There has been a great deal of gnashing of teeth and scratching of hair over worry that Donald Trump is using his racist attacks on the four female congresswomen to distract the Democratic Party from its winning issues and to shift the grounds of the coming presidential election to identity politics that will rally his base and bring them out to vote in impressive numbers. In this blog, I want to try to assuage those fears. Obviously, the Democratic Party can stumble, can trip over its own feet, and can even fall and fail to win the next presidential election. But it will be a self-inflicted failure and not a result of Donald Trump’s superior political skill or acumen. The Trump Trap is one he built for himself.
I offer the following arguments:
- The biblical meaning of the parable of Balaam in last week’s Torah portion;
- An analysis of Donald Trump’s base of support in the Republican Party;
- Given Trump’s insistence on continuing and drumming down on a losing strategy in the 2018 election, if swing voters are increased in numbers and if they are not alienated from voting for Democrats, Trump will lose and will lose decisively.
The initial presentation of Balaam is that he is a winner, one whose prophetic powers are all-powerful and that if he curses someone, that person will be cursed, and that if he blesses someone, that person will be blessed. In the second part of the portion of the Torah text, Balaam is revealed to be dumber and more obtuse than his own ass. He cannot see an angel threatening his forward movement. He is intemperate and beats his own ass instead of trying to understand why his donkey refuses to move forward. Balaam is determined to follow a fixed path rather than attending to the reality facing him and adapting to the situation. He has moved from being a celebrity prophet to a disreputable stranded loser, a noisy and intemperate one at that.
However, in the third part of the tale, Balaam wakes up to his limitations. Instead of robotically simply following God’s will, he comes to recognize his real limitations and his virtually total dependence on powers outside himself. He surrenders being a narcissist and attends to the reality of real power and higher values. Balaam redeems himself. What he was driven to curse, he now blesses. What he thought he was supposed to bless, he now curses. On the third pitch, Balaam does not strike out but hits a homer. Trump, on the other hand, refuses to budge, continues in his obstreperous ways and will strike out.
Donald Trump has thus far revealed that he cannot change course from his original racist and nativist project that has always existed but has come into stark relief this last week. He twitters and tweets like the frustrated, self-indulgent, uncontrolled and unrestrained, immoderate and unbalanced irrational man he is. So instead of redeeming himself after his setback in the midterm elections, he is headed for a strike out and a determination to bring the Republican Party down with him, a party that has now been almost totally re-formed in his own image. A total catastrophe awaits both Donald Trump and the Republican Party in the next election. It will be three strikes and you are out – unless, of course, the Democratic Party loses faith in itself, loses faith in its core values and loses its way.
Donald Trump’s Base
Trump’s base of support consists of five segments:
- A racist, xenophobic and nativist core of white supporters which Trump used to win the Republican primary in a crowded field; that core may constitute as much as 15% of the American electorate;
- A larger group of in-group whites who are proud of their heritage and feel threatened by both the shifting demographic mix brought about by immigration and the larger child birth rates of non-whites, but who do not express or identify with those who espouse white superiority;
- A small group of virtue conservatives in the tradition of Edmund Burke (cf. A Vindication of Natural Society) who despise xenophobia and insist that the stability of society depends on traditional groupings, starting with the family and extending to organized religion; these communities provide the structural underpinning of civility, manners and civic virtues that gives character and solidity to a polity; Donald Trump lost much of their support by the means he used to win the Republican nomination;
- A small group of economic conservatives who are wary of increased government debt and who are globalists in economic terms; they have already been turned off by Trump’s flaky brinkmanship in renegotiating trade deals combined with his willingness to incur an enormous increase in future debt to power the present economy, but at great risk to future economic stability – the problem of this group is that they do not see where else to go other than the Republican Party;
- A small group of ardent libertarians opposed to the increased power of the state.
If this analysis is anywhere near accurate, a number of conclusions follow with respect to dealing with each of the above groups. I consider them in reverse order.
