Wednesday, August 28, 2019

BTRTN: Suburban Snapshot...One Republican's Reason for Backing Trump Spells Trouble -- for Trump

Steve had a chance opportunity to have a prolonged, civil, wide-ranging conversation about politics, social issues, and the economy with a Trump supporter. Wow. 

The death of dialog: just one more example of the societal carnage caused by our radically polarized politics.

Sure, few hosts or hostesses in the history of suburbia ever wanted to see guests square off in a heated political debate in the middle of a pleasant summer cocktail party. But then again, we did not used to recoil in terror that a chance conversation with a casual acquaintance at the gym might suddenly reveal political biases that would turn the encounter radioactive. Somehow we are all just happier never going near the topic of whether that nice young couple down at the club are Trump supporters.

As recently as 2012, a spirited discussion of Presidential politics was a fair way to pass time when the Jets were losing by three touchdowns. I have a memory of one such conversation, which concluded with my comment that “hey, if Mitt Romney is elected President, it’s not the end of the world. He’s a smart guy, a sharp businessman, and a decent human being who has integrity. I’m not going to jump out a window if he wins.”

I miss such conversations, in large part because I ache to understand why so many people who voted for Trump plan on doing so again in 2020. 

I had a few conversations with Republicans right after Trump was elected. People were more than forthcoming then, owning their vote by declaring that Trump was simply the less bad of two lousy options. They would explain that they were willing to take a bet that Trump would rise to the task. But now, two and a half years into an administration that is soaked to the bone in corruption, criminality, deceit, race baiting, misogyny, xenophobia, assault on our Constitution, and scientific ignorance, I ache to understand. Why again? Now that you know all that you know, why?

Finally last week, I had one such conversation. Not just an uncomfortable five-minute exchange before an awkward segue to safer topics. A real conversation: a candid, forthcoming exchange of perspectives on a wide range of topics that lasted two hours.

It was remarkable. Eye-opening, to be sure. Concerning, in many regards. And a cautionary tale -- for Donald Trump, that is. 

It was a conversation with the exact cohort of Republican that I find to be very troubling… the citizens in pleasant and affluent suburban towns that breathe and thrive off the a bustling business metropolis a train ride away.

For the past two and a half years, I have noted the deafening silence of the majority in such well-to-do communities. These are not the people who seethe with angry victimhood about losing the family breadwinner’s manufacturing job to China or Mexico.  These are not people who dismiss climate science, particularly as they pay tutors to help their children ace AP Bio, gilding applications to top-notch colleges. These are not people who would stand silent if a local town official ogled, spoke crudely about, or molested their daughters. These are neither religious extremists who care only about trashing Roe v. Wade, nor are they gun fanatics who care only about the NRA’s interpretation of the Second Amendment. They are most certainly not the undereducated people who are entertained and manipulated by a charlatan who lies at the pace of a Gatling gun. These people are far, far more likely to be found at an Ivy League reunion than a Trump rally.

Back in the days when the likes of Jeb Bush and John McCain roamed the political savannah, people described an underlying bifurcation in the Republican Party between the “Tea Party” extremists and “Rockefeller” or “centrist” Republicans. It is believed that the latter disappeared from the face of the earth shortly after a meteor crashed into the Yucatán Peninsula.
A more accurate characterization of the schism in the Republican Party is the rift between economic Republicans and Tea Party Republicans. The reason this is a more useful distinction is because the term “centrist” implies a certain degree of reasonableness, open-mindedness, and willingness to compromise to achieve common objectives. That’s the problem with this term, and the reason “centrists” appear to have disappeared: there is no compromise in today’s Republican Party. We know the emotional intensity of the single issue voters on abortion, second amendment issues, and xenophobic anti-immigration measures. The question is not whether certain Republicans are willing to compromise, it is only on what issue any given Republican is uncompromising about.

And, in these discussions, we often overlook what may be the most consequential and influential Republican voting bloc: the upscale economic Republicans.

That’s who I spoke with last week when I finally had the rare opportunity to engage in a civil, respectful, sustained, and animated-though-never-angry conversation with a woman who had voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and “would do so again if the Democrats nominate one of those progressives.” Hardly a shock: this attractive, sporty, fifty-something mom was a resident of a town in which 68% of voters who have registered as a member of a political party are Republicans. I found myself in her company when a friend of mine was passing through town, and invited the only two people she knew in these parts to join her for drinks.

