As our beleaguered nation lurches from one sensational episode to the next, each rife with corruption, scandal or innuendo, a compelling and disturbing question remains: how does Donald Trump get away with it? So many events during the course of his public life would have destroyed the careers of other politicians, from his racist slur questioning his predecessor’s birthplace that jumpstarted his candidacy, to defrauding enrollees of his eponymous university and boasting about sexually assaulting women, to recent allegations of marital infidelity and the payment of hush money, to say nothing about the continual stream of half-truth and outright falsehood he generates. Yet he remains relatively unscathed. What is it about Trump that confirms his boast that he could shoot someone on Fifth Ave. and people would still vote for him?
First, let’s pay tribute again to Michael Moore, who called the presidential election during the summer and even named the states Trump would carry to secure his victory. This came at a time when no one, not even Republican guru Karl Rove, gave Trump any chance of winning. Moore was prescient: rage against both Republican and Democratic elites was simmering in places like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin, where shuttered factories devastated individuals, families and entire communities. While many voters there believed both parties ignored them for several decades, this election featured a political maverick who appeared to raise his middle finger against existing elites when he threatened to “drain the swamp” in Washington and recognized the rage and trepidation of working men and women. His candidacy seemed to offer the chance for political payback or, as Moore put it, to hurl a Molotov cocktail at the political system and blow it up. Even as many supporters questioned the suitability of his temperament and/or his qualification to hold office, they wanted to deliver a clear message: the major parties could no longer afford to ignore them. When Trump scored a remarkable victory not even he anticipated, the message was received loud and clear.
Trump never ran an ordinary campaign. From the start, he became the leader of an insurgent movement that captured the Republican party and then the presidency. The dirty secret about Trump’s candidacy involved globalization and its discontents. The marketplace has always produced winners and losers. For most of its history, the US enjoyed being an ascendant and then a dominant global superpower. This changed dramatically with the emergence of Japan, Inc. and OPEC in the 1970’s, a derided yet pivotal decade. Suddenly, factories closed, industries faded and whole communities began to die. Suddenly, the American century was over after twenty-five years. But let us be clear: trade deals did not darken steel and auto plants. For the first time in our history, the chickens came home to roost. American industrial workers fell victim to the ceaseless and ruthless economic battle that defines the global market economy.
In this context, Trump’s crass behavior is viewed by those marginalized and left behind by globalization as a thumb in the eye of political and cultural elites who failed to address their suffering. Even as many believe his comments and actions are inappropriate, Trump receives a pass after being anointed to become a lightning rod to voice the pent-up frustration and anger of those who feel powerless to change an unresponsive political system. Trump maintains his relative strength not in spite of his outrageous behavior, but as a direct consequence of the discomfort he generates.
If Trump is the Teflon politician, to whom nothing awful ever seems to stick, Bill and Hillary Clinton are Velcro politicians, to whom every misstep sticks forever. It is my belief that our reactions to Trump and the Clintons are intimately connected.
When the history of the 1990’s gets written in the future, Bill Clinton will be remembered as the first Republican president who masqueraded as a Democrat. Remember his triumphant assertion that he ended “big government” as we knew it when he engineered welfare reform as part of his “triangulation” strategy, whereby he adopted Republican policy initiatives to outflank Newt Gingrich to secure reelection. Furthermore, Clinton unleashed a tidal wave of corporate profits and stock market gains with massive economic deregulation that devastated the economy a decade later. While there was some trickle-down benefit, the resentment of “losers” in the globalization battle continued to simmer.
The Clintons came to embody the hypocrisy of political elites because they branded themselves as “Third Way” Democrats while endorsing policies that smelled distinctly Republican. And as if he were the second coming of Herbert Hoover, Al Gore gushed during one of his presidential debates that he proposed to render the federal government debt free for the first time since the early 19th century, espousing a political goal anathema to liberal Democrats like Hubert Humphrey or FDR. This is not to deny that certain Clinton initiatives were progressive, like the attempted overhaul of health care. But this fell victim to personal arrogance and a penchant for secrecy that ultimately doomed any chance of adoption and increased political and personal resentment against Bill and Hillary.
In effect, the Clintons maneuvered themselves to become political scapegoats before there was any personal scandal. So it is quite instructive to note the very different response to Clinton’s affair with his intern and Trump’s sexual boasting. Bill Clinton was impeached while Trump’s disclosure failed to register with voters. In their non-response to the Access Hollywood tape, Americans were not sanctioning the sexual assault of women. But any judgment of his deplorable personal behavior was trumped by his role as political lightning rod. This has enabled him to remain relatively unscathed, even as the stench of corruption and scandal intensifies around him.
If Robert Mueller concludes Trump engaged in an obstruction of justice, or discovers evidence of money laundering in his private business, the teflon politician may have to face the music as his fate will no longer be determined by the court of public opinion alone. However, the more interesting and important issue is: what happens when Trump supporters realize he has sold them a bill of goods? Who will they turn to and how will their smoldering resentment, disillusionment and anger get expressed? We could find out sooner rather than later.
Neal Aponte, Ph.D.
Editor of Delano