Tuesday, March 12, 2019

A little horse-race pablum for the junkies

Colonel John C. Frémont, Republican candidate for the presidency in 1856, in a campaign lithograph, via.

So Monsignor Ross Douthat, Apostolic Nuncio to 42nd Street, is back on the theory that Donald Trump is Jimmy Carter.

No, really, this has been going on for a couple of years. Just around the time of the inauguration, Julia Azari, Scott Lemieux, and Corey Robin wrote pieces suggesting that the Trump presidency was likely to be what Steven Skowronek called a "disjunctive" presidency, that is one that takes place at the time when an old order or "regime", the long-term ordering of the ideologies and interests on which the politics depends, is falling apart and a new one is not yet clearly emergent; like Buchanan's, before the cataclysms of the Civil War and Reconstruction, or Hoover's, before the New Deal, or Carter's, before the beginning of what you might call the Era of Miniature Government.

Ross, with an authoritarian's inability to grasp a discussion of systemic factors, took this to mean that Trump must be personally like Carter in some respect, as in this from his contribution to the Times inauguration coverage, committed to the proposition that Trump is as smart as Carter was, with a "vision" that is similarly "new", though unlikely to succeed:
One such president was Jimmy Carter, who tried to maintain the creaking New Deal coalition while also grasping at a new vision for liberal governance. He failed because his party simply couldn’t accommodate the tension, and he himself couldn’t effectively blend the old and new.
Right now Trump looks like he might be similarly disjunctive. Like Mr. Carter with the ’70s-era Democrats, he has grasped — correctly — that Republican politics desperately needs to be reinvented. But his populist-nationalist vision has seemed too racially and culturally exclusive to win him majority support, and it’s layered atop a party that still mostly believes in the “populism” of cutting the estate tax.
Combine those brute political facts with Trump’s implausibly expansive promises, and a Carter scenario — gridlock, disappointment, collapse — seems like the most plausible way to bet. 
Which is pretty amusing in retrospect: whatever we may think about Trump's intelligence and vision, he's turned out to have an amazingly firm hold on his party, in spite of the claims to independence of a few crabby pundits. Today, anyway, Ross isn't going for retrospection, but instead prefers to look ahead, toward the question of who's going to play the "reconstructive" Reagan in this remake ("Bernie Sanders, Socialism's Reagan?"):

The Reagan to Trump’s Carter, the left-wing answer to the first movement-conservative president, can be only Bernard Sanders.
If you doubt me, consider the parallels. Like Reagan following his attempt to primary Gerald Ford in 1976, Sanders is coming off a near-miss insurgent campaign against an embodiment of the party establishment, who then went to an excruciatingly narrow general election defeat.
Like Reagan, Sanders is widely judged too old to be elected president; he is older than the Gipper, but just as Reagan’s age in 1980, 69, roughly matched American life expectancy at the time, so does Sanders’s age of 77 match life expectancy today.
Like Reagan, Sanders is widely considered too extreme to be nominated, and certainly too extreme to win: Some Democrats fear that his nomination would give oxygen to a third-party centrist (with Howard Schultz ready for that role) as Reagan’s prompted John Anderson to run as a liberal Republican; some Republicans hope that a Sanders-led ticket would help the unpopular incumbent sneak to re-election.
So how come radical John C. Frémont didn't win the presidency in 1860, or the superannuated William McAdoo in 1932?

Why didn't Carter win in 1980, come to think of it, to be James Buchanan to his own Franklin Pierce? In that case, which could easily have happened (but for the collaboration of the Reagan campaign with the Iranian revolutionary regime, some believe—he was eight points ahead of Reagan in the Gallup poll of October 26), some other Republican would have fallen into the "reconstructionist" role in 1984. Reagan's victory wasn't ordained by God, simply because he was Reagan, and if his presidency ended up "reconstructing" the political regime, it was because the old one had fundamentally fallen to pieces.

Carter and Hoover (whom I admire a lot, though I realize he had a pretty lousy presidency) did have a good deal in common, by the way—the trust in intelligence and work over ideology, the lack of political cunning that served them badly, but nothing in common with the corresponding figure of the mid-19th century, the vile James Buchanan, or with Donald J. Trump or the various ideologues and thugs who try to manage him. To find a historical person in a "disjunctive" position who's anything like Trump in character you'd have to go to an emperor going into World War I, Kaiser Wilhelm or Tsar Nicholas.

By the same token, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt won their nominations not because they were radical, or elderly; they weren't. They were the figures who could command the widest coalition of different elements of their own parties. How Reagan ended up being in a similar position in his party is an interesting question, since he certainly was a movement conservative, but there was a great deal to reassure the "moderate" Republicans that he wasn't going to threaten them, starting with his record as California governor, when nothing truly crazy had happened, and his distinction from truly crazy figures like Pat Buchanan representing the Nazioid wing, and perhaps above all that sunny chuckleheaded "Morning in America" disposition, not unlike the famously first-rate temperament of FDR, and very unlike the wretched declinism and self-victimization that is what conservatism basically rests on.

And John B. Anderson ended up taking more votes from Democrats, from old Arthur Schlesinger and Jacqueline Onassis to a host of college students, than he did from Republicans.

Senator Sanders isn't anything like Reagan, either. He lacks Reagan's flexibility (or manipulabilty, rather, which let his henchmen do whatever they wanted with him) and easy temper. He's grouchy. He's very unwilling to reassure those Democrats who don't trust him. He's very unwilling to gratify radicals who are obsessed with issues he's not obsessed with, too. He lacks the political savvy of a Lincoln or Roosevelt and he has nobody like an Ed Meese (the one thing I could never excuse him for was the way he summoned up a "political revolution" in the 2016 campaign, like a rooster summoning the sunrise, without doing anything in the way of organization to bring it about, just expecting to win the primaries, and continually astonished when he lost them and won the un-democratic caucuses instead).

There's one Democrat in the race I can easily imagine that way, in fact, and that's Elizabeth Warren, who, like Lincoln, is just about radical enough, which you can't really confidently say of Harris or Klobuchar or O'Rourke as much as you may like them (and I do!), and while she doesn't have the kind of temperament of an FDR or Reagan, which I think wouldn't work well with a woman, but would make her look airheaded, there's something very Lincoln-like in the deep seriousness she's capable of calling on and the plain and homespun language she uses so well with the complicated matters she chooses to talk about. But I want to emphasize that Ross is completely wrong, as usual, as well as being a concern troll: if there's anything to the Skowronek model, it's not the leader who makes the circumstances of reconstruction, it's the circumstances that make the leader, and whoever gets the nomination is equally likely to be able to rise to them, if this is really the time. Which isn't necessarily the case, Maybe it's the end of the republic, for instance...

Or maybe Trump is Polk or Fillmore or Nixon, structurally speaking, as Steve M implies, and nobody's going to be Lincoln any time soon.

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