Why Is This Election So Close? It’s the populism, stupid – by Robert Borosage

Published on Wednesday, October 05, 2016 by The Nation

Why Is This Election So Close? It’s the populism, stupid.

PHOTO: Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. (Photo: AP / Carolyn Kaster; Gerald Herbert)

As Donald Trump continues the self-immolation that began in the first presidential debate, Hillary Clinton is rising once more in the polls. But Trump had pulled into a virtual dead heat before that debate, and could easily rise again if he ever stops torching himself.

This has once again raised a critical question: How can a candidate so clearly unfit for office, a foul, boorish cad who has insulted a majority of the voters and embarrassed the remainder, be so competitive with Hillary Clinton, one of the most experienced and prepared presidential candidates in history?   

Writing after the first debate, Paul Krugman summarized the liberal punditry’s litany on this question. First, he argues, many voters are racist: “A lot more Americans than we like to imagine are white nationalists at heart.” Implicit racist appeals have been, as Krugman argues, a “core Republican strategy” for some time. Trump won the primary, he suggests, by trumpeting the signals Republicans normally transmit with dog whistles.

Trump’s right-wing populist stew is unique for a Republican candidate. Unlike his opponents, as he often boasted, he was not a politician. By funding his own campaign, he claimed the independence to take on a corrupted system. He combined traditional conservative support for tax cuts with a populist stance on trade, skepticism about wars without victory, support for Social Security and Medicare, support for rebuilding America, and, of course, a hardcore line on immigration (“Build the wall”; “Ban Muslims”).

Clinton, meanwhile, has been unable to corral the Obama majority coalition. She ranks second only to Trump in unfavorability. Americans value her experience, but doubt her honesty and trustworthiness. Despite running as Obama’s heir apparent, Clinton is polling at 48 percent, or in the 42 to 46 percent range in the four-way race.

Even partisan pundits concede that the “abnormalization” of Hillary Clinton derived in part from her not-exactly-normal activities. Not every presidential candidate earns $1.8 million in little more than a year giving speeches to Wall Street banks, or is under FBI investigation for using a private server while in public office and destroying e-mails thereafter, or serves as secretary of state while her husband runs a foundation that is raising vast sums from foreign countries and global corporations. Investigations of these issues were inevitable. And they surely have been more than balanced by the media’s investigation and reporting—aided by the crack Clinton opposition-research teams—on Trump’s outrageous business practices, his fraudulent university, his foundation illegalities, and his tax dodges.

Clinton’s problem—both in the Democratic primaries and in the general election—is that she is inescapably part of a political establishment that has failed Americans badly. She offers continuity when 70 percent of the country thinks we are on the wrong track. She personifies big-money politics, in both how she funds her campaign and Wall Street’s contributions to her personal fortune. She’s had to distance herself from the policies she once supported as part of her husband’s administration that proved so damaging to working and poor people, from the North American Free Trade Agreement to Wall Street deregulation to harsh criminal sentencing.

Clinton has famously has struggled to rally the young voters who were so central to Obama’s elections. Millennials dismiss Trump as a buffoon, but they are turned off by the choice. They voted nearly three to one for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries. Before the first debate, as many as a third were saying that they might vote for a third-party candidate, but the real question is whether they turn out at all. Their cynicism is compounded by the Clinton campaign’s strategic choices: Instead of championing a bold reform agenda, the campaign chose to focus on Trump personally as unfit for the job. Trump has provided infinite material for the indictment, but the result is that few voters—particularly among the young—know what Clinton is for.

However much they would like to stick it to the establishment, Americans aren’t likely to elect someone as noxious as Donald Trump to the presidency. Recent press revelations—on his abuse of his foundation, his obscene tax dodges, and his company’s importing its steel from China—are tarnishing his working-class appeal. His own increasingly bizarre behavior makes Clinton’s case for her. But if this election ends up close, it won’t be because Americans are growing more racist or the media is slandering Clinton. It will be because the populist temper—the desire to shake things up—is rising. And until Americans get a better deal, that populist temper will continue to roil our politics.

Robert Borosage is the founder and president of the Institute for America’s Future and co-director of its sister organization, the Campaign for America’s Future.


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  • Leslie Chin  On 10/06/2016 at 4:20 am

    In multi-racial America status is manifested by race, class and gender. Poor white people on welfare would vote for the Republicans who wish to cut their benefits. The rationale is that they wish to be associated with the white ruling class represented by the Republicans using blacks as scapegoats. They consider it more important to belong to the ruling class than to receive welfare payments and food stamps.There are anecdotes about black policemen in South Africa being most brutal to their fellow blacks to ingratiate themselves to their white superiors.

