09 November 2016

A Free Shave ... and then what?

After Richard Nixon was finally elected president in 1968, the Washington Post cartoonist Herblock, one of Nixon's most graphic critics, drew a cartoon of a barber shop, with a sign on the wall reading, "This Shop Gives Every New President of the United States a Free Shave." Since Nixon had become a public figure, Herblock had portrayed him with a heavy five o'clock shadow -- a fair hit from a physiognomic standpoint -- to exaggerate what the cartoonist saw as a seedy thuggishness. The free shave, within the boundaries of the cartoon, indicated that Herblock was willing to give Nixon a fresh start as he took office -- a chance, if not the benefit of the doubt. I don't know what sort of free grooming service the nation's cartoonists can offer Donald Trump before his inauguration -- I'm sure many suggestions will occur to people -- but respect for democracy requires us all to give the President-elect that minimal chance the free shave signifies. Whether he will get it remains to be seen. Hillary Clinton and President Obama are making the right noises right now, but I was tempted to damn all the Republicans to hell this morning when Kellyanne Conway appeared on one of the morning talk shows to ask that Trump be given the same chance Obama was given after his election. That bit of hypocrisy was breathtaking even after everything we've seen this year, but Trump himself struck an appropriate conciliatory note in his victory speech, though I suspect that he'll have to be careful of how conciliatory he gets. There was talk already this morning that for the sake of national unity Trump might let the matter of reinvestigating and prosecuting Clinton drop, but even if Trump wants to do that he probably shouldn't, since it would most likely be seen as his first betrayal of a movement that wants revolution with retribution before any reconciliation.

Trump may be sincere about reconciliation, but real reconciliation requires movement by both (or all) sides, and it's too soon to tell whether the Democrats left in the trenches after Obama and Clinton retire from public life will be in any conciliatory mood. Back in 1968, when American politics was just starting in its current awful direction, it was still reasonable to suspend judgment on a new leader until he could be judged by what he did. We judge politicians now by what they think, or what we believe them to think, and to the extent that Trump is assumed to be a billionaire bigot with authoritarian tendencies Democrats -- not to mention the juvenile leftists who staged mini-riots in some cities overnight -- will no more want to give him a chance than Republicans were willing to give the alleged Alinsky cultist Obama a chance in 2009. In either case it's a failure to respect the electorate. The alternative isn't to roll over for Trump and an unleashed Republican Congress, but to wait until they actually do objectionable things rather than object preemptively. There's no evidence yet to suggest that Democrats are ready to listen to the plurality -- Trump will be yet another minority Republican president and still trails Clinton in the popular vote by the latest count -- much less the President-Elect. The Democracy continues to suffer from a self-inflicted tone deafness that hears any protest from working-class whites against anyone but the "1%" as hate. Their perception isn't entirely wrong -- I have to listen to Trump supporters as part of my job and some of them are indisputably haters -- but the real error is to attribute all their complaints to hate. We were told this year that "racial resentment" led many whites to misrepresent economic conditions as worse than they actually were, and that seems to have been a fatal error. It's more likely that economic distress led to greater "racial resentment," but to admit even that would have been to admit that people were still hurting despite Obama's efforts against the Great Recession -- or, arguably in the case of Obamacare, because of his efforts -- and this the Clinton campaign would not do.

The same thinking drove Clintonites to claim that by pointing out bad conditions in black communities, Trump was insulting those communities. That's what happens when you assume that bigotry is Trump's core ideology; Clinton probably was trying to warn blacks that Trump wanted to strip blacks of power within their communities, but blacks themselves probably found it absurd for her to state that their neighborhoods were essentially "vibrant." If black turnout declined from the Obama elections, as many suspect, or if more blacks voted for Trump than expected, it's probably because many realized that Democrats, however, well-meaning, had no real answers for the country apart from the old standby of soaking the rich. This election may have confirmed the demise of old-fashioned class consciousness in this country, outside the Democratic leadership. They could not compute -- and so attributed it to "hate" -- how a boorish billionaire could claim with any plausibility to be the working-class candidate. He was a billionaire, after all! Even if he could talk the blue-collar talk he had to be conning them! What were these blue-collar bootlickers thinking? They were thinking of themselves, most likely, as a "working class" in essential antagonism not with the employing class -- their exploiters according to traditional class consciousness -- but with a non-working class of welfare and disability clients, the same American lumpenproletariat that thwarted the Sanders challenge to Clinton's nomination. This newly conscious working class will be rewarded with supply-side economics and (in all likelihood) a new class of crony capitalists for their support of Trump, but Democrats may not be rewarded in any way for years to come if they can't make a distinction between "hate" and an understandable small-d democratic desire that everyone pull his or her own weight as far as physically or intellectually possible. The Democracy may finally have succumbed to latent contradictions in its ideology. Practically from its beginning the Democratic party has portrayed itself as the party of the working class, and in keeping with the long-term agenda of the American labor movement it still sees its goal as an easier life for the majority of Americans. In olden days that meant obvious things like shorter hours on the job, workplace safety, financial aid for college, etc. But we may be at a point where the promise of an easier life has become a hedonist end unto itself, detached from the idea that working people had earned the right to an easier life than bosses would grant them without government or union pressure. An easier life is a plausible goal according to a progressive notion of history, but events appear to have overtaken that liberal utopianism, and the old appeal to an easier life seems an inadequate response to those events. There's no "or else" in the liberal utopia, where each of us would be what each alone meant to be, without consequences, but liberals haven't caught up with the possibility that an "or else" moment is upon us, when Americans will be expected to pull their own weight or be more than their sheltered selves. The electoral tide may turn again when Democrats (or their successors as the "left" party) reconcile themselves to all of this instead of dismissing it as "hate." Doing so might make things easier for themselves and their constituents in the years to come.

