Author Jeffrey Feldman

To See Why Trump is Winning, Ask This Question

George Lakoff has a long essay out on the topic of why Trump is winning. If you are a fan of Lakoff (ehem!), you will recognize the familiar moral logic of strong father conservatism. In a nutshell, Lakoff draws our attention to a conservative view of the family to explain how Trump’s brash arrogance appeals to some and not to others.  I do not disagree with Lakoff, but I think there might be a more basic way to understand why Trump is winning: by asking a very simple question.

Try this simple exercise.  Start by reading this question:

How should I live?

Now, before you answer this question–ask yourself where you as an individual tend to look for answers to this question: religion or culture? Do you go to church and find there the basic answers to how you should live or do you read a novel or a book of philosophy or a compelling film, for example, and find therein the big answers to the question.

My sense is that how we answer this question for ourselves divides the electorate into two basic groups: (1) people who get the answer to “How should I live?” from some kind of organized religion and (2) people who get the answer to “How should I live?” outside of religion.

It is not a foolproof method, but it does seem to provide a general guideline.

For Republicans who find answers to “How should I live?” in Christianity, a good portion of them initially supported Ted Cruz.  Republican voters guided, by contrast, by more secular and cultural sources tended to be supporters of trump.

As the primary progressed, however, two things happened that changed the dynamic.

First, Cruz supporters switched their focus from “How should I live?” to a more ardent version of this question:

How should my religion make the whole country live?

That is a version of the question that winnows down the pile of Cruz supporters. At the same time, a second development happened: Trump started explicitly telling voters that he answered the question “How should I live?” by consulting the Bible–that he is a big Bible guy.

To many outsiders, Trump’s appeal to voters on the basis that he was religious seemed shallow, fake, phony–and of course it is. Trump is less religious than Leatherface Sawyer on a good day. But Trump’s basic communication to voters that he answers the question by consulting the Bible was enough to assure Christian voters–those not radicalized by Cruz’ more extreme version of the question.

The remaining Trump supporters find answers to the question “How should I live?” in (a) white supremacist discourse and (a) popular get-rich-quick literature–in particular, the version of the get-rich-quick genre found on TV and embodied by Trump.

I have long suspected that one of the reasons Trump is winning is because he has built a coalition that includes one of the most fundamental groups in American culture–one that is almost never identified by political scientists: people who organize their lives according to one or more schemes found in the ‘self-help’ section of the bookstore.  For example, if you have read and consciously live your life by the principles found in George Clason’s 1926 classic The Richest Man in Babylon–you’re a Trump fanatic.


Why is Trump’s support so durable in the face of so many gaffes and offensive statements?

Well, the white supremacists want a racist nativist candidate, so they will never walk away.  The Evangelicals will not abandon Trump because he has told them that he answers the big question by consulting the Bible. The think about Evangelical voters is that they take you at your word and allow for slip ups. All that matters to them is that the candidate keep telling them that he or she goes to the Bible to answer “How should I live?” The candidate can even live in ways flagrantly opposed to their principles and it still holds.

But the last group is the key. For the most part, no matter what Trump does or says, no matter how obnoxious, still seems to feed into the get-rich-quick, devil-may-care ideal type.  The issue is not “political correctness,” but any kind of correctness. All that matters to this group is that Trump embody the maxim that one should live to increase one’s wealth. He does that 24/7.

Curiously, there is has been no real effort to date to show that Trump is a bad role model for the get-rich-quick types.  Trump’s image as a successful deal maker is untarnished.

What’s the opposite of a self-made man in the American imagination?

What’s the opposite of a religious man who answers big questions about his life by consulting the Bible?

What’s the opposite of a white supremacist?

Show Trump to be these opposites–instead of repeatedly pointing out how shocking it is that Trump embodies these ideals–and his support amongst Republicans will likely wain.

“How should I live?” A simple question that plays a big role in the election.


Super Tuesday: The Night is Dark and Full of Terrors

Super Tuesday results will start rolling in over the next few ours and there is no question it will bring a big shift in the emotional and narrative dynamic of the race.

