25 July 2017
Why the Trump dynasty will last sixteen years
EDWARD N. LUTTWAK
Could a Trump dynasty in the White House survive for three more elections?
In Washington DC, post-electoral stress disorder has generated a hysteria still amply manifest after eight months: the “Russian candidate” impeachment campaign implies that any contact with any Russian by anyone with any connection to Donald Trump was ipso facto treasonous. The quality press is doing its valiant best to pursue this story, but it is a bit much to claim “collusion” – a secret conspiracy – given that, during the election campaign, Trump very publicly called on the Russians to hack and leak Hillary Clinton’s missing emails. And it did not seem especially surprising when the latest target, Donald Trump Jr, promptly released all his emails to and from the Russians to confirm that he did indeed try to help his dad by finding dirt on the other guy. As for the other impeachment track underway, triggered by the ex-FBI director James Comey’s accusation of attempted obstruction of justice, Comey’s failure to accuse Trump until he was himself fired will make it easier for the Republicans who control the House to dismiss an otherwise plausible accusation as a naive error.
For all its vacuity, however, the hysteria is certainly understandable, because President Trump has defied all expectations by actually trying to do what he promised that he would try to do. But another reason is that the major cause of last November’s electoral outcome has remained mostly unexplored, even undiscovered. That is not due to intellectual laziness, but rather reflects the refusal of almost all commentators to contend with the political economy that determined the outcome of the election. Long-term processes of income redistribution from working people to everyone else, non-working welfare recipients as well as the very rich, had been evident for at least two decades. (I explored the phenomenon in my book The Endangered American Dream, 1993.) Those changes called for a painful party realignment (which would have cost the Democrats their ample Wall Street funding) that never happened – not even when Bernie Sanders arrived to be its instrument. The Democratic Party officials and leading lights of the media elite who helped to deny the nomination to Sanders, and thus very likely the White House, understandably have a guilty conscience, because they truly did everything possible to stop him, including ever so discreet anti-Semitic messaging very precisely aimed at black voters wavering in their pre-ordained fealty to Hillary Clinton.
As it was, of course, the victory of the Democratic establishment merely ensured the victory of the only Sanders counterpart on the Republican side with whom Sanders differed sharply on almost everything – except for the only thing that really mattered to both: the urgent need to mobilize government policies to increase American jobs and wages, in firm opposition to all the competing international and planetary priorities continuously proffered by elite Americans and their core institutions, along with Pope Francis and other leading figures.
In the dramatic crescendo of the 2016 elections that gave Trump to the United States and the world, very possibly for sixteen years (the President’s re-election committee is already hard at work, while his daughter Ivanka Trump is duly apprenticed in the White House that, according to my sources, she means to occupy as America’s first female President), none of the countless campaign reporters and commentators is on record as having noticed the car “affordability” statistics distributed in June 2016 via www.thecarconnection.com. Derived from very reliable Federal Reserve data, they depicted the awful predicament of almost half of all American households. Had journalists studied the numbers and pondered even briefly their implications, they could have determined a priori that only two candidates could win the Presidential election – Sanders and Trump – because none of the others even recognized that there was problem if median American households had been impoverished to the point that they could no longer afford a new car. This itself was remarkable because four wheels and an engine might as well be grafted to Homo americanus, who rarely lives within walking distance of his or her job, or even a proper food shop, who rarely has access to useful public transport, and for whom a recalcitrant ignition or anything else that prevents driving often means the loss of a day’s earnings, as well as possibly crippling repair costs. But even that greatly understates the role of automobiles in the lives of the many Americans who do not have private jets and do not live in New York City or San Francisco, for whom a car provides not only truly essential transport, but also the intensely reassuring sense of freedom depicted in countless writings and films, which reflect the hard realities of labour-mobility imperatives even more than the romance of the open road.
