STATESIDE: The marginal impact of US presidential debates

THE political director was arriving at a big regional conference, surrounded by several party associates. She wields quite a bit of power as the regional eyes and ears for a Democratic governor in a reliably blue state where Republican victories in statewide elections are an anomalous oddity and GOP power tends to be concentrated in isolated rural areas with low population and almost zero national political visibility.

Striding toward the hotel ballroom where the conference was to be held, the political director moved confidently and engaged with a new acquaintance, the president of a local association. The conversation quickly moved toward a fundamental question that continues to vex Democrats, including the incumbent president and, to judge by their public comments, most of his senior advisers as well.

“Why do so many people vote against their own economic self-interest?” the director asked. “What are these millions of Trump supporters and MAGA fanatics thinking? Don’t they realise that Trump only cares about himself and wealthy cronies who will bow down to him? He won’t help them.

“It’s the Democrats and liberals who keep propping up welfare for the poor, tax breaks for low-income people, and Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security as a dependable economic safety net. So many MAGA supporters would have much worse lives without the steady economic support from Democrats that sustains them.

“And what about military veterans? Polls show they support Trump. Yet with Biden over in France for the D-Day anniversary, honouring the brave Americans and Allies who died heroically to liberate Europe and save Western democracy, we are reminded of Trump supposedly calling POWs and military casualties ‘suckers and losers’.

“What in the world are these Trumpers thinking? There’s just no evidence that he cares about really helping them, even as they continue to help pay his legal bills by contributing small amounts to his campaign as reliably as people used to tithe to the Church.”

The group now stood around the conference entry hall, cups of coffee in hand as the director smiled, winding down from her unexpectedly impassioned disquisition. She clearly meant her query to be rhetorical, but her new acquaintance replied nonetheless.

“I have a theory, if you’re interested,” he answered. “OK, go ahead,” she replied. “We have a few minutes before the meeting starts. Let’s hear what you think.”

“I think it all goes back to a movement founded on resentment and led in its early stages 30 years ago by outspoken, iconoclastic Republican operators like Pat Buchanan, who ran for president three times in a row between 1992 and 2000. His campaigns centred on non-interventionism in foreign affairs, opposition to illegal immigration, and opposition to the outsourcing of manufacturing from free trade. Doesn’t that sound like much of Trump’s message today?

“Buchanan’s theme was picked up and carried forward by a Georgia congressman named Newt Gingrich, who directed a revolt against a half century of Democratic rule in the House of Representatives by leading the GOP to a stunning 1994 takeover of the House. Demagogic positions developed by Buchanan and Gingrich fueled the rapid development of the tea party movement that splintered the Republican Party and enabled Barack Obama to not only win the White House in 2008 but to maintain a Congressional majority long enough to pass Obamacare.”

The political director paused, sipped her coffee and replied. “OK. I get that. But the tea party was a fringe movement. It was significant mostly because it splintered the Republican Party when they could easily have won in 2012 against Obama. Now their MAGA heirs are in control of the GOP.”

“Yes,” the association president agreed. “But there’s a big difference now. That difference is Donald Trump.”

“Oh, Trump again. What a fatuous toad he is,” the political director exclaimed. “I realise he is a talented demagogue. Not denying that. But he’s so transparent. He clearly cares about no one except himself – and maybe his immediate family. That’s it. Who can support that?”

The association president paused, listening to an announcement that the conference would soon begin.

“That’s just it,” he finally said. “The people who can support that message and that behaviour also only care about themselves – and maybe their immediate families and maybe their neighbours. They’re not interested in abstract liberal bromides and remedies. They want to hang onto what they have and share it with as few others – immigrants, minorities, radical socialists, sexual ‘misfits’ – as possible. Trump’s selfishness and self-orientation, his jingoism and isolationism mirror their own feelings. That he so consistently derides the pomposity of the well-educated class in the media is only frosting on the cake for them.

“Remember when Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign called the people who became the MAGA movement the ‘Deplorables?’ Well, from a liberal perspective, the Trump followers are indeed deplorable. But as long as we Democrats pay so little careful attention to them and to their grievances, they will continue to act out and support Trump, no matter what he says or does, or wherever he is convicted of felonies.

“We Democrats don’t respect them, and they are only too pleased to return that disrespect through Trump.”

The group surrounding the political director all looked up as the conference was called to order. She looked at the association president and grinned. “Guess we’ll have to continue this conversation later,” she said. “See you around.”

She and her entourage moved to the front of the conference hall and were seated in prime positions near the speaker’s podium. She did not pause and she did not look back.



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