Monthly Archives: June 2017

Searching for the Soul of the Democratic Party

Writing in Politico, Bruce Bartlett complains the Republican Party has lost its way because it has ceased to champion ideas; he says the GOP has become the Party that panders “to the lowest common denominator in American politics.”  What Bartlett says is true, but the Democratic Party has also lost its way.  Not because its ceased to champion ideas but rather because Democrats have forgotten who they are, they’ve lost touch with their soul.

Bruce Bartlett is a historian who served in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush Administrations.  His Politico article ( savages Trump: “He has instituted policies so right wing they make Ronald Reagan… look like a liberal Democrat… Trump is what happens when a political party abandons ideas, demonizes intellectuals, degrades politics and simply pursues power for the sake of power.”

Bartlett dates the GOP decline to the 1994 ascension of Newt Gingrich:  “In power, Republicans decided they didn’t need any more research or analysis; they had their agenda, and just needed to get it extended.”  But there’s another equally viable explanation: Republicans came under the control of a small number of billionaire conservatives, such as Charles and David Koch and Robert Mercer.  After Gingrich came to power, new conservative initiatives originated not from GOP congress members but instead from conservative think tanks (such as the American Legislative Exchange Council [ALEC]) funded by the billionaires.

Over the course of two decades, the Republican Party became the Oligarchy Party.  It didn’t abandon ideas but rather turned the conservative intellectual process over to a small number of billionaires.  Republican congress members became tools of the oligarchs.  Inevitably, this produced the situation where Donald Trump cut his biggest deal; Donald became President of the United States after agreeing to let the oligarchs guide his domestic and foreign policy after accepting millions in financial support.

Democrats have not responded effectively to this change.

The rise of the oligarchs has had two direct impacts on the American political process: first, it has savagely increased the impact of big money.  Elected officials now have to spend a huge percentage of their time raising money for the next election.  Over time this has vastly increased the impact of big donors and lobbyists.   The Republican Party is now run by oligarchs but, to a worrisome extent, the Democratic Party is also influenced by big money.

When Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren talk about the political system being “broken” or “rigged” this is what they are talking about.  Wealthy Americans have too much influence in the political process.  Democrats acknowledge this but they haven’t done anything about it.

The second impact of the rise of the oligarchs has been the increase of partisanship in American politics — the death of “comity.”  The current debate about “Trumpcare” is emblematic of this situation: in 2009, when the Affordable Care Act was being discussed, Democrats had lengthy discussions with Republicans and incorporated many of their ideas in the legislation (even though most Republicans ended up not voting for the Affordable Care Act).  In 2017, when Trumpcare was being discussed, Republican Senators made no effort to consult Democrats.

There’s considerable research ( that indicates voters in the last election voted more because of partisan sentiments than because of ideas discussed by the candidates.  Trump prevailed because he motivated his base with “white male identity politics.”  Trump prevailed because he was perceived as an outsider who could “shake up the system.”  (He’s definitely done that.)

Even though Hillary Clinton was widely believed to be the most qualified candidate to ever run for President, she wasn’t popular.  Voters didn’t have the visceral sense of attachment to her that eight years before they had had with Barack Obama.  There are a lot of reasons why voters didn’t like Hillary: the fact that she is a woman; her reputation as an intellectual; the email scandal; and on and on.  But if we compare Clinton in 2016 to Obama in 2008, there’s one word that jumps out: soul.  Obama had soul and Clinton didn’t.

in 2008, millions of voters believed that Obama would transform the system.  (Remember “the audacity of hope”?)  In 2016 few voters believed that of Clinton.  (Trump supporters believe he would blow up the system.)  Obama had soul and Clinton never did.

That was a problem for Clinton in 2016 and a continuing problem for Democrats.  Voters don’t see much difference between the two Parties.  If you ask a typical American, “In the difficult days ahead, which Party has got your back?”  They’ll probably answer, “Neither.  Politicians are only in it for themselves.”

At the moment, the most popular US politician is Bernie Sanders who is neither a Democrat nor a Republican.  He’s a Socialist who runs as an Independent.

But it’s not his Party affiliation that generates Bernie support, it’s his authenticity.  Bernie has gained respect by telling it like it is.  He recognizes the system is broken and the oligarchs are winning.  He’s willing to stand up and tell the unvarnished truth.  Bernie has soul.

Not so long ago, Democrats distinguished themselves as “the Party with a soul.”  That’s what they need to do now.  Democrats need to follow Bernie Sanders.

When Will Trump Lose His Base?