Instead of recognizing that the political implications of the income redistribution of globalized capitalism made Sanders and Trump the only two valid candidates, the leading commentators did the very opposite: they asserted in tones of unassailable certainty that both men were irremediably unelectable. That was, admittedly, a perfectly reasonable conclusion, given that neither happened to have a party to support them, which was then still considered the presumed prerequisite of electoral victories. And it was also true enough that Sanders could not hope for party support because of the professional contempt of with-it Democratic officials for the ageing socialist, who stubbornly failed to recognize the absolute centrality of identity politics in the third millennium, and who therefore persisted in talking of rich and poor, instead of African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, Aleuts, Asian-Americans, LGBT Americans, even white ones, if quietly.
That rejection was perfectly matched by the class contempt of respectable Republicans for the ageing Don Juan with his hopelessly vulgar blue-collar tastes, in everything from his hairstyle to his food. Anne Toulouse recognizes as much in her resolutely non-negative Dans la Tête de Donald Trump, whose own authentically feminine sensibility is openly on display when she writes, “arrive le Donald comme un bison dans la prairie, comme un taureau dans le rodéo, comme le shérif dans un western”. Instead of dutifully pretending to enjoy the hot dog that is the unavoidable price of campaigning at state fairs, while actually longing for arugula, endives and quinoa salads, candidate Trump positively relished his frequent stops at Domino’s, KFC and McDonald’s, where he went for Big Macs with a large order of french fries. That was an offence almost up there with crotch-grabbing for foodie Republicans such as the widely cited David Frum, who persistently argued that it was better to have a very imperfect Clinton in the White House than an impossibly vulgar Trump. That was a view shared by almost all office-holders in past Republican administrations, whose loud “never Trump” proclamations now rigorously exclude them from the posts they were longing for during President Obama’s eight years, resulting in the strange spectacle of empty quasi-ministerial offices all over Washington.
But this consensus was nullified by the insubstantial nature of the Republican Party, which is only a nominal entity, not an actual top-down organization, consisting as it does of amorphous clusters of adherents and office-holders in each county and state. Hence even the near-unanimity of prominent Republicans on Trump’s non-electability, notably including the two previous Republican candidates, John McCain and Mitt Romney, had no perceptible influence on the outcomes of the State primaries. Bemused observers (and that is all that P. J. O’Rourke’s How the Hell Did This Happen? has to offer, intermittently and feebly: humorous bemusement) first witnessed the considerable success of Ben Carson, a black neurosurgeon who had never before campaigned for anything, and whose especial popularity among conservatives exposed the prejudice of all those who continue to presume that conservative white Republicans must be racist.
Then came the very rapid decline of the nomination candidates most qualified for the presidency ex officio, because of their prior executive experience as state governors: the respected centrist John Kasich of Ohio; Jeb Bush of Florida, both affable and competent as well as reassuringly (for some) dynastic; the energetic Chris Christie of New Jersey; the Bible-belt favourite Mike Huckabee of Arkansas; the highly respectable Jim Gilmore of Virginia; the extremely effective Rick Perry of Texas; the hero of the anti-union Right Scott Walker of Wisconsin; the very able Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, who might attract other non-whites; and George Pataki of New York, whose own executive experience as the State governor ranged from the supervision of the New York City subways to the discretionary command of considerable army, air force and naval national guard forces, in addition to all the usual administrative categories. Even the least of these candidates was altogether better prepared for the White House than Trump – and it did not matter a bit, because he had the political economy of the race just right (as did Sanders) while none of the governors was ready to steal his lines.
Next came the sequential defeat of two sitting senators, including Marco Rubio, not only good-looking and eloquent, but also the most obviously intelligent politician in the race on either side. None of these qualities could overcome Trump’s inelegant repertoire of complaints, threats and insult, because Rubio too failed to contend with the political economy of the 2016 election.
