As the 2016 Presidential election grinds to its dreary, embarrassing end, I worry that in our desire to forget its most depressing -- Trump's attitudes towards women -- and trivial -- his inability to stick to a message -- dynamics, we will forget the very important lessons which the Trump candidacy -- and in some cases Trump himself -- have to teach us about the future of American politics.
And those who do not learn from history are at least more likely to be condemned to repeat it. So the less you can stand to think about this election, the more you ought to seek its lessons.
Here are six that have struck me:
- The rebellion against trade and globalization that Trump has leveraged was the predictable consequence of policy choices by the establishment wings of both parties. The collapse of manufacturing and blue collar jobs is not an inevitable result of globalization -- Germany proves that. Trump is wrong when he says that the trade deals negotiated by the US were stupid -- they were actually skillfully tilted towards the interests of banks, multinational companies and holders of globally lucrative intellectual property like drug companies. But he is right to blame these trade agreements for much of the economic pain suffered by blue-collar America.
America is a nation of immigrants. Typically 10 percent or more of each census has been foreign born. But after WWII the U.S. entered an unprecedented period of homogeneity By 1970 less than 5 percent of Americans were immigrants. That percentage didn't hit 10 percent again until 2000. Today, at 13 percent, it is almost back to the levels of 1890.
1970 was also the year when equality and middle-class incomes peaked. So Americans born from 1950-1980 had a unique experience growing up in an overwhelmingly native-born country which was increasingly diverse and full of immigrants, accompanied by an economy that steadily left the working class stranded and struggling.
Correlation is not causation. Immigration is responsible for only a tiny fraction of inequality and stagnating incomes. But correlation is how people experience life, and we have a generation of Americans for whom the argument that immigrants are the source of their economic stagnation rings true. The failure to understand Trump's following in this context only makes the immigration transition harder to navigate. He was not the first, and will not be the last, to exploit that vulnerability.
This is an era in which American voters -- Republicans in particular -- view business success as a qualification for cleaning up politics. Donald Trump is the second Republican nominee in a row -- and the third of the last four if you count George W. Bush's oil and baseball experience -- from the C Suite. This is extraordinary. The last CEO major party nominee was Wendell Wilkie in 1940 -- part of whose political sales pitch, like Trump's, was that, if elected, "I will be under obligation to nobody except the people."
Based on history, business experience is not a good qualification for "draining the swamp" of corrupt government. While (Bush aside) we have never elected a CEO as President, we have elected scores of them as Governors and Mayors, often on "clean up the swamp" reform platforms. This combination usually doesn't work very well. The most notable recent example was Jon Corzine's ill-starred tenure as Governor New Jersey, the state of which even the musical Hamilton says, "Everything is legal in New Jersey."
Trump's business ethics -- the flagrant abuse of bankruptcy to avoid paying his bills, his extravagant exploitation of paper losses to avoid paying federal income taxes,using his foundation improperly, his reliance on cheap imported Chinese goods, even the hiring of undocumented workers -- are merely extreme (like everything about the Donald) illustrations of this problem. Extortionate undocumented hiring apart, it's possible that none of this was illegal or exceptional. Most taxpayers do carry forward losses; all real estate professionals use depreciation and other loopholes that give them paper losses; the filing of bankruptcies on individual projects is absolutely common practice among developers; most builders buy the lowest-priced steel they can get; and millions of Hilary Clinton voters use the services of undocumented workers.
Progressive era journalist Lincoln Steffens,
who witnessed this happen in scores of early 20th century cities, pointed out that business leaders are ill-suited to deal with corruption, because the ethic of business is that success is
measured in monetary terms. Self-interested transactions are assumed and valued. Yet the essence of cleaning up corruption is to eliminate the opportunity for self-interested transactions.
Establishment, "centrist" American politics -- of the variety that dominated the Cold War era -- can weather periods of intense economic injustice: look at the 1920s. The establishment can also hold on during slow growth and recessions -- look at the 50s and 70s. What it cannot manage is periods when inequality and stagnation coincide - those are the moments which fuel American populism: the 1870s, the 1930s, and the last decade. But the establishment wing of both political parties seem blind to the fact that their loss of public legitimacy is not a mysterious crisis of confidence, but the appropriate result of a single choice: after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the benefits of economic growth, ("the Peace dividend"), were almost entirely appropriated for themselves by global elites. Most economists do not expect a rapid resumption of fast growth. So if establishment indifference to the consequences of inequality during stagnation continues, the fire of populism will burn ever hotter, with Trump as only its first expression.
The current public faith that a CEO's lack of political experience is an asset, because he is not tainted by "corrupt" politics, stands reality on its head. American politics is corrupt, but it is a corruption born of the relationship between money and politics, not self-generated among politicians. So a billionaire CEO may well know how the system works -- Trump has milked it to a fair-thee-well in building his brand. But his or her (President Fiorina?) moral instincts almost certainly lack the necessary outrage at the notion that American politics should be dominated by the rich and successful. Donald Trump is an extreme example, but only an example, of the reality that most CEO's do not live in, or comprehend, a "one person, one vote" system.
These lessons are sober -- if we refuse to learn them. But they also suggest that a politics based on understanding the world of the 21st century can, in fact, leave Trump -- and Trumpism -- on the ash heaps of history.
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