The Year of “This Can’t Be Happening”

In the 2015 Yearly Sift, I wrote:

I started 2015 with clear expectations about how I’d cover the campaign. But by Fall, I had to back up and try to answer a more fundamental question than the ones I ‘d been addressing: WTF? … I think I’ll be working on that question for a considerable chunk of the year to come.

That was the best prediction I made all year. For me, the continuing mystery of 2016 was why anyone was voting for Donald Trump. I believed about him then more or less what I believe about him now: He has no qualifications to be president, and no insights about America that deserve a serious person’s attention. Truth means nothing to him. His life demonstrates no interest in anyone but himself and no discernible moral code. He brings out the worst in his followers, encouraging them to be more selfish, more hateful, and less thoughtful.

So why do so many people want him to be our president?

My first post of the new year flashed back to a post I wrote about the Tea Party in 2011: Working-class voters’ rage is like the famous wrong-way touchdown Jim Marshall scored in 1965. They have a right to be angry and to want to “take our country back”, but they’re trying to take it back from the wrong people. It’s not government and bureaucrats who have been stealing their opportunities, it’s corporations and billionaires. The Tea Party’s success had in fact given power to congressional Republicans who were doing their best to empower those oppressors and keep working people down. In short: They’re running the wrong way.

The only time working people have actually succeeded in taking the country back and bettering their lot was when they got behind a liberal: FDR.

You know who is offering a program to take our country back? Bernie Sanders. Like FDR, he wants to create jobs by rebuilding America’s infrastructure, investing money in things that produce economic growth, like roads and rail lines and airports and the electrical grid — not a wall across the middle of the desert. He has offered the only realistic plan to replace ObamaCare without cutting off millions of people’s health insurance. He’s behind a higher minimum wage. He wants everybody to be able to afford a college education. He advocates breaking up the big banks, so that they never again have the economy over a barrel like they did in 2008. He has proposed a constitutional amendment that gives Congress back the power the Supreme Court took away with the Citizens United decision: the power to keep billionaires from buying our political system.

Those plans would make a real difference in the lives of working people. But there is a downside, if you want to call it that: Rich people and corporations would have to pay more tax, and Wall Street would have to pay a tax that would discourage financial manipulations by introducing some friction into their transactions.

I didn’t really expect Trump voters to switch to Bernie, but I thought the case needed to be made.

As for what they were doing with Trump, my explanation (in February) was that Trump was an “opportunistic infection” Republicans had left themselves open to.

All the weapons another candidate might use to take Trump down have been systematically dismantled. Are his “facts” wrong? Mitt Romney already burned that bridge in 2012. Do experts say his proposals are nonsense? There are no experts any more; if you feel a need for expert support, go invent your own experts like the Koch brothers and right-wing Christians do. Are his speeches full of racist dog-whistles? Politically correct nonsense! Racism ended in the 60s, except reverse-racism against whites. And if Republicans had to expel anybody who dog-whistled about Obama, they’d have no party left. Are there echoes of fascism in his giant rallies and cult of personality? In his celebration of real and imaginary violence against hecklers? In his fear-mongering about unpopular ethnic or religious groups? In his implication that specific policies are unnecessary, because all will follow from installing a Leader with sufficient Will? More nonsense: There is no fascism any more, unless you mean liberal fascism or Islamofascism.

With all the legitimate arguments of political discourse unavailable, other candidates were left to fight each other and wait for Trump to go away. And when Marco Rubio recently decided he finally had to take Trump on, the only weapon at hand was to tease him like a third-grader, suggesting that he wet his pants during a debate.

But by early March, I thought I knew what the right anti-Trump argument was: He’s a con man. Tear down his image as a master businessman and replace it with the more accurate view that he’s a predatory parasite. The Trump supporters hadn’t been horrified by his attacks on Mexicans or Muslims or the disabled or Megan Kelly, because they didn’t identify with any of those people. But the victims of Trump U and Trump Tampa and all the other Trump business scams do look like them.

Up until now, arguing with Trump supporters has been like telling your 17-year-old daughter that her 29-year-old boyfriend is no good for her: It’s obvious to you, but everything you say just reinforces the me-and-him-against-the-world mystique that has been driving the relationship from the beginning.