That left Trump as the only man standing, who simply could not be denied the nomination that was widely expected to bring down Republican candidates all over the country, along with himself. As it was, Trump’s march to victory also helped to elect Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, and two more Republican governors (raising their number to thirty-three, a record unmatched since 1922). The near-unanimity of the commentariat in forecasting the disastrous impact of candidate Trump on all other Republican candidacies in the House, Senate and in gubernatorial elections, chiefly because of his presumed inability to attract female voters, is one more colossal intellectual failure that remains unredeemed – and is entirely unexplained in Susan Bordo’s The Destruction of Hillary Clinton. Bordo, a professional feminist who teaches gender and women’s studies at the University of Kentucky, blames Clinton’s defeat entirely on misogyny, along with the electoral vote system, without recognizing the contrary implication of the victories of many other female candidates in the same election season.
Like many others, Bordo makes altogether too much of Clinton’s victory in the popular vote, without recognizing that the Trump campaign’s disciplined focus on winning the state-by-state electoral votes, the only ones that counted in the election, would have been redirected to win the popular vote if that had been the system. There were certainly many votes to be gained by campaigning in upstate California and New York, downstate Illinois and in the many other places where Trump was and is very popular, but given the system, his campaign wasted no efforts on those states.
It was the great misfortune of the Democrats that they did have a veritable organization in their Democratic National Committee, a top-down structure with a normal chain of command, which in the 2016 campaign was headed by the extremely determined Clinton loyalist Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and later by Donna Brazile, whose own especially intense loyalty reportedly compelled her to pass leaked television debate questions to her heroine, who duly came out with perfectly worded, instantaneous answers when the occasion arrived, while Sanders had to rely on his wits. Wasserman Schultz and then Brazile with their disciplined DNC teams devoted all the attention and all the money to Clinton, thereby disfavouring Sanders in spite of his remarkable primary victories, after altogether freezing out the candidacies of the former governors Martin O’Malley and Lincoln Chafee and of the former senator James Webb – all of them theoretically equal claimants on DNC resources, along with Bernie Sanders, until nomination day.
Moreover, the Clintonites could even intervene to change the outcome of the primaries because of the remarkably undemocratic Democratic practice of unelected super-delegacies, 712 actual and former party officials amounting to some 15 per cent of total convention votes, alongside 4,051 properly elected delegates. The Republicans had no “super-delegates”, nor any other device to dilute the power of the great unwashed in the selection of their candidate.
In theory, the super-delegates could have gone either way, but Sanders was lucky to get 44.5 of those votes as compared to Clinton’s 570.4, because going against Clinton meant losing access to the river of money flowing from the many-headed Clinton money fountain, the enormously well-funded campaign proper, the Clinton Foundation with its vast array of generous funders, the for-profit Teneo advisory company, and the super-PACs established by Clinton sympathizers, who would cut off anyone who supported Sanders. It was a river of Amazonian proportions: in the final reckoning, filed at the end of January 2017, the Clinton campaign had spent some $1.4 billion (as compared to Trump’s $948 million), and required yet more tribute from exasperated donors because only a measly $323,300 remained in hand to pay the millions in left-over bills (Trump still had $7.6 million with all bills paid).
The likes of Wasserman Schultz and Brazile remained entirely unswayed by the mounting accumulation of poll data that projected the relative electoral superiority of Sanders over Trump: politics is their profession in a perfectly Weberian sense, and a Bernie-led party would depend on trade union and individual contributions, without access to the big money that demands loyalty to ever-intensifying globalization, as well as to any donor-specific lobbying needs. In spite of the much-celebrated success of his innovative online fundraising, Sanders topped out at $240 million, not even a fifth of the Clinton total that paid the ample fees of a great many field operatives, pollsters and publicists, as well as entire teams of “strategists”, including Huma Abedin, Hillary Clinton’s closest companion by far (Bill did not even come near).
That gathering of lean and hungry Clintonians is the world mercilessly exposed in Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s doomed campaign by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes. Meticulously researched and strenuously unbiased, it is the most useful book published so far on the 2016 Presidential election as a whole, as well as the Clinton campaign specifically. It certainly convinced me that Clinton did not understand in what country she was running for election: not one populated by black women (they dominated her convention), environmental activists, patriotic Muslims, vegans, committed free-traders and social engineers, but chiefly a country of car owners and bitterly frustrated would-be new car owners, a far better categorization than Clinton’s own “deplorables”.