After the Trump White House careened through another terrible week, Washington insiders wonder how long Trump can survive.  The answer is: as long as he holds his base.  Trump and his voters are locked in a deadly embrace: his base desperately wants to believe he will address their grievances and Trump is willing to lie to keep their support.

In her latest insightful Trump analysis, in the New York Review (, Elizabeth Drew observed, “Trump is, for all his deep flaws, in some ways a cannier politician than [former President] Nixon; he knows how to lie to his people to keep them behind him…People can have a hard time recognizing that they’ve been conned. And Trump is skilled at flimflam, creating illusions.”

Despite Trump’s “flimflam,” his approval ratings steadily decline.  538 ( finds that 56 percent disapprove of the job trump is doing versus 38 percent that approve.  Nonetheless, 82 percent of Republicans approve of Trump.

Elizabeth Drew asks the question that most Trump opponents have been pondering: “When, or will, Trump’s voters realize that he isn’t delivering on his promises, that his health care and tax proposals will help the wealthy at their expense, that he isn’t producing the jobs he claims?”

There are four factors that determine Trump’s base support:  the first is his health.  Donald is 71, overweight, with a poor attitude towards food, sleep, and exercise.  During his recent overseas junket, his staff described him as “exhausted.”  (Trump is limiting further trips because of the exhaustion.)  During a sojourn in Italy, Trump wasn’t able to walk to a restaurant with other world leaders and travelled the short distance in a golf cart.

Some of Trump’s erratic behavior could be the result of poor physical health.  If his health deteriorates further — for example, he is unable to travel overseas or to attend campaign rallies — then Trump will be labelled as  “weak,” “frail, “incompetent,” and “pathetic.”

The second factor that could impact Trump’s support is media coverage.  While the mainstream media (MSNBC, CNN, New York Times, Washington Post…) has reported adversely on Trump’s behavior, the right-wing media (Fox, Breitbart…) has been supportive.  (When Trump said he was “vindicated” by James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, the mainstream media scoffed but the right-wing media echoed Trump’s sentiments.)  What could cause the right-wing media to shift?

Elizabeth Drew noted that Trump is a “cannier” politician than Nixon.  “He can… make use of social media, Fox News, and friendly talk shows to keep [his base] loyal.”  Trump has the ability to dominate the daily news by means of a tweet or a call to a conservative talk-show host.  However, as the Trump-Russia investigation has accelerated he has lost some of this advantage.  (For example, during the week of June 5th the news was dominated by James Comey not by Donald Trump.)

If Trump continues to fail to perform — if, for example, the Senate is unable to make progress on healthcare — or if evidence of his physical limitations becomes more obvious, then the right-wing media will turn on him.

The third factor that could determine Trump voters attitude is the stance of the Republican Party.  At the moment, the only political entity more unpopular than Trump is the GOP.  Therefore, Party leaders such as Mitch McConnell, Reince Priebus, and Paul Ryan continue to back Trump.  Their attitude seems to be: “Trump may be crazy but he’s the only chance we have of accomplishing our agenda.”

So far, the Republican Congress has been remarkably disciplined supporting Trump.  Nonetheless, the more dire Republican prospects in 2018, the more likely we are to see Republican congresspeople abandon Trump.  For example, a few days ago Arizona Republican Congresswoman Martha McSally told constituents: “They (Democrats) only need 23 seats. The path to that gavel being handed over is through my seat, and right now it doesn’t matter that it’s me.  It doesn’t matter what I’ve done. It doesn’t matter. It’s just that I have an ‘R’ next to my name, and right now this environment would have me not prevail.” (

The Republican problem is that they have not advanced any meaningful legislation. Trump’s agenda is supposed to be Obamacare repeal, massive tax cuts, and a trillion dollar infrastructure package.  So far, none of this has happened.

The Trump Administration is running out of runway.  If there are no meaningful GOP legislative accomplishments by Labor Day, then Republican congress people will begin distancing themselves from Trump.

Finally, the fourth factor that could influence Trump voters is the economy.  So far Trump has been blessed by a positive, if tepid economy.  (The 2017 first quarter GDP increased by only .7 percent.)  The US economy is at full employment and wage growth has barely exceeded inflation.

Trump promised to push economic growth by means of a massive infrastructure investment.  So far this program has languished.

Trump’s position is deteriorating.  He’s beginning to lose his domination of the news.  His legislative agenda appears to be dead in the water.  All it will take is one major setback and the Trump facade will crumble; his voters will massively unfriend him.

The question is what will this setback be?  Will it be developments in the Russia investigation or the economy or something unpredictable?