- The Democratic Party can do little to attract libertarian voters and need not try, but it should act to encourage libertarians to park their votes somewhere other than the Trump Party by demonstrating that it is clearly not a party dedicated to minimizing the power of the state or avoiding engaging in foreign adventurism;
- The Democratic Party should not follow the lead of Bernie Sanders in demonizing the rich while still insisting that the rich pay a much larger portion of the costs of a society dedicated to the well-being of all and that measures have to be taken to make sure that the contributions of the wealthy do not distort the democratic foundations of society in favour of a plutocracy;
- The goal should be to demonstrate that the serial liar and womanizer and corrupt character of Donald Trump is not the proper choice for people of virtue;
- The in-group white pride Republicans offer the biggest opportunity for the Democrats in two senses, weakening their rage and determination to vote for anyone but the Democrats, and, second, turning their wrath against the nativists and xenophobes who give people who care about their own communities a bad reputation; the message has to be that supporting Trump is supporting racism and not just pride and preservation of one’s own community so that this significant group of voters should not be identified or equated with racists, xenophobes and nativists;
- As for the racists, Trump is one; he belongs to them and they belong to him, but, while it is very important to point this out, it is not necessary to alienate this group further, reinforcing their hatred and racism, and allowing in-group white pride Republicans to identify with them.
If the goal is to unite all people, painting some people as beyond the pale suggests such a goal is a fraud. Those masses who live in the shadows of irrationality, in a night of the world based on inherent and unredeemable opposition, must not be looked down upon with scorn. If the unenlightened are to be redeemed, they cannot be regarded as blind trembling people in the presence of wise men and priests. They too must be respected and recognized as fully human even if their actions and words are declared to be irrational, unacceptable and inhumane.
The Bankruptcy of Trump’s Racist Strategy
Donald Trump has now made his racist credentials unequivocal and clear. No amount of backpedalling, obscurantism and distraction should prevent pinning the tail on the donkey. Further, racism now emerges in the context of bluster and signifying an increasing fear that, at the same time as he buckles down to embrace the tactic more fully, he is revealing his desperation and deep need to hold onto a losing tactic that he dares not abandon.
In portraying four non-white very popularly elected congresswomen as un-American, he is repeating the mistakes of bigots from the past history of the United States. In identifying non-white ethnicity with ideology, he alienates not only the overwhelming majority of all ethnic and coloured minority groups, but even many of the majority of his white supporters who are not racists. Defining a real American in terms of ethnicity and colour is repugnant to the majority of Americans and raises in their minds the question of whether the benefits of a good economy and the appointment of conservative supreme court judges is a worthy trade off.
Given rallies with the slogan, “Send her back,” there is a general consensus that Trump has committed his campaign for re-election to be based on explicit racism. This is not the same as the rallying cry, “Lock her up.” There was an irrational, visceral hatred of Hilary Clinton on the right. The animus towards Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan is more abstract, far less personal, more ideological than visceral. Rather than an intention to drive a wedge in the Democratic Party deeper, the objective seems to be to drive the Democratic Party further to the left where it will pose less danger to the Republicans, though it is possible that the two goals are complementary.
What about a campaign based on a record of economic growth and improvement? The Democrats may want to argue that with the soaring stock market there has certainly been growth but no improvement – no reduction in the growing gap between the rich and the poor, no reduction in the economic security facing the middle class, no impact on the huge debt overhang of youth who pursued postsecondary education, no assistance for child care and a decline in support for health care. Undoubtedly, Democrats will do so, but that will only reinforce the image of them being a lend and spend political party when they ought to tout a record of balanced budgets while increasing benefits for those in need. Further, I suspect the Republicans will put the low unemployment rate on the back burner lest it provide a rationale for the need for a greater number of migrants.
But it is a fool’s game. In this fight over identity politics – the left portrayed as coddling foreigners and hence murderers and rapists, a contest over economics will fade into insignificance. Does the Democratic Party support open borders? Does the Republican Party using much harsher methods – including separating parents and children at the border – deter a larger influx of migrants and refugee claimants? Over 70% of Americans may be supportive of immigrants, but a clear majority of Americans want less immigration and, more importantly, managed immigration.
What seems clear is that Donald Trump will follow his gut instinct and focus on cultural, ethnic and racial politics to raise fears, not only among his xenophobic base, but among the larger group of white Republicans uneasy and even fearful about the looming demographic changes perceived as direct threats to their power and status. Will that, however, provide a winning coalition? Very unlikely. Further, if the Democrats can drive a deeper wedge into the Republican Party, primarily between the xenophobes and the whites who have in-group pride and loyalty but do not see themselves nor identify with racists, they will also destroy the Republican stranglehold on the Senate as well as enhance their majority in the House. And his justification