Ross Douthat has a good piece up today talking about how Democrats shouldn’t be too smug about the GOP’s problems with Donald Trump. They might be facing their own version someday. Excerpts:
Trumpism represents the conquest of the still relatively staid world of politics by tabloid seaminess and the reality-television carnival. But that seaminess, that carnival, is hardly limited by ideology or partisan affiliation. Democratic voters swim in the same cultural sea as the “Apprentice”-watching Republicans who helped make Trump the G.O.P. nominee, and most of the culture’s major celebrities — from C-listers like Machado all the way up to Hollywood royalty — will be pulling the lever for Hillary Clinton this November.
Douthat says right now it would be hard for such a figure to arise in the Democratic Party, in part because the party elite have not lost the confidence of the base, as the GOP leadership did.
But what’s true today might not be true forever. The differences between the Democratic Party’s younger, poorer, browner base and its older, whiter, richer and more moderate leadership are a potentially unstable equilibrium. The anger coursing through left-wing protest politics could find a cruder, more nakedly demagogic avatar than Bernie Sanders. A Hillary Clinton administration could supply various betrayals and compromises or foul up in some disastrous way, encouraging a sense that the professional class that dominates liberalism’s upper reaches needs to give way to a revived (and larger) version of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition — a “real American future” analogue to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” appeals.
If Trump has thrived by imitating Europe’s right-wing nationalists, a Trumpism of the left would imitate the left-wing populists of Latin America and Asia — the Chavismo of Alicia Machado’s native Venezuela, or the Trumpian socialism presently being served up by the ranting, trigger-happy president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte.
It seems that it was only yesterday when Democrats lamented the messiness of their party, versus the GOP, which by contrast seemed so disciplined, and its voters so willing to accept the judgment of the party’s leadership class. Last year at this time, a lot of GOP watchers assumed that Jeb Bush was going to be the nominee because he was so representative of the GOP establishment, and the base usually goes along with the establishment’s favorite. Most of the conservative elite thought Trump was a passing phenomenon. And now look. Whatever happens on Election Day, the Republican Party won’t be the same, and who knows? It may not be at all. In the storm of recriminations that would follow the party losing the White House to Hillary Clinton, whether or not the Trump and anti-Trump factions can live together in the same party is an open question.
As to the future of a Democratic Trump, it’s useful to consider the case of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. Corbyn was a marginal figure in Labour politics, and was only persuaded to put his hat in the ring for party leadership at the last minute. He gained control of the party because of voting rules that opened up the party election to a wider group of people. Young people, galvanized in part by social media, flocked to the party to vote for Corbyn, who, as we know, won a stunning upset victory over the candidates of the Labour establishment.
To be sure, Jeremy Corbyn no Trumpian demagogue. The point is that his unlikely campaign fired up a passionate segment of the Labour base, and it propelled him to power. Nobody in Labour saw him coming. Is it really so hard to imagine that a Democrat may emerge one day outside of the party apparatus, and rides an unconventional campaign to primary victory? After all, the party cannot control its own voters. And as Trump has shown, a candidate who knows how to work the media has a strong advantage. If the Democrats produced a billionaire (a Silicon Valley type, say) who ran an anti-Establishment campaign on left-wing populist themes, and made a point of routinely saying outrageous things on the campaign trail, you would see the media doing the same thing they did for Trump.
I don’t believe that a putative left-wing Trump would campaign on economic demagoguery. He would be the left-wing mirror image of Trump on racial and cultural issues. That is, he would use identity politics to fire up the Democratic base. If you want to see what a left-wing Trump would be like, look at the campus left. It is already indoctrinated in open anti-white racism (for example), approved by university administrators and promoted by certain faculty. We know that the administrative class at universities are fairly gutless to stand up to the promoters of this stuff. The left in this country is normalizing it. And the SJWs have something Democratic regulars don’t: passion.
Given the fast-changing demographics in this country, the day may well be coming when a Democratic outsider candidate goes full SJW in his presidential bid, powering his campaign in part by an unwillingness to respect the norms of American political discourse. Depending on the structure of the race, he need not win outright majorities of primary voters, not at first. Like Trump, he would only need to beat everybody else in the field, until his opponents melted away. Like Trump’s Republican opponents, his Democratic rivals will likely be unwilling to take him on directly, hoping and thinking that when he ultimately fizzles out, they will be able to scoop up his highly motivated voters. We see how well that worked out for Ted Cruz.
Trump’s campaign has to a large degree been about white identity politics. He didn’t come from nowhere, though it seemed like it to the media and conservative elites. The ground had been prepared for him for a long time by conservative media, especially talk radio, which normalized a politics of passion, and by popular culture in general — the same popular culture that leftists and liberals grow up in, as Douthat observes. Though the left doesn’t have talk radio, identity politics (black, Latino, gay, feminist, etc.) are becoming ever more mainstream in liberal discourse. The only thing that keeps them from taking over Democratic politics are the same taboos that kept them from dominating Republican politics. It only took one very skilled media performer to kick them over, and there wasn’t a damn thing the GOP gatekeepers could do to stop it.
It shouldn’t be hard for white conservative readers to imagine how they would react if that kind of Democratic demagogue were elected president. Put yourself in the position of liberal readers of all races, and imagine their reaction to a Trump presidency. Same thing. You think California’s not going to be restive if Trump is elected? We are in for some very bad years in this country, I fear, and like the former Yugoslavia, we are going to learn the downside of diversity in a country where people’s identities are not based in shared ideas, but in tribalism. If Democrats think their party is immune to that sort of thing, they’re dreaming.