The Republican elite is struggling to understand why so many of its core supporters have abandoned them for an authoritarian demagogue. After decades of cozy cohabitation, the plebes are moving out, leaving the cufflink wing of the party to wonder what went wrong.
Last week, the leading journal of elite conservative opinion presented a blunt, honest and unapologetic answer: Republican intellectuals loathe the rabble.
"The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture," writes Kevin D. Williamson, one of several vocal Trump critics on staff at National Review. Williamson assails in scoffing prose what he calls the "immoral" "lie" of the current political moment. Specifically, "that the white working class that finds itself attracted to Trump has been victimized by outside forces. It hasn't."
Surveying rust-belt desolation in upstate New York, Williamson concludes: "Nobody did this to them. They failed themselves."
Liberal writers are reveling in Williamson's straightforward poverty-shaming (which his colleague David French defended). The New Republic's Jeet Heer sees the piece as a return to National Review's founding "aristocratic conservatism," which has more recently been "obscured by a populist mask." For Jonathan Chait, Williamson is exposing the perverse moral logic of hardline libertarianism. "The marketplace hasn’t failed the white working class," he mocks. "The white working class has failed capitalism."
They could go further. Republican elites have relied on such ideas for years. In the depths of the Great Recession, Paul Ryan worried that the social safety net was becoming "a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency." Unemployment had spiked not because of a financial crisis, but because the poor had suddenly decided in unison to be very lazy. Mitt Romney's "47 percent" comment was nearly as dismissive as Williamson's vitriol.
But this only explains why the rabble are abandoning their well-heeled overlords in the GOP. It does not explain why they have embraced a xenophobic authoritarian instead of, say, the Democratic Party.
The most comforting rationale for Democratic true believers is that these voters are racist and ignorant and hostile to Democratic policies on social issues. That's part of the explanation. But the full truth is a bitter pill for Democrats to swallow. Thomas Frank's new book Listen, Liberal Or, Whatever Happened to the Party of People? documents a half-century of work by the Democratic elite to belittle working people and exile their concerns to the fringes of the party's platform. If the prevailing ideology of the Republican establishment is that of a sneering aristocracy, Democratic elites are all too often the purveyors of a smirking meritocracy that offers working people very little.
Listen to HuffPost's interview with Frank in the latest episode of the So, That Happened podcast embedded below. The discussion starts at the 15:20 mark.
The trouble, Frank writes, began in the early 1970s, with a culture clash between the radical left on college campuses and the conservative ideas about race and gender that pervaded many union halls. The Archie Bunker stereotype of the gruff bigot denouncing communists and women's lib ignored much labor history -- Frank cites the United Auto Workers' support for the Civil Rights Act, "the union placards carried by marchers at Martin Luther King's 1963 March on Washington" and the 1968 sanitation workers' strike in Memphis as counterevidence -- but campus skepticism was not completely unfounded.
In the Hard Hat Riot of 1970, construction workers joined bankers in lower Manhattan to physically assault anti-war protesters, and police allowed the violence. President Richard Nixon later named the head of the construction workers union his Secretary of Labor.
It was not a good look. Organized labor's status was about to plummet within the Democratic Party. Gary Hart started winning Senate campaigns by denouncing Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal. Jimmy Carter lent his ear to deregulation advocates and appointed a Federal Reserve chairman bent on breaking union power. Frank quotes former Carter adviser Alfred Kahn:
"I'd love the Teamsters to be worse off. I'd love the automobile workers to be worse off. You may say that's inhumane; I'm putting it rather baldly, but I want to eliminate a situation in which certain protected workers in industries insulated from competition can increase their wages much more rapidly than the average without regard to their merit or to what a free market would do."
The idea that collective bargaining is incompatible with a free market would have been madness to FDR or Lyndon Johnson or Elizabeth Warren. But there's also a not-so-subtle moral judgment about union workers embedded in Kahn's econo-speak. The rednecks don't deserve high wages because it takes money away from the good people. You know, the ones who went to college. This brand of elitism would come to dominate the worldview of Democratic Party leaders and the agenda of President Bill Clinton.
For most Democrats today, the Clinton years remain the good old days. The country prospered, incomes rose, and good-guy Bill survived all the insane political attacks from the Republican bad guys. Frank's chapters on Clinton will make these Democrats feel terrible. Because for anyone who takes economic inequality seriously, the chief villain of the Clinton years wasn't Ken Starr. It was Bill Clinton.
Here is a list of Bill Clinton's major legislative achievements: Three separate major bank deregulation bills. Deregulating the telecom industry. Passing the North American Free Trade Agreement. Ending "welfare as we know it." Passing a crime bill that turned over-incarceration into mass incarceration. Slashing the capital gains tax. He even cut a deal with Newt Gingrich to privatize Social Security, but the pact fell apart when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke.