I cannot quite reconstruct how the superficial chit-chat at the start of cocktail hour suddenly and completely morphed into a full-blown conversation about politics, but my new companion for cocktails was not shy. She told us she voted for Trump in 2016, but  intimated that she might consider voting for Joe Biden 2020. However, she was bothered by how Biden performed poorly in the debates, and worried that he was too old, and perhaps no longer mentally up to the job. She did not mention any other Democratic candidate that she was considering, leaving us to infer that just about every other Democratic candidate was "too progressive" for her.

For the next two hours, I swam in the petri dish I had long sought: the opportunity to engage in a polite, respectful, measured, probing, wide-ranging conversation that would shed light on why a bright, educated, successful, charming, and pleasant middle-aged person would continue to support Donald Trump in spite of, well, everything.

Now, let’s acknowledge: I had a decidedly unfair advantage in this conversation. Somebody who spends a good part of a decade writing blog essays about politics certainly should be expected to have a firmer grasp of issues and details than a person who is not engaged in that type of activity.

Still and all, I must confess to having been startled by the degree to which our companion for cocktails was uninformed or misinformed about the major issues of our day. Repeatedly in our conversation, she would make casual comments about the actions and intentions of the Trump administration, only to be startled and thrown off when presented with a thoroughly-supported rebuttal.

She was unaware of the power Mitch McConnell yields in refusing to allow legislation to even reach the Senate floor. Unaware that McConnell has and will block any and all gun legislation. She seemed to believe that Donald Trump sincerely wanted to do something to fix our immigration crisis, and yet she was unaware of actual bipartisan legislation that Donald Trump appeared ready to endorse until Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham intimidated him into retreat. She felt quite certain that Donald Trump was not a racist. When presented with an array of examples – from “shithole countries” to Charlottesville to chants of “send them back” and points between, she clutched her hands to her chest in a gesture of earnestness, and declared that she “just felt that Trump was not a racist,” and that he only “wants the best for everyone.”

As I noted in my caveat, she was at a disadvantage, as there were a number of times when I would remind her of an event, a quote, an incident, and I would see a flicker of recognition and a glimmer of acknowledgement.

Yet nothing in my arsenal of, oh, let’s call it reality -- factual input, reminders about specific events, and detailed explanations of incidents – appeared to sway the impassive certainty of her faith in Trump. Indeed, she readily conceded that Trump says many awful things, but she waved much of it off with a dismissive “that’s just who he is” gesture intended to convey that it should not be taken so seriously or literally. The old “that’s just Donald Trump being Donald Trump” defense is fair when applied to four year-olds, for whom lack of impulse control is a reasonable explanation. It doesn't work for adults.

The third party in our conversation -- my friend who had originally invited us for drinks -- is a feisty, spirited liberal, and at one point she jumped in, challenging her Republican friend to defend her support of Trump on what she viewed to be the most fundamental issue of all. “Ok, fine… forget everything else. I just want to hear how you can support this man given his position on the most important issue of our time. How,” she asked, “can you support a man who is ignoring the science of climate change? How can you stand by and let him imperil the lives of our grandchildren?” 

At this point, my new Republican friend leaned in to her liberal chum. “Susie, I hear you on that.” This was pretty much all we got, leaving us to infer that the proper functioning of her aural faculties might somehow limit greenhouse gases. Out here in the polite ‘burbs, the phrase “I hear you” appears to mean, “I don’t have an answer to that, so I’m going to freeze until we introduce a new topic.”

As the conversation continued, it appeared that her infirm grip on the social policy issues of the Trump presidency -- and her efforts to minimize or excuse his handling of each – could have all been simply because these issues were not what truly mattered to her. Perhaps she consciously or even unconsciously feigned a certain degree of ignorance because that enabled her to distance herself from accepting responsibility for horrific policies like separating children from their parents. Perhaps she simply had to proclaim a belief that Trump was not a racist so that she could justify continuing to support him. Perhaps she had to turn a blind eye to a litany of social policies in order to focus clearly on the one issue that mattered to her.

The mood shifted when the discussion turned to the economy. Suddenly, she became more animated in her defense of Trump. She was convinced that Donald Trump’s stewardship of the economy was infinitely better than what would occur with any of the progressive Democratic candidates. 

