Beware the Ides of March!

During my brief, doomed stint at Akron University in the fall of 1998, I knew this one guy (whose name I cannot now recall) who would get wasted on the weekends, and you could see him staggering across the green crying “St. Ides got me by the baaaaaalls!” St. Ides malt liquor is one of the more famous beverages sold in 40 ounce bottles – Olde English is also fairly well known. In the depths of my days as a serious alcoholic, Steel Reserve was my drink of choice, as it could reliably obliterate all sense of coherence.

I have a feeling – a hunch- this Tuesday, March 15th, could be something of a turning point in this years already unusual election. Yesterday saw several interesting developments, which I briefly summarized in the day’s blog entry. Today I would like to explore them a bit more, each in turn, and perhaps let my mind wander a little while I’m at it.

One: Hillary Clinton’s Gaffe

First, let us consider Hillary Clinton’s unfortunate statement about Nancy Reagan and the AIDS epidemic. German Lopez at Vox put together a pretty good summary of how that Clinton might have made the mistake in the first place, with ample evidence from HIV/AIDS activist Garance Franke-Ruta’s Twitter feed explaining how different the world of 1980s was, and reminding us that Clinton was part of a Democratic establishment which, at the time, was far removed from the epidemic. This for me underscores several important things about where Hillary Clinton comes from, and where we are now.

In the 1980s, when the AIDS epidemic emerged and decimated the gay community in the United States, Hillary Clinton was the first lady of Arkansas. I’ve never been to Arkansas, but but trying to image it in the 1980s conjures up something like a third world country. Changes in agriculture in the 1970s and 80s had important consequences for the Mississippi delta region Arkansas, which was at one time a major cotton growing region.  The rise of Tyson Foods and Wal-Mart in the northwest corner of the State transformed that area into a major trucking center. While the Arkansas economy saw growth in this period, with average incomes rising from half to three-quarters of the national average, the overall effect was a realignment of the States’ political establishment. The Clintons were part of that change.arkpcpi

These charts come from data taken from the BEA website. Straight up per capita GDP for Arkansas was not available, so I had to make do with PCPI, which is not quite the same. Interesting that personal incomes really don’t take off until the 1970s. But the main point is borne out by the chart on the right, which shows that Arkansas prosperity relative to the rest of the country improved considerably from 1940 until 1980, and then leveled off around 75% of the national average. Notice how New York’s relative income rises sharply in the 1980s in relation to Arkansas – I’m not sure why this is, but it certainly jumps right out in the data. The point is that Arkansas is a poor state, with a long history of underdevelopment relative to the rest of the country.

Between 1955 and 1967, the governor of Arkansas was Democrat Orville Faubus (immortalized in the Charles Mingus composition “Fables of Faubus“) and famous for his refusal to desegregate the Arkansas public schools.  Faubus was defeated in the 1966 elections by Winthrop Rockefeller, grandson of John D., and son of John D. Jr., who was exemplary of the moderate, reform minded Rockefeller Republicans. The young Bill Clinton was elected just a dozen years later, defeated after a single term, and then re-elected in 1982, and serving until he was elected President in 1992. Despite being in the midst of economic and political transition, Arkansas was still a deeply conservative state. In 1981, both houses of the legislature condemned a non-credit course offered at the University of Arkansas Little Rock on “Understanding Homosexuality”. And because of his defeat in 1980 – the year of Reagan’s election, and the emergence of movement conservatism on the national state – the reform minded Clinton would become more cautious after 1982, and, with most of the Arkansas Democratic establishment, remained ambivalent towards the AIDS crisis and issues of concern to the gay community throughout his governorship, although he was instrumental in establishing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule in the US military early in his Presidency.

