He’s back! That’s my view, anyway, of the abrupt shift in the president’s polling numbers. Just a week or so ago, RCP’s poll of polls had 39 percent of Americans approving of Trump’s job performance, with 56 disapproving; now it’s 41 approving and 56 disapproving. Gallup had him at 36/59; now it’s 39/55. Nate Silver had him at 37/57 as September arrived; now it’s 40/54. It’s not a massive turnaround, but this is the first time Trump has had a real bounce from his otherwise relentless descent in popularity since his inauguration. Yes, it’s still pretty bad for a president at nine months. But, yes, this bump is also meaningful. Some are attributing it to hurricanes (not implausible). My gut tells me it’s the small but telling deal with Chuck and Nancy.
This was the path not taken after the election, as Trump positioned himself as a hard-core Republican, ready to sign Ryan’s and McConnell’s legislation, and hammering some of the most divisive issues — immigration, health care — in the most partisan manner imaginable. But it is a path Trump could still take if he wants to rescue his presidency. More important, it’s also, as I write this week in an essay on American tribalism, a path that could actually make the country’s increasingly dangerous political and cultural climate a little less fraught. It might even, to use President Obama’s old phrase, be a way to lower the fever.
Trump’s nationalist populism was never a good match with a speaker devoted to Ayn Rand and the Koch network and a Senate majority leader whose only principle seems to be pathological partisanship. Nine months later, only deregulation, increased immigration enforcement, and a Supreme Court justice (and other judicial appointments) can be appended to Trump’s actual policy gains. There’s no wall, no tariffs, no Obamacare repeal (fingers crossed), no infrastructure investment, no tax cuts, no tax reform … nothing particularly Trumpy at all. And it’s also clear to me that Trump won the nomination because Republican base voters had lost faith and trust in their elites. Trump was never a means to enact Ryanism; he was a means to destroy Ryanism. But how do you defeat Ryanism when you need its namesake to pass anything?
You deal with the Dems, of course. And the most popular measure of his administration thus far has been this little Chuck-and-Nancy love-in: 71 percent approval, in the new NBC/WSJ poll. No other area of policy gets more than 40 percent. Now imagine an immigration deal where the Dreamers are saved and Trump gets, say, an e-verify system to beef up immigration enforcement. Or a tax deal that marginally increases the taxes of those, like Trump, at the very top (only 12 percent favor cutting taxes for the wealthy right now), throws a cut in corporate tax to placate the GOP, but otherwise focuses on relief for the middle class. Both these deals would boost Trump and the Democrats. They’d help Trump appear to be the populist deal-maker, able to push through the partisan gridlock (a core part of his appeal to many last year). And, at this point, his supporters just want wins (they loved the debt-ceiling deal). Just as important, the Dems desperately need to prove that they believe in enforcing the immigration laws. In my view, it’s the only way to reintroduce themselves with some credibility to the Obama-Trump voters they lost last year.
What if this rewards and legitimizes Trump? Well, it sure doesn’t reward any of Trump’s signature illiberalism or his flouting of presidential norms. It rather rewards his reversal of pure partisan divisiveness. Legitimizes? That’s already done. He is the legitimate president of the United States. He’s here for at least three more years (don’t kid yourself about impeachment). And I don’t think it hurts the Dems in the midterms. It may even help. Their base is going to come out anyway. If there’s an indication that a Trump-Dem alliance could actually move the country forward, it could even increase votes for the Dems, and all but finish off the Ryan wing of the GOP.
One obvious immediate problem: Graham-Cassidy. If that passes, Trump’s fledgling relationship will implode. Schumer and Pelosi could hardly follow the end of Obamacare with further cooperation with Trump — given the base’s likely (and justified) response. Equally, ending Obamacare resurrects the moribund Trump-GOP relationship and our super-partisan, evermore tribal politics ratchets up even more. There’s more at stake next week than just Obamacare. There’s also the possibility of a change in the core dynamic of our politics. Know hope.
I wish I could say I’m shocked by new polling on college students’ views on free speech. But if you’ve been following the culture these past few years, you could see this coming. Today’s students neither comprehend nor support the very concept of free speech, which is foundational to a liberal democracy. A full 19 percent even believe that physical violence is now justifiable to shut down speakers who engage in the vaguely defined term “hate speech.” That’s one in five students endorsing physical coercion. Antifa really is making headway, isn’t it? A small majority, 51-49, supports shouting down speakers you disagree with — and that goes to 62 percent of students who identify as Democrats.
