Dueling Delusions

Posted in: Politics

The Republican Party is imploding. Party insiders are desperate to keep the nomination from Donald Trump. But their frantic machinations are rightly seen by the party faithful as condescending and anti-democratic. Americans are not bred to be sheep, we might hear the faithful say, and who the hell is Mitt Romney to tell us how we should vote? Understandably, they respond to this top-down pressure by tightening their embrace of Trump, and interpret the attacks on him as proof of his outsider bona fides. When centrifugal meets centripetal, the center—such as it is in the GOP—cannot hold.

As with so much in American politics, what matters in all this is what escapes notice. There is a background belief system so deeply ingrained and widely shared that no one detects its presence. Yet this belief system should be made explicit, since without it, these extraordinary events could never take place.

Fundamentally, the fracas reveals an unshakable faith in the myth of electoral responsiveness and the party system in the United States. The GOP faithful have so much confidence in the system they actually believe Trump will make a difference in their lives; and GOP elites have so much confidence in the system they actually believe the faithful will listen when lectured otherwise. Their delusions are not the same, but derive from the same misguided belief: Politics can solve the nation’s problems. If we tinker with the machine, we can make it work.

Consider first the enthusiastic support for Donald Trump. Trump’s message is a toxic mix of identity politics and populist braggadocio, both of which his supporters find wildly refreshing. Republicans tell pollsters they love Trump because he “tells it like it is.” He is plain speaking and unrehearsed. Donald Trump has no need of focus groups. On top of this, there is a vague promise of economic recovery. Factories that closed years or decades ago will reopen and times will be good, especially for the rural and suburban core of the Republican constituency. Put these pieces together and we have a vision of abundant, high paying, low skill jobs, untroubled by Mexicans or Muslims. All we need is the right man at the helm.

Yet there is no chance Trump—or any elected official—could make this happen. The President of the United States can do many things, but she cannot turn back the clock, put coal in the ground, or make a mill profitable when it has to compete with global wage scales and distribution networks. In time, the United States might regrow a manufacturing sector, but the days of high paying, low skill factory jobs are gone forever. Because it is cheaper to outsource low skill manufacturing jobs, a businessman trying to maximize his profits—like Donald Trump—will naturally build his plant overseas. In fact, if that work ever came to the U.S.—that is, if wage scales in this country were so low as to compete with the developing world—it would mean the United States had experienced an economic collapse unprecedented in American history. We should all hope workers in this country are never paid wages on par with those in developing nations.

If the president cannot wave a magic wand to change the reality of the global economy, she is even less able to turn back the tide of American demographics. As I have written elsewhere, the United States is growing steadily more urban, secular, diverse, and socially liberal. Demographers predict it will be majority minority by 2043, and for children under 18, by 2020. A majority of the youngest generation today is already non-white. Some might wish it were otherwise, but these trends are irreversible; the United States will no more return to being overwhelmingly white than women will retreat from the workforce.

And at the risk of stating the obvious, the president plainly cannot build a literal or metaphorical wall across the length of the 1,933 mile border between the United States and Mexico, nor can she impose an immigration plan that admitted only those Muslims prepared to lie about their religion. Any attempt at either approach would bankrupt the country in more ways than one.

People like Mitt Romney understand all this, which is why he denounced Trump as a “con man,” a “phony,” and a “fraud.” Romney understands full well that Trump cannot possibly create the world he promises. But herein lay the puzzle. Just as there is no chance Trump can create the world he promises, there is no chance his deluded flock can be convinced of his policy impotence. Romney’s speech was thus utterly futile. Not only do Trump’s supporters want the world he describes, which is bad enough, they seem to think Trump can blink and make it so. They genuinely believe the American political system is fundamentally responsive to their demands, and that it simply needs a Great Man, chosen through customary channels, to make things right. The structural limitations imposed by economic, technological, constitutional, and demographic realities, which combine to constrain the choices available to any politician or policy-maker, are utterly invisible to them.

The explanation for this misguided faith is not particularly hard to understand. For one thing, all of us have been nursed from a young age to believe that elections matter—and they do, at least at the margins. Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz would certainly appoint different Supreme Court justices. But in popular mythology, the importance of elections is surely exaggerated. We are raised to think that any problem can be solved by different elected leaders, who in turn would change the law, change the courts, and change the future. All will be well, if only we vote the right people into office. This of course deliberately obscures structure.

Relatedly, a belief that elections matter provides the state with an important source of political stability. Most adults can vote, but not many can alter the economic, technological, demographic, or constitutional constraints on American life, to say nothing of the constraints imposed by international actors. Few Americans indeed can do much about China’s decision to devalue the yuan, including the president. Faith in elections thus allows people to nurse an illusion that the world is within their collective control. Woe unto the Western democracy that tells its people that nothing they do makes a whit of difference to the conditions that most shape their fate.

No doubt there are other reasons that help explain why elections hold such a sacred place in the American heart, including the psychological value in believing that better things are never more than a November away. Every Cubs fan knows the value of the improbable vow, “wait till next year.”