That is why the car affordability numbers revealed in June 2016 were so vastly significant in determining the outcome of the elections. Going by metropolitan areas, they extracted maximum affordable car prices from median incomes. The latter ranged from the stellar $87,210 of San Jose in the opulence of California’s Silicon Valley, all the way down to the $24,701 of deindustrialized Cleveland, Ohio, numbers that in turn yielded maximum affordable price limits of $32,855 in San Jose, and $7,558 in Cleveland – not actually the lowest number, which was Detroit’s $6,174, owing to high average insurance costs in that crime-afflicted city (at $1,131.40 per annum, as compared to Cleveland’s $659.47).
What made these seemingly obscure numbers nothing less than momentous was that the cheapest new car on sale in the United States in 2016 was the Nissan Versa sedan at $12,825, twice the level that average households could afford in Detroit or Cleveland, and more than average households could afford in cities ranging from Philadelphia, Orlando, Milwaukee, Memphis, Providence, New Orleans, Miami and Buffalo, as well as, a fortiori, in a very great number of smaller localities across the United States, even in high-income states such as California and Oregon, as well much more commonly in the lower-income Southern and rust-belt states.
The mass exclusion of Americans from new car ownership is the result of two converging phenomena, only one of which was recognized by Hillary Clinton, though scarcely emphasized in her identity-focused campaign: wage stagnation. Sanders and Trump did not hesitate to blame that relative impoverishment on the exposure of the least agile of Americans to international competition, with the resulting de-industrialization that translated millions of Americans from $20-to-40-an-hour factory jobs to miserably paid service jobs. Beholden to the sanctity of free trade, the Clinton crowd even more than the candidate herself blamed the lethargy of the TV-watching, beer-drinking, gun-owning, church-going, and cigarette-smoking “deplorables”, who unaccountably failed to avail themselves of the wonderful opportunity to leave boring assembly-line jobs or downright dangerous coal-face or oil drilling jobs to become fashion designers, foreign-exchange traders, software engineers, or even political campaign operatives.
It was the other phenomenon, the other blade of the scissors that cut off the possibility of new car ownership for more and more Americans that Trump squarely attacked as Sanders did not and could not: the regulatory regime that has been relentlessly forcing up new car prices from the 1977 average of $4,317, equivalent to $17,544 in 2016, to an actual average price today that exceeds $30,000. Those regulations prescribe that American cars must be very, very safe, and steadily more demanding safety requirements have been forcing up manufacturing costs: the latest addition is the provision of rear-view cameras in all cars that will be mandatory in 2018, the result of an Obama decree prompted by the campaign started by a wealthy driver who had suffered the tragedy of killing his own young daughter while reversing. Because of his suffering, and his energetic lobbying, and because of Barack Obama’s enthusiasm for promulgating more regulatory decrees, in 2018 the additional cost of those rear-view cameras – only a few hundred dollars – will deprive thousands more households of the chance to buy a new car.
Also costly are the ever-more stringent fuel conservation norms and pollution restrictions that mandate pricy engine ancillaries, and that strongly favour inherently more expensive hybrid cars, as well as drastically more expensive all-electric cars. And both those purposes are much more costly to achieve than they could have been because they are subverted by the safety norms that prohibit the much lighter vehicles I happily drive in Japan, whose K-cars merrily drive up steep mountain roads in spite of their minuscule engines, and that also prohibit the several small cars sold in Europe for much less than the $12,825 of the cheapest US car.
What, one may ask, is wrong with the pursuit of automobile safety, fuel economy and pollution control? Only this: mandatory regulations that prohibit choices between better and cheaper cars force the average household in too many parts of the United States to drive second-hand, third-hand or simply very old cars that are drastically less safe, less fuel efficient and also more polluting than the prohibited cheaper new cars would be. Trump’s position was and is entirely forthright: he opposes the regulation of economic activities in principle unless unquestionably and very urgently necessary, as the control of climate change is not – depending on your definition of “urgent”. That was the clearest choice of all between Trump and Clinton, whose stance implicitly favoured $60,000 Tesla cars for the sake of the environment, as well as solar and wind power of ever increasing efficiency to be sure, but still now more costly than coal or gas.
