How Did Trump Earn an Unprecedented Progressive Backlash?

Celebrities, academics, and journalists have publicly threatened or imagined decapitating Donald Trump, blowing him up in the White House, shooting him, hanging him, clubbing him, and battering his face. They have compared him to Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin. And some have variously accused him of incestuous relations with his daughter and committing sex acts with Vladimir Putin, while engaging in some sort urination-sex in a hotel in Moscow.

Yet all this and more is often alleged to be the singular dividend of Trump’s own crudity, as if his own punching back at critics created the proverbial progressive “climate of fear” or “climate of hate” that prompted such uncharacteristic venom.

In truth we are back to 2004-2008, when the Left did to George W. Bush what it is now doing to Donald Trump.

Assassination? Alfred A. Knopf published Nicholson Baker’s novel, Checkpoint, about characters fantasizing how to kill Bush. A guest columnist in the Guardian, Charlie Brooker, wrote to his British readers on the eve of the election fearing that if Bush were reelected, there would be no assassin to shoot him: “John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley Jr.—where are you now that we need you?”

Do we remember filmmaker Gabriel Range’s Death of a President,” the docudrama about Bush’s assassination that was a favorite at the Toronto Film Festival? Cindy Sheehan wrote she wished to go back into time to kill a younger Bush before he could be president.

Trump as Hitler or Mussolini is a Bush retread. Well before Trump, everyone got into the fascist/Nazi act, from Sens. Robert Byrd and John Glenn to celebrities like Linda Ronstadt and Garrison Keillor.

Hate? Jonathan’s Chait infamous New Republic article began: “I hate President George W. Bush. There, I said it.”

Do we remember the delusions of Howard Dean, who foamed, “I hate the Republicans and everything they stand for”?

Even decapitation chic is not new. After Bush left office, his detached head appeared on a stake in an episode of “Game of Thrones”; had they tried the same with Barack Obama, the hit show would have gone off the air.

Yet there is one difference. The Bush Administration, to paraphrase Michelle Obama, went high as progressives went low, and thus chose not to respond in kind. The result in part was that a battered Bush accordingly left office demonized, with a scant 34 percent approval rating.

The difference with Trump hatred is not some unique intensity or prior provocation, but rather Trump’s singular counter-punching. It may not be traditionally presidential, but the Trump mode is to nuke those who first attacked him, in an effort to create a sort of deterrence. CNN, to take one example, or Barack Obama to take another, at least knows that their smug, chic Trump putdowns will receive a reply in a manner that is neither smug nor chic. Trump in Samson fashion is quite willing to pull the temple down on top of himself, if it means his enemies perish first.

Is Trump Pushing an Extremist Agenda?
Trump’s agenda so far is an encapsulation of various conservative initiatives of prior presidents. Remember, Trump did not promise to make “America great” but rather “American great again.”

His emphases on drilling and energy development hark back to the Nixon-Ford-Carter dream of “energy independence.” Long before Barack Obama’s precious “We can’t just drill our way out of the problem,” there were presidential efforts to promote fossil fuel autonomy; Trump, however, may become the first president to see it actually occur.

His efforts to close the border and end illegal immigration are similar to what Bill and Hillary Clinton used to promise in their respective campaigns. Americans then and now approve of ending illegal immigration and deporting illegal aliens who have committed crimes or ignored past requests for court appearances.

What was radical was not Trump’s immigration agenda but Obama’s earlier efforts to nullify federal immigration law while promoting sanctuary cities that openly defied the federal government in the antebellum nullification style of 19th-century South Carolina.

Trump is trying to resurrect Reagan’s radical tax cuts and deregulation, albeit in a dangerous age in which his predecessor had doubled the debt in just eight years and left us $20 trillion in the hole. When traditional liberal stimuli—huge annual deficits, near-zero interest, and massive federal spending—fail to achieve 3 percent economic growth, it is time to try free-market alternatives rather than more of the same.

In matters of race, sex, and religion, the old liberal idea was to encourage assimilation, integration, and intermarriage—the melting pot idea of Martin Luther King, Jr., who emphasized the irrelevance of skin color in comparison to the content of our characters. Again, what is radical is the Democratic veer to the hard left, and its mantra that Americans supposedly owe allegiance to their particular tribe first, and second, if at all, to the shared commonwealth.

Trump is a traditionalist as well as a conservative. He is hated not because he is proposing radical new solutions, but because he believes that the last eight years were deviant and not characteristic of the American experiment. Praising the idea of the traditional West in Poland is presidential; praising underappreciated Western debts to Islam while in Cairo is un-presidential.

Is Trump for the Wealthy and the Elite?
Democrats, as is their wont, have tried to taint Trump as callous and indifferent to the plight of the underclass in his attempts to reform a failed Obamacare that raised rates and premiums and often lowered the quality of coverage.