… You know what finally gets through to the 17-year-old? Meeting her boyfriend’s previous three teen-age girlfriends, the ones he dumped when they got pregnant. They look just like her — or at least they used to, before the single-mom lifestyle started to drag them down. Realizing that he told them all the things he’s telling her … that starts to mean something.

And that’s the message that’s emerging: Not that Trump is crude (which he is) or racist (which he is) or a proto-fascist (which he is) or unprepared for the presidency (which he is) or any of that. But he’s a con-man, and he hasn’t been conning Mexicans or Muslims or Megyn Kelly (who is too smart to fall for his bullshit). No, his career is all about conning the kind of people who support him now.

By September, he had been nominated, and his core supporters seemed impervious to any argument, including the con-man one. So I assembled a bunch of articles about who they were and what they might be thinking (especially Arlie Russell Hochschild’s account of their “deep story”) in “Trump voters: Where they’re coming from, where they’re going“.

Trump capitalizes on that white hopelessness by offering scapegoats: Immigrants and foreigners and the other line-cutters have taken all the opportunities, and that’s why you (and your children) don’t have any. Liberals have our own story to tell here, and we need to tell it loudly, putting aside our fear of offending rich donors: You have so few opportunities because wealth has gotten over-concentrated at the top. America has had decent (if unspectacular) economic growth for seven years now, but it all flows up the pyramid, not down to people who get paid by the hour.

Ultimately, though, no matter how hard I tried to understand them, I just couldn’t respect anyone so misguided and misinformed as to want to turn the country over to an ignorant huckster like Trump. That frustration boiled over in my election-eve post “I don’t know why we’re having this conversation“.

When did avoiding political correctness become a blanket excuse for being an asshole?

When Trump waves his arms around to make fun of a disabled man, when he suggests that Natasha Stoynoff isn’t attractive enough to assault, when he critiques Hillary Clinton’s butt in front of thousands of cheering fans, when he says that an Indiana-born Hispanic judge can’t be fair to him because “he’s a Mexican“, when he taunts a bereaved mother of a decorated Muslim-American soldier — that’s not “politically incorrect”. He’s just an asshole.

One my many failures of foresight this year was that I did not at all foresee Trump winning. The week after the election, I was in the Midwestern town where I grew up, asking “How did my home town become Trumpland?

All those people who stayed here without a family business to inherit, how did the town look to them? The promising kids who move away and never come back. The good jobs going to foreigners and to corporate climbers who are spending a few years in the sticks in hopes of returning to headquarters at a higher level. The acres of mansions that you can’t figure out who lives in them. How do they feel about all that?

The word that popped into my mind was colonized. Like this wasn’t their town any more.

But as much as I might (at times) empathize or sympathize with those Trump voters who don’t fit into one of the deplorable categories (racist, sexist, homophobe, xenophobe, Islamophobe), I’m left with the belief that they’ve done something stupid for both the country and themselves. Because whether my con-man argument convinced any of them or not, it’s true. The people who voted for him are the marks, and when his presidency starts to have real effects on the country, even they will see it. As I wrote last week in “How will they change their minds?

Working class whites are going to see their safety net shredded and power further consolidate among the wealthy, with no turnaround in the collapse of the kind of good-paying manufacturing and mining jobs people could count on a generation ago. They will lose health insurance, their public schools will decline, their children will have a harder time paying for college, and many will be victims of preventable environmental or public-health disasters. … Eventually people catch on, even if they don’t begin each day with The New York Times and end it with PBS Newshour. You don’t have to believe the “liberal media” when the news is happening to you and the people you love.

… Trumpism will fail as a political movement because the people who voted for Trump will look at their own undeniable experiences and change their minds. It’s something they will do for themselves, not something we can do to them or for them.

That’s a story I intend to keep following in 2017: What effects are Trump’s actions having on the people who voted for him, and are any of them starting to notice?

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  • Xan  On December 26, 2016 at 8:54 am

    Your mouth to G*d’s ear, but sixty million people had to die before Europe and Russia could “look at their own undeniable experiences and change their minds” and frankly I’m not entirely convinced it happened.

    • weeklysift  On December 26, 2016 at 10:07 am

      This phenomenon is something I’m going to discuss in more detail, probably next week. The thing we tend to forget about Nazism is that Hitler came through for the people who supported him: They got jobs, social services improved (for the “real Germans”), and their lives improved, at least until the war started.

