Rise of the Trumpenvolk: On President Trump, populism and the mistrust of expertise

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Good day Austin:

I attended the Williamson County Republican Party Reagan Dinner Monday night at the Sheraton Georgetown. Very nice affair with a virtually full house of about 450 people presided over by the Wilco GOP Chairman Bill Fairbrother, who I quite like.

I first met Bill back in early October when I attended a debate watch event the WIlco GOP put on at the City Lights Georgetown theaters for  the second Clinton-Trump presidential debate.

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I wrote at the time:

Bill Fairbrother, for the last 17 years the Williamson County Republican Party chairman, manned the table outside the screening, setting up and taking down the nearly life-size cardboard cutouts of Donald Trump and Mike Pence, distributing the lawn signs, and helping (Adrianna) Norman register for her husband.

Fairbrother thinks Trump righted the ship Sunday and set up the third and last debate as decisive in a race that he thinks Trump can still win because Clinton represents the status quo.

“He’s a rabble-rouser, but sometimes the rabble needs to be roused,” he said.

Fairbrother said he thought Trump’s capable performance would quiet griping from a chorus of national Republicans, some of whom have called for him to step aside as the party’s nominee in the last two days.

Fairbrother said he was disappointed that they didn’t have the 85 people who showed at the theater for the debate watch for the first debate, but said a lot of that crowd were older voters from Sun City, who had family obligations on Sundays.

This debate came a few days after the release of the Access Hollywood video, with Trump talking about grabbing women, that had seemed to once and for all have doomed his candidacy. But Faribrother’s confidence was well-founded, and Monday night he had 450 people at his dinner including a lot of  those Republicans from Sun City.

I sat at the only empty table, in the rear of the ballroom, where I was joined by a reporter from the local paper and two police officers.

Just before the speaking program began, Larry Gonzales, the state representative from Round Rock, caught sight of me and came to say hi and accuse me of “lurking” in the back.

As we were talking, just a few feet from my table, there was a little commotion back at the table. It turned out one of the guests at the dinner had been choking on her food, saw the police officers, approached them and signaled her distress. One of the officers administered the Heimlich maneuver, dislodged the food, saved a life and sat back down.

Bravo.

The dinner speaker was Karl Rove, who explained to the crowd that Fairbrother had asked him kind of late in the day to be the speaker but reminded him that he had a relatively new book out, and so, Rove said he agreed to come  and was going to talk about his book, “The Triumph of William McKinley: Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters.”

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Rove was as good as his word. He spoke about William McKinley, with great, animated excitement for a full hour.

We learned about McKinley’s extraordinary Civil War heroism – three battlefield promotions.

We learned about the great nicknames of the politicians  of the Gilded Age and the grim gridlock that paralyzed Congress.

We thrilled to Rove’s recounting of William Jennings Bryan Cross of Gold speech that, all by itself, vaulted Bryan to the Democratic nomination to oppose McKinley in 1896.

But, as the speech wore on, I began to worry. I am old, but much of the audience was way older and, I imagined, had programmed Alexa to turn the burner on low to warm their milk right about now back in Sun City, and Rove showed no signs of slowing down.

And selfishly, I was obliged to write a story off Rove’s remarks, and I didn’t think news of McKinley’s crushing defeat of Bryan was going to work.

I began to think I might have to lead with the woman saved from choking and was ruing the fact that I hadn’t got her name, age, hometown and quote of thanks for the police officer who saved her life, and maybe something about how Rove’s remarks on McKinley were a revelation.

But then, 58 minutes into his talk, Rove said, of his book, “There are a lot of lesson for how we conduct ourselves.”

“Also there is a lesson in there for our administration.”

Thank God.

And Rove’s lesson for President Trump?

“Be concerned with the big things, not little things,” Rove said. “Be concerned with prosperity and paychecks and jobs, not the size of your inaugural crowds or the skill of Meryl Streep as an actress.”

“Why should we be surprised if the press gives a Republican president a bad time? It has always been thus. It will always be thus,” said Rove, the architect of George W. Bush’s successful campaigns for governor and president who now makes his way as a political and public affairs consultant, GOP fundraiser, political pundit and author based in Austin. “Don’t be defensive. Don’t be negative.”

“When complaining too much sounds like you’re whining, focus on the big things that people sent you there to do and when you do them, you’ll be rewarded,” Rove said. “You won’t be rewarded for declaiming the press. You won’t be rewarded for talking about little things or perceived personal slights. You will be rewarded for doing the things people sent you there to do. And when you do those things, don’t let them be obscured by this other conversation.”

