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.