. In its place, he would promote an authoritarian nationalism that polarizes rather than unites and singles out certain groups for their non-conformity and otherness.

While Bannon works on general strategy, Michael Flynn as National Security chief would focus on threats and dangers. Like Bannon, Flynn looks upon much of the “establishment,” especially elements of the intelligence community (e.g. the CIA) with disdain. Flynn seems to relish the role of outlier and contrarian. His abrupt firing as the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency for poor management and an authoritarian style of leadership has likely only reinforced his defiance.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Flynn is drawn to the same alarmist, conspiracy-laden view of the world as others in the Trump inner circle. Most specifically, his view of Islam as an existential threat to Western civilization, one that carries little nuance, makes him unusually confrontational. He is an active member of ACT for America, the largest anti-Muslim group in the country and believes that sharia law, a red flag for rabid Islamophobes like Pamela Geller, is a threat to America’s constitutional order. Flynn is dangerous because he is prepared, against all evidence, to treat America’s small Muslim minority as a fifth column within our democratic system.

With his attempt to install his version of kakistocracy (government run by the worst, least qualified, or most unscrupulous persons), Trump has shown a brazen disregard for the responsibilities of office. One looks desperately in Trump’s chosen appointments for any voices who could provide a check to his impulses. One sees none so far. The common good, fairness and justice, and the people’s rights and freedoms are all potentially at risk. Under these circumstances there can be no normalization of this presidency. The consequences will soon be all too obvious, and it is time now to prepare for resistance.

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On Approaching the Coming Trump Administration

It’s been a rough few weeks for democrats and progressives in the wake of a shocking electoral loss. It has not been easy to absorb. Part of the reason is that we on the left have been a bit too smug about the forces of history. Clearly, these we have too lazily perceived to be leaning in our favor. Alas, after all the talk of demographic inevitability, electoral blue walls, and scientific polling, we came out on the short end of the stick. In the aftermath, it’s time to look for lessons and a way forward.

One obvious lesson is to keep our optimism in check. Campaign enthusiasm is not a bad thing, but it needs to be accompanied by a gritty kind of skepticism about the world and those we rely on to interpret it. Many of us are still resting on easy assumptions. For instance, there is the notion out there that Trump voters are in for a big shock when they come to realize that his campaign promises (the Wall, the rounding up of “illegals,” the targeting of Muslims, the ripping up of trade agreements) cannot be fulfilled. The assumption is that they are ready to be awakened to the reality of Trump.

I find this overly hopeful. Much of Trump’s base watch him perform with the same mixture of credulity and make-believe as they do when watching a pro-wrestling match. They take Trump as a spectacle, a confirmation of their passions, a human reprimand of the establishment. Much less so do they see him as an oracle whose promises will inevitably come true. As long as they perceive him to be on their side, their capacity for support will probably be unlimited.

Moreover, if Trump finds himself reminded of his unfulfilled promises and inconsistencies, he knows only too well how to mobilize his followers in his behalf. He can question the truth of negative assertions from critics, attack and blame his opponents for recalcitrance, or create side issues calculated to arouse the base (for example, asserting this week that flag burners should be thrown into jail or stripped of citizenship). Trumpians have been shown throughout the campaign to be clay in the master’s hands, open to suggestion and innuendo and impervious to reasoned argument from other quarters.

This does not at all mean that Trump is immune from voter backlash and disillusionment, even on the part of his base. But such a backlash would likely be in response to a bold turn of policy that would strike unsuspected. Most likely it would have a major impact on people’s sense of security, their lifestyle, or their pocketbook.

The possibility of such a turn of events is very real. Trump’s electoral victory was built on a political house of cards, a bed of contradictions. His demagogic populism and the Republican Party’s conservative ideology stand in uneasy juxtaposition. This contradiction is becoming increasingly stark as Trump chooses his White House advisors and cabinet members. The question that begs to be answered is whose interests will be served by this administration. Will it be the interests of frustrated workers and bypassed middle Americans or the rich?

