Sanity about Donald Trump

The first thing to understand about the campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination is that all of these candidates are truly despicable people. Yes, every last one of them.

Some of this stems from the very nature of politics in the modern United States. As Will Rogers apparently put it, “once a man wants to hold a Public Office, he is absolutely no good for honest work,”[1] and with the possible exception of Bernie Sanders—who can hardly expect to win a popularity contest in the U.S. by identifying himself as a socialist—this applies to the Democratic candidates as well.

And that fact likely partly accounts for the rise of both Donald Trump and Sanders in their respective contests.[2] As Eugene Robinson explains,

One particularly telling moment, I thought, came when Trump was asked about his previous support of Democrats, including likely nominee Hillary Clinton. The gist of Trump’s answer was this: Hey, I gave lots of money to politicians of both parties because that’s what rich and powerful people do, and in exchange they get access and influence. It’s a rotten system but that’s the way it works, and let’s not pretend otherwise.

I think that exchange might help befuddled politicians and pundits understand the Trump insurrection. That is how the system works. For voters who feel powerless and marginalized, I believe it is refreshing and perhaps liberating to hear an insider talk honestly about the role big money plays in politics.[3]

But let’s not forget something. When Trump announced his candidacy, it was reported that he had paid actors to bolster the size of the crowd for the occasion.[4] As Jamie Burnett, a longtime GOP strategist in New Hampshire put it, “The only campaign Trump is running is a PR campaign,” and the scary part is that, perhaps because Trump seems so regressive, it seems to be working. “Comments that would likely have been fatal for other candidates — like denigrating the war record of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in Vietnam — have had virtually no negative effect.” It remains to be seen if his truly despicable comments about Megyn Kelly, who dared to ask Trump about his labeling of women, will cross a line. “Trump told CNN’s Don Lemon that Kelly had quizzed him at the debate as if she had ‘blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her — wherever.” (And we’re all believing the Trump campaign when it “said that the businessman had been referring to Kelly’s nose, adding, ‘Only a deviant would think anything else.'”)[5]

What all of these awful comments really do is put an upper limit on the amount of support that Trump can garner from segments of the electorate. How many women will now vote for Trump? How many Vietnam Veterans? How many people of Hispanic origin? And to some degree this is true of all the candidates who appeared in the prime time debate:

“So much of the debate was all about appealing to male voters and other parts of the Republican base, rather than doing anything to help the party’s general election goal of trying to be more inclusive,” said Lee M. Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion. “By being callous or showing disregard toward women, and then laughing it off with a charge of political correctness or simply saying they’re taking conservative stands, the Republicans could win over some of the older male Republican voters out there. But what about female voters?”[6]

Ultimately, this is what I think that is what all this comes down to: As the Democratic Party has moved to the right on the political spectrum,[7] Republicans appeal to a segment of the population, consisting largely of authoritarian populists (presently known as the “Tea Party”), paleoconservatives (white supremacists), and social conservatives (especially evangelical Protestants), that feels increasingly disempowered by demographic changes in the country. And these Republicans who appeal to that segment are in a contest with more pragmatic functionalist conservatives who seek to broaden their appeal and reclaim some of the expanding demography that the Democrats are now claiming.[8]

What keeps this contest going is that the demographic limits that Republicans face are paired with political limits that Democrats face. The Obama administration has been entirely too happy to ‘hippie-punch’ when it wasn’t shamelessly appealing for the progressive vote.[9] As Digby explains,

It is worth noting that the notion the crazy lefties stand in the way of the Very Serious liberals who are trying to get things done is a trope of long standing. In fact, the governing principle of the New Democrats of yore was based on the belief among the smart folks in the political establishment that the hippies had ruined everything and it was time to take the party back. And the Democratic establishment has been blaming them for their failures ever since.[10]

The phenomenon that Digby points to, by the way, parallels the rise of neoconservatism on the right[11] and this parallel likely explains how neoconservatism became a bipartisan political orthodoxy.[12] But what it also does is limit enthusiasm on the left for voting for mainstream Democrats—like Hillary Clinton, whom I just can’t see winning a general election[13]—because the limitations of a mainstream Democratic tactic of pointing to the other party and claiming their candidate is worse become increasingly apparent as the Democrats refuse in practice, though not in rhetoric, to cede any ground to the left. Because neoconservatism—and the neoliberal economic ideology it promotes as morality—are now beyond challenge.[14]