If you are sitting in a Clinton campaign office, you will be a very happy camper for the next 24 hours.  Remember when your favorite major league team finally made it to the playoffs after hiring all the best players, but somehow stumbling time after time in the post season?  That feeling. It will be hard to exaggerate the euphoria in camp Clinton. Clinton liberals will be partying like it’s 1999.  And for good reason. Her pledged delegate count is going to soar, she will have shown that she can stack up wins by significant margins in states key to the general election (e.g., TX and VA), and–most importantly–she can show a campaign filled with enthusiasm. Do not underestimate enthusiasm. It’s about to swing to Clinton–big time.

Sanders is going to have a long night. He will win a few (VT, OK) and place well elsewhere (MA), but he will not win the wave of enthusiasm. Sanders is very good at generating enthusiasm as an underdog. But at around 10pm tonight, the Sanders campaign will suddenly feel–not quite 6 feet under, but…sinking.  The message from the Sanders campaign will be “Breathe…”  There is still a long way to go, but it will feel more uphill than before.

The volcano of hot molten panic, however, will be erupting from one place and one place only, tomorrow: Republican Party Headquarters.

Cruz will probably take TX, giving his off-putting candidacy some steam.  But Super Tuesday will be “yooge” for the man of the hour: Donald Trump. And that means the GOP will start to ratchet up the “oh-my-god-it’s-bigger-than-we-thought-and-it’s-moving-towards-us” panic even more than it did this weekend.  Trump is the  nightmare monster the GOP spent 10 years creating six months ridiculing, and less than one week taking seriously. And after tomorrow, it will be way too late. Trump cannot be stopped by conventional political weapons. Nothing that spills out of his horrible mouth harms his campaign in any way.  Chris Christie, Sarah Palin, Jeff Sessions, former KKK Grand Wizards and even Nation of Islam leaders are all lining up to endorse him. He is golden haired Sith Lord enemy of banking clan Conservatism and multiculturalist Jedi Democrats alike. Nuke the site from orbit? Sling-shot him directly into the sun? The GOP has no idea. Democrats have not even begun to face up to reality.

Trump campaign headquarters will probably be a disturbing place for many Americans, tonight. The campaign will be swarming with people euphoric about a victory for anti-immigrant, anti-government, racist, gun-slinging, birtherism. Stay home. Lock the doors. Tell your children you love them.

And yet…the panic in the GOP will not take long to spread to the Democratic Party.

The problem with Trump winning for the GOP is that he poses an existential threat to the existence of the Republican Party.  A leading candidate who has not even met most members of Congress?  That ship has already hit the iceberg. There’s water rising in the lower decks and it’s cold–so very cold.

The problem with Trump winning for the Democratic Party is different, but no less real: there is no way to know if the candidate Democratic primary voters are choosing has what it takes to bring down the monster powerful enough to slay the Republican establishment.

And there is a long, long time to wait.

Democrats are already bickering over how to beat Trump. Election strategy papers are being circulated. Arguments are brewing. Doors are being slammed. The Democratic Party simply cannot predict what the future will be like if it means going head-to-head with such an unpredictable candidate.

The problem is also that the Democratic Party is weighed down by less-than-nimble campaign consultants and party insiders who have a hard time seeing the reality in front of their faces because they live in the diamond encrusted bubble of Washington DC.  This is even more the case for the Clinton entourage that drifts around in the Davos cloud.

Trump has proven that establishment arrogance is a very easy weakness to exploit. So far, that party arrogance mixed with racism and xenophobia has earned him tens of thousands of Republican voters. Who knows what he has in store for the general election. A softer, kinder anti-establishment centrist conservatism that draws in frustrated Democrats in Ohio, Michigan, Texas and Florida?  Your crystal ball is as good as mine.

So, an early congratulations to the Clinton campaign–enjoy the evening, you earned it!

Chin up! to the Sanders campaign–enjoy a shot of whiskey, there’s still a long way to go.

Godspeed to the GOP–future generations will tell stories about how your party did great things in the 19c, but really messed up after that.

And to the Trump campaign: The night is dark and full of terrors. The lord of light has taken you far, but not far enough–winter is coming.

Is the “Black Vote” a Thing or Not?

