For once in my life, Republicans and Democrats agree that we’re in deep trouble and we need to do something about it. Barring the unlikely prospect of a brokered convention, Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee. And while conventional wisdom says Clinton will win, conventional wisdom also said that Trump would be an old joke by now. Nobody’s laughing.
How can we stop this? Well, there is a way, but it’s not going to be easy. To understand how to stop Donald Trump, you have to understand what happened to cause Donald Trump’s rise.
What is happening now is a very specific set of conditions – a perfect storm where every flaw in American democracy, every crack that has threatened our republic has finally hit the breaking point. Because, and this is something we rarely stop to think about: people are voting for Donald Trump. It’s not that Trump has them fooled.
That may be what Mitt Romney thinks, when he called Trump a “phony and a fraud”. I mean, Trump is, but the people who vote for him do know what he stands for and what his presidency would be like. He is, in every definition of the word, a fascist. And fascism has an appeal: Hitler didn’t just kill Jews and start wars - he had the support of the German people because he nationalized industries, virtually ended unemployment and increased real wages by 10.9% by 1938. That’s the appeal of fascism – the deceptively quick and easy route to getting things done in government. That’s what his supporters see in Trump - a man who will get things done without the burden of dealing with laws and consequences.
I’m not comparing Trump to Hitler in order to be hyperbolic. I mean to say that an ineffective government, a bad economy, and a complete lack of faith in the democratic process, can result in enough people giving up on democracy entirely and putting their faith in a strongman who intends to provide authoritarian leadership.
In short, we can no longer say “It can’t happen here.” It is happening.
How we got here:
Behind Trump’s campaign are three things:
- Government has been completely ineffective, unable to solve even the most rudimentary problems.
- People feel that democracy itself has become a sham. They would be willing to trade away their right to self-governance - their vote - for strong leadership because they don’t believe that they have a vote that matters. More importantly - they’re right.
- People are scared of losing what little they have in this bad economy, and scared people want to feel protected by a strong leader.
Now, it is possible to be a candidate and address these things, and do very well. There are democratic solutions to these problems.
But Trump’s intentions are not democratic. His immigration plan is overt, institutionalized racism. But if you read his website, he’s pitching it as a jobs program - that he’ll take jobs from J-1 youth workers and give them to inner city youth, and that he’ll make it more exponsive to hire H-1B tech workers so that American STEM graduates have a better chance of finding an entry level job. Like Hitler, whatever the problem is, Trump has a ready answer.
The truly dangerous part about it is that taken out of context, these might actually be somewhat good ideas, (or at least ideas worth a good debate before rejection.) But these would have to be conceived and executed with the type of gentle touch and tact that we know Trump is incapable of.
Our last “traditional” bulwark we have against a Trump Presidency is Hillary Clinton - whose position as a moderate, pro-corporate Democrat positions her to be the champion of the status quo and establishment. What we’ve done, partially because we have a two-party system, is set up a false dichotomy between the status quo and fascism at a time when the status quo stinks and fascism has strong appeal. This is how Trump can win the Presidency.
How to fix this mess.
First, we must accept that “stopping Trump from winning the White House” may no longer be possible. Clinton’s supporters (and I do not count myself among them) may do their damndest but it may not be enough. We have to be proactive. We have to start preparing for the worst case scenario - that President Trump enters the White House. That means taking steps now to limit his authority as chief executive and to take away his power base.
The former means ending the spying on American citizens through the NSA, so that President Trump could not use these powers against the opposition. It means reducing the powersgranted to the President to act without approval of Congress in national security matters. It requires strengthening the War Powers Act so that the President does not have the power to unilaterally take “police action” for 48 hours without approval of Congress.
The latter - taking away his power base - will need more work. In short, we need to fix the problems in this country that is making fascism appealing. And the only way to do that is to address the problems which have lead to his rise.
We need to fix the democratic system so that it can be effective. We need to give people agency over their own lives by giving them a fair vote and a Congress that needs to listen to them. We need to address economic woes even if that means hurting some big businesses who have funded campaigns.
If we can do that, then people will be more likely to stand up to him. If we can restore faith in democracy actually working, then the appeal of a strongman goes away. If we actually make votes truly matter, and give people actual ability to self-govern, then people won’t want to trade it away so readily.
Still, that might not be enough to prevent him from entering the White House. But it would be enough to take away his political capital once he’s there, and bide our time till the next election, with a functioning Congress and Supreme Court to keep him in check. But that’s only if we act now, because we cannot wait for the next election to act. By then it will be too late.