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(Karl Rove signs his book on William McKinley for Judge Billy Ray Stubblefield)

 

Good for Rove. Defending the press, sort of.

But then I realized, Rove is one of us – part of the media elite, and, right and wrong aside, in sheer political terms, I’m not sure Rove is right.

On Fox News this past Sunday, Rove said that “on substance,” Trump is “off to a strong start,” but that, in his epic press conference last Thursday in which he, once again excoriated the media, “he looked Pharaoh with a whip in hand, whipping those slaves, getting them to build the pyramids.”

But I think Rush Limbaugh may have been closer to the mark, that, for his constituency, Trump at the press conference was not Pharaoh lashing the Jews, but Moses leading his people to the Promised Land.

From Limbaugh:

So the CNN guy stands up and effectively asks — I’m paraphrasing Jim Acosta — “Don’t you think…? Don’t you think that these routine attacks of yours on the press and on the media undermining the First Amendment by calling what we’re doing ‘fake news’?

“Aren’t you doing a terrible disservice to the Constitution and to the American people by criticizing the media?” And there it was. Sure as I’m sitting here watching, there it was. They can sit here all day and not just criticize. They can try to destroy people. They can — using whatever power they think they have been granted by the First Amendment — go out and literally destroy people. Let Trump criticize the way they do their jobs, and all of a sudden it’s a constitutional crisis. Well, how about Obama trashing me all the time?

How about Obama trashing Fox News all the time? Was that not a threat to the First Amendment? No, they applauded that. They still do applaud that. They join in the attacks on Fox News — and, more often than not, they join in attacks on me, too. But they want you to believe that they are this watchdog and that they’re holding truth to power, that they’re holding powerful people accountable. They’re not doing anything of the sort. The press has gotten to the point where they need a watchdog, and it turns out that Trump is the watchdog!

Trump is the guy holding them accountable.

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(“I inherited a mess.”)

Trump is the guy calling them out. I’ve never seen anything like this today. I have never seen it. We have wanted Republican presidents all of my life to deal with these people this way, and the only thing we ever got was Spiro Agnew. We’ve not seen anything like this, and Trump did it with an air of confidence and self-assuredness. He was not nervous at all. He was having fun with them. He was toying with them. It’s like if you got a cat. You know how you get these little laser pointers and you have a little kitten or a cat and the cat goes nuts chasing the light? It will run into a wall.

That’s what I was watching here today. It was just… It was fantastic, and the American people are gonna eat this up. Now, I said yesterday on this program that what I thought Trump could do to recapture and regain control of the narrative here, if you will — of the agenda — is simply focus on the domestic agenda. Just get in gear and very publicly start talking about repealing Obamacare, tax reform, building the wall, immigration reform. All of it. Just go full speed at it, and in the process keep people who voted for him on his side and they won’t care about whatever these efforts are that the press is engaging in with the intel community to undermining him.

And make no mistake. And he called this out. He accused Obama of running the shadow government. He accused Hillary Clinton and George Soros of being the people paying for people to show up and protest things. He held nothing back! He ridiculed Hillary Clinton for being in part of a deal that gave up 20% of our uranium supply and for having that cheap little red reset button when she became secretary of state. And each time he mentions Obama. He mentions… He didn’t say “shadow government” but he said, “Our opponents are doing what they can.”

He called all of this fake news. He was on spot with all this. You know, it’s hard to say. You get caught up in the moment. But this was one of the most effective press conferences I’ve ever seen. The press is gonna hate him even more after this, don’t misunderstand. When I say “effective,” I’m talking about rallying people who voted for him to stay with him.

“I’m not sure why people were surpised by this,” Wendy Rahn, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota told me yesterday afternoon.

Rahn was the co-author in August with University of Chicago political scientist J. Eric Oliver of the paper, Rise of the Trumpenvolk: Populism in the 2016 Election.

From the paper

Trump is the “populist par excellence,” with “a rhetoric that is distinctive in its simplicity, anti-elitism, and high degree of collectivist language. Trump’s supporters echo these sentiments, exhibiting a unique combination of anti-expertise, anti-elitism and pronationalism.

The year 2016 is indeed the year of the populist, and Donald Trump is its apotheosis.

("They don't know if it's true or if it's false.")