Hillary Clinton owned the recent South Carolina primary, delivering a huge victory over Bernie Sanders. She came out on top in every county. Add to that the very large paid staff that Sanders moved into South Carolina and you see something stunning. Shift from New England to the South and Democratic voters swing significantly from Sanders to Clinton.

It’s no secret, here, that we are talking about African-American voters turning out and delivering for Clinton. TPM sums it up this way:

Exit polls showed 6 in 10 voters in Saturday’s South Carolina primary were black. About 7 in 10 said they wanted the next president to continue Obama’s policies, and only about 20 percent wanted a more liberal course of action, according to exit polls conducted by Edison Research for The Associated Press and television networks.

It’s hard to exaggerate the impact of voters who are black, but the question remains as to whether or not the “black vote” is a thing or not–is there such a thing as a cohesive group of African-Americans who turn out to vote in a recognizable pattern?

I’m going to say no and suggest–there is no such thing as a monolithic black vote, despite the first impressions coming out of South Carolina. What we see phrases like “8 out of 10” needs further considering.

First off, following the observations of Steven Thrasher at The Guardian, it would seem there is a big split at the moment between black public intellectuals and black politicians:

The case against Clintonian neoliberalism is compelling. I am glad to see black thinkers making a case for Sanders’ democratic socialism and its potential to address structural racism as an alternative. If anyone is smart enough to effectively make Sanders’ case to black America, it would be the intellectual leaders who have endorsed him thus far.

Take Spike Lee. He is one of the contemporary black geniuses who have helped the nation (and me personally) reconsider race in transformative ways – and the latest to be feeling the Bern. Or Cornel West, who has been stumping for “Brother Bernie” for months. Just as I understood race differently after watching Crooklyn and Jungle Fever, I grew to understand black liberation theology and the radical potential of Christianity by reading West’s books – his influence been immeasurable. And, like much of America, I learned how to better think about the case for reparationsafter Ta-Nehisi Coates made it in the Atlantic. That’s why it matters so much that he said he would vote for Sanders.

Thrasher paints a picture of intellectual leaders who are both conversant in and convinced by Sanders’ critique of neoliberalism as leading a charge against leadership in patron-client relationship with the Clintons. Spike Lee, for example, ran a radio add in South Carolina on behalf of Sanders.  Contrast that to the various black members of Congress who turned out on the stump to show support for Clinton.

The third factor in this equation appears to be the Black Lives Matter movement and the young cohort of new leadership rising up through acts of protest, often individual statements.

Days prior to the South Carolina vote, Ashley Williams confronted Clinton at a fundraiser–demanding that Clinton answer for her use of “super predator” in the 1990s, a term that led to a brutal crackdown of young black men that many view as a product o the inherent racism of the term.

Black Congressional leadership, East and West coast intellectuals and cultural figures, young activists–add to that a variety of community leaders, including mothers of black victims of gun violence and church leaders.  The dynamic is pretty complicated. Anyone who tells you this is a single group needs to get their head checked.

But still, somehow the numbers turned out pretty high for Clinton.  Not a single group, but a huge majority came to a single conclusion.

My suspicion is that the various entities we refer to collectively as the  “black vote” is in active transformation with intellectuals and activists making small gains in South Carolina for a simple reason: they started too late.

Given time, I suspect the popularity of Sanders will start to divide the “black vote” to reflect the same divide in electorate as a whole: roughly fifty-fifty.

The one missing element, which we may or may not see in this election cycle, is a more direct confrontation between activists and elected leadership.

So far, we have seen Black Lives Matters protesters address white leadership, but we have yet to see a BLM protest aimed at black leadership. This is a very complicated step, and I suspect there are conversations ongoing about this topic in a variety of locations. This could be a step that leads to a significant shift in the landscape.

In the meantime, can Clinton’s model of support be reproduced outside of South Carolina? Probably.  And while that does not bode well for Sanders, it is a very good sign for the country as a whole.

All eyes on Super Tuesday.



Corruption vs. Clientelism in the Democratic Primary

One confusion that I see in the Democratic primary has to do with the difference between political corruption and political clientelism. This may seem a bit too academic for a starting discussion on the primary at this stage, but bear with me.