How all this plays out is unclear. And pundits who fail to reckon for it will be forever surprised when more extreme conservatives prove more resilient than they expect and mainstream Democrats do less well than they expect. Democrats, too, should remember that they lost the House of Representatives in 2010 and lost the Senate in 2014 at least in part because they were unable to attract progressive support. In this light, and while turnout for presidential elections differs from that of off-year elections, their plans for Clinton’s coronation may well amount to a recipe for electoral disaster in 2016. Even against whomever the Republicans wind up running against her.

Along with many, I doubt that that ‘whomever’ will be Trump. “As the 17-candidate [Republican] field narrows over time, the support from those who fade or drop out entirely might accrue to other contenders.”[15] But as Robert Reich argues, “the ruling class will have to change the way it rules America. Or it won’t rule too much longer.”[16]

  1. [1]Will Rogers, “Will Rogers says…” Will Rogers Memorial Museums, 2015,
  2. [2]Robert Reich, “The Revolt Against the Ruling Class,” August 2, 2015,
  3. [3]Eugene Robinson, “The one reason Donald Trump was the clear winner of the first GOP debate,” Washington Post, August 7, 2015,
  4. [4]Aaron Couch and Emmet McDermott, “Donald Trump Campaign Offered Actors $50 to Cheer for Him at Presidential Announcement,” Hollywood Reporter, June 17, 2015,
  5. [5]Niall Stanage, “Can anything bring down Teflon Trump?” Hill, August 8, 2015,
  6. [6]Patrick Healy and Jeremy W. Peters, “Fear That Debate Could Hurt G.O.P. in Women’s Eyes,” New York Times, August 7, 2015,
  7. [7]Ezra Klein, “The Republican Party’s big squeeze,” Washington Post, May 24, 2013,
  8. [8]Jamelle Bouie, “Do Republicans Have a Southern Problem?” American Prospect, November 26, 2012,; Lydia DePillis, “The GOP Can’t Afford to Ignore Cities Anymore,” The New Republic, November 12, 2012,; Kerry Eleveld, “How the Republican Party could go extinct,” Salon, May 12, 2013,; Paul Harris, “Republican modernisers desert Romney as GOP looks to the future,” Guardian, November 17, 2012,; Paul Kane and Rosalind S. Helderman, “Conservative Republicans fight back after Romney loss,” Washington Post, November 19, 2015,; Jacob Weisberg, “Are Republicans losing their grip on reality?” Slate, May 20, 2011,; Paul West, “Republican Party divide increasingly a matter of region,” Los Angeles Times, January 5, 2013,,0,787706.story; Blake Zeff, “Republicans love poor people now,” Salon, March 23, 2013,
  9. [9]Blue Texan [pseud.], “Ed Rendell Tells Democratic Base to “Get Over It” on Rachel Maddow,” Firedoglake, September 23, 2010,; Blue Texan [pseud.], “Stop Whining, Liberals!” Firedoglake, September 27, 2010,; Michael Falcone, “Opposite Day On The Campaign Trail?” ABC News, September 21, 2010,; Greg Sargent, “Liberal blogger directly confronts David Axelrod, accuses White House of ‘hippie punching’,” Washington Post, September 23, 2010,
  10. [10]Heather Digby Parton, “‘It’s always the hippies’ fault’: Why the left treats its idealists all wrong,” Salon, February 5, 2015,
  11. [11]More details on this will likely be included in my forthcoming dissertation.
  12. [12]David Benfell, “We are all neoconservatives now,” May 23, 2014,
  13. [13]David Benfell, “Dear Hillary: What your husband can’t tell you,” Not Housebroken, July 27, 2015,
  14. [14]More details on this will likely be included in my forthcoming dissertation.
  15. [15]Niall Stanage, “Can anything bring down Teflon Trump?” Hill, August 8, 2015,
  16. [16]Robert Reich, “The Revolt Against the Ruling Class,” August 2, 2015,

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