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Why Trumpism will persist

Book review of 'One nation after Trump: A guide for the perplexed, the disillusioned, the desperate, and the not-yet deported'

Ari Berman | NYT 

A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet Deported
By E J Dionne Jr, Norman J Ornstein and Thomas E Mann
St Martin’s Press
344 pp; $25.99

Norman J Ornstein, Thomas E Mann and E J Dionne Jr were once known as the wise men of They worked at the city’s pre-eminent think tanks (American Enterprise Institute, Brookings Institution) and wrote for The Post. Though they held centre-left views, they were close with politicians of both parties and were rigorously committed to upholding Washington’s bipartisan governing norms. The New Yorker once called Ornstein and Mann the “über-respectables.” If there was such a thing as an intellectual establishment in Washington, they were it.

But during the Obama era, their carefully cultivated bipartisanship gave way to a withering critique of the Instead of blaming both sides for gridlock in and extremism in American politics, as so many commentators did, they squarely held Republicans responsible.

Today, these three wise men are influential voices of the anti-Trump resistance. If someone had hibernated through the 2016 election, woke up early this year and logged onto Twitter or turned on cable news and wondered, what the hell happened?, this would be the book to read. The book is particularly useful in showing how, despite all the talk of Trump as an aberration in American politics, his rise reflects the longer-term trends that have shaped the modern Republican Party: The four-decade war on the “liberal media”; the delegitimatisation of political opponents; the appeals to racism and xenophobia; the hostility to democratic norms. “Trump is less of an outsider than he seems, and he was building on rather than resisting recent trends within the GOP,” the authors write. “This history helps explain why so many Republican leaders are reluctant to call out Trump’s excesses and to acknowledge the risks he poses to our political system.”

The book is less a rallying cry and more a sober examination of how someone so obviously unfit and unqualified to be president could be elected anyway, and the authors make skillful use of social science research to better understand the Trump phenomenon. Their observations defy easy conclusions. “Trump clearly appealed to two broad, overlapping streams of discontent,” they write. “One was animated by race, immigration, religion and culture. The other was inspired by economic discontent, the flight of well-paying jobs overseas and the hollowing out of many of our communities.” Trump’s widely mocked “Make America Great Again” slogan brilliantly amalgamated these disparate elements of “populism, nationalism, nativism and protectionism.”

Given the quick turnaround, parts of the book feel hastily assembled, particularly the second half, where the authors offer policy prescriptions for “a new economy, a new patriotism, a new civil society and a new democracy.” While many of their ideas are good ones, they read like a laundry list of proposals, the very thing the authors criticise Hillary Clinton for.

Their desire for a big-tent opposition to Trump also leads them to play down divisions within the Democratic Party on issues like single-payer health care, foreign interventionism and free trade, saying “these differences are far smaller than those between the entire movement and Trump.” True, but Democratic debates will go a long way toward shaping who runs against Trump in 2020 (assuming he runs again) and are important for a party to have when it is out of power.

Given the authors’ depth of knowledge about how works, the best parts of their book frame the dangers of Trump’s presidency in a broader political context. The greatest threat Trump poses, they say, apart from any individual policy, is to democracy itself. “The most disturbing aspect of Trumpism — beyond whatever we come to discover about his and his campaign’s relationship with Putin and Russia — is its dark pessimism about liberal democracy, an open society and the achievements of the American Experiment.”

Trump is not an outlier here. The has essentially become a majority party through minority rule. Accounts of the growing resistance to Trump often ignore the ways in which Republicans have shaped the rules of the game in their favour. The authors write: “Our system is now biased against the American majority because of partisan redistricting (which distorts the outcome of legislative elections), the nature of representation in the United States Senate (which vastly underrepresents residents of larger states), the growing role of money in politics (which empowers a very small economic elite), the workings of the Electoral College (which is increasingly out of sync with the distribution of our population) and the ability of legislatures to use a variety of measures, from voter ID laws to the disenfranchisement of former felons, to obstruct the path of millions of Americans to the ballot box.”

One Nation After Trump is an optimistic title, maybe hopelessly so. Trump shows no sign of leaving any time soon. And the partisan divide seems more intractable than ever. Although only 39 per cent of the public approved of Trump’s response to the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, 80 per cent of Republicans who voted for him in 2016 still support his presidency, according to a Morning Consult/Politico poll. Reading this important book, one gets the nagging sense that even after Trump, Trumpism will persist.

© 2017 The New York Times News Service

First Published: Sun, October 01 2017. 22:41 IST