Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

22 January 2016

Misdirected “Populism,” and How to Fix It


[For a recent post on marketers and Websites, click here; for one on the Dems’ last debate, click here.]
    “We are mad, and we’ve been had.” — Sarah Palin
One of the oddest things about this election cycle is not that Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are dominating our media and GOP polling. It’s how our media treat them.

Calling Trump and Cruz “populists” along with Bernie Sanders is spectacularly false equivalence. It’s like calling George Wallace, Joe McCarthy, Huey Long, or Adolf Hitler a “populist.”

Each of them, like Trump and Cruz, garnered a substantial popular following. Each of them was or is a demagogue. Wallace and Hitler were overt and virulent racists, too. But “populists”? Populists were people like FDR, Robert Kennedy and William Jennings Bryan, who fought for the the middle class and working people against economic royalists.

Hitler was more “successful” than Wallace, McCarthy or Long. By guile, lies, terror and brute force, he gained enough support to be elected chancellor and then subvert Germany. The result was history’s most horrible war, fifty million souls prematurely extinguished, and the destruction and forcible division of Germany for nearly half a century.

In contrast, American demagogues have achieved far less “success,” at least so far. McCarthy was disgraced and repudiated and died of cancer soon afterward. Long was assassinated, and Wallace was crippled by a would-be assassin.

But Wallace did have “success” of a sort. In 1968 he ran for president under the overtly racist “American Independent Party.” He siphoned off Democratic votes and gave us Richard Nixon as president. It would be spectacular poetic justice if Trump or Cruz, denied the nomination, ran independently and put Bernie in the White House.

Could something like Hitler and Nazism happen here? In an essay written nearly four years ago, I analyzed the causes of Germany’s Nazi psychosis and the chances of something similar happening to us Yanks. I put the risk at “probably no more than 20%.” Now, with the surges of Trump and Cruz, the odds are growing daily.

Trump lacks the mustache and the screech. But in his personality and what passes for his “policies,” he’s a dead ringer for Hitler. He demonizes Muslims and Hispanic immigrants just as Hitler demonized Jews. He wants to deport 11 million peaceful, productive immigrants, just as Hitler deported six million Jews from their homes to concentration camps. (The death camps and the “final solution” came much later, after Hitler had consolidated absolute power and was well into his catastrophic war.)

Like Hitler’s to pre-war Germans, Trump’s pitch to Americans is utter “trust me” nonsense. He says one thing one day and another thing the next. He never apologizes for blatant factual errors or inconsistencies. His mantra is: “I’m smart. I’m strong. I’m a billionaire. I’ll fix what ails our country. I’ll bash the Islamic terrorists, the Hispanics and whatever else ails us. Just put me in charge.” Except for not being a billionaire, wasn’t that Hitler’s modus operandi?

Cruz is more polished and subtle, but his “policies,” insofar as he has any, are much the same. Not only does he look a bit like Joe McCarthy, with his self-satisfied smirk. According to news reports, everyone who’s ever known him personally—from his college days to today’s Senate floor—hates him. His Senate colleagues refused to support him on the issue of his eligibility to be president. They all turned their backs on him, even the most conservative; and they know him best.

Together, Trump and Cruz may be the most unqualified and wildly dangerous men ever to get close to the presidency of the United States. Just as in pre-Nazi Germany, the have a chance for one reason only: the middle class, and not just the poor, are hurting and angry.

Sarah Palin may be unqualified, too. But she has a knack for memorable phrases. She’s absolutely right. We, the American people, are mad because we’ve been had.

But how we’ve been had has nothing to do with Hispanic immigrants (undocumented or not), Muslims, abortion, the government taking away our guns, or a half-black President in the White House. In fact, the President has done more than any of his predecessors to tell us honestly what’s really wrong and to fix it.

How we’ve been had fits into four general categories. The first and most important is economic. Recent studies reveal astounding figures. Not only is economic inequality in our nation far more severe than our people think is right. It’s orders of magnitude (powers of ten) worse than they think it is. The top 1% own 40% of all the wealth in the United States; the bottom 80% of our people—four fifths of us—own just 7%.

As Bernie says, this pathologically unequal economy came about because the law and our pols stacked the deck against the middle class and poor and in favor of the rich. It did so most recently by removing restrictions on big banking and then by bailing out the big bankers with taxpayer money when their stupidity and greed destroyed the global economy.

The people know all this instinctively, but they don’t see cause and effect. They don’t know that, although Bill Clinton signed the bill that gave the banks carte blanche to get bigger and to gamble bigger, it was the Republicans who pushed for it, over decades, at the instance of their rich backers. Bill Clinton just signed the bill into law to “triangulate” and seek a middle ground.