(“They don’t know if it’s true or if it’s false.”)

(P)opulists often employ a distinctive style, one that is simple, direct, emotional, and frequently indelicate. By flaunting the usual rules of engagement, the populist’s lack of decorum contributes to followers’ perceptions of authenticity, distinguishing the populist from the usual typical politician.’ Like a `drunken guest’ with `bad manners,’ the populist disrupts the normal dinner table, much to the discomfort, even alarm of the usual patrons.

This transgressive political style signals to the people that the populist politician will go to great lengths to protect her interests, even if it means bending or breaking the rules. To members of the establishment, however, the people-centric and pugnaciousness of the putative populist’s rhetoric is demagoguery, successful only because its listeners harbor antidemocratic sympathies. But to many lay followers, the populist’s distinctive antics provide a focal point to orient themselves, and criticism by established elites only serves to strengthen the bond between the leaders and his or her followers. A common identity and a sense of linked fate emerge through shared attachment to the populist politician rather than impersonal attachment to group members. By `performing’ populism, the psychological distance between populist leaders and their followers is reduced and the bonds among followers solidified.

Trump’s epic press conference was a bonding session with his volk, the elite press corps with all its so-called expertise was the enemy, and with every bit of condemnation that rained down on Trump for his performance, the volk-bond was strengthened.

And, as readers of First Reading well know, Trump and his volk have their own alternative facts and alternate reality in the world according to Alex Jones.

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From Jim Rutenberg this week in the New York Times, In Trump’s Volleys, Echoes of Alex Jones’s Conspiracy Theories:

Way back on Friday, President Trump declared that several news organizations — ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC, The New York Times — were “the enemy of the American people.” You know who’s not the enemy, in his book?

Alex Jones.

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Where Mr. Jones’s content fits in Mr. Trump’s broad media diet isn’t clear. White House officials declined to talk about it in detail. (Hey, Mr. President, I’m trying.) But as Mr. Trump pushes full steam ahead on his effort to delegitimize American journalism, he is lending credence to a number of out-there Jonesisms, adding yet another “pinch yourself, this is happening” element to our national journey into the upside-down.

You can look no further than Mr. Trump’s description of the press as “the enemy of the American people” on Friday, which was reminiscent of Mr. Jones’s use of the same phrase in 2015, as Mr. Jones noted on Sunday on Twitter.

Two of the major internet tracking companies, Quantcast and Alexa, reported that in January Infowars had an average of around eight million (Quantcast) or 8.7 million (Alexa) global visitors, who viewed its pages nearly 50 million times. As of Sunday Quantcast ranked its traffic above that of the fact-checking site Politifact.com.

Those numbers miss the audiences for his national radio show and his team’s videos on YouTube, where the biggest of his 18 channels has 1.2 billion views, and on Facebook, where they draw many millions of views. (One, by his editor at large, Paul Joseph Watson, lists 18.1 million views.)

Like Limbaugh, Alex Jones thought Trump’s press conference was one of the great moments in American political history.

There were a couple of clarifying moments that were replayed over and over in the days that followed.

There was this exchange with April Ryan,  a veteran White House correspondent for the American Urban Radio Network.

TRUMP: I have great people lined up to help with the inner cities. OK?

APRIL RYAN: Well, when you say the inner cities, are you going — are you going to include the CBC, Mr. President, in your conversations with your — your urban agenda, your inner city agenda, as well as —

TRUMP: Am I going to include who?

RYAN: Are you going to include the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional —

TRUMP: Well, I would. I tell you what, do you want to set up the meeting?

RYAN: — Hispanic Caucus —

TRUMP: Do you want to set up the meeting?

RYAN: No — no — no. I’m not —

TRUMP: Are they friends of yours?

RYAN I’m just a reporter.

TRUMP: Well, then, set up the meeting.

RYAN: I know some of them, but I’m sure they’re watching right now.

TRUMP: Let’s go set up a meeting. I would love to meet with the Black Caucus. I think it’s great, the Congressional Black Caucus. I think it’s great. I actually thought I had a meeting with Congressman Cummings and he was all excited. And then he said, well, I can’t move, it might be bad for me politically. I can’t have that meeting.

I was all set to have the meeting. You know, we called him and called him. And he was all set. I spoke to him on the phone, very nice guy.

RYAN:: I hear he wanted that meeting with you as well.

