Our Loveless Politics

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Donald Trump’s marathon address at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) really brought it home to me: Our president is a narcissistic celebrity who craves the adulation of crowds in order to fill an emotional void. As David Brooks put it recently:

I often wonder who didn’t love Donald Trump. I often wonder who left an affection void that he has tried to fill by winning attention, which is not the same thing….

In turning himself into a brand he’s turned himself into a human shell, so brittle and gilded that there is no place for people close to him to attach. His desperate attempts to be loved have made him unable to receive love.

Imagine what your own life would be like if you had no love in it, if you were just using people and being used. Trump, personifying the worst elements in our culture, is like a providentially sent gong meant to wake us up and direct us toward a better path.

I don’t actually want to engage in too much psychoanalysis. I’m a sociologist, not a psychiatrist, and psychoanalysis from a distance is a questionable enterprise anyway.

But assuming that the numerous critiques along these lines have some validity, I want to ask a more political question. What does it say about the Republican base that they overwhelmingly support a president with such deficiencies?

Over the years, Trump has vacillated between the Democratic and Republican parties, having no deeper party affiliation than he has political or moral convictions. But I would argue that only the Republican party could nominate him and elect him president, although he did need some Democratic and independent votes to get him to his electoral college victory.

The emotional divide

Why don’t I believe that the Democrats could elect a Trump? For starters, today’s Democrats are the party that actually cares about the well-being of people and of nature. They are the party of human rights, and the dignity of labor, and aid to the poor, and universal health insurance, and protection of the environment. It became obvious to most Democrats early on that Donald Trump doesn’t give a hoot about such things. Democrats insist that their candidates share their deepest aspirations. That’s why it’s often been said that Democratic voters “fall in love,” while Republicans just “fall in line.” Democrats are the party of heart, which Republicans caricature when they attack them as “bleeding hearts,” military “doves”, advocates for the “nanny state,” or “soft on crime.”

No party is above criticism, of course, and the history of the Democratic party is replete with many forms of cruelty or corruption. One only has to think of racism in the Democratic “solid South” or machine politics in the big cities. Nevertheless, Democrats deserve a lot of credit for embracing recent idealistic movements such as civil rights, gender equality, environmentalism, consumer protection, and LGBTQ rights, as well as continuing their support for the struggling labor movement.

If in this era, Democrats have become the party of love and justice, what does that make Republicans, the party of hate and injustice? That would be unfair. At their best, Republicans have advocated a kind of “tough love,” challenging individuals to pull their own weight, earn whatever rewards they receive, and make it without expecting too much of government. If the playing field were level and the rewards forthcoming for those who worked hard, that wouldn’t be so bad.

But toward the end of the last century, the Republican party discovered that it could get votes by encouraging and supporting resistance to the new social movements. That has led Republicans to do some mean-spirited things, such as gut the Voting Rights Act and pass legislation designed to make it harder for the poor and minorities to vote. Around the same time, the mid-twentieth-century economic boom gave way to a period of slower economic growth and rising inequality. Under conditions of globalization and technological change, many businesses found that they could prosper while eliminating or exporting good jobs. A winning strategy for Republicans has been to protect economic elites from high taxes and regulation, while stoking popular fears of change. They warn that the immigrants and minorities are coming for your jobs; the government wants to raise your taxes; liberals want to take away your religious freedom (to discriminate against gay people); and so forth. Even before Trump, Republicans were encouraging a kind of zero-sum thinking that is the enemy of the American Dream. If the minorities, or liberated women, or environmentalists win, you lose.

A darker politics

Ronald Reagan was no liberal, but he at least had an optimistic vision of America. If everyone would pull their weight and rely less on government, we could all prosper together. Trump has completed the Republican transition to a darker, more pessimistic politics. He bases his appeal much more overtly on anger and hatred, carefully channeling it toward groups that are trying to overcome historical obstacles to advancement. He pretends to identify with the complaints of ordinary working people while continuing the policies that protect the wealthy, as well as advancing his own family’s economic interests at home and abroad.

Trump’s relationship with his adoring crowds is the latest incarnation of the odd relationship between the donor class and the Republican base. It is essentially a relationship between wealthy people who are indifferent to the plight of ordinary workers, and working-class whites fearful of cultural and economic change. I’m sure that the latter get some kind of emotional high when they’re chanting “Lock her up!” or “Build the wall!” But that is not the same as having leaders who really care about you and are designing policies to address your real problems. And surely there cannot be too much love lost between a politician who flouts the Ten Commandments and the evangelical Christians who are among the most reliable Republican voters. That’s a shallow transactional relationship if there ever was one.

No, today’s Republican coalition seems at most a loveless marriage of convenience for which a loveless president is well suited. How long can this marriage last?

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