Yet if the GOP faithful are lost in a delusion, they at least are not alone; party elites labor under a delusion of their own. It is the mistaken belief that the party system not only works as they intended it—that is, to catapult certain people and viewpoints into political power—but that it remains under their control. They suppose, against all logic, that a long history of coded racial appeals and xenophobic rhetoric, along with the oft-repeated promise that every vote matters, can be swept away like cigarette butts on the sidewalk. They believe, in other words, that symbols—the lifeblood of all political speech—have no independent significance. The depth of this belief explains why people like Mitt Romney are so shocked and surprised by the angry, nativist mob in the Republican streets, hungry for a champion who will not stop at veiled innuendo and will finally take the GOP philosophy to its natural resting place.

The end result is ironic. Blinded by symbols, the GOP faithful cannot see the structures that make it impossible for any politician to deliver what they seek. So they latch onto the Great Man, who is pure symbol, liberated from structure and devoid of substance. Party elites, meanwhile, cannot see the symbols they created. So they warn about a Clinton landslide and party suicide, as though the hollow shell of the Republican Party were the only thing that deserved to be rescued from the imminent implosion. And both groups are blinded by the belief that the solution to their respective travails can be found in the ballot box.

In this essay, I have focused on the delusions that bedevil the GOP, but only because of their present prominence. Under the right circumstances, the same would no doubt be true of the Democrats. For now, however, that is not their fate. For the moment, in the grip of dueling delusions, it is the GOP that hurtles toward oblivion.

  • Brian

    I think the only more bothered about Trump than inner circle power players within the party are those outside the party that fail to see the angst of the working middle class. This includes the left leaning government supported college professors, teachers, union power players and other left elites who feel their superior view of the world ought to quell the likes of Trump, but cannot. Additionally, they blindly ignore their own insightful abilities when it comes to understanding the myth and legend of the Clinton dishonesty. They ought to look at the numbers of “Bernie” supporters in their own party and school them about their own blind adulation of the phony first woman president they fail to examine. Instead, they daily follow and shake their heads in disbelief of the apparent popularity of Trump, and try as hard as they can to “educate” the “ignorant” on why he cannot succeed. Although they may be right, their tactics are failing miserably. Do they question any of their own “learning?” Of course not, since it does not fit the model they espouse. In fact, when directly confronted, most admit to never reading any of the positions of the candidates. Perhaps it is time to measure their positions against their beliefs, and ignore the rantings for and against each candidate. Get educated. Lately it seems that every article about the Trump failings can be written as well about Clinton. But, you never see them from the university elite, do you?

  • DWontheplains

    No, Trump can’t make it all happen but here is the problem with this article. We cannot just stop with Trump. We must root out the other elite republicans and replace them with candidates that have someone other than just their own interests in mind. We must get rid of the cronies and put people who will actually do their job!

  • Frank Willa

    In my view, Professor, how sad to read such a defeatist and hopeless viewpoint. The GOP, starting in 1981 began the era of “the government is the problem”; casting it as incompetent and ineffective. Perhaps you are not old enough to remember when government was effective. It ended a great depression, fought fascism, and built a large middle class in the 1050s,and 60s. It was the great economic engine that lead the research and development that facilitated a growing standard of living. In short government is the entity that the constitution provides to act in concert to improve the general welfare. The GOP put itself in the predicament it now has…it went way too far with the ” free market can replace government” notion. It made promises that could not be kept to its voters. An example is the immigration issue. Regarding the undocumented, Romney had a plan of “self deportation” and Trump says he will eject the 11 million or so; there is no practical way…how many people would it take to round up that many people, and how many bus loads would it take.( and what would it cost- where would the money come from ).. assuming the countries that we would want to take them would accept these deportees. Again, the GOP voters will be let down. The GOP has taken itself too far to the extreme and must renounce the far right that now passes as the center; it has to believe in government again. Republican presidents facilitated the transcontinental railroad and the interstate highways, they used to believe in progress and understood that government has a vital role. History shows eras of progress and eras of regression; do not accept the cynicism that all is lost and that things can not get better. Over time mankind had made progress and eventually we will again, perhaps a GOP implosion will mark the turning point.

  • Pretty good, but two major omissions. One is that Trump’s supporters are largely right to believe that their votes do matter, at least more than the votes of voters who are effectively disenfranchised by ingenious gerrymandering and specious voter ID laws. The economists always joke about any other use of your time being more valuable, but now it’s a guarantee, not a joke. The politicians pick the voters they want, not the other way around.

    Anecdotal evidence, but I’m actually registered in Austin, the largest city in America without its own member in the House of so-called Representatives. Has to be a slap in the Founders’ faces that the part of the government that was intended to be most responsive to the will of the people is actually dominated by politicians who represent a minority of the voters–but that is the result of clever gerrymandering that effectively wastes so many Democratic Party votes in sacrificial districts while keeping their own districts safe. Over the years, each election became more difficult for me to vote in, but this time the dictators of Texas finally yanked my vote completely, unless I’m willing to cough up and pay the poll tax for some qualifying documentation. Hell, no. I renounce my birthright Texian citizenship and now regard myself as a stateless American of the “No vote for you” party.

    The other omission is actually larger. The column keeps mentioning certain party names as though they existed, but the Republican and GOP brands have been hijacked. Whatever it is now, it is NOT the Republican Party of Abe Lincoln or the practical governing GOP of Teddy and Ike. I favor neo-GOP as a tag, but the old brands are absolutely meaningless.