February 1, 2016
Trump and Bernie–Taking On the US Establishment
by Ross Douthat
The Political Maverick-2016
One of the puzzles of the 2016 campaign, unexpectedly defined by the ascent of a billionaire reality TV star and a septuagenarian Vermont socialist, is why now?
Yes, voters are angry, yes, they’re exhausted and disgusted and cynical about everything. But why is everything boiling over in this particular cycle, in this presidential campaign?
Consider: The economic picture is better than it was in 2012, when Republican primary voters settled for Mitt Romney and an incumbent president was re-elected pretty easily. (In both Iowa and New Hampshire, the unemployment rate is under 4 per cent.)
The foreign policy picture is grim in certain ways, but America isn’t trapped in a casualty-heavy quagmire the way we were in 2004, when Democratic voters played it safe with John Kerry and George W. Bush won re-election.
As Michael Grunwald argued recently in Politico, the worst-case scenarios of the post-Great Recession era haven’t materialised. Obamacare is limping along without an imminent death spiral, and health care costs aren’t rising as fast as feared.
The deficit has fallen a bit, and inflation is extraordinarily low. The stock market is wobbly, but we haven’t had a double-dip recession.On the cultural front, out-of-wedlock births are no longer rising. Abortion rates have fallen. Illegal immigration rates are down.
The state of the union isn’t all that one might hope, but it could clearly be a whole lot worse.
So what are Trumpistas and Bern-feelers rebelling against?One answer might be that they’re fed up with exactly this — the politics of “it could be worse,” of stagnation and muddling through. They aren’t revolting against abject failure, or deep and swift decline. They’re rebelling against decadence.
Now it may sound absurd to cast a figure like Donald Trump, the much-married prince of tinsel and pasteboard, as a scourge of decadence rather than its embodiment. But don’t just think about the word in moral or aesthetic terms. Think of it as a useful way of describing a society that’s wealthy, powerful, technologically proficient — and yet seemingly unable to advance in the way that its citizens once took for granted.
A society where people have fewer children and hold diminished expectations for the future, where institutions don’t work particularly well but can’t seem to be effectively reformed, where growth is slow and technological progress disappoints.
A society that fights to a stalemate in its foreign wars, even as domestic debates repeat themselves without any resolution. A society disillusioned with existing religions and ideologies, but lacking new sources of meaning to take their place.
This is how many Americans, many Westerners, experience their civilisation in the early years of the 21st century. And both Trump and Bernie Sanders, in their very different ways, are telling us that we don’t have to settle for it anymore.
With Trump, the message is crude, explicit, deliberately over the top. Make America Great Again. “We will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with the winning.”
But it resonates because the diagnosis resonates — especially with older Americans, who grew up amid the post-World War II boom, the vaulting optimism of the Space Age, the years when big government and big business were seen as effective and patriotic rather than sclerotic and corrupt.
Trump is offering nostalgia, but it’s not a true reactionary’s lament. He wants to take us back to a time when the future seemed great, amazing, fantastic.
Likewise Sanders, except that in his case the glorious future is more midcentury Scandinavia than Space Age America. After Obamacare became law, it seemed to many people that the welfare state project was basically complete, that the future of US liberalism mostly involved tweaking entitlements around the edges to keep them solvent.
But Sanders is telling liberals, younger liberals especially, that the heroic age of liberalism isn’t over yet, that they can have a welfare state that’s far more amazing and fantastic than the one their forefathers constructed.
The fact that both of these messages — Trump’s “Make America great again” and Bernie’s “Why not socialism?” — involve essentially recycled visions of the future is a sign of how hard it is for a decadent society to escape the trap of repetition.
But more important, the fact that both men are promising the implausible or the impossible — and the fact that Trump is openly contemptuous of our ragged republican norms — is a reminder that there are worse things than decadence, grimmer possibilities for the future than drift and repetition.
The disappointment and impatience that people feel in a decadent era is legitimate, even admirable. But the envy of more heroic moments, the desire to just do something to prove your society’s vitality — Invade Iraq to remake the Middle East! Open Germany’s borders! Elect Trump or Sanders president! — can be a very dangerous sensibility.
There are pathways up from decadence. But there are more roads leading down. — The New York Times