The first thing we need to do is give people a functioning government. Now part of that is because the Republican party has taken a strategy of obstruction when it comes to passing, well, anything. This strategy of obstruction may have seemed like a wise course to advance a conservative agenda with a moderate-to-liberal President Obama, but it’s clear that that strategy has produced bad side effects. Eric Cantor learned that lesson when he lost his primary. Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell need to tell their caucuses that conceding small victories to the Democratic party is acceptable when the alternative is the rise of a fascist government. And their Democratic counterparts should be willing to work with them, despite all the bad blood. The rise of fascism isn’t just threatening the Republican party. It’s threatening us all.
But the problem is not just the Republican obstruction strategy – it is also because members of Congress need to raise staggering amounts of money in order to get elected - so much time and effort is spent raising this money that members of Congress literally do not have the time to do their jobs. They don’t debate legislation, they don’t pass legislation. They go to call centers to raise money, anywhere from 30-80% of the time they’re supposed to be working.
So to address the first problem, to get government working again, you need to first pass legislation that allows for candidates to run on public funds. The details aren’t important: use vouchers, tax credits, matching funds… give candidates 20 seconds in a money tornado booth… any of those would be better than what we have now. Right now, Congress only does what the funders of campaigns want because the funders are the people that they have to keep happy in order to retain their office. Government’s not going to start working for the American People until this happens.
The second thing we need to do is to give people a functioning democracy. People feel their votes are worthless, and they are right. And in many cases, votes have been made deliberately worthless. Gerrymandering has allowed members of Congress to choose their voters instead of the other way around. People may not like a candidate but the way the system has been rigged, it is impossible to throw the bastards out once they are in power.
This doesn’t only breed resentment - it breeds apathy. People don’t learn about civics, don’t follow the news, don’t read history (and are condemned to repeat it), because people lack any power to change anything. If people believed that their vote mattered, at least some - perhaps enough to really change the dialogue - would take their responsibilities to become informed citizens to heart. But when you can’t do anything about politics, why keep up with it? Especially when it seems that nothing happens anyway?
The worst kept secret in politics is that our votes don’t actually matter, statistically, and that anyone who spouts “every vote counts” is either ill-informed, or bad at math. Most votes are statistically “wasted” - that is, they have no effect on the outcome of the election. Not just some - but at least 50% in every election. This is because we have a winner-take-all system – people who vote for the losing candidate or who vote for the winning candidate after the candidate already secured enough votes to win might as well just stay home. In fact, it is only because most votes are wasted that gerrymandering is effective in the first place – all gerrymandering is, when it gets down to it, is deciding whose votes will get wasted - and making sure that it’s the opposition’s voters who get “packed” or “cracked”.
Even if you are one of the lucky few whose votes actually do statistically matter, there’s still not much incentive for you to become active and debate and pay attention to politics. Our two-party system forces you to choose between someone broadly to the left of center and someone broadly to the right of center. You don’t need to do a large amount of research on the nuances of politics to make that decision.
To get democracy functioning again, we need to elect at least one of the two houses of Congress on a system that does not statistically waste votes, or keeps vote wastage to a minimum. Either a proportional representation system (like in Germany and New Zealand) or a transferable vote system (like in Ireland and Australia) would serve to eliminate the effectiveness of gerrymandering and give people a real and honest say in how their country was governed.
As a side benefit, these systems make third parties viable to gain some amount of representation. This forces the major parties to keep their base happy, as the base can then credibly defect to an ideological near-neighbor if they feel their own party has not served them well, without hurting their own ideological interests. Additionally, you end up with additional perspectives and alternative solutions. Voting would no longer be a choice between the lesser of two evils (which requires little thought) but one which would actually require civic engagement.
Proportional representation systems also have one other advantage. They expose fringe movements as fringe movements. Trump is succeeding not because he has the support of the nation, but because he has the support of enough of a fraction of active supporters who are willing to vote in the Republican primary. And he is now effectively the face of the Republican party, whether Romney and McCain like it or not.
Winner take all systems allow for a fringe movement to muster enough numbers to take over an existing party. But if Trump had to compete in a truly nationwide proportional representation contest, it would quickly show how minor and fringe Trump’s support is. As it stands now, he’s on track to winning the Presidency because there are Americans - perhaps even a majority of Americans - who will see him as the lesser of two evils when compared to the only other viable choice, Hillary Clinton.
Finally, we have to give people options for dealing with financial hardship on a personal level. And for this, I have no easy answers. And conservatives and progressives will see proposed solutions in starkly different terms. However, in order for anything to be done, you first need to get Congress working again. And in order for people to feel that the solution Congress enacts is actually fair, you need to give people agency through the voting booth through some sort of proportional representation or transferable vote system.
So, yes, this requires Republicans and Democrats to work together. But for once, it’s possible, because Republicans and Democrats now have a common enemy and a common test.
And that test is this: We can make a country where all of us, finally, can work together and actually make America truly great… or we can retreat into the abyss of our lesser natures and deepest flaws. We must join or die.
And we are running out of time.