Angry Trump, Angry Supporters

Five months into the Trump presidency, Donald’s erratic behavior has spawned an avalanche of “what’s wrong with Trump” theories. Rather than speculate on his psyche, it’s sufficient to label Trump: an angry man whose actions are fueled by the anger of his supporters.

For many observers, Trump’s psychological profile matches that of individuals afflicted with the so-called “Dark Triad.” (  Writing in Psychology Today, Glenn Geher considered whether Trump met the three criteria:  “Psychopathy: The tendency to show little regard for the thoughts, feelings, and outcomes of others.  Narcissism: The tendency for one to show a particularly high focus on oneself.  Machiavellianism: The tendency to manipulate others for one’s own personal gain.”  Geher concluded: “Does Donald Trump demonstrate the features of the Dark Triad? … Absolutely and unequivocally.”

This opinion doesn’t help us cope with the facts that Trump is President of the United States and enjoys the support of millions of Americans.  Moreover, the Trump base doesn’t regard him as crazy; they see Donald as their last chance to save America.  What unites Trump and his base is anger.

There are two elements of Trump’s angry perspective.  Both were displayed in his June 1st speech pulling the U.S. out of the Paris climate accords.

The first is his belief that the U.S. is being disrespected: “The rest of the world applauded when we signed the Paris Agreement.  They went wild.  They were so happy.”  Trump contends this happened because the rest of the world believed the U.S. had signed a bad deal.  “At what point does [the rest of the world] start laughing at us?”

This is the cornerstone of Trump’s perspective: The U.S. is losing everywhere.  The rest of the world is laughing at us.

When Trump talks about “the rest of the world,” he often implies people-of-color and non-Christians.  He’s overlaid “the world community outside the United States” with bigotry.  Trump’s racially-tinged xenophobia is shared by his base — which is predominantly rural, White, and Christian.

The second element of Trump’s angry perspective is his contention that the United States is being taken advantage of.  “We’re losing everywhere.”  During his June 1st speech, Trump frequently used this imagery:

The Paris Climate Accord is simply the latest example of Washington entering into an agreement that disadvantages the United States, to the exclusive benefit of other countries.

This agreement is less about the climate and more about other countries gaining a financial advantage over the United States… the obvious reason for economic competitors and their wish to see us remain in the agreement is so that we continue to suffer this self-inflicted, major economic wound.

The agreement is a massive redistribution of United States’ wealth to other countries… Our businesses will come to a halt, in many cases, and the American family will suffer the consequences in the form of lost jobs and a very diminished quality of life.

The same nations asking us to stay in the agreement are the countries that have collectively cost America trillions of dollars through tough trade practices and, in many cases, lax contributions to our critical military alliance.

Beyond the severe energy restrictions inflicted by the Paris accord, it includes yet another scheme to redistribute wealth out of the United States through the so-called Green Climate Fund… Foreign leaders in Europe, Asia and across the world should not have more to say with respect to the U.S. economy than our own citizens and their elected representatives.

Exiting the agreement protects the United States from future intrusions on the United States’ sovereignty and massive future legal liability.

These assertions are lies ( but that doesn’t matter to Trump’s supporters.  They believe him.

Trump’s message is consistent: America is losing.  The rest of the world is taking advantage of us.  Trump alone can save the U.S.

One of the characteristic of a narcissist, such as Trump, is psychological projection: Donald takes an uncomfortable feeling about himself and attributes it to others.  Thus, Trump believes he is being disrespected and turns this belief into “the U.S. is being disrespected.”  Trump feels that others are laughing at him and projects “the rest of the world is laughing at the United States.”

It’s relatively easy to understand Trump’s dysfunctional behavior but more difficult to understand that of his loyal followers.  After the election, many polls noted that Trump supporters voted for him because they believed it to be their last chance to save the country and to regain power over their lives.  Many Trump voters are angry because they believe the American dream is slipping away.

In her landmark study, “Stranger in their own Land,”  sociologist Arlie Hochschild detailed the shared narrative, “deep story,” of Trump voters who feel that, in their pursuit of the American Dream, they have been pushed aside by “women, immigrants, refugees, public-sector workers…”  Trump has given voice to the resentment of his base.

Trump may be a narcissistic, Machiavellian, psychopath but that’s not what determines his support.  His base believes the American dream is slipping out of their reach.

Bill Clinton famously remarked, “I feel your pain.”  Trump’s motto should be, “I share your anger.”

The Four Faces of Trump

After four enervating months of Donald Trump’s presidency, Americans have  seen four different sides of Trump.

