The constant media frame for the shocking-to-many success of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders is that both campaigns represent the rejection of elites in favor of populism, albeit contradictory populisms of the right and left. Would that it were so simplistic.
Now my old friend Patrick Caddell, a colleague in various past political adventures with Gary Hart, Jerry Brown, Warren Beatty, and Arianna Huffington, has offered a different, more sophisticated frame for the race. The seemingly disparate challenges to both party establishments revolve around "economic nationalism."
Since Caddell has been advising Donald Trump -- that perfect creature of today's media culture, via Fox News, "reality" TV and social media -- and was probably one of the people who helped convince Trump to turn his latest presidential flirtation into something all too real, it's a very noteworthy notion. (It's also wrong, but we'll get to that.) That Caddell advised Trump to attack Ohio Governor John Kasich in the upcoming Ohio primary for backing NAFTA and being a former executive of a Wall Street investment firm -- and Trump has begun doing so -- makes it even more noteworthy.
Caddell, not incidentally, is one of the more colorful and interesting characters I've encountered. Once the epitome of a superstar Democratic political consultant, Caddell began by dropping out of Harvard to become George McGovern's pollster, then played a crucial role in guiding Jimmy Carter to the White House, becoming the presidential pollster. But more recently, he's a scourge of Democrats and liberals on Fox News. It's an intriguing story, and one I know, but not for now.
Caddell's theory of the race is that Trump and Sanders have lifted the scales from the eyes of vast numbers of voters of all persuasions as to how Wall Street and transnational capitalist elites have sold them out with rigged international trade deals that benefit other countries and elite American insiders at the expense of most of the rest of us.
Caddell, perhaps re-reading Dune, calls this "the nexus issue." In days past, it might have been "the alienation factor."
Caddell has a poll ("I have seen the numbers," and how many times have I heard that?) which he says indicates that "economic nationalism" is the key to the race.
"Republicans, and independents following Republicans, even more than Democrats are anti-free-trade, or, I should say, they have had it with trade deals, just as they've had it with the Washington establishment," he told a Breitbart News radio show.
"What's happening is, the economic anxiety -- the tremendous alienation that exists, and the concerns about national security, and particularly China -- are all fueling this nexus issue, which is all being expressed in concrete terms over these trade deals.
"You had Rubio, who said his foreign policy had three legs to the stool, and the third one was TPP. You had Kasich, who has been a big supporter of free trade ...
Caddell said that Ted Cruz has been on "both sides" of the Trans Pacific Partnership issue, backing special negotiating authority but opposing the final agreement. (Which nonetheless places himself on the same side as Trump in the end.)
"Wall Street will freak out. All of the quote 'better people' who've been sitting in their ivory towers, economists, saying, 'oh, free trade is good for you,' whatever, well, the American people have figured out that they've been screwed," Caddell said. He said his survey found high levels of support for more draconian measures like the protectionist walls of tariffs.
"I am telling you, we're in a new paradigm. This is a revolutionary moment."
As it happens, Caddell's take seems mostly on target as far as it goes, but it doesn't go nearly far enough.
Anger at elites for betrayal on complex and deliberately mysterioso matters of international trade and high finance is a significant part of what's going on, but it's only part.
In the Democratic presidential primaries, Sanders is gaining overwhelming backing from young people. Last summer, a Pew Research poll showed that millennials back free trade agreements by a more than 2 to 1 margin.
That may have come down some since, but the reality is that young Americans -- brandishing smartphones and tablet computers often designed here and always made abroad -- especially are open to a globalized world in ways that the actual core of Trumpism quite obviously is not.
They're responding strongly to Sanders's message of opposition to a rigged economic and political system, and global trade deals are a part of that. But they clearly lack the xenophobia and fear of "the other" that historically accompanies the protectionist wall-mongering of economic nationalism. It's a generation that seems nearly as much citizens of the world as citizens of the United States. And they know instinctively, better than any generation has, that technology moves on and barriers come down.
Which is not to say that Sanders is not scoring heavily in the Rust Belt states such as Michigan last week and several more this week with his message on unfair trade deals. Especially so with older voters who actually suffered from deals that decidedly did not benefit them.
Yet times have changed, as they always do, as young Sanders enthusiasts know. Ford no longer makes any car you want, just so long as it's the same one, in any color you want, just so long as it's black. Those Model T days are long gone. The world has come to America just as America has gone to a world increasingly tied together by now routine shipping, ubiquitous air travel and new virtual networks, across which the information underlying technology and the funds needed to actualize it can flash in an instant.
In this world, the real world of the 21st century, international trade is a reality. There will be international trade deals because there must be international trade deals, just as there are traffic laws.
Opposing international trade is like opposing the tide. It didn't work out so well for King Canute.
"We can't afford to go back," as Senator Gary Hart declared in 1984 when he won the Ohio Democratic presidential primary.
Trade deals are inevitable. The question is what sort of trade deals.
Sanders obviously understands this as does, now, Hillary Clinton, who ditched her earlier support for the Trans Pacific Partnership.
What's needed is not an end to trade deals, but trade deals which work for the common good, not just the private interests of a few. And secret trade deals, a malignant new manifestation, are little better than secret wars, another feature the republic is sliding into.
Most ironically, it was Pat Caddell who came up with that "We can't afford to go back" slogan for Gary Hart as he defeated down-the-line union backer and trade protectionist former Vice President Walter Mondale in that Ohio Democratic primary mentioned above.
Most ironic, because it is Trump who wants to turn back the clock, not just with "economic nationalism" but with his core approach, which is all too obviously all about walls and xenophobia and reaction against "the other."
Trump's variant of economic nationalism is all of a piece with his neo-fascism. The notorious Obama birther presents himself as a populist tribune, but in reality only for reactionaries. And in the classic fashion of fascism, his "populism" is a pose designed to mask both his backing for entrenched conservative money interests and a bid to smash the left.
Trump now calls Sanders a "Communist." Which is as ludicrous a charge as it is hideous. And, but of course, Trump is pushing the biggest tax cuts of all for the super-rich and big corporations.
Trying to recast the neo-fascism of Trumpism as "economic nationalism" is, not just figuratively but all too literally, putting lipstick on a pig.
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