TRUMP: He wanted it, but we called, called, called and can’t make a meeting with him. Every day I walk and say I would like to meet with him because I do want to solve the problem. But he probably was told by Schumer or somebody like that, some other lightweight. He was probably told — he was probably told “don’t meet with Trump. It’s bad politics.”

Ryan’s response was perfect.

But in the days that followed, all kinds of members of Congress, and reporters and commentators expressed outrage about the racism and sexism of Trump’s exchange with Ryan, that he was treating her like his secretary, that it’s surprising that he didn’t ask her to mop the floor, that how dare he assume that just because she is black that she knew members of the Congressional Black Caucus, like every black person knows every other black person in America.

But, I think for any elite-hating, anti-expertise observer at home, when Ryan asked Trump about the CBC, they had exactly the same reaction, Trump did – Am I going to include who? And when he asked her to try set up a meeting, they saw it as direct, practical and genuine.

And hey, the idea that it’s insulting to leap to the conclusion that April Ryan of National Urban Radio might actually know members of this CBC of which she speaks, is just the fake, politically correct poppycock of the sort that they elected Trump to dispense with.

Another big moment at the press conference was what I will call, Trump’s Shaming of the Obsequious Jew.

Trump’s exchange with Turx began in a way that any self-respecting reporter would dread.

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QUESTION: Mr. President, on national…

TRUMP: Wait. Let’s see. Who’s — I want to find a friendly reporter.

TURX: Mr….

TRUMP: Are you a friendly reporter? Watch how friendly he is. Wait. Wait. Watch how friendly he is. Go ahead.

From Laurie Goodstein of the New York Time, A Jewish Reporter Got to Ask Trump a Question. It Didn’t Go Well.

The exchange began with Mr. Turx standing up from his third-row seat and gesturing slightly toward his fellow reporters:

“Despite what some of my colleagues may have been reporting, I haven’t seen anybody in my community accuse either yourself or anyone on your staff of being anti-Semitic. We understand that you have Jewish grandchildren. You are their zayde,” which is Yiddish for “grandfather” and often a word of great affection.

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At that Mr. Trump nodded slightly, and said, “thank you.”

“However,” Mr. Turx continued, “what we are concerned about and what we haven’t really heard being addressed is an uptick in anti-Semitism and how the government is planning to take care of it. There’s been a report out that 48 bomb threats have been made against Jewish centers all across the country in the last couple of weeks. There are people committing anti-Semitic acts or threatening to——”

At that, Mr. Trump interrupted, saying it was “not a fair question.”

“Sit down,” the president commanded. “I understand the rest of your question.”

As Mr. Turx took his seat, Mr. Trump said, “So here’s the story, folks. No. 1, I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life. No. 2, racism, the least racist person.”

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Mr. Turx tried to interject, realizing how the encounter had turned. He said he had wanted to clarify that he in no way meant to accuse Mr. Trump of anti-Semitism but instead intended to ask what his administration could do to stop the anti-Semitic incidents.

But Mr. Trump would not let him speak again, saying, “Quiet, quiet, quiet.” As Mr. Turx shook his head with an incredulous look on his face, Mr. Trump accused him of having lied that his question would be straight and simple.

Mr. Trump said, “I find it repulsive. I hate even the question because people that know me. …”

He went on to say that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, during his visit to the United States on Wednesday, had vouched for Mr. Trump as a good friend of Israel and the Jewish people and no anti-Semite.

Mr. Trump concluded that Mr. Turx should have relied on Mr. Netanyahu’s endorsement, “instead of having to get up and ask a very insulting question like that.”

“Just shows you about the press, but that’s the way the press is,” Mr. Trump said.

This was truly dumbfounding.

President Trump is lobbed a softball, and he proceeds to charge the mound and beat the pitcher bloody with his bat.

Trump takes the bully pulpit literally, and it was as if, confronted by a fawning Orthodox Jew, he couldn’t hear what he was saying, but just couldn’t resist the impluse to bully him.

But, frankly, I couldn’t get past, You are their zayde.

For every zayde, there is a bubba.

I, of course, had two zaydes, three if you count a step-zayde, who married my mother’s mother afer her father died, 10 years to the day before I was born.

But, as Zayde Donald sunk in, it occurred to me that Ivana Trump is a bubba, and Melania Trump is a step-bubba.

Now that’s a reality show.

STEP BUBBA

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But it gets worse.

Much worse.