    Hillary Clinton is not gaining as much support as she should because she is a woman. Misogyny is alive and well in the US. Shirley Chisholm said she experienced more discrimination as a woman than as a black. Even Madeline Albright remarked that there is a special place in hell for women who do not support Hilliary observing their lukewarm support.

  • guyaneseonline  On 10/06/2016 at 7:42 am

    Bernie Sanders on Corporate Oligarchy (5/25/1994)

    Bernie Sanders made this speech 22 years ago. He has been making the same political speech when he ran for the Democratic nomination,
    The situation he talked about in 1994 has deteriorated and the 1% he talked about then has even more wealth and power.
    Sanders lost to Hillary Clinton and his message has been muted within the Democratic Party…. so many people who supported him may not vote, or may vote for third party candidates.
    Now Donald Trump sounds a lot like Sanders with his populist themes. However as a “billionaire” will he move against the vested interests who own Congress?
    Also his message is clouded with racist overtones and personal attacks on his critics which has derailed his “”Make America Great Again” mantra. … Great for whom?
    Where and how will this all end…one wonders.

  • guyaneseonline  On 10/06/2016 at 7:57 am

    America’s ‘quiet catastrophe’: Millions of idle men

    By George F. Will Opinion writer October 5 at 7:42 PM
    The “quiet catastrophe” is particularly dismaying because it is so quiet, without social turmoil or even debate. It is this: After 88 consecutive months of the economic expansion that began in June 2009, a smaller percentage of American males in the prime working years (ages 25 to 54) are working than were working near the end of the Great Depression in 1940, when the unemployment rate was above 14 percent. If the labor-force participation rate were as high today as it was as recently as 2000, nearly 10 million more Americans would have jobs.

    The work rate for adult men has plunged 13 percentage points in a half-century. This “work deficit” of “Great Depression-scale underutilization” of male potential workers is the subject of Nicholas Eberstadt’s new monograph “Men Without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis,” which explores the economic and moral causes and consequences of this:
    Read more….

  • demerwater  On 10/06/2016 at 10:36 am

    The refrain of an old folk song runs something like this:
    The bow-man wake; ‘e wake the boat-man.
    The boat-man wake; ‘e wake ev’ryone.
    Turn back the batteau! Danger!

    I liken a nation / country to a large naval vessel, propelled by rowers. Instead of an orderly line of rowers on each side, rowing in unison and propelling the vessel towards its intended destination; the rowers are all ‘jostling for position’ and the vessel often just comes to a standstill or goes around in circles. Asleep at the wheel?
    Who will wake the bow-man?
    I used to be quite amused by picturing the elected representatives (including President Obama) of the USA ‘guiding’ the “Mayflower” on its journey away from England.
    Sadly, in every instance it does not get very far! There is no ‘bow-man’.
    It is definitely not amusing when I look around the world nowadays.
    No country appears to be competently led.
    There was a time of my life when I regarded persons like Balram Singh Rai and Dr. Walter Rodney as the “conscience of the nation” and Harold B. Davis as the “conscience of the Board” (of Bookers Sugar Estates Ltd.).
    I want so much to identify such a person in the current US election cycle; in Syria, Russia, in the UN…..
    Our moral compass-needle is adrift when a major Candidate for POTUS asserts that he is smart because he has paid as little taxes as possible – and almost fifty percent of the electorate cheer him on! The remainder of the electorate cheer on the other major Candidate who has been described as ‘secretive’, ‘careless’; and these are the more charitable descriptions.

    Don’t images like these stir the conscience of men, women and Nations any more?

    When I read of a little boy writing to the POTUS asking him to send another little boy – a refugee – to his own family, maybe we should elect the fifth graders to high office.
    They are smarter than we are – in the important attributes that earn us our place in the human race.

  • The Ripening Wanderer  On 10/12/2016 at 10:10 am

    The only poll Clinton is “Rising” in is one that has been shown to be contrived by somebody working for her campaign. It was published and all the media have jumped on it because all through this campaign the media has shown itself willing to do whatever it takes to downgrade Trump and to promote Clinton. So much for journalistic impersonal objectivity and fairness and balance. Note how the moderators all ganged up on him during the last televised debate. Reprehensible but pure Liberalism!

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