President Trump’s lack of a hardened ideology and die-in-the-wool electoral base makes it far easier for someone like him to nimbly position himself wherever he needs to be, without serious political consequence. Very cleverly while much of the media obsesses about how he handled the early stages of COVID-19, Trump is completing a ideological shift that he began before the 2018 midterms. It’s a shift we have seen similarly-styled world leaders make recently as well.
Before we get started a disclaimer: I’m personally burnt out by the Democrats and Democratic-aligned media’s critiques of Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis during this COVID-19 crisis. We get it, they botched things. Fine, y’all have spent every minute of every day for weeks telling us this. Now as Americans and Floridians let’s come together to beat this thing. But one last political commentary must be given during this period about Trump and comparable world leaders.
In the last several weeks since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis we’ve seen Trump follow the playbook of his authoritarian allies, Viktor Orban, Narendra Modi and Boris Johnson with a leftward lurch economically while continuing the fan the flames of nationalism and ethnocentrism. The irony that this lurch came immediately after Trump spent several days in Modi’s company is not lost on me.
Modi’s right-wing nationalism has combined religious bigotry with a more socialist economy. Orban’s Hungary, where he now holds virtual dictatorial power is much the same. The Hungarian President had shifted from left to far right in his career- now he’s combined both ideologies in a new ethnocentric nationalism combined with economic populist socialism. India’s Modi shares this ideology.
Trump’s recent teasing of a possible slimmed-down version of “Medicare for All” solution to the current health insurance crisis shows his flexibility. It also demonstrates he’s in tune with his political base. While establishment Democrats fiddle around not wanting to do anything to aggressive to hurt tech barons or insurance executives who fund Democratic campaigns, Trump has co-opted much of the left’s fiscal agenda while continuing to fan the flames of intolerance on social issues.
The Democrats have become a party of woke liberalism married with economic corporatism. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren did not have enough support to win the Democratic nomination. However both boasted enough backing to call into question how strong the Democrats can be electorally in an era when they are the party less likely to enforce antitrust laws and subsidize the economy. Social liberalism and the politics of racial and ethnic identity favor the Democrats as do environmental issues. But on fiscal issues, the party seems adrift and this must be assumed is due to the way campaigns are funded in this day-and-age.
Trump had already roundly rejected Reaganomics even if the likes Arthur Laffer support Trump. His fiscal policy has involved heavy subsidies for non-urban areas, a weaponized dollar, tariffs on non-American goods, giveaways for manufacturing industries and now a gradual nationalization of major industry. Republicans love to call Democrats “Socialists” but what I just described is how Socialist industrialized policy looks in many places. That so many GOPers back Trump unconditionally tells us they never really did worship at the alter of market economics after all.
Trump combines this with nationalism mostly of the anti-intellectual variety. This new version of National Populist Socialism already had an electoral referendum in the English-speaking world. Boris Johnson won. Narendra Modi also governs a country where English is widely spoken and as discussed in this piece, Modi’s combination of fiscal leftism and race-baiting ethnocentric-nationalism has accelerated since his reelection. And guess what? He’s more popular than ever.
Let’s look at Johnson’s playbook.
The media loves to mock Prime Minster Boris Johnson and yes his initial COVID-19 reaction made Trump look proactive and fully-dialed-in by comparison. However, once he reversed himself completely, Johnson was able to complete his already-initiated reversal of forty plus years of Thatcherite Conservative Party rejection of the welfare state.
Johnson had already rejected the fiscal austerity of one of his predecessors, the mealy-mouthed David Cameron and embraced full-on economic populism prior to the 2019 UK General Election, held in December. Like Trump, he’s used power to shift resources toward working class areas (Trump’s farm subsidy policies which juice the economy of rural areas with government cash are a direct contradiction of long-standing conservative orthodoxy on the issue, for example) and rejecting the anti-public sector tenants of Thatcherism to build a strong electoral coalition.