Historians tell us that Marie Antoinette never said that those who could not afford to eat bread could eat brioche instead – but the regulatory restrictions that grew enormously under Obama, and that Clinton promised to increase even more (the luxuriously funded Sierra Club environmental agency gleefully anticipated the forthcoming demise of natural gas extraction in the wake of the destruction of coal mining), faithfully reflected the mentality of the French queen of legend: who wants to be a miner anyway? And never mind that the closing of a mine also destroys the value of the mining town’s houses, the only wealth possessed by most miners. Then there was the mechanically repeated assertion that, in any case, it is the declining cost of natural gas that is killing off the coal industry. That might well be true in the future, but it is plainly not so in the present, because otherwise President Obama would not have dedicated his final months in office to a slew of new decrees calculated to increase costs and restrict production to finally strangle the industry. (Trump has already revoked most of them.)
What was true of coal mining is just as true of much else that also directly attacks the interests of the American working classes, a categorization revived by Sanders explicitly and by Trump substantively – and it was the forty-fifth President’s grim inaugural speech warning that he would not forget them or their pressing needs, as the cynical had confidently assumed he would (the ex-economist Paul Krugman wrote that particular column several times in the New York Times during the campaign), that triggered the vehement panic of the elite Americans who are now trying to drive Trump from office. For those pressing needs include the restriction of competing labour inflows, and ever so liberal Silicon Valley tycoons would be totally lost without their Mexican gardeners, Asian chefs, Filipino childminders, and assorted immigrant dog-walkers and cleaners, along with their Indian programmers under special visas. Even more intolerable for the elite is the fact that the needs of the American working classes also require the correction of certain chronic trade imbalances and the abolition of environmental and cognate regulations that excessively increase production costs, all of them very direct attacks against the current elite ideology.
What happens next depends on the fate of that other vector of the Trump strategy – his $1.3 trillion infrastructure plan which a White House team is striving to convert into an actual programme that specifies what is to be built where, and with what sort of funding, whether public or private. If the resulting employment generation kicks in fully by 2020, Trump will coast to re-election, especially if by then he can claim that the Mexican border is “sealed”, which will then result in his ordering the automatic legalization of all tax-paying and non-felonious illegal immigrants, giving him a chunk of the Hispanic vote as well, after decades of unfulfilled promises, including Obama’s.
Even a developer very fond of fast food at its worst, and who enjoys boasting about his crotch-grabbing, is still a developer, who very naturally thinks in six-year blocks from site scoping to finance to design to construction and disposal, as opposed to the two-year horizon of American politics. That is why Trump registered his “Make America Great Again” slogan in 2010, six years in advance of his planned campaign, and why he is now focused not on the next mid-terms, but on the 2022 mid-terms, after his 2020 re-election, because it is only then that he can launch his daughter’s candidacy, while serving his own last two years in office. In the meantime, he is securing his base by striving hard to keep his promises: withdrawal from the Paris agreement that the US Congress never voted on (Obama approved it with a decree that seemed secure under President Hillary), the Muslim entry restrictions, the “sealing” of the Mexican border that will make universal legalization acceptable, and above all, his sorely needed infrastructure programme that is now being prepared by wholesale deregulation – at present, newly aggravated environmental rules almost exactly double road, bridge and tunnel construction costs as compared to France, in spite of its thirty-five-hour working week, and Japan, in spite of its extreme space restrictions.
As for Ivanka, in addition to her unique on-the-job training, lately pursued at the G20 meeting, in which she was a real participant, she is also preparing herself by carefully differentiating her personal views on a number of electorally important issues from those of her beloved father – who seems to accept her publicized dissents with paternal equanimity. No wonder that leading Democrats and non-Trumpers continue to act hysterically even eight months after the election. President Trump’s plan threatens to exclude them all from office until long past their retirement age.
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