Hillary led the study group that recommended changes implemented to Arkansas funding of public schools in 1983 – a foreshadowing of her later activism as First Lady. Much has been written about this period of the Clintons, and I haven’t read all that much of it, although now I feel as if it might be worth looking into. Nowadays, the world of the 1980s seems far off, almost foreign. It seems, at least to me, small wonder that people who came of age in that era might long for a simpler time now. And it is equally obvious why millennials might be so easily turned off by attitudes formed in a more conservative era. The disconnect is fascinating though. In reading up on Arkansas, it was also really interesting to me that a side effect of the establishment of Tyson and industrial meat packing in the state led to a major influx of Latinos in the 1990s, altering the demographics considerably. Spanish speaking businesses sprang up in Arkansas, and even Wal-Mart began carrying products aimed at Latino consumers. Its odd to me that the backlash happening now seems so strongly tied to changes that occurred twenty years ago, but I think that has to do with how people perceive change, and how reaction and resentment can build slowly over time.

Putting all that aside, what makes Hillary’s gaffe yesterday so difficult to deal with is that most people now don’t really care about all the stuff I just said, just like they don’t care about how any of her positions have changed over time. It’s just one more piece of evidence that she is part of an establishment of oppression. Trying to explain her positions just makes you look like you’re one of them. Supporting Hillary Clinton means you are part of the problem and its hard to live with that. And she even wrote a long post on Medium today (although I suppose the cynics will just assume one of her aides wrote it, but whatever) in which she states unequivocally:

To be clear, the Reagans did not start a national conversation about HIV and AIDS. That distinction belongs to generations of brave lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, along with straight allies, who started not just a conversation but a movement that continues to this day.

A friend of mine pointed out on the ‘book earlier today that the fact that she has apologized, acknowledged her error, and sought to make amends should be a sign of maturity as a politician. Politicians should be able to make mistakes – because they will make them – and Americans should be able to forgive them. But I know only too well that that’s seldom how it works. And the selfish part of me just doesn’t want to have to defend her against people who I fear will deem me a bigot, a supporter of discrimination and oppression, merely for supporting her candidacy.

Two: Trump versus Chicago

Rich Miller, who writes the indispensable Illinois political blog Capitol Fax (which started out as a newsletter, back in the pre-internet days), observed that two distinct narratives arose from yesterday’s Trump rally shutdown at the UIC Pavillion.  The story from the pro-Trump camp was that the protesters who showed up at the rally effectively shut down freedom of speech itself, with law enforcement making the decision to pull the plug on the event when concerns of violence became too great. The authorities at UIC and the Chicago Police Department, however, have said publicly that they had nothing to do with the shut down, and that the event was canceled by its organizers. This makes me wonder if what we are seeing is yet another masterful manipulation of the media by the Trump campaign – say what you will about his politics (or lack thereof), Trump’s ability to control the media narrative has been awesome (in a terrifying way), in my view. Especially in the last couple of months. The “press conferences” he’s held following some of the primaries are master classes in how to control the news media. His rally in St. Louis earlier on Friday was heavily protested – in particular, the protests of black activists were intense, as Trump’s campaign has come to represent the racist oppression that has roiled the area in recent years – and it is possible that he simply did not have the stomach to face the crowds assembling in Chicago. However, by calling off the event he may also be furthering his own narrative – that political correctness is what’s holding America back. In this way, he would be able to reflect the anger of the protesters back at them. The Trump campaign is essentially reactionary – it isn’t for anything. It’s against whatever makes people angry. It’s no problem for him to simply say to his supporters “You see? They won’t even let us speak. They are violating our First Amendment rights.”

Trump is becoming the most interesting political candidate in a generation. Josh Marshall, of Talking Points Memo, wrote a fascinating piece about the 2011 Grand Harmonic Convergence – basically, he recalls the 2011 Correspondents Dinner at which Obama, who would announce the killing of Osama bin Laden the very next day, was almost impossibly cool, rattling off jokes with expert comic timing, and in particular making fun of Trump, who was there that night. Marshall theorizes that it was that very night that Trump became inspired to run for President – he registered the phrase “Make America Great Again” in November 2012, immediately following Romney’s defeat – because he wanted to be taken seriously.

