How populism is pulling America’s parties apart

David Frum and Peter Beinart weigh in on the forces transforming both Democrats and Republicans

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump delivers a speech during the evening session on the fourth day of the Republican National Convention on July 21, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump received the number of votes needed to secure the party's nomination. An estimated 50,000 people are expected in Cleveland, including hundreds of protesters and members of the media. The four-day Republican National Convention kicked off on July 18. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Donald Trump delivers a speech during the evening session on the fourth day of the Republican National Convention on July 21, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. (John Moore/Getty Images)

No matter the outcome, this much is clear: on Nov. 8, Americans will elect a president that the majority of Americans dislike. It’s not just the usual cross-party disenchantment—large swaths of the Democratic base have mixed and tepid feelings for Hillary Clinton, and all sorts of Republicans are appalled Donald Trump carries their Grand Old Party standard. Seldom have the connective tissues between party and party candidate been so frail. Ahead of their discussion at the Lind Initiative series on U.S. politics at the University of British Columbia, we spoke to leading voices on America’s uneasy right and restless left. David Frum is a former George W. Bush speechwriter and a fellow at the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute. Peter Beinart is former editor of The New Republic, a liberal magazine. Both currently write for The Atlantic.

David Frum on the disconnect on the right that gave rise to Trump

Q: What’s it like being an anti-Trump Republican these days?

A: It’s certainly a disorienting experience. One of the questions I often get asked is, “Were you surprised that Trump won?” I always answer the same way: “I was surprised, I am surprised and I will never stop being surprised.”

Q: Why? Because Trump is so unlike a Republican?

A: It’s the sheer improbability of it. He’s not just unlike a Republican, he’s unlike a presidential candidate. The whole elaborate presidential process is designed to screen out people like Donald Trump. And that process broke down in ways quite unlike anything in the recent experience of the United States. Maybe unlike anything in any of the history of the United States.

Q: You once wrote that Trump’s nomination was an “opportunistic infection” of a sick Republican Party.

A: The system has evolved to protect parties from people like Donald Trump. It really is true that people without well-established public records, without proven capability in public service, without tested beliefs and at least apparently under the influence of a foreign power, such people are screened out by major parties.

Henry Wallace was Franklin Roosevelt’s vice-president in his second to last term. Henry Wallace’s pro-Soviet sympathies became more and more obvious and Roosevelt’s health was failing. So the Democratic Party in 1944 removed Henry Wallace as vice-president and put in Harry Truman instead because they sensed it was quite likely that Roosevelt would die in the next term and they were not going to let Henry Wallace become president of the United States.

So that’s how the system works.

Q: How did it break down in such an extreme way with Trump?

A: In early 2015, as the Republican field took form, there were ultimately 16 candidates of whom at least half were reasonably serious, reasonably well known, reasonably well funded. Most of them, except maybe Ben Carson, converged on some very similar answers to the problems of the country. They had endorsed Paul Ryan’s economic plan of big tax cuts and big entitlement cuts. They had accepted the 2013 autopsy that said all of the Republican Party’s problems could be explained by the fact that it didn’t support a permissive enough immigration policy.

So you had a party whose members wanted more secure health care, less immigration, fewer wars and no more Bushes. And what the party was offering them was less secure health care, twice as much immigration, more wars and another Bush. No wonder there was a mutiny.

Q: That’s a party that seems to be in a tortured state. Which side there represents the true Republican Party?

A: Trump got the largest group of Republican voters by promising that he would protect Medicare, protect Social Security, do something about wages—and that’s not just a working-class problem, wages have stalled for the lower 80 per cent of the population, not just the lower third—and he would restrain immigration.

The heart-rending tragedy in all this is there were elements in Trump’s message that need to be heard, to the extent that he has stances on the issues. Many of his stances are wise—if they were articulated by somebody else. The answers are being offered by someone who is completely irresponsible and dangerously ignorant and hostile to the constitutional system of the United States.

Q: Was there a political savvy in Trump or did he just stumble onto this?

A: How it happened I don’t know. But Donald Trump, as a businessman, he’s not much of a builder and he’s not much of dealmaker and he certainly isn’t very good at making expenses line up with income. But he is a marketing genius. He must have seen an empty market niche that no one but him filled.