This was right-wing domestic policy on a scale unimaginable to Ronald Reagan or George H.W. Bush, achievements made possible only by a Democratic president willing to advance the ideological agenda of a Republican Congress (Frank cites a celebratory White House memo saying as much after a bank deregulation bill passed). The upshot of these policies was to shift economic power from Washington to Wall Street, while converting a large swath of the social safety net quite literally into prison.
"Toil hopelessly or go to prison," Frank writes. "That is life at the bottom, thanks to Bill Clinton."
Clinton defenders today argue that this was the best anyone could have done amid the full-throttle, facts-be-damned, you-murdered-Vince-Foster opposition he faced. But Frank teases out an elitist ideology underpinning Clintonism, laying bare its roots in earlier Democratic Party trends and its continued influence today.
Here's Clinton in December 1992: "Our new direction must rest on an understanding of the new realities of global competition. The world we face today is the world where what you earn depends on what you can learn. There's a direct relationship between high skills and high wages."
This is the mantra of meritocracy. A degree means money and success. No degree equals poverty, and it's your own fault if you don't get one.
It turns out that boosting overall levels of education doesn't actually assuage income inequality. The rate of college-level enrollment has been increasing steadily since the late Clinton years, while economic inequality has been exacerbated.
Striving to earn what you can learn has in fact destroyed the finances of many working-class families under Clinton, Bush and Obama. Between 1990 and 2013, enrollment at for-profit colleges and universities soared 565 percent, fueling a massive increase in the nationstudent debt burden. Americans now collectively owe nearly a quarter of a trillion dollars to for-profit schools.
How has the Obama administration responded? The Department of Education has misled the public about alleged fraud at major student loan contractor Navient. It has refused to punish schools that violate state and federal rules. It has dragged its feet on providing debt relief to students from the now-defunct Corinthian Colleges, even after federal judge ruled that the school scammed more than 100,000 students.
"What I fundamentally believe -- and what the president believes," former Obama Education Secretary Arne Duncan told The New York Times in 2012, "is that the only way to end poverty is through education." Heckuva job, Arne.
The student debt debacle has been a replay of Obama's response to the Wall Street meltdown, when he rushed to get money to big banks while leaving struggling homeowners in the dust. His foreclosure-relief initiative was a backdoor effort to help banks, not borrowers. His Treasury Department didn't even bother to spend the foreclosure aid money it was allocated, and his Justice Department shrugged off Wall Street prosecutions despite widespread evidence of fraud.
Like Clinton's criminal justice reforms, these policies were not only classist, they were racist. Black and Latino students are overrepresented at for-profit colleges. Subprime mortgages disproportionately targeted black neighborhoods. Wall Streeters are overwhelmingly white.
This is why Democrats can't just point their fingers and cry "but they're racist!" when considering why white working class voters are turning to Trump. The Democratic Party's commitment to racial justice clearly softens as we descend the class ladder. Democrats, Frank notes, applaud the shrewd technocratic management of the first black governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick. They don't talk much about his tenure on the board of subprime lending giant Ameriquest from 2004 to 2006. Ameriquest was one of several firms sued by the NAACP for targeting black borrowers with predatory mortgages, and toward the end of his tenure, the company agreed to pay $325 million to settle predatory lending charges with 49 states. Patrick now works at Bain Capital.
To Frank, issues of racial and class justice get attention from Democrats so long as they do not threaten existing benefits for the multicultural professional class, which sees itself as the enlightened and deserving recipient of those rewards. If the Republican Party had not spent so much of its political energy over the past three decades winking and nodding to white nationalists, the Democratic Party wouldn't be getting such an easy pass from voters of color.
At times, Frank underplays the Obama administration's achievements. The creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the passage of the Affordable Care Act really have addressed problems faced by millions of working people. But he is correct to note that Obamacare was an effort to achieve a liberal policy goal while avoiding conflicts with the established order in the insurance and pharmaceutical industries. When the CFPB moves to regulate payday lending, it isn't taking on an industry where many elite Democrats can envision themselves operating. They want to work at JPMorgan Chase, not ACE Cash Express.
The Republican Party has been fanning the flames of fascism for years now. It's grimly funny to watch Mitt Romney, who campaigned on self-deportation and sought Trump's endorsement during his birther mania, suddenly insist that the GOP front-runner isn't a proper Republican. But Trump's supporters aren't wrong when they envision liberals looking down their nose at the white trash. We've known since at least World War I that sustained economic misery breeds fascism, and Democratic leaders have consistently brushed aside the material needs of working class people for decades. It shouldn't be a surprise that they're looking elsewhere for solutions. It could have been prevented.