The Upshot blog at the New York Times has a really wonderful breakdown on “The Geography of Trumpism” – he’s popular with folks who voted for George Wallace back in 1968, which is the nearest parallel to his campaign I can think of, and an important distinction from comparisons to Goldwater’s ill-fated 1964 campaign. The 1964 election always brings to mind the chilling “Daisy Girl” ad from the Johnson campaign, which aired only once, but was highly effective in underscoring the importance of the President’s function as Commander-in-Chief. Goldwater was more of an isolationist, and by ’64, the country was at war with the Communists in Vietnam. Positions regarding the military are often a major blind spot for the left – some parts of the country have been traditionally anti-war, while others – the South in particular – are almost always eager to get involved in military action. This aspect of American politics is ignored at one’s peril. This is, ironically, one way in which Clinton is actually stronger than Trump, at least in my view. Because of her experience as Secretary of State, she will be likely considered the more trustworthy candidate by the national security establishment. Trump is a loose cannon, and Sanders is a peacenik.

Earlier today, I wrote the following as part of a discussion on a friend’s wall: “Trump is the return on investment for political cynicism in the United States. He confirms everybody’s worst suspicious about our political system. What makes him so abhorrent is precisely what makes him so compelling. Voters don’t want someone who is credible – they want someone who is incredible. They haven’t believed in politics for years. Trump, and his campaign, are unbelievable.” Looking at the descriptions of Trump supporters, both from the New York Times but also from conservative bloggers – “Discontent is abroad in the land, and politicians who are smart will tap into it if they can.” – it seems clear to me that Trump’s populist appeal is a reaction to the political and economic transformations of the past 30 years. His constituency is basically the folks who have been left behind, and who are angry about it. 

Ezra Klein at Vox wrote in a piece today “What Trump is offering is an explanation and a solution; an argument and an ideology. It is dangerous, and it is violent, but it is not confusing, and it is not unclear.” Up until recently Trump running for President was a joke – heck, it was a Simpsons reference – but now it has turned deadly serious. I’m not sure everyone realizes that yet, and I’m a little worried that folks won’t figure it out in time. It is one of primary problems of our time that people do not take politics seriously. It’s all just a show, a spectacle. They’re all corrupt, just like Frank Underwood. The country is run by oligarchs. Democracy is a bourgeois fantasy, a friend of mine once told me, without irony.  What strikes me is that it doesn’t seem like enough just to wake up at the last minute. We should have been taking democracy seriously the whole time, instead of laughing at politics.

Three: The Absence of Discussion

Earlier today I read a really powerful essay entitled “I, Racist” about the discussion on race in the United States, written (by a black man) in part as a response to the mass killings in a historic black church by a young white man with an automatic weapon. The whole piece is worth reading, but I want to quote this passage especially:

Here’s what I want to say to you: Racism is so deeply embedded in this country not because of the racist right-wing radicals who practice it openly, it exists because of the silence and hurt feelings of liberal America…All the Black voices in the world speaking about racism all the time do not move White people to think about it– but one White John Stewart talking about Charleston has a whole lot of White people talking about it. That’s the world we live in. Black people can’t change it while White people are silent and deaf to our words.

It was the mention of John Stewart that caught me in particular. I used to always watch his program, and I even got to see it live once in New York. But the author is correct in pointing out that we limit our conversation almost always to what is safe, what is uncontroversial. In some sense, I think that is precisely why Trump’s rise is so unbelievable to so many people. It’s beyond what we’re used to. The violence at his rallies makes us uncomfortable, and we don’t want to talk about it. The racism of his supporters is terrifying, and many of us just want to avoid it if we can. But that’s the thing: those supporters aren’t crazy people. They’re the neighbors. They’re just regular people. And they vote. This election isn’t about stopping Trump, or authoritarianism, or fascism, or some other ism that we think shouldn’t apply to the United States. It’s about confronting our collective complacency.

The feeling I get as we approach the Ides of March is one of dread. This election season is getting darker and more serious. The question of what to do is important, but also we should think – and talk, and discuss – about how we got here. This moment did not arrive from nowhere.

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