As for bailouts, it was Dubya’s Goldman-Sachs-alumnus Secretary Treasury, Hank Paulson, who started them on his own initiative, without Congress’ permission or even knowledge. Then he got a clueless and startled Congress to endorse and expand them—all in Dubya’s lame-duck period and long before Obama’s inauguration. By the time Obama took over, bailouts were well-established policy. Anyway, a deluded Congress held the much-needed Keynesian stimulus hostage to them.

The public needs to know these basic facts of history. Although there is blame to go around, it needs to know who were the principal architects of their being had economically.

The second way our middle class has been had is environmental. The public is just beginning to understand how profoundly global warming will affect our lives and our children’s future. It’s not just the freak storms, the more violent hurricanes, the more common and devastating tornados, the freak cold snaps, or the massive summer heat waves. It’s rising seas and northward-marching tropical diseases. Zika virus, which can deform babies and damage their brains by infecting pregnant women, is now marching into Texas and Florida, as is dengue fever.

At the same time, low oil prices are exacerbating the problem. Consumers are buying big SUVs and other gas-guzzlers again. Not only does their doing so accelerate global warming. One day it will punch them in their pocketbooks, yet again, when oil and gasoline prices inevitably resurge.

The party of Trump and Cruz is not responsible for global warming. Our entire species is. But the GOP has delayed and even stymied rational solutions by deluding and deceiving the most powerful nation on Earth, still the global leader, for far too long. Like all other GOP candidates, Cruz and Trump say nothing about global warming, leaving us in the dark as to what, if anything, they would do about it in the unlikely catastrophe of their election.

The third way we’ve been had is that they’re taking away our democracy, right before our eyes. We no longer have majority rule in our Senate and our House. We also have institutional gridlock due to individual Senators’ “holds” on legislation and presidential appointments. Gerrymandering and vote suppression are endemic in our states.

The GOP and the Old South are the principal culprits; they are in bed together.

Of course the Supreme Court’s catastrophic decision that corporations are “people” with civil rights like us humans is partly responsible. It gave the rich even more power to distract and delude us than they already have. It sent us halfway to ancient Rome’s “bread and circuses.” But the GOP’s “Southern Strategy” not only put our least-developed, most racist, most militaristic and most authoritarian culture in charge of Congress; it also put the justices on the Court whose votes decided Citizens United. So if you think our democracy has been had, it’s pretty clear who’s done the having.

The fourth and final way we’ve been had is the most violent. We’ve been shot and terrorized, repeated and routinely, by guns in the wrong hands.

What caused this has been the acme of successful right-wing demagoguery. Time after time, crazy people, fanatics or terrorists have shot up our gathering places: schools, colleges, theaters and community centers. Vast majorities of our people want to stop the mayhem by outlawing assault weapons and keeping guns out of demented or fanatic hands. But the gun makers and the NRA have convinced enough of our people and our pols to impose a minority veto on simple, common-sense precautions that police and a majority of our people support.

Whether right-leaning or left-leaning, whether “conservative” or progressive, the American people want all four of these things fixed. Vast majorities of Americans want to break up the big banks (or otherwise curtail their power), to move toward a clean-energy economy and create millions of clean, good jobs, to get money out of politics, and to stop the gun mayhem. Yet nothing happens because the demagogues on the right have convinced a substantial minority of us that abortion, Muslims, undocumented aliens, and minorities (including the President!) are the sources of our problems.

The fix is easy in concept but hard to pull off. Someone has to explain the facts of life to American voters. Someone has to introduce them to the notion of cause and effect. Someone has to patiently describe how deporting Hispanics, barring Muslims from entry, banning abortion, giving everyone yet more guns, and bashing the President and other minorities will have a lot of unintended consequences but will not fix any of these problems. Bernie has done a good job on economic inequality and money in politics, but he has yet to address the environmental and gun problems in any serious way.

Finally, the press has got to stop calling Trump and Cruz “populists.” They are not. They are demagogues. Trump is as close to a fascist as I’ve ever seen running for president in my lifetime of 70 years. Even Barry Goldwater—the arch-conservative who lost to Lyndon Johnson in the greatest landslide since FDR’s—was nothing like Trump. Goldwater was an honest man, and Trump would appall him.

Trump and Cruz are uniquely vulnerable because they are uniquely unqualified and horrible. The way to beat them is to call them what they are and begin the long, slow process of re-introducing a public brainwashed with distractions and vapid abstractions to the simple notion of cause and effect.

Republicans can’t do that because brainwashing is all they’ve got. They don’t even have a credible policy even to replace Obamacare, let alone to cure our economic pathology. So it’s up to the Dems, and especially to Bernie, to teach us history and return us to basic human survival reasoning—a clear vision of cause and effect.

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