So far, the typical Democratic gambit of painting Republicans as out-of-touch rich people (remember John McCain’s various homes and Mitt Romney’s elevator) has not worked because Trump has marketed himself as a populist intent on restoring small-town, rural, inner-city, and forgotten America. No Democratic politician has used the plural possessive in reference to constituencies—“our miners, our farmers, our vets, or ever talked of fair trade in terms of the individual in need of a job and respect rather than big-time unions and donors to the Democratic Party.

Trump may be a Manhattan billionaire, but he connects with the lower middle-classes in a far more natural fashion than did either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton—or any of the presumed future Democratic candidates. Trump can be vicious to elites, but it is difficult to imagine him writing off millions of Americans as hopelessly irredeemable and deplorable or pathetic clingers to their guns and religion.

Some criticize Trump’s renegotiation of trade deals as protectionist, or his efforts not to get in another ground war in the Middle East as isolationist, or his promise to close the border and make immigration strictly a legal and meritocratic enterprise as restrictionist or nativist; but they cannot argue that such proposals were aimed at elite interests rather than crafted to help American workers, or that they do not have majority public support.

It will be harder to demonize Trump as a callous Paul Ryan or Mitt Romney, largely because his entire message is aimed at the old base of the Democratic Party, the working classes of the red states in between the affluent coastal blue corridors.

Have We Had a Cruder President?
Trump is certainly blunt and sometimes crude. But so far that excess is a matter of rhetoric not behavior. He is not John F. Kennedy seducing teenagers in the White House swimming pool. He is not Bill Clinton performing sex acts in the Oval Office bathroom with a 22-year subordinate intern—and then when caught trying simultaneously to lie about it and ruin her.

Trump can be blunt, but then so was Barack Obama when he called for supporters to get in the faces of opponents, to punish “enemies” at the polls, and to take guns to knife fights—while lecturing Americans about their laziness and high-horse Christianity or blinkered efforts to cling to their guns and religion. So far Trump has not joked, as did Obama, about using drones to assassinate would-be suitors of his kids or ridiculed the Tea Party with the homophobic slur “tea-baggers.”

Isn’t Trump Doomed to Fail?
Not so fast. Almost every Trump initiative so far—more energy development, tax reform, deregulation, an end to illegal immigration, luring capital and jobs back into the United States, renegotiating trade deals, realist deterrence abroad, and mockery of political correctness—earns wide public approval.

Trump isn’t running in a vacuum. He is competing against two quite unpopular entities—the media and the new progressive Democratic Party.

Obama has ushered in a disastrous McGovern-like hard left deviance from the Democratic Party. And the medicine—a Bill Clinton like centrism—is now seen as worse than the illness of losing over 1,000 elections during the Obama tenure. The Democrat nominee in 2020 may make the selection of John Kerry in 2004 against a supposedly doomed George W. Bush look inspired.

The problem with the Democratic Party can be summed up in the strange odyssey of Bernie Sanders. Formerly a weird, hard-Left socialist outlier, Sanders became iconic of the new party by his assault on inequality and his calls for massive government intervention to share the wealth.

But if a self-acclaimed socialist can earn a $1 million a year while on the government payroll, own three tony homes, and have his wife under FBI investigation for mismanaging and bankrupting a college and leaving with a lucrative golden parachute (and perhaps on the way out, evicting the disabled from her college’s new digs), then no progressive is immune from the new Democratic stereotype of talking socialist while living hyper-capitalist.

Figures like Mark Zuckerberg, George Soros, Jeff Bezos, and other Silicon Valley and Wall Street grandees are the not the Democratic pathway to rebuilding the blue wall. So far Trump has so positioned himself that most attacks on his agenda reflect the parochial concerns of privileged progressives rather than those of hoi polloi. Every time a MSNBC talking head, a NeverTrump New York pundit, an identity politics functionary, a Hollywood celebrity, a campus Pajama Boy, a Silicon Valley master of the universe, or a Democrat functionary attacks Trump, he ends up sounding either snobbish, hypocritical, or parochial—and thereby energizes the Trump populist message.

For now, Democrats are running against Trump the messenger who supposedly has lowered the bar on presidential behavior; they cannot run against his message, largely because they have none of their own, and the Trump agenda is both popular and seen as a return to what used to be the normal way Americans governed themselves.

Separate Trump the president from Trump the media ogre, and then most of his policies seem traditionally conservative, logical, popular, a return to normality, and a much needed corrective to the past eight years, which is the true lost era.

What is weird is not Trump the ex-reality TV star and tabloid sensation, but his critics who cannot separate the man from message—much less concede that just possibly Trump might succeed because, not despite, who he is.

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