“Corruption” is essentially a quid-pro-quo system. In the most basic example, a person walks into a politicians office and gives them an envelope full of money–throws it on the desk. As the delivery man walks out of the office, he turns to the Congressperson and says, “Vote no on the housing bill.”  That’s the stereotype of corruption in government. I give you money, you do what I tell you to do.

“Clientelism” is a bit different because it is a system whereby patrons and clients act in ways that are mutually beneficial to both–without the explicit quid pro quo, without the smudged brown envelope of sweaty cash.  The big difference between corruption and clientelism is the explicit demand for a political act from the person or entity who wants to influence government. In “corruption” you are paid and then you do what you are asked. In clientism, the politician acts in favor of a powerful interest or entity and then, subsequently, is rewarded.

Now–there are many shades of gray in these two definitions. I have simplified them for the purposes of discussion. And, obviously, clientelism can be rife with acts of corruption, as can corruption give rise to clientelism. But those are the two definitions I want to introduce as a strategy for helping us see a problem that has taken shape in the Democratic primary.

The Sanders campaign is pushing a narrative that Clinton represents and speaks for a system of political corruption, the evidence of which are the enormous and numerous speaking fees she has been paid by firms with vested interest in limiting or ending altogether government regulation (“Wall St.”). In response to this argument, the Clinton campaign has said that there is “no evidence” of any crime–no evidence that any quid pro quo exists. And this has been used to argue that Clinton, despite the huge pile of quarter million dollar checks she’s received from vested interests, is in fact deeply committed to limiting the power and influence of those firms who have cut her these huge speaking fees checks.

And here’s the point I want to introduce to the discussion:

While not guilty of corruption in the explicit sense of quid pro quo, Clinton not only participates in, but actively cultivates patron-client relationships with Wall Street. In the clientelism that Clinton embraces and defends, she claims the American public to be the sole beneficiary via her representation, but she refuses to acknowledge how Wall St. benefits.  And yet, in a patron-client system, both the patron and the client always benefit. Always. That is how it works. In this case: Clinton gets resources to run for office, while Wall Street gets the guarantee that the candidate they gave so much money in one place (e.g., a speech) will tacitly if not explicitly support their views of economic reality in another place (e.g., The White House). It is a long term strategy for both.

Suffice it to say that if a industry seeks to play the long game–seeks to control the rule governing financial sector for the benefit of their firm–then they are much better off seeking to build as many patron-client relationships with government as possible, rather than a few risky acts of corruption.

Goldman Sachs does not want to knock down a few key votes on financial regulation–although it will find ways to do that if necessary.  Rather, Goldman wants to control the universe of common sense that determines which questions get admitted to the overall debate on financial regulation and which questions get dismissed as fools-errands, impossible, or hucksterism.

The issue with the Clinton speaking fees is not that there has been some kind of quid pro quo that will be discovered in the transcripts, I doubt very much that is the case.

Rather, the speaking fees are rewards for being a political career who keeps the debate on financial regulation in the sweet spot for big firms who operate in the dark corners of unregulated, insanely risky, absurdly complex financial products–the success or failure of which hold the entire world economy in the balance.

Secretary Clinton, for all the good work that she has done, has built a career on the belief that she can control these patron-client relationships to benefit the powerless. Yet, she has done so by entering into reciprocal relationships with the powerful–who gain no advantage by legislation that helps the powerless.

To have such powerful clients as Goldman Sachs, who secure their relationships with unfathomably large payments for symbolic services–is to accept both the benefits and the limits of that clientelism. We cannot so easily speak against the interests of the people or entities that bestow so much possibility on us–whose checkbooks make our goals possible.

All those speaking fees that Clinton donated to the Clinton Global Initiative–they made it possible for the Clinton’s enterprise to thrive. And in turn, Hillary Clinton kept the long term debate about the economy away from such potentially devastating topics as: breaking up the banks, prosecuting financial CEOs, and so forth.

Corruption is a problem in government, always. But the problem that must be overcome in the Democratic Party for progressive goals to advance is clientelism–a patron-client system whereby elected Democrats and big money cultivate each other for mutual benefit.

