The Republican party wants my liberal vote. This was the most shocking wave to wash over my brain last week as I sat in the convention center in Cleveland. It was more startling in its way than the storm of hate that I saw descend on former GOP hero Ted Cruz, stranger than the absence of almost all the party’s recent standard-bearers, weirder than the police-state atmosphere that hovered over the streets of the city.
The Republicans were trying to win the support of people like me! Not tactfully or convincingly or successfully, of course: they don’t know the language of liberalism and wouldn’t speak it if they did; and most of the liberals I know will never be swayed anyway. But they were trying nevertheless.
Donald Trump’s many overtures to supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders were just the beginning. He also deliberately echoed the language of Franklin Roosevelt, he denounced “big business” (not once but several times), and certain of his less bloodthirsty foreign policy proposals almost remind one of George McGovern’s campaign theme: “Come home, America.”
Ivanka Trump promised something that sounded like universal day care. Peter Thiel denounced the culture wars as a fraud and a distraction. The Republican platform was altered to include a plank calling for the breakup of big banks via the reinstatement of Glass-Steagall. I didn’t hear anyone talk about the need to bring “entitlements” under control. And most crucially, the party’s maximum leader has adopted the left critique of “free trade” almost in its entirety, a critique that I have spent much of my adult life making.
It boggles my simple liberal mind. The party of free trade and free markets now says it wants to break up Wall Street banks and toss Nafta to the winds. The party of family values has nominated a thrice-married vulgarian who doesn’t seem threatened by gay people or concerned about the war over bathrooms. The party of empire wants to withdraw from foreign entanglements.
Trump is not going to receive my vote, of course. His bigotry, his racist statements about Mexicans, his attitude toward global warming, his love of authoritarianism, his hypocrisy, his ignorance, his untrustworthiness, and his years of predatory business practice all make such a thing impossible. He frightens me every time he opens his mouth.
But that’s not the point. The question we need to ask is this: what are the consequences of the violent disruption Trump has visited on our delicately balanced political system? Look what he has done. He has dynamited the free-trade consensus that dominated Washington for so many years, he has done it with force, and in the process he has made himself the choice of many millions of Americans who have watched their economic situation deteriorate and heard their concerns brushed off by the Thomas Friedmans and the Bill Clintons of the world.
Think about it this way. For years, Republican orthodoxy on trade made possible endless Democratic sell-outs of working people, with the two-party consensus protecting the D’s from any consequences. They could ram Nafta through Congress, they could do trade deals with China, they could negotiate the Trans Pacific Partnership, they could attend their conferences at Davos and congratulate themselves for being so global and so enlightened, secure in the belief that the people whose livelihoods they had just ruined had “nowhere else to go”.
In other words, it was only possible for our liberal leaders to be what they are – a tribe of sunny believers in globalization and its favored classes – as long as the Republicans held down their left flank for them. Democrats could only celebrate globalization’s winners and scold its uneducated losers so long as there was no possibility that they might face a serious challenge on the matter from the other party in the system.
Well, today all that has changed. The free-trade consensus lies in shards on the floor. The old Republican party has been smashed by this man Trump. It is a new political world out there. How will Democrats react to this altered state of affairs? How will they present themselves to voters now that the bipolar system of the last four decades has exploded, now that they can no longer count on free-trading Republicans to make their own passion for globaloney seem acceptable?
So far, Democrats are acting as though nothing has really changed. In speech after speech at the Philadelphia convention they are denouncing Trump as though he was just an outrageous extension of the familiar conservative demonology, rather than an altogether different monster.
And Democratic leaders seem to be preparing to run exactly as they have always run. Hillary Clinton is pivoting to the right just as other Democrats did before her because ... because, well, that’s what Democrats always do. Her first big move after securing her party’s nomination was to choose Tim Kaine as her vice-presidential candidate – a man who voted for fast-tracking the Trans Pacific Partnership and a supporter of his state’s right-to-work laws. He is, as a recent headline proclaimed, “a Democrat Wall Street can like.”
Appropriately enough, Wall Street personnel are reportedly flocking to the convention in Philadelphia, eager to be reunited with the party that, for a time during the primary season, seemed to be turning away from them. Other accounts suggest that Hillary intends to reverse course on trade as soon as it’s possible to do so.
Do Democrats and their supporters even glimpse the danger in such moves? On the contrary: they seem to think it shows statesmanlike gravitas. On Monday, Bill Scher wrote, of Hillary Clinton:
She tapped Sen Tim Kaine despite his support for the ‘fast track’ law designed to ease ratification of multinational trade agreements. She’s reached out to anti-Trump Republican hawks by embracing the philosophy of American Exceptionalism, declaring that ‘if America doesn’t lead, we leave a vacuum, and that will either cause chaos or other countries will rush in to fill the void’. Her aides told the New York Times earlier this month that her governing strategy would be squarely based on bipartisanship, the antithesis of Sanders’ vision of steamrolling Congress via grassroots revolution.
Let’s see: trade agreements, outreach to hawks, “bipartisanship,” Wall Street. All that’s missing is a “Grand Bargain” otherwise it’s the exact same game plan as last time, and the time before that, and the time before that. Democrats seem to be endlessly beguiled by the prospect of campaign of national unity, a coming-together of all the quality people and all the affluent people and all the right-thinking, credentialed, high-achieving people. The middle class is crumbling, the country is seething with anger, and Hillary Clinton wants to chair a meeting of the executive committee of the righteous.
When Democrats sold out their own rank and file in the past it constituted betrayal, but at least it sometimes got them elected. Specifically, the strategy succeeded back in the 1990s when Republicans were market purists and working people truly had “nowhere else to go”. As our modern Clintonists of 2016 move instinctively to dismiss the concerns of working people, however, they should keep this in mind: those people may have finally found somewhere else to go.