She was so certain, in fact, that she was essentially admitting to being a single issue candidate on the issue of the economy. Her statement that “if one of those progressives gets nominated, I will probably vote for Trump,” was specifically targeted at the economic proposals of those candidates: healthcare, tax policy, and -- in her view -- the intent of turning the United States into a more “socialist” state. The larger point was clear: the issue of the economy was where she centered her defense and advocacy of Trump.
However, the discussion of Trump’s economic policies would not prove to be robust as I would have wished. A major reason for her confidence in Trump’s economic policy was the very strong position on this topic taken by her partner, a man with considerable expertise in a highly specialized area in the financial markets. Fine, I suppose, for her to defer to what she believed was her husband's greater expertise in this area, but disappointing to not be able to debate this -- her most important reason for continuing to support Trump -- in substantive detail.

Sure, nobody wants a weak economy. The real issues are how to keep the economy strong, and how to ensure that a strong economy is a rising tide that raises all boats. What I did not hear in this conversation is advocacy that Donald Trump's economic policies were designed to benefit all citizens. I did not hear an argument that Trump had a coherent, comprehensive approach to managing the economy that was smart, fair to all, and sound in the long term. All I heard were deep concerns about Democrats who are too "progressive" on economic issues, and who advocated policies that would change course from the Trump administration. The implication was clear: this economic Republican did not want to see any policy changes, be it in taxation, regulatory policy, or trade.
For an hour and a half, our friend pleasantly bobbed and weaved to evade or excuse some of the loathsome social policies of the Trump administration, never having allowed any of it to dislodge her grip on the only issue that mattered.  On so many of the social issues, she was less passionate. She tended to overlook, explain away, dismiss, forget, or diminish the significance of the actual words, deeds, and intent of the Trump administration. What we heard about climate, race, and immigration was so just so much white noise relative to what mattered more. On the economic issues, she was passionate and certain. She is a single-issue voter. 

Perhaps the entire two hour conversation provides some context for the fact that Donald Trump's approval rating never budges from its fixed position in the low forties. No matter what affront to our sensibilities is in the daily headlines, Republicans will find a way to ignore it, minimize it, rationalize it, and move past it... as long as Trump is delivering what matters most to them personally. This statement applies across a broad swath of Republican voters... the economic Republicans, as well as the people whose entire world view is funneled through the a single issue, be it Roe v. Wade, the Second Amendment, or immigration.

I need to pause in this assessment and praise our conversation companion on one vitally important point: that she engaged in the conversation at all, and stayed with it for nearly two hours. At the top of this article, I bemoaned the death of dialog, as we all have experienced the discomfort of a direct encounter with an emotionally turbo-charged opposing political view. Sometimes we take the debate head on and lead with our anger. Sometimes we simply cut off a conversation before it has a chance to do damage. More often we duck and cover to avoid it entirely. But my companion for cocktails stayed in this dialog and we actually did exchange perspectives. We did not agree, but we did not disrespect each other. Maybe we both even learned something. I sure did.

At the end of the conversation, I made a point of thanking this woman sincerely, perhaps even a bit profusely. I explained to her how much I have wanted to have a sustained, respectful conversation with someone who supported Donald Trump and is considering doing so again.

It would be folly to extrapolate that all or even most of the suburban Republicans who continue to support Donald Trump have the same perspective as our sporty friend. But we can say this: if even a small chunk of Donald Trump’s base thinks the way this person does, it is actually very bad news for Donald Trump.
Because the lady we spoke with was essentially saying to Donald Trump that as long as the economy is good for her, she’s good with Donald Trump. 

That is a very different dynamic than what governs the Christian right’s allegiance to Trump. All Donald Trump needs to do for the Christian Right is never change his position on abortion, and their support is rock-solid. Ditto the gun enthusiasts. As long as Trump never changes his position on the Second Amendment, this cohort will be glued to him.

But Donald Trump is not able to promise that the economy will always be strong. 

Indeed, the recent inverted yield curve no doubt sent shock waves rippling through the pleasant cul-de-sacs in wealthy suburban towns that ring major cities. News that the national debt is ballooning is evidence that yet another round of "trickle down" tax cuts for the rich failed to trickle. And in recent days, Trump's screeching, impulsive, and wildly careening proclamations on tariffs must have disciplined, cautious economic Republicans guzzling Dramamine for motion sickness.