Q: What about his supporters then, because there are a lot of them

A: Well, not enough.

Q: In Canada there is a not-uncommon view that these people are mainly dumb white people.

A: Canadians are going to have a hard time understanding American politics right now for two reasons. Reason one: over the past decade and a half the developed country on Earth where the middle class has done best is Canada. The United States is toward the bottom of those 25 or so developed countries in the OECD for how its middle class has done.

So right off the bat, Canadians aren’t going to get it. The Canadian middle class is under less pressure than any other middle class in any developed country on the planet. So they feel good. They feel optimistic. They feel secure.

The second gap is the Canadian experience with immigration has been dramatically more successful than the American experience. Immigrants to Canada are highly skilled, highly educated. They come from many different countries, so they rapidly assimilate to English or French. They intermarry rapidly. They are way less likely to commit crimes than the native-born. They are crucial to the growth of the economy and technological innovation. And so Canadians say, “What’s the problem?”

The Americans have very different experiences with both those things. And so their politics are a lot more frantic and hard-edged and insecure than Canadian politics are.

Q: Looking at Trump’s supporters, what defines them beyond their maleness, whiteness and lack of education?

A: Donald Trump supporters, it should be stressed, are more affluent and more educated than the typical American. They are less affluent and less educated than the typical Republican.

Everyone is rightly praising a wonderful book called Hillbilly Elegy, about the really hard-pressed people of Appalachia. Those people have dropped out [of the political process]. The typical Trump primary voter was a high-status man in a low-status place—more economically anxious than economically insecure. They might be for trade protection but they are not union people.

Q: What do you think will happen on Nov. 8, and what will become of the Republican Party?

A: In the probable event that Trump loses, Republicans will descend into a fierce and multi-sided debate over what went wrong and what to do next. There will be Trump loyalists. There will be self-described true conservatives who will insist that nothing is wrong with the party that a more purist ideology cannot fix. The K Street/Chamber of Commerce Republicans will very likely insist that what is good for them—tax cuts and cheap labour—is the path to political salvation for the party.

My own hope is that the party will be able to sift through the wreckage and rescue the important truths Trump stumbled over—that Republicans also care about health coverage; that the U.S. today needs less immigration, not more—from the disaster that is Donald Trump the man and candidate.

Q: Could the party recover for the next election, or eight years from now?

A: I can’t predict how long. Frankly, I thought the two defeats of 2008 and 2012 would be lesson enough about the need for [the Republican Party] to reinvent itself as a culturally modern and economically inclusive party of the centre right.

Q:  Have you ever considered abandoning the Republican Party? 

A: We all have crazy thoughts in the middle of the night.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton hugs U.S. President Barack Obama as she arrives onstage at the end of his speech on the third night of the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S., July 27, 2016. (Jim Young/Reuters)

Hillary Clinton hugs U.S. President Barack Obama as she arrives onstage at the end of his speech on the third night of the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S., July 27, 2016. (Jim Young/Reuters)

Peter Beinart on the challenges Clinton faces from the left

Q: You call the Democrats the more conservative of the two parties—that Clinton has pledged no policy changes to significantly shake up domestic or foreign affairs. What, if anything, makes you enthusiastic or encouraged by a Clinton presidency?

A: I don’t find Hillary Clinton all that personally inspiring. I found the figure of Barack Obama inspiring, just as the guy on my television screen every day. I don’t feel that as much about Hillary Clinton, although obviously having a female president is a tremendous milestone. Where the opportunity comes with Hillary Clinton is that she will be able to move the Supreme Court. The potential of appointing a couple of Supreme Court justices, or maybe even three, means you could have a liberal majority on the Supreme Court, which we have not had since I was a child. That will only be possible if she wins. If the Democrats have big victories in Congress—and because of the position the Republican Party will end up being in after this—there may be an opportunity to do some really valuable things. Especially, I think, about infrastructure. Because the infrastructure in the U.S. is lousy, and because you can borrow money so cheaply, and Trump himself supported infrastructure spending. Maybe you could get a big infrastructure plan through.

Q: I almost feel like you answered if my question was: What would excite you about a generic Democrat winning? I wonder if that says something about how one feels about Clinton.