What happened is Boris Johnson, much like Donald Trump, abandoned traditional elitist conservatism and reached into the fundamental emotional issues that drive the electorate – in a class-oriented nation where party membership is part of one’s identity like the U.K. Johnson’s feat was even more remarkable than Trump’s but both are similar and produce huge lessons for the Democrats. The working-class favored Brexit and a reversal of fiscal austerity but dislike Labour’s growing emphasis on multiculturalism and questioning Britain’s historic legacy. Similarly here in the states, Trump is in tune with the working-class voter. They oppose woke liberalism but at least in some measure support Sanders-styled big government programs.
Johnson’s electoral juggernaut is historically impressive. He was twice elected as a Tory Mayor of London. His tenure was sandwiched in-between two Labour Mayors, the Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez hugging Ken Livingstone and the liberal cosmopolitan Muslim Sadiq Khan. Despite being a fairly liberal, London-oriented former media member, Johnson won over working class voters who hadn’t voted Conservative in a generation or more outside of London Last December. He’s proven to have an uncanny ability to connect with voters who fundamentally distrust Tory politicians.
Democrats do not even try and understand the Trump voter, with so many simply writing them off as racists and often insulting whole large regions of the country. We’ve seen that accelerate this past week as leftist commentators have taken to mocking the south. As a Floridian, I have found it personally offensive.
Additionally, that the Democrats no longer command the Catholic vote is a stunning reversal of 150 years of American history and can be effectively linked to the open hostility many prominent figures on the left have toward a western religion of any kind. Strangely this hostility from woke liberals does not extend to non-western religions which to me a Secularist who studies world affairs closet is inherently contradictory. Religion in general causes conflict and ethnocentrism that wouldn’t be apparent otherwise. But that is a conversation for another time.
Similarly to this in the UK , the condescending commentary about those supporting Brexit and Johnson ultimately undermined Labour. Whether those sneers were coming from Corbynites, the media or elitist Europhile LibDems did not matter – the damage much like in the United States had been done. Voters who for generations aligned with left-leaning parties over economics were realigned behind a right-leaning party over identity and pride.
The Democratic party is an entity whose elites have been fundamentally dishonest about why they oppose Medicare for All. They claimed we could not afford it, but now the federal government is going to spend much more on stimulus and no one in the party seems to be objecting. They’ve rejected any academic study that comes to a different conclusion about the costs of Medicare for All, than they have. They have impugned the minds and analysis of the likes of former Labor Secretary, the brilliant Robert Reich who support Medicare for All. They’ve attacked younger African-American leaders who put Health Care above identity in backing white progressive candidates for President.
Why? The Democratic party establishment, exemplified by some media stars like Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer is tied to the insurance and pharmaceutical industry like it’s never been before. Add to that the cable news channels that favor Democrats run many paid ads from these same insurance and pharmaceutical companies while employing lapsed Democratic operatives and officeholders as “political analysts”.
Trump being oligarch funded makes insurance money less critical for him so therefore he can openly muse about defying them. Make no mistake about it, Trump isn’t genuine in anything he does or says. But that does not really matter. He’s going to win an election because the Democrats are completely unaware of how much of the country lives.
Trump shares Johnson’s electoral characteristics. For all the elite media emphasis on GOP struggles in the suburbs, the exurbs and many medium-sized cities a competitive battleground as recently as 2012 are so far gone from the Democrats in 2020 they are not even worth discussing. Where the Tories reversed Labour’s historic dominance were in industrialized smaller factory towns/cities and outlying areas of medium-sized cities.
The result was Labour slumping to its worst defeat since the 1920’s. This is not that dissimilar to Democrats being nationally at its lowest ebb since the 1920’s in state governments currently.
COVID-19 will pass eventually and we will have an election. While the pandemic might change some of the playing field, the basic principals will remain the same. For the Democrats, dependent on corporate money, a pivot is needed. Will they make it? Count me as skeptical…