Trump the politician:  We’ve seen a lot of the same Donald Trump we saw during the 2016 political campaign.  Trump the Tweeter.  Trump the media basher.  Trump the braggart.  Trump the liar…

There’s no indication that Trump’s move into the Oval Office has changed him.  If anything, he seems more insular.  So far, Trump’s presidency has been characterized by scandals, such as the hiring and firing of Michael Flynn, and unprecedented disapproval.  Trump has responded by retreating into the White House (or Mar Al Lago) and firing off angry tweets.  (The worst job in Washington is being a member of the White House press corps.)  The only time Trump seems happy is when he’s giving his occasional campaign speech to the Trump faithful.  (Who, so far, have stuck with him.)

Trump the manager.  During the presidential campaign, we got a glimpse of Trump’s managerial style: he burnt through three campaign managers and preferred the advice of his family — particularly daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared — to that of seasoned political operatives.  Once in the White House, Trump’s managerial shortcomings have become more obvious.

His primary criteria for hiring is not “can they do the job” but instead “are they loyal to me.”  He stuck with Michael Flynn way much longer than he should have because Flynn was loyal.  Trump fired James Comey because Comey would not pledge loyalty to Trump (and because Comey would not reign in the investigation of Russian collusion in the election.)  As a result of Trump’s hiring bias, the White House is understaffed and those that stand by Trump’s side are, for the most part, in over their heads.  In general, the Trump Administration lags far behind other presidential administrations in the number of political appointees.

Trump voters like him because he seems authentic: a guy who “shoots from the hip” and is not harnessed by Washington convention.  Trump shoots randomly.  He has no impulse control.  Day-to-day there’s no coherent Trump strategy.

There’s an old joke about Dwight Eisenhower’s decision-making style: “He was most influenced by the last person he talked to.”  That seems an apt characterization for Trump’s decision-making process: he seems to change his mind from day-to-day.  For example, he was for the House Republican healthcare bill, then he was against it, and then he was for it.  Trump disparaged China’s economic policies until he met Xi Jinping, then he decided he liked China’s policies.  Trump will tell his communication staff to respond to an allegation in a certain manner and then he’ll tweet something different. Trump has no consistency — other than attacking the investigations into collusion with the Russians.

Trump the Party Leader:  By virtue of his presidential victory, Trump is also the leader of the Republican Party.  This means he sets the Party’s legislative agenda and ensures that Republican politicians are elected in 2018.

Trump’s legislative agenda is not going well.  He promised to repeal Obamacare and, so far, this hasn’t happened.  He promised to build a wall along the Mexican border and this, to say the least, is off to a slow start.

Trump and Congressional leaders seem to have agreed on a four-step plan: repeal Obamacare, enact massive tax cuts, reduce entitlements, and pass an infrastructure bill.  While all of these have been discussed, the relevant legislation has been slow to take form.  Part of this is due to confusion in Congress, where Republican leaders in the House and Senate are not on the same page.  But much of the responsibility lies with Trump.  He’s not a hands-on policy guy and hasn’t shown interest in pushing anything other than a big concept, such as “a terrific healthcare plan.”

Theoretically, Trump’s other responsibility is to ensure that Republican continue their control of the House and Senate.  Trump pays lip service to this job but in fact hasn’t done much; he’s a lone wolf and not a team player.

Trump the ideologue: When he was running for President, Trump didn’t seem particularly ideological, except on the issue of immigration.  He often struck a populist tone in his campaign speeches.  Nonetheless, as President Trump has taken an extremely conservative stance.

Once Trump gained the support of Robert and Rebekah Mercer, who had been Cruz supporters, many predicted that he would adopt the Cruz position on cutting government spending by eliminating the Departments of Commerce, Education, Energy, Housing and Urban Development, and the Internal Revenue Service.  (The Mercers are also in favor of eliminating the Environmental Protection Agency.)

So far, Trump hasn’t proposed eliminating these Departments but he has appointed right-wing zealots to run them: Wilber Ross (Commerce), Betty de Vos (Education), Rick Perry (Energy), Ben Carson (Housing and Urban Development), and Scott Pruitt (Environmental Protection Agency).   In his just-released budget, Trump proposes dramatic decreases in each agency budget .

Summary: Trump the leader is what we expected: a petulant showboat.  Trump the manager is worse than we expected.  Trump the Party leader is actually hurting the Republican Party.  Unfortunately, Trump the ideologue threatens to do grievous harm to the environment and the least fortunate Americans.