The “punch a Nazi” thread that became popular earlier this year among the left-liberal journalistic class opened my eyes to this, as more than a few liberal thought leaders loved it when they saw a video of Richard Spencer being clocked by a masked thug. Jon Favreau — the former Obama speech writer — tweeted the following about the countless memes of the video celebrating the violence: “I don’t care how many different songs you set to Richard Spencer being punched, I’ll laugh at every one.” Last week, some foul dipshit (or possibly disturbed man) was wearing a swastika armband in Seattle. Someone spotted him, put a photograph of him on social media, and the hunt was on. Within an hour and a half, a video appeared of the man being cold-cocked on a Seattle street, knocked unconscious, and subsequently lying on the ground inert. No one came to his aid, people at a nearby bus stop apparently cheered, and no charges have been filed. Among the Twitter responses: “Nice clean right cross to the jaw. Beautiful … Aaaaand muted. GOODBYE FOREVER.” Look: This creep with the armband was being deliberatively provocative and inflammatory. But still, I don’t know about you, but this celebration of violence against a targeted individual disturbs me.
Leave aside the double standard here — how many hipsters are there with the hammer and sickle or Mao’s red star on their T-shirts? How has political violence now become acceptable on lefty Twitter and among one in five college students? I’d argue that it’s too easy to overlook the influence of the neo-Marxist ideology now pervasive on countless campuses — specifically the late philosopher Herbert Marcuse’s concepts of “violence of defense” and “violence of aggression” in the context of what he called “repressive tolerance.” For parts of the New Left, racist democratic capitalism perpetuates so much systemic oppression that any defense of it or acquiescence in it amounts to violence against the victims. Therefore violence in defense of the victims is perfectly defensible. It just levels the playing field. Hence it’s okay to punch a Nazi, but not okay to punch a communist. It’s defensible for an oppressed person of color to assault a white person but never the other way round. Hence a recent discussion in The Guardian about whether cold-cocking a racist is defensible: “A punch may be uncivil, but racism is worse.”
Actually, speech is not just interchangeable with violence; even silence is! One of the more popular signs at the rally in Boston a few weeks back was the following: “White Silence = Violence.” If you are not actively speaking out against white supremacy, in other words, you are actively enforcing it. Once you’ve apologized for being born white, and asked permission to speak, your next and only step is to inveigh against racism/sexism, etc. … or be accused of being a white supremacist yourself. At some point your head begins to explode. What is this: a Maoist boot camp?
We often discuss these things in the media without understanding the core ideas that animate them. But it’s important to understand that for the social-justice left, there is nothing irrational about any of this. If you take their ideas seriously, oppressive speech is violence and self-defense is legitimate. Violence is therefore not some regrettable incident. Violence to achieve liberation is a key part of the ideology they believe in.
A quick response to Isaac Chotiner’s criticism of my current essay on American tribalism. His basic argument is that I’m wrong to discuss the two American tribes — red and blue — as equivalent because one (the right) is obviously worse than the other (Isaac’s). I’ll resist adding the obvious retort: quod erat demonstrandum. One key point of the piece is that tribalism is partly defined by the inability to see the other tribe as in any way legitimate or comparable. But Isaac’s deeper point is that tribal leftism has not affected Democratic politics the way tribal rightism has infected the Republicans. My view is that tribalism is cultural and social as well as political, and that, in the culture, the left has been unrelenting. And on a purely factual point, I actually concede that “the right bears the bulk of the historical blame.” But that doesn’t make the left blameless.
So let’s examine if the Democrats have no policies that reflect increasingly tribal left-liberalism. On abortion, Clinton ran on the most pro-choice platform of any Democrat in modern times. On immigration, the Democrats refuse to talk seriously about enforcement, are backing sanctuary cities to defy the law, and want amnesty for 11 million before beefed-up borders. On gender identity, the Loretta Lynn Justice Department mandated that every high school in the country permit trans kids to shower with cis kids or risk running afoul of Title IX. On race, Isaac insists that Democratic refusal to acknowledge that affirmative action means discriminating against people because of their race is a “semantic” issue. But try telling any Democrat that racial discrimination is “semantic” when it is enforced against, say, gays or blacks, as opposed to Asian-Americans.
On religious freedom, the Democrats believe that anti-discrimination laws trump anyone’s conscience, while subjecting faithful Catholics to bigoted questions about their capacity for public service. On marriage equality, the Obamas lit up the White House in rainbow colors to celebrate our victory. I found that moving, but I can still see how alienating it must have felt for those on the losing side. And is there anything more extreme or tribal than calling another side’s different political positions simply “hate”? The point about being a member of a tribe is that you often don’t even hear yourself.
Isaac then all but mocks my belief in a rediscovery of moderation and empiricism to help us. But in the essay, I don’t claim this as a panacea. I concede its unlikelihood and difficulty. I accept that Barack Obama’s moderation and empiricism could not prevail over the tribal passions of the GOP base, or, it turns out, his own. But Isaac agrees that we have no alternative, and that the consequences of our continuing down the tribal vortex could be deeply dangerous. He admits: “I have no solution.” Neither do I. But I do believe that recognizing the unconscious tribalist assumptions of your own position is a way to start. And Isaac has a little more recognizing to do.
See you next Friday.