So far it appears that positions of power are going largely to the billionaire class and its friends: privatizers, deregulators, despoilers, energy magnates, and financiers. In many respects, their view of government, taxes, regulations, and economic priorities gibe with the agenda of Paul Ryan and the Republican Party’s ideological right. Much of this agenda, subservient though it is to the interests of the investing class and harmful to the public good, will be passed without undue controversy. In spite of likely strong opposition from progressives, conservative populists will raise scarcely an eyebrow, given past inattention to macro-economic issues and sufferance of small-government propaganda.

Two possible areas of policy-making that might cause Trump some trouble, however, are health and education. Right-wing policies in these two sectors could indeed upset large numbers of people across the board. Health care needy citizens and parents of school-age children are two of the most politically active groups of voters. They are sure to view these as life-and-death issues. Even with a favorable Congress, Trump ignores such folks at his peril.

It is especially significant that Trump’s two cabinet picks for Health and Human Services and Education, Congressman Thomas Price and billionaire philanthropist Betsy Devos, respectively, are both full-bore ideologues and radical privatizers. Price has made it clear that he is in favor not only of of eliminating (rather than reforming) Obamacare, but of privatizing aspects of Medicare and Social Security, which were off the table during the presidential campaign. For her part, Betsy Devos, well known as the “voucher” lady in the U.S. school debate,  comes as an avowed enemy of public schools and teacher unions, and a champion of school privatization.

Progressives, of course, have their work cut out for them on a long list of issues that include economic equity, the environment, civil rights, immigration, and court appointments. But health and education will be where Trump is most vulnerable and where the left can re-energize itself. Much of the damage of a Trump presidency can be contained if we do our homework and make a point of identifying with a broad range of voters, including disillusioned Trumpians, on these two key issues.

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Massachusetts Question 2 on Charter School Expansion: Not Just About Education But Democracy

Trump v. Clinton may be the big story of of 2016, but let us not forget some of the critical issues down the ballot this year. A prominent example is Massachusetts’ Question 2 on charter school expansion. The initiative potentially affects not just the future of public education in a state known for its high educational standards, but the freedom of citizens to control education policy in their own communities.

What exactly is mandated under Question 2? A “yes” vote on the initiative would authorize the state Board of Education to approve up to 12 new charter schools per year for the foreseeable future, going vastly beyond the current cap of 120 charter schools in the state. It is an open-ended initiative that seems to assume that charter school enrollment will always get larger and public school enrollment will continuously shrink. It suggests a move toward a two-tier system of education, if not outright privatization. Of concern to many, the measure lacks provisions for flexibility or compromise. It is a top-down initiative giving the Board of Education, filled with charter backers appointed by the current governor, authority to decide unilaterally where to locate such schools, regardless of the will of the community so targeted.

Supporters of Question 2, most notably the Republican governor and pro-business groups inside and outside of the state, argue for increasing the number of charter schools because they offer citizens unhappy with existing public schools a “choice.” Charter schools offer benign competition with public schools under the theory that the more schools there are, the better. Supporters even portray charter expansion as strengthening public education (which voters favor) since charters, in supporters’ words, are simply public schools in another form.

Opponents, who include almost all the school committees, town and city councils, and labor organizations in Massachusetts, take issue with this representation. For one thing, they point out that charter schools are not “public schools” in any meaningful sense since they do not answer to the communities where they are located. Charters are accountable neither to parent-teacher associations, nor to the town councils and local tax-payers who must fund them.  Indeed, they are are not publicly transparent, being responsible only to their own directors, managing boards, and the state board that authorizes them.

Furthermore, the charters exist under a different set of rules than public schools. They generally are not required to serve all of the children within the community, especially those who are challenged or disabled. This relieves them of major burdens that normal public schools willingly accept. And they are free to expel students who they view as problems, which often makes it easier for them to demonstrate better academic results than regular public schools. Even so, charter schools on average perform little better than public schools, if at all.

But opponents’ fundamental point is that the problem of failing schools is not lack of school “choice,” but lack of adequate school funding in those poor communities that lag behind. Inner city school districts receive much less funding than their suburban counterparts because of a shortage of tax resources. While Question 2, if passed, would add to the number of schools in disadvantaged communities, it would not address the question of inequity between school districts. On the contrary, it would put increasing demands on the finances of the local communities by disproportionately shifting available funds away from their existing public schools.