Above all, however, the Democrats have to nominate better candidates. Hillary Clinton's campaign was a suicide pact in almost adolescent protest against the "hate" that supposedly motivated every objection to her ascension to power. So bewitched were Democrats by the "hate" narrative that few really could comprehend why anyone took the email controversy seriously. By their logic, for Republicans to accuse Clinton was to prove that she had done nothing wrong. Yet even if you leave out this last straw of a scandal, the Clinton campaign appeared complacently incompetent compared to the Obama operations of previous elections. On top of all its errors of perception and tone, it ran an almost entirely ad hominem campaign against Trump, when the sensible strategy would have been to warn voters against his likely recourse to discredited Republican policies. Instead, over and over again you saw that stupid commercial with the kids watching Trump on TV. Sure it was always funny hearing Trump singsong, "And you can tell them, to go ... themselves," but kids don't vote, for one thing, and for another it should have been clear by the summer of 2016 that for millions of America Trump's occasional asinine sayings were entirely irrelevant to his qualifications for office, or else gave him an important common touch untainted by a p.c. hypersensitivity that was getting in the way of necessary debates. On economics, after all, apart from trade, how different was he from Republican orthodoxy? We'll all find out soon enough now, but Democrats should have been slamming him as Dubya Redux all year, and instead made it look like the worst thing about Trump was that he had a potty mouth and a funny voice. For all we know, any Democratic nominee might have made the same mistakes, though I feel in retrospect that Sanders could have won with his own style of populism, but we'll never know for certain because the Clinton Cult drank its last round of Kool-Aid out of some misguided sense of loyalty and/or history. For some she had been the Chosen One since 1992, and why that was will be one of the great mysteries of American history.

Hopefully a 73 year old Clinton won't be taken seriously for 2020, especially given the rumormongering about her health, but if Trump really screws up you never can tell. It's more likely that, disqualifying Joe Biden for age as well, the Democrats will choose between Sen. Warren of Massachusetts and Sen. Booker of New Jersey, the one possibly catapulted at the Glass Ceiling by feminists, and probably backed by the Sandersites, and the other an Obama 2.0: younger, probably more centrist than Warren and more likely to get out the vote despite the continued temptation of History. Of the two I'd prefer Booker because, while it was understandable that he not seek to succeed Obama immediately, Warren abdicated the responsibility all Democratic leaders had to stop Clinton this spring, whether out of cowardice, deference or some other motivation. For all I know she may have had a cynical expectation that Clinton would lose and thus open a spot for her in 2020, whereas Warren probably is too old to wait until 2024, but that doesn't help anyone else now. One can still hope that in four years the Democrats won't be our only realistic alternative to Republican rule, but it's probably too early to predict the shape the opposition will take until Trump gives them something solid to oppose.


hobbyfan said...

The Dimocrats had their chance if they weren't so obsessed with branding and ensuring that Swillary was their choice. Had it been Bernie Sanders, maybe the result is different, maybe not, we don't know, and probably will never know.

Anonymous said...

What is worse than a political witchhunt? Allowing a criminal a free pass because a trial would be seen as a witchhunt. We should NEVER get into the habit of allowing corruption a free pass because it is politically expedient to do so. Otherwise, what deterrent is there against political corruption? Nixon should NOT have received a pardon. Neither should Clinton be allowed a free pass on possible crimes committed while in office.