      The big question of 2017, in my mind, is whether Trump will in any way come through for the white working class. I don’t think he will, because all his policy proposals are focused on making the rich richer.

  • Anonymous  On December 26, 2016 at 9:55 am

    Doug, I think you have more faith in Trump voters than I do. I don’t think it matters what Twitter Fingers does or what happens to our country as a result; they will never allow themselves to admit (even to themselves) that they made a mistake. The fact that they voted for him demonstrates their inability to follow logical cause-and-effect assessment.They will blame anyone but themselves (and Trump by extension); they’ll continue to blame immigrants, blacks, gays, liberals, Obama, and “the government” – regardless of the fact that they’re the ones who put those people in charge of the government. After all, facts don’t matter anymore.

    • weeklysift  On December 26, 2016 at 10:10 am

      Following the model of George W. Bush’s loss of popularity, I don’t think Trump voters will ever admit their mistake. They’ll just go quiet for a while and then claim they never liked him.

      There was a similar pattern with conservative churches and civil rights. When it mattered, they were almost all segregationists, like Jerry Falwell. Then they went quiet for several years. Today, they have forgotten everything except the handful of their members who supported Martin Luther King.

      • Linda  On December 28, 2016 at 1:44 pm

        I think you right that Trump supporters will eventually fall away and claim they never liked him or voted for him. I’ve seen this in my Republican friends with regard to George W. Bush. They now tell me, they were “never really wild about him.” I remember when he was elected though, and they were plenty wild about him then. I’m amazed at the number of people who voted for Trump not believing he would really work to repeal ObamaCare or support taking away funding for Planned Parenthood. I can only attribute this to the fact that we’ve had gridlock in Washington for so long that (low information?) voters didn’t believe that changes like that could happen. It was all just talk. They are about to find out that with no gridlock, lots of change will happen, and for most of us, it’s going to be bad.

  • Jusin S  On December 26, 2016 at 10:18 am

    I fear that the Trump voters are beyond changing their minds, just like climate change denyers. They”ll say that Obama and liberals destroyed everything, and Trump did his best, and all we need is more Trumps to keep working on fixing the liberal mess. Look at the political scenes in Kansas for reference… They’ve been suffering disproportionately from unchecked conservativism for a long time now, there’s no change on the horizon, even when the damage is direct and personal and there are counterpoints nearby in neighboring states to compare against.

  • Jeff Rosenberg  On December 26, 2016 at 12:30 pm

    Kansas, Wisconsin, Kentucky, and Texas amongst others will be interesting to track in terms of voter/ public satisfaction. Might they be harbingers on a national level? How do voter suppression, gerrymandering, good/poor known/unknown democratic candidates affect results? Power corrupts (Lord Acton), and I think it’s worth tracking how the public’s reactions may be squelched by such tactics.

  • Anonymous  On December 26, 2016 at 1:39 pm

    You have not written about well-off lifelong Republicans voting for Trump in large numbers. That surprised me.

  • coastcontact  On December 26, 2016 at 3:10 pm

    “why anyone was voting for Donald Trump.” “So why do so many people want him to be our president?”

    You have not stepped back from the entire election process. The question you did not ask is: Why didn’t Hillary Clinton win the election?

    Look at her election theme. Look at her words. Look at her campaign.

    The theme ” Better Together” conveyed nothing.

    Her words were not about how she would help blue collar workers and the middle class.

    While Donald Trump was flying around the nation she was preparing for the debates. While Donald Trump was flying to as many rallies as possible she was missing from the campaign trail.

    Hillary Clinton did not offer a reason to vote for her that everyone could appreciate.

    Donald Trump did not win. Hillary Clinton lost.

  • Dale Piper  On December 26, 2016 at 4:01 pm

    This article may help explain Trump’s election success. But what is to follow? Why are most Republican leaders following in-step behind him? Why do those who voted for him continue to support their choice even after seeing his nominations for cabinet member positions? I am not optimistic about a Trump’s supporters turning from him nor even about the Democratic Party “putting it together.” Sad. (Sorry. That’s his expression.”)

  • Al Jette  On December 26, 2016 at 4:48 pm

    Hillary Clinton was the nominee who was the “hold your nose and vote,” candidate. The media, Trumps knocking as biased against him, were biased to make money over analyzing real events. The Russians hacked and somehow Assange only released bad-for-Hillary stuff. Obama knew about the hacking and ever no-drama, did not make a major point of it. FBI director Comey was never told directly by his superiors, DO NOT SAY ANYTHING ON THE BASIS of NOTHING. And we continue not to call Trump’s win a steal (though not that I can tell by his actions). WTF is the right designation.