A: She’s a very capable, conscientious person. I think she cares very deeply about policy. She knows a lot about how the government works, and I think those things are very important. You don’t really appreciate those things until you get a guy like George W. Bush in the White House, and then you realize that when you don’t have someone who knows or cares about government policy, a lot of bad stuff can happen. The path that she’s charting is by necessity—and understandably so—a continuation and a little bit of an acceleration of the path that we’ve already seen under Barack Obama.

Q: How is she an acceleration of Barack Obama?

A: She’s an acceleration because the terms of the debate have moved left. You can certainly see that on an issue like criminal justice reform. You can see it on immigration, where she doesn’t really even have to pay lip service to the idea of the deportations that he did. You can see it on the debate on Wall Street. Not on foreign policy—the political currents will probably push her to be a little more hawkish than Obama. On domestic policy, one of the major stories in American politics has been the growing ideological and political self-confidence of the Democratic Party, and the growing ideological and political pessimism of the Republican Party.

Q: She had to pivot left for Sanders. Should she be doing anything more to respond to Trump?

A: There would be no purpose for her really to pivot to the centre on issues of criminal justice, in an environment where there’s not that many swing voters and you need African-American turnout. I think that this is part of the confidence that exists in the Democratic Party today, is that I don’t think there’s the same feeling of a need to pivot to the centre in the way there was a decade or two decades ago.

Q: Will the insurgent wing of the Democratic Party be happy with a Clinton presidency?

A: They’ll challenge her a lot from the left. There’s more of a left to challenge her than there was under Barack Obama. Black Lives Matter wasn’t there, Elizabeth Warren wasn’t there, Bernie Sanders wasn’t the Bernie Sanders of today. I think that they will be more effective in moving her politically, partly I think because the Democratic Party is bigger and stronger, and also Obama came in with this idea that he could do a lot of stuff in a bipartisan way. My guess will be that Hillary Clinton won’t necessarily think as much in those terms.

Q: According to a Gallup poll in August, only 56 per cent of Democrats are happy Clinton is the nominee. If that’s the case, and Trump voters dislike her so intensely, what does that mean for how a Clinton presidency will be received?

A: In part, it depends on the economy, if the recovery really starts to translate to people in a way it hasn’t yet. That will really boost her popularity regardless of personal stuff. I do believe that her gender weighs heavily on public perception of her. There’s a ton of academic literature that shows people are much more critical of female leaders than they are of male leaders. They’re much less tolerant of female ambition, much more threatened by female power. I don’t think you can explain Hillary Clinton’s level of unpopularity, which is epic, among white men—much higher levels of unpopularity than we saw with Obama in 2008 or John Kerry in 2004—without basically a heavy dollop of public hostility to the idea of a woman in that kind of position.

Q: A lot can happen in the next couple of months. How does the left respond or reorganize in response to a Trump presidency?

A: Oh gosh. I don’t even really know how to think about it. I’m thinking of analogies maybe I shouldn’t use. But it’s kind of like a politically unthinkable event. It’s almost like saying how is the Tory party going to respond to a pro-Brexit vote? It was a leap into the dark. What you could say is the Democrats would be in militant opposition to Trump. What you would see would be some kind of efforts to restrain Trump’s power, and to try to enforce the norms of the relationship between the president and the other branches of government that could constrain what the president could do. There would be a lot of people looking to the Supreme Court, and to the military, and to Congress, in order to try to kind of box Trump in and prevent him from doing really dangerous stuff.

Q: The military! Are we talking Turkey here?

A: Not a coup, but the military always pushes back. People in the military said they would not follow an order to torture. They pushed back against Obama when Obama wanted to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in 2009. They pushed back hard against Bill Clinton, effectively, when he wanted to have gays in the military in 1993. I think there will be public support and elite support for the military trying to basically constrain Trump, to pressure him into not doing crazy things about American nuclear policy or NATO. It might end up being that Trump, because he doesn’t understand how to be president at all, you have a situation like you did under [George W.] Bush, where you have experienced people like [Dick] Cheney and [Donald] Rumsfeld who end up wielding a lot of influence. People on the left will be in a period of unprecedented trauma. Not only people on the left.

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