And if ever there was a Presidential candidate who represented that system of clientism–it’s the current front runner of the Democratic Party. As hard as it is to see and to name this, whatever good she has achieved on various fronts–and she has achieved a great deal–it is all tainted at this point by her investment for so long in big money clientelism.

It is a problem that far more people need to call out.

Big Change Happens Precisely When It Seems Impossible

There is an argument floating around in Democratic side of the primary along the lines of “this is not the time when big change can happen.” I have come across it enough to believe that it is a taking point generated by the Clinton campaign. It is a two step argument that runs something like this:

Step 1: I like Sanders’ ideas–I like universal health care, I like the idea of college education for all, I like bold action on prison reform, I like climate change being addressed as a foreign policy issue.

Step 2: Now is not the time for big change.

This particular dynamic in the election narrative reminds me of a big sister holding out a piece of candy to her little brother: “Want a piece?” Just as he reaches for it, she pulls it away. “Sorry! Maybe later.”

It’s a sucker move. A way of dismissing your opponent while seeming to embrace his ideas.

But this argument also floats a big lie–a whopper of a self-deception that Democrats should probably address right now.

This is how I understand it:

For decades, maybe longer, Democrats have been asking why Republicans–particularly low income Republicans–vote against their own economic interests. Why do Republican voters in the Midwest or rural South vote for candidates promising economic policies that will hurt them, instead of help them? It is always a surprise.

Well, the 2016 Democratic primary is a case study in why Democratic voters support candidates who vote against their interests.

Voter after voter in this election is saying that they like and want the policies that Bernie Sanders is advocating. I have come across hardly any Clinton supporters who come out and say that they do not like what Sanders is advocating. Most say that they are passionately in favor of Sanders’ platform.

But then they do something absolutely remarkable: They say that it cannot be done because people in government tell them it is not possible.

I cannot remember a more straightforward example of people voting against their own interests–arguing against the very things they want.

Why are they doing it?

They are doing it because they accept a very simple idea presented to them by the very people responsible for passing legislation: that change happens slowly, that it cannot happen in the face of adversity.

But this is not true.

Quite often in our history, big change happens precisely at the times when it seems most impossible–when opposition seems absurdly intractable.

We live in a country with widespread homophobia, widespread discrimination against LGBT Americans, ongoing violence–and it is at this time in our history that we passed sweeping marriage equality laws and opened up the military.

At a time when the United States was in both its laws and its attitudes far more racist against African-Americans than it is, today–it was precisely in that time that huge strides were made in civil rights legislation.

Women were given the right to vote in an era when most women did not work outside the home, when a vast majority of men in America thought women were not intellectually capable of voting, and there were hardly any laws promoting or protecting women’s equality. That is when big change happened.

And on, and on.

My point is not to suggest that passing universal healthcare for all Americans or making sweeping reform in our racist criminal justice system or changing laws so that young people seeking a college education are not buried in debt for life before they start–I am not saying that any of these is morally equal to earlier, symbolic civil rights milestones.  I am simply pointing out that big change happens not after society shifts to make room for gradual movement in our policies. It happens in the face of opposition–it happens precisely because people stand up and demand it against all odds. And then more people stand up. And more, and more, and more.

When Democratic voters tell me that “now is not the time” for change–I can only point to those Republican voters who support what they do not want and say: you have become like that. You are saying that you want something, but stopping yourself from demanding it because someone in power is telling you to give up.

I do not not know what it will take to pass universal healthcare.  I am not clairvoyant. None of us are.  But so long as there is a majority in the Democratic Party who accept the logic “we can’t do it now”–then it will never happen. We must be willing to demand what we want in the face of what seems like impossible conditions.  That is precisely when big change happens. The same is true for every big area where change is desperately needed, today.

So, we should stop accepting the argument from people in office. We should stop agreeing with people who tell us that “right now” they cannot do what we want them to do–we should stop accepting that we need to wait. We should reject that argument.

Instead, we should choose what you want for a change and–most importantly–start to  believe it can happen right now.

If we do that, then we will be supporting the very policies that we want and acting in our own interests as of this very moment.


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