On top of the above considerations, there is one more fact underlying opponents’ case: Massachusetts is renowned for having the best public schools in the nation. It has ranked #1 on the U.S.’s long-standing NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) test for years. If it were a country, Massachusetts would rank among the top ten nations in the world in math, reading, and science. Admittedly, it needs to do more to support its poorer districts. But why would anyone want to alter radically a public school system that excels by world standards?

There is a reason, of course, why Question 2 is on the ballot at all. The simple answer is that certain folks with a lot of cash and influence realize that there’s money to be made in charter schools. Investments in for-profit charters and services for non-profit charters have proven to be hugely profitable for entrepreneurs and hedge fund investors looking to put their money to use. They have thus been a major force in efforts to enable ballot initiatives like Question 2 and to argue for them. Meanwhile, the only entities with the funds to oppose such initiatives are national and local teachers unions. They have found firm allies in the parents, students, local  communities, and general public that value public education.

The prodigious amount of money spent on both sides of Question 2 gives an idea of how high the stakes are. Not surprisingly, the billionaires have the advantage. Figures as of October 27 show that they have outspent charter opponents by over 50%, accounting for 19 million dollars as compared with opponents’ 13 million. Most of the pro-charter money comes from out-of-state sources (82%) and from untraceable, “dark money” (76%), except for major individual contributions by the Walmart heirs and other anti-union forces. In contrast, anti-charter money is all traceable (mostly to union organizations) and is less dependent on out-of-state contributions (48%).

Pro-charter forces know if they win on Question 2 in a state with the highest standards in the nation, they have a green light for the marketization of education anywhere in the U.S. Those opposing the initiative know that public education as a cherished foundation of our democracy is on the line. Ten days away from the election, the polls are saying it’s too close to call.

 

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Trump Would Likely Do to America What Berlusconi Did to Italy

While many of Donald Trump’s supporters concede that he is crude and dangerous, they justify voting for him because they believe he could “shake up” Washington. Trump, they claim, would not act like a typical corrupt politician because he is too rich to be owned by anyone. He would transcend the present political dysfunction and set the system straight.

But even if one accepts Trump’s “shake up” capabilities, what evidence is there that he would shake things up in the public interest? Trump’s wealth and the self-promoting way he pursues it even as he seeks public office raise red flags about his ability to separate the public good from the good of Trump. His frequent bending of the system to benefit his empire and his past payoffs to politicians show how much he disdains the idea of a transparent democracy accountable to average citizens. Shaking up the system in the Trump manner would just as likely lead to a shake down: further corruption in the system to reward himself and those he favors.

For an ugly example of this syndrome in practice, it might be useful to recall another self-promoter in the Trump mold: the brash and egotistical Silvio Berlusconi of Italy. Berlusconi, a media mogul, presented himself as a solution to his country’s dysfunctional political system at one of its vulnerable moments. On the basis of showmanship and demagoguery, he rose to power and ruled Italy on and off for ten years between 1994 and 2011. The consequences were not pretty.

Indeed, rather than rescuing Italy from its troubles, Berlusconi used the country as a stepping stone to his own aggrandizement. When coming to power, he backpedaled on the promises he had made to insulate his media empire from politics. On the contrary, Berlusconi expanded it to the point where he was able to sideline most of his competitors and control the free flow of information. Members of the national press who refused to go along he attacked with all the powers of the state apparatus.

Idolized by the distressed masses whose anti-establishment anger he helped to fuel, Berlusconi went on to play the role of clownish cynic rather than reformer. As he amused his followers with his ridicule of political norms, he used his power to enhance his business interests, even to the point of crafting specific legislation to shelter his corporation, Mediaset. No lover of democratic checks and balances, he waged a war of attrition against judges and the court system to help his enterprises avoid prosecution. In the meantime, he neglected the country’s economic woes and its increasing debt. He left office in disgrace in 2011 under pressure from the European Union as Italy struggled to avert disaster.

Unbelievably, history could well repeat itself in the case of Donald Trump. Like Berlusconi, Trump is used to seeing the world in terms of his own personal and economic interests (political convictions, by contrast, play a strikingly subdued role in his Weltanshauung). If anything, his narcissistic tendencies towards self-promotion go even further than Berlusconi’s, as he pushes his hotels and golf courses in lock-step with his campaign for public office. Given his fierce protectiveness of the “Trump” brand, his promises of creating a blind trust if elected is surely as implausible as Berlusconi’s.

