COLUMBIA, S.C. — Two women, members of what President Richard Nixon used to call “The Silent Majority,” symbolize the earthquake that is American politics in 2016.
Kelly Raucci, a 38-year-old private investigator and Donald Trump supporter from Charleston, S.C., gave me the best (if crudest) explanation I’ve heard yet for the political rise of the authoritarian, xenophobic New York billionaire.
“This country needs an enema; This WORLD needs an enema!” she declared to me as she headed into a Trump rally at a convention center in North Charleston Friday night.
She was echoing the famous line that The Joker, played by Jack Nicholson, shouts in the 1989 movie “Batman.”
“We need to shake everything up. Politics and politicians have ruined it all. Nobody in the world respects us. Trump says what is on people’s minds and can get things done. He’s a businessman who knows how to help business.”
So: Trump as the Joker, terrorizing Gotham and out-of-towners alike.
Less than two weeks ago, at the Palace Theater in downtown Manchester, New Hampshire, a 44-year-old Bernie Sanders supporter named Darlene gave me the best explanation I’ve heard yet for the rise of a rare type in American politics: a “democratic socialist,” and a 74-year-old one at that.
“I have a college degree and the only work I can get is as a waitress at a restaurant downtown,” she told me. “But I’ve still got a lot of college loans, which I can’t afford; I’ve got crappy health care and I’m trying to pay for my son to go to public university and it is $30,000 a year! I really need the kind of help that Bernie is talking about.
“I don’t want to raise taxes but I want the billionaires to pay their REAL fair share, which is what Bernie says. I need help on my loans and on health care and on my son’s education. I can’t be a single mother and a provider without it. And no other politician has the guts to say what Bernie is saying.”
So: Bernie as Robin Hood, taking from a Sherwood Forest of Wall Street billionaires, and giving to struggling Americans. Even though he lost in Nevada, and could well lose next week in South Carolina, he’s pushed Hillary Clinton to the left and has the money and support to fight to the bitter end.
And it will be bitter.
A “strongman” right and the professorial left are pulling the taffy of American politics very thin in the business-as-usual center, where the likes of the Bush and Clinton families, and the entire political system as we knew it, reside.
“We haven’t had a situation like this in American politics in a 100 years,” said historian and political scientist Norman Ornstein. “We haven’t seen polarization like this since then. It’s troubling, and you can’t tell where it is going.”
It’s worth taking stock of how we got here. Here’s a list of 15 factors:
The Donald and The Bern agree on a couple of things, one of which is that global trade is depressing manufacturing wages in the U.S. and sending those jobs abroad. Both cite the recent announcement by Carrier that it is moving its air conditioner operation to Mexico.
The Bush-Clinton Economic Consensus Is Dead
Since the 1980s, presidents of both parties have been operating on the theory that government and business are economic allies at home and abroad. Bill Clinton rose in a conservative time by being the “business-friendly” Democrat and got the big donations that went with it. The two Bushes pursued the same theory. It is now under assault from both wings. Clintonism and the Chamber of Commerce are both politically spent forces at the moment.
Americans, for the most part and most of the time, do not mind rich people — they want to become just like them. But when “wealth inequality” is coupled with income stagnation, the ground can shake. President Barack Obama came to power offering hope, but the real income of the average American family hasn’t increased in his two terms — and it really hasn’t increased in a quarter of a century.
What Do You Mean, My Kids Won’t Be Better Off??
The phrase “American Dream” didn’t gain currency until the 1930s, but it has come to stand for the proposition that every generation will do better economically than the last one. Most Americans believe that that is no longer true, and they desperately want that to change.
Donald Trump himself credits his rise to the events in Paris and San Bernardino, and other commentators agree with him. “I came in talking about borders and immigration, but wasn’t taking off until the attacks,” he said. “Then, boom, I rocket to the top.” Obama’s measured responses seemed tepid, especially to Republican voters. He and they (and other GOP candidates) gave themselves license to amp up anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric that would have been considered out-of-bounds by earlier standards of discourse.
Even though many Mexicans have returned home, and even though Obama has stepped up deportations, the percentage of persons in the country who are not native-born is higher than it has been in more than 100 years. The U.S. was built on immigration, but goes through paroxysms of fear and resentment when the waves are so large.
No Soviet Union
Sure, the U.S. faces a threat from terrorists, but it is nothing like the annihilation we faced at the hands of the old Soviet Union. The outside threat always united Americans, or pushed them toward the center of politics for the most part. There is no such binding force today.
While it’s true that Americans don’t hate the rich as a general matter, the disparity today is greater than it has been since the Roaring Twenties. A Sanders speech is an infuriating litany of percentages, about how the “1 percent” control more wealth than the other 99. It plays — big time — in Democratic crowds tired of gradualism.
The Big Sort
Bill Clinton is fond of referring to a book of that name, which explains how Americans are geographically segregating themselves politically. That’s a matter of demographics, but the machinery of politics is doing the same thing. State legislatures, mostly controlled by Republicans these days, draw congressional district lines designed to segregate Democrats and Republicans into “safe” districts. The nominating rules of both parties give more power to states that tend to support them in presidential elections, accentuating the divide further.
News Aimed Just At You
It used to be possible for a TV anchor to end a broadcast by saying “that’s the way it is” — and just about the whole country believed him. Now each segment of the electorate has its own favorite outlets, and voters live in a warm bath of media affirmation of their own biases.
Social Media Just For You
It makes “reality” a purely political construct specifically designed by each campaign. No wonder Ted Cruz thinks he can get away with Photoshopping Marco Rubio into a fake Obama handshake. Cruz’s supporters — the only people he is talking to on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter — WANT to believe their own hermetic reality. And they do.
Big Money In Politics
Everybody in both parties hates it. Trump’s answer is to self-fund; Bernie’s is to crowdsource. Those are powerful appeals to their respective audiences.
It trumps substance. The Donald may be a successful businessman, but he is famous primarily for being famous, and his brilliant sense of how to maintain that fame through controversy is what powers his campaign. Obama had some of that same stardust. Bernie doesn’t, but his campaign has been brilliant about turning him into a meme of America.
This young generation is larger than the Baby Boom, and they want to shake things up as much as their grandparents did in the Sixties.
Parties And Endorsements Matter Less Than Ever
The parties in a way are more powerful than ever — at preventing things from happening. But they are despised in general, and their leaders have even less clout in an era of direct social-media communication with voters.
Editor‘s Note: Donald Trump is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist,misogynist,