  • Brent Uzzell  On December 27, 2016 at 8:53 am

    Hi Doug

    Let me suggest this from Andrew Sullivan:

    But hope fades in turn when you realize how absolute and total his support clearly is. His support is not like that of a democratic leader but of a cult leader fused with the idea of the nation. If he fails, as he will, he will blame others, as he always does. And his cult followers will take their cue from him and no one else. “In Trump We Trust,” as his acolyte Ann Coulter titled her new book. And so there will have to be scapegoats — media institutions, the Fed, the “global conspiracy” of bankers and Davos muckety-mucks he previewed in his rankly anti-Semitic closing ad, rival politicians whom he will demolish by new names of abuse, foreign countries and leaders who do not cooperate, and doubtless civilians who will be targeted by his ranks of followers and demonized from the bully pulpit itself. The man has no impulse control and massive reserves of vengeance and hatred. In time, as his failures mount, the campaigns of vilification will therefore intensify. They will have to.

  • Priscilla Greene  On December 27, 2016 at 9:26 am

    The primary system needs revision so that we have a reflection of people’s wishes, not those of party power players. 2016 voters had no good choice.

    • Alex  On December 28, 2016 at 8:51 pm

      I think that this is largely because of the way that we fund political campaigns. Campaign funding doesn’t come from the voters, it comes from a very small number of very wealthy people and it comes via lobbyists. Candidates have their attention on “the funders” not “the voters.”

      * the “Lesterland” TED talk by Lawrence Lessig

    • Alex  On December 28, 2016 at 9:10 pm

      I think that this is largely because of the way that we fund political campaigns. Campaigns aren’t funded by the voters, they are funded by a very small number of very wealthy people, and they are funded by lobbyist. Politicians have their attention on “the funders” not the voters. See:

  • Nicole  On December 27, 2016 at 12:46 pm

    My husband and I discovered your blog last year, and it has been so helpful to us during 2016. Thank you for writing every week, please don’t stop! We too, like millions of others, are watching closely to see what happens with the Trump presidency in the coming year. Still can’t believe it’s come to this… but you know one good thing it’s done? It’s motivated us to get involved.

  • GJacq726  On December 27, 2016 at 2:43 pm

    You have been and are right on, imho. However, I’m concerned that waiting for them to get it might not be the answer either based on this:

  • josh  On December 27, 2016 at 11:27 pm

    Two difficult and important questions I would like to see you address openly, rationally, without rancor and with as little bias as possible both have to do with violence: why (or why not) assassinate Trump, and why (or why not) violently rebel against him. The differences you cite are precisely the kind of irreconcilable differences that fuel civil war (by contrast the history of assassination in America seems to have always been an oddly personal affair). In a way, it is the ultimate test of our beliefs, our values: are we willing to risk all to defend our values? If not, are they really our values? Why are we willing to fight in foreign lands against tyrants, but not here in our own land? And a corollary: what is the red line for us? Does Trump have to actually cross it, or is his rhetoric enough? Is it the Muslim Registry? Is it withdrawing from NATO? Is it encouraging a nuclear arms race? Is it dismantling the EPA? Is it corruption? (And in fairness, should we not ask ourselves what this red line is for *any* elected leader?)

    Perhaps more importantly, in the long run, is to address what Mill called “the Tyranny of the Majority”, especially now when celebrity is far more valuable than any other single factor in an election (or at least that is my big take away from this election). The early founders did not allow universal suffrage, instead limiting it to white, male land-owners. Those criteria are abhorrent, but a simple, apolitical “critical thinking” test that must be passed prior to voting might be fairer. How is it good for America, or for any country, for the ignorant, the stupid, the self-defeating to be allowed, nay, encouraged to vote on a whim? Personally, I don’t feel safe allowing anyone who would fail such a test to choose leaders who will make life and death decisions about me and my family.


  • By The Yearly Sift 2016 | The Weekly Sift on December 26, 2016 at 8:56 am

    […] broken the primary theme out into its own article “The Year of This-can’t-be-happening“. It covers my repeated attempts — from the beginning of the year to the end — to […]

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