Aside from devotion to his own cause, Trump shares Berlusconi’s psychological insecurity and intolerance of criticism. Such qualities augur poorly for a leader’s capacity to shepherd a democracy and safeguard its freedoms. His threat to sue newspapers over “unfair” reporting, his vow to put pressure on a judge he doesn’t like, and his threat to “pay back” enemies reflect an inability to distinguish between personal and public exercises of power. It also reflects a sad misunderstanding of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.

What is perhaps most disheartening in Italy’s case was the inability of voters to hold Berlusconi accountable for his corrupt actions. Normally in democracies, when elected leaders show themselves more devoted to padding their own nests than holding to their promises, the citizenry reacts by dumping them. Italy’s electorate apparently was so jaded that it was willing to tolerate repetitions of the same treatment. It re-elected Berlusconi three times in spite of uninterrupted scandals.

One critic surmises that Italy’s voters were willing to forgive Berlusconi because, in spite of his failure to deliver, he “sanctified” their prejudices. Could it be that Trump might get away with the same trick?

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Populism and Donald Trump

Historically, the term populism described a movement of farmers and workers formed in the 1890s to counter America’s corporate monopolies. Its purpose was to put a leash on unbridled economic power. Spurred on by the anger of common people, the movement spelled out a clear agenda of reforms that later inspired progressive legislation to regulate business and level the playing field .

By the mid-20th century, however, “populism” appeared to lose its connection with progressivism and reform. Instead, it became identified with conservative discontent centered around crime, welfare, racial integration, and civil rights. Its anger was aimed at  intellectuals, poor people dependent on government, and emerging groups seeking a voice, notably women, gays, and minorities.

No longer reform-oriented, this new populism resembled the old populism only in its ability to harness the grievances of frustrated Americans. Politicians like George Wallace, Richard Nixon, and Pat Buchanan were able to reach these voters by appealing not only to raw prejudice but to fear of social and economic disempowerment. Their tactics were often adopted, though more subtly, by Ronald Reagan, G. H. W. Bush, and other Republicans seeking a wedge against Democrats. The formula worked well for many years as a means of attracting white working class votes and securing a power base in the South.

With the rise of conservative talk radio, Fox News, and websites like Breitbart.com, populist appeals to the anxieties of Americans have only increased in recent years. Certain voices in the media (e.g., Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones, Glen Beck) and politicians (Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Steven King) have been purveyors of these appeals, relying on conspiracy theory, undocumented claims, and angry hyperbole. They have both fed on and contributed to a general disillusionment with government and civic compromise.

Donald Trump, known for his earlier contributions to the “birther” movement, has taken naturally to the populist mode in his presidential campaign. A master of the coarse and the outrageous, Trump adds a definitely new flavor to the genre, dwelling on his own favorite topics and themes. Early on he called for draconian measures against illegal immigrants and American Muslims. Later he displayed his signature pugnacity on ISIS, climate change, crime, and political correctness, all red meat issues for conservatives. But he has also appealed to the economic grievances of workers, a traditionally left-wing stance. He has not only robustly promoted trade protectionism, but defended social programs like social security and universal medical insurance.

Thus Trump’s populism takes on a bipartisan thrust. He caters to independents by avoiding hot-button cultural issues (e.g. abortion and gay rights) and by attacking establishment politicians of both parties. His foreign policy, such as it is, draws criticism from experts generally. One writer calls him the “perfect populist” because of his skill in transcending normal party allegiances.

But does Trump’s populist calculus add up? Will it gain him a winning number of America’s voters? Probably not. The problem for Trump is that his populist causes may never capture a plurality, let alone a majority, of the electorate because discontent, while high, is still countered by some degree of pragmatism and hope. For every passionate voter he gains on immigration, he probably loses at least one Republican suburban housewife or college-educated independent unable to stomach the risk of a Trump presidency.

Win or lose, Trump has already taken American politics another step toward dysfunction. He has shown how easy it is to mobilize a sizable portion of the populace by identifying and homing in on its palpable grievances. Until we can deal with the ever increasing disparities within our nation, we had better get used to politicians making raw appeals to those who fail at its edges.

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