Now that I’ve caught your attention, I will admit that I don’t have any magic answer to this question, which undoubtedly is gong to be foremost in the minds of progressives for the next four (hopefully no more than four) years. Trump, and the party he leads, if they are to be beaten, are going to be beaten by Democrats, and so the question how to beat Trump and his enablers raises the further question that I posed in a post almost three years ago: “Whither the Democrats?”

In a later post, I described two competing tendencies in the Democratic Party, which eventually formed the basis of the competition that played out in the Clinton/Sanders contest for the presidential nomination. Adherents of the populist tendency, whose causes Sanders championed, are outraged by the growth of economic and political inequality in American life and want to challenge the business interests that they see as the sources of those trends. The centrist tendency, which achieved clear dominance under President Bill Clinton, is more comfortable with business power and in fact looks actively for allies among the more moderate and enlightened sectors of the business community. The differences between these two tendencies are real, even though they tend to be submerged in the face of the more radical divide separating both from the Republican right.  My sympathies are with the populists, both because they represent my own policy preferences and because I think they offer a more effective and convincing alternative to the radical right populism that is now ascendant.

I’ll make my case by putting down four basic propositions:

  • Political power in the United States is today strongly skewed in favor of the interests of the affluent. This is an empirical proposition that has been demonstrated repeatedly in political science research over the course of the past decade.
  • Those who enjoy disproportionate political power will use that power to gain advantages for themselves through the political process. This, to me, is a premise that doesn’t even need to be demonstrated; it’s just human nature. (But if you’re interested in a good discussion of the myriad ways this happens, you can take a look at Robert Reich’s excellent book, Saving Capitalism.)
  • The result of (1) and (2) above has been to accentuate long-term structural trends toward increasing economic inequality in our society.
  • The American people by and large understand the foregoing, even if their understanding is generally more visceral than intellectual. (There’s plenty of polling data to demonstrate this.) Much of the popular disaffection with our politics—e.g., the perception of a “swamp” in Washington—reflects that understanding.

On some level, Donald Trump understands all of this.  He acted on that understanding by demagogically exploiting popular disaffection, with phony attacks on unnamed “special interests” and on well-selected scapegoats—immigrants, Muslims, and the many countries who allegedly have been exploiting America thanks to the stupidity of our leaders. Bernie Sanders also understands those four propositions. Hillary Clinton, to all appearances, does not, or if she does, she didn’t act on that understanding in her campaign. (Barack Obama is hardly better.) No, I am not going to argue that Sanders could have beaten Trump—Bernie had his own liabilities. But going forward, I think that Democrats who fail to appreciate the above propositions are going to be ignoring the lessons of 2016.

A particularly striking example of centrist cluelessness came this weekend in the form of an op-ed by former British PM Tony Blair. Understandably troubled by the rise of right-wing populism in Europe and America, Blair argues for an invigorated centrism. (He thinks leftist populism is wrong-headed, but he doesn’t explain why.) The populist phenomenon, he thinks, is mainly cultural: the alienation of those who feel displaced by a globalizing world that erases the old familiar boundaries of nation, race and culture. Now, I don’t deny that socio-cultural resentment is an important part of the explanation for right-wing populism, but an over-emphasis on culture is a convenient way to evade issues of power and inequality. And, except for a passing suggestion that tax and welfare systems should be reformed to encourage a fairer distribution of wealth, inequality doesn’t enter into Blair’s picture of our troubled times.

How does Blair propose to beat the populists? What is needed, he says, is a new policy agenda, formed through an alliance “between those driving the technological revolution, in Silicon Valley and beyond, and those responsible for public policy in government.” Hooray, technology to the rescue! Just get enlightened people in government together with some rich digital geniuses and they’ll figure out how to assuage the grievances of the less fortunate. (Wanna bet Blair has been talking to Bill Gates?) Blair would like to think that a technological fix can substitute for a confrontation with inequality. Sorry, Tony: not the way to go.




  1. Al Wegener March 6, 2017 at 4:22 pm

    Thanks, Tony, for explaining the Blair blare. But I think you’re still holding out on us. Like … ok, I get the two propositions, but how does that accomplishment lead me to understanding how to beat Trump? I’m still up a tree. Come on, Tony, give it your best shot!
    And, thanks again.

    • tonygreco March 6, 2017 at 9:11 pm

      A serious answer to your question would take more energy than I have at the moment, and I’m still not sure just what I would say. But I promise that this will be a subject of future posts.

  2. Jeffrey Herrmann March 8, 2017 at 4:22 am

    First: It should be plain to everyone that tRump is not right in the head. Those who have signed on for a tour of duty with Capt. Queeg are currently experiencing cognitive dissonance and avoiding that conclusion. But given enough time and the inevitable further insane rants by tRump, they will either jump ship or mutiny (25th Amendment?). How long will the American citizenry tolerate the ship of state drifting as a derelict?
    tRump’s Svengali/Iago/Rasputin — i.e., Bannon — is actually speeding up the process which ends in a wide-spread acknowledgment across the political spectrum that our (so-called) president is bonkers.
    How could tRump possibly survive?

    Second: tRump’s other major personality flaw, his nawing, raging, corrosive insecurity that is inflamed by every imagined slight, mockery, criticism, etc. is a pressure point that needs to be exploited, both to egg him on to ever more paranoid and delusional early morning Tweetstorms and to tire him and starve him of the adulation he desperately craves. We need help from the comedians and pundits, and they are already doing a good job. Reporters revealing what White House insiders are saying on background about him are helpful, too.
    Faced with withering humiliation, tRump could well decide to quit before his term is up, because he just can’t take it. Few bullies can endure a few stiff punches in the face. We have seen tRump back away from face to face confrontations with many of the people he attacks from the safety of a Twitter account. He is a coward, and cowards often cut and run.

    • tonygreco March 8, 2017 at 11:08 am

      I hope you’re right. The Republican leaders have been pretending to believe that Trump is a reasonably normal, sane, capable chief executive, who is just constructively disruptive. Most of them know better, but the pretense serves them, because Trump is a useful front man for their reactionary agenda. The question is, is there a breaking point at which it becomes impossible to maintain the pretense?

  3. Jeffrey Herrmann March 9, 2017 at 1:18 am

    I think some issues on which tRump might go barking mad would be beyond the pale even for his willing enablers in the Repugnican party. For example, his adoration of Putin conflicted with Repugnican patriotic sentiments and opened a very public crack, if not a break, in his support.
    Nothing I wrote should be deemed to dismiss the helpfulness of traditional opposition in the political and judicial spheres. tRump should be assailed on every front. If there is to be a break, let pressure be applied from every direction.

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