Saturday, July 20, 2019

Why painting Trump as a racist won't work

As Russiagate is losing more and more of its credibility the Democratic leadership in the US has found a new issue to demonize Trump: racism.

There can be little doubt that Trump is playing on the racist instinct of some people. But many politicians have done so in the past. Even much of the appeal of the capital punishment is based on racism.


Racism is a complex issue. Even many very liberal white people will initially be shocked when they find that their new neighbors are black or that their daughter is dating a black boy. Only after this initial shock their rational brain will take over and consider that there are good black people and bad white people too and that they shouldn't judge people just on the color of their skin. There are many psychological tests that explore this subject.

While this instinctual sentiment is repressed in much of society it has its refuges such as some birthday parties and some pubs. And there are people who just indulge their instincts wherever they are and who just the rest of society just has learned to live with. But such people marginalize themselves and aren't taken too seriously. Ku Klux Klan type open racists are rare nowadays.

More problematic nowadays is the more civilized type of person that shows lip service to the societal norms while at the same time he or she "understands" the racists worries. Mass incarceration was a recent symptom of this attitude.

Much of this happens unconscious. We are happy to see that specific guy incarcerated and we don't like that boyfriend of our daughter. But we never realize that if exactly the same guy had had a white instead of a black skin we would have judged differently.


Trump is primarily a bully: someone who shows his "strength" by humiliating other people. Of course people against whom other people have prejudices too are easy targets.

Trump is also very egocentric. His discrimination against black tenants and employees may well have business reasons. He might be able to charge more for an apartment when there are no black neighbors and black employees might deter some guests in his casino's and hotels. I am not sure whether this really works. But I can understand that he might reason this way.

Trump isn't a hard core racist. He doesn't have inner convictions that white people are superior and should be on top. I doubt whether he has any convictions whatever except for a greed for power, wealth and recognition. He is just playing on widespread sentiments.

Trump has an image as taboo breaker. So he can go further than most of us without losing the respect of society. But there are limits for him too and he knows them and respects them. This is the reason that I don't expect that this new Democratic campaign will have any effect. Of course one day he might make a miscalculation and go too far even for his supporters. But don't count on that.

Trump's racist exploits are harmful and disgusting. But it would be naive to assume that that will result in falling polls. There are too many examples from the past of politicians who thrived despite (or thanks to) similar behavior.

This doesn't mean that that the Democrats shouldn't criticize Trump for his statements. But they shouldn't pretend that these are the most important issues of the country. Other issues are much more important. By ignoring the issues that people really care about - as the Democrats have done too long because of Russiagate - they are actually strengthening Trump. 

Fighting Trump

Both Clinton and Obama were presidents of the opinion polls. Every measure they took was polled extensively. This worked for them in the sense that they won elections.

But ruling by the poll means ruling without a big vision. And that has consequences. One consequence was visible with Obamacare. The lack of vision meant that the project became vulnerable to demonization by the Republicans. And the multitude of interested parties caused complications that nearly got the project cancelled.

Another problem is that many people don't have an opinion about many subjects. In those cases both Clinton and Obama tended to listen to big business and other interest groups. And so the neocons got their wars and the finance sector its deregulation. And when the peanuts that those presidents gave to the common people were finished the big presents for the interest groups remained.

It may not appear in opinion polls because it is too abstract but people do notice that their interests are ignored in many cases. And it is the resulting discontent that has resulted in the election of Trump. For all his faults Trump is a man who at least suggests that he will ignore the special interests and listen to the common people.

In order to get the trust of the voters back the Democrats need once again to embrace ideas and visions. Unfortunately at the moment the party is held hostage by a leadership that is wedded to special interests. It preaches "moderation" but that is just a code word for maintaining the status quo and not rocking the boat.

This doesn't necessarily mean that Sanders and AOC are the future of the Democratic Party. They are so influential at the moment because they are the most visible ones offering an alternative vision. Since the last presidential elections the enthusiasm that Sanders raised has already caused a shift in the party towards more vision. Once the party leadership is changed this could turn in a real change of how the party works.

Some of the left wing program points - such as universal health care and free college - make sense. Other countries have similar things and that works well. Other points - such as the New Green Deal and abolishing ICE - are not only radical: they are also ill-considered. Every country in the world has some kind of immigration service - although most aren't as vile as the ICE. And the New Green Deal is a random package of proposals for environmental policy. But environmental policy is a matter of improvisation and experimentation. Ten years from now the New Green Deal will very likely look hopelessly outdated. The voters don't want or need this kind of ideological rigidity. They just want to be convinced that their politicians take those issues seriously.

No longer pandering to special interests will also mean a different way of fund raising. But as Sanders showed in the last elections: that is possible.

Vision is an abstract thing. It is not so much in the specific program points as in the way choices are made. It means politicians who see themselves as representatives of the people who voted for them instead of as political entrepreneurs who can win power with the rights mix of program points and marketing.

Campaigning on a vision will also decrease the polarization in American politics. An important reason for this polarization is that there are almost no real differences between the parties. Republicans have always had strong ties with special interests. That leaves both parties without ideals. So neither has something to profile itself on. Neither has good arguments against the other. And neither has real reasons to want power other than the benefits of power itself for the politicians involved. So instead both resort to demonization. Obama's birth certificate, the mendacious campaign against Obamacare, Russiagate and (the denunciation of) Trump's foul mouth and racism: what all these campaigns have in common is a distortion of reality and - most importantly - a lack of relevance for what voters really want. As both parties have wedded themselves to special interests they don't want to discuss real issues. So they keep alternating between bringing up phony issues (or marginal issues like toilet rights for transgenders) and just obstructing the other side.

Once the Democrats make this switch the appeal of Trump's behavior will diminish. Racism is feel-good policy. It can capture the attention of people only for a short time. Sooner or later they will realize that you cannot eat hatred and they will start to see Trump as a salesman of hot air. The trigger to such a realization is usually that another politician offers something real.