Suddenly, those economic Republicans – the Republicans who believe in math, science, and inverted yield curves – may be feeling sucker-punched with the realization that Donald Trump’s erratic economic policies are contributing to global economic destabilization and triggering a downturn.

If the economy tanks, and Donald Trump cannot fix it, his support among the “single issue” Republican voters who care only about the economy will suddenly be in play. 

Today, well-to-do Republicans may simply view Trump the way Putin does: as a “useful idiot” who delivers sloppy wet kisses to the one percent in the form of tax policy. But if Trump screws up this economy, he will no longer will be viewed as “useful,” but merely as an idiot. As Trump continues to issue erratic and unsound tariff policies via tweet that knock huge chunks off the Dow like ice sheets breaking off glaciers in his beloved Greenland, it is not hard to imagine sotto voce conversations among the masters of the universe on Wall Street wondering whether the idiot is not only no longer useful, but downright dangerous. 

My companion in our political conversation may suddenly start to hear that Donald Trump is damaging our economy. That he is doing nothing to fix the problems he has caused, and probably does not know how.  That his crazy trade war with China is what is triggering stock market decline. Suburban Republicans may not get as angry as I would wish about Trump's racism, misogyny, xenophobia,  divisiveness, cruelty, and his attempts to undermine our rule of law… but knock back their net worth by twenty percent, and watch what happens then.

Were the economy to deteriorate to such a degree, some economic Republicans might consider voting for a Democrat in 2020.  

More likely: they would look for a different Republican.

Sure, Trump has a seemingly unmovable 90% approval rating among Republicans. But knock 25% off the DJIA, and you may finally see real erosion in that approval rating.

There are already a number of Republicans who are lining up to primary Trump. So far, these are not threatening candidacies.  Bill Weld? May as well be a Democrat. Former Illinois U.S. House Representative Joe Walsh? Hardly a known brand. Mark Sanford? Heavily damaged goods…but, interestingly, he is not basing his challenge to Trump on social issues.  He is going 100% on the idea that Trump has abandoned traditional Republican dogma about taxation, deficits, and government spending.

None of Weld, Walsh, or Sanford have current positions that would be jeopardized by opposing Trump. All are indulging in a flyer with little to lose.

But a sudden downturn in the economy could cause other Republicans to ruminate. Call it the “Inverted Weld Curve.” If the "inverted yield curve" predicts a recession, the "inverted Weld curve" is when a souring of the economy predicts the entry of primary challengers to an incumbent President. 

That’s exactly what happened to Jimmy Carter in 1980.

It is exactly what happened to George H.W. Bush in 1992. 

They were – not coincidentally -- the only elected Presidents voted out of office after one term in the past eighty years. They lost not only because of the perception that they were managing the economy poorly, but because they were both badly bruised by the internecine attacks from formidable primary challengers in their own party... Ted Kennedy and Pat Buchanan.

What if a serious, well-known Republican who was not terrified of the wrath of Trump’s supporters decided to make a run at it, purely on the grounds of being better qualified to manage an economy in crisis?

A Republican who is not running for re-election to the House or Senate in 2020?  

A Republican with broad-based name awareness, and a world-class pedigree in the financial markets?

A Republican who is a smart person, a sharp businessman, and a decent human being with high integrity?

A Republican who does not force "economic Republicans" to suck it in and defend the embarrassment of racism, misogyny, and xenophobia? 

That’s right. What if the Dow had lost a full 25% by November and was sinking daily, and even the economists on Fox News had to acknowledge that the ugly bloodbath could be traced to stupid trade wars with China, a failure to invest in middle class jobs (an infrastructure program, or smart tax policy to encourage growth in renewable energy) and a tax cut for the rich and corporations that did nothing to stimulate growth, but only added billions to the national debt?

When Trump’s approval rating loses the upscale economic Republicans, how far does it drop?

Enough for, say, Mitt Romney or John Kasich to tell their party that it is time to cut bait with an albatross whose candidacy will cause the party to lose not only the White House, but perhaps the Senate as well?

Who knows? Perhaps, then, economic Republicans will finally start complaining about what a racist Trump is. Maybe then they will condemn his treatment of women. Possibly they will express outrage at his racist tropes and vent about his cruelty on our southern border. Maybe they will, if only so people won’t think that the only reason they are abandoning Trump is because they only thing they really care about is protecting their wealth. 

But when they turn on Trump, he will hear it. And it won't be just so much white noise.

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