From Allison Kaplan Sommer at Haaretz: Neo-Nazis Cheer After Trump Shuts Down Jewish Reporter Over anti-Semitism Question: The editor of the Daily Stormer website dubs Thursday’s press conference ‘one of the greatest things I’ve ever witnessed.’

There was horror and befuddlement after Donald Trump slammed a young ultra-Orthodox reporter who first flattered the U.S. president by using the Yiddish name for grandfather and then pitched him a softball: a chance to speak out against incidents of anti-Semitism. But, as one newspaper put it, it didn’t end well.

In fact, neo-Nazis and white supremacists have enthusiastically applauded the exchange between Trump and Jake Turx of Ami Magazine.

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At the website The Daily Stormer – named after the Nazi-era newspaper Der Stürmer – editor Andrew Anglin wrote that the press conference “was one of the greatest things I’ve ever witnessed in my life. From start to finish, it was simply beautiful. He blasted the media, the Jews, Mexicans, Obama – all of his/our enemies.”

Another Stormer writer, Eric Striker, honed in on the exchange with Turx in an article headlined “Trump Dismisses ‘Anti-Semitism’ Wolf-Crier, Identifies Fake Hate Crimes as Fake.” Striker seized on Trump’s assertion that anti-Semitic writings and graffiti were concocted artificially to make him and his supporters look anti-Semitic.

After another reporter Thursday followed up Turx’s question on anti-Semitic incidents, Trump said: “Some of it is written by our opponents. You do know that? Do you understand that? You don’t think anybody would do a thing like that?”

The president continued: “Some of the signs you’ll see are not put up by the people that love or like Donald Trump, they’re put up by the other side and you think it’s like playing it straight? No. But you have some of the signs and some of that anger caused by the other side. They’ll do signs and drawing that are inappropriate. It won’t be my people. It will be people on the other side to anger people like you.”

Trump’s words echoed the theory that the threats to Jewish community centers and other anti-Semitic incidents have been contrived to support the premise that Trump’s presidency is ushering in greater racism.

A former “imperial wizard” of the Ku Klux Klan and anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist, David Duke, has been promoting the theory to his followers. Tweeting a photograph of a Jewish community center that was evacuated in the latest round of threats, he commented: “I wonder who could be placing all those calls? Seems they’d be able to track that down rather easily … such a dramatic photo.”

Referring to Turx, Striker predicted in The Daily Stormer that “this lice infested ghetto Jew will be getting hardcore press coverage and made into a folk hero for a month straight or more. But on the bright side, Jews will gasp when they realize that A) nobody is listening to their fake news or celebrities anymore, and B) everyone is pretty damn sick of Jews.”

Zayde Trump, please.

But, as Karl Rove could tell you, this is nothing new.

Historically, American populism has harbored a strong strain of anti-Semitism, and even as distinguished a figure as William Jennings Bryan was skilled at simultaneously praising the Hebrew race and playing to anti-Semitic fears.

From Lawrence Bush at Jewish Currents:

Populist politician and frequent presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan made one of the most electrifying political speeches in history on this date in 1896. Speaking at the Democratic National Convention, Bryan railed against maintaining the gold standard for U.S. currency by declaring, “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

To the extent that there was anti-Semitism within the Populist movement, Bryan’s speech fed mythologies about Jews, financial power, and Christ-killing. (He had earlier asserted on the floor of Congress that America could not afford “to put ourselves in the hands of the Rothschilds,” and that the U.S. Treasury “shall be administered on behalf of the American people and not on behalf of the Rothschilds and other foreign bankers.”)

Yet Bryan would also insist, in a speech to Jewish Democrats in Chicago who were troubled by his “cross of gold” speech, “We are not attacking a race, we are attacking greed and avarice, which know neither race nor religion. I do not know of any class of our people who, by reason of their history, can better sympathize with the struggling masses in this campaign than can the Hebrew race.”

Bryan’s last great crusade was prosecuting school teacher John Scopes for teaching evolution in the the 1925 Monnkey Trial in Dayton, Tennessee. Five days after the verdict, Bryan, worn out by the trial, died in Dayton.

Here are a few paragraphs from deep in what H.L. Mencken, who covered the trial, wrote of William Jennings Bryan the day after his death in the Baltimore Evening Sun, July 27, 1925.

This talk of sincerity, I confess, fatigues me. If the fellow was sincere, then so was P. T. Barnum. The word is disgraced and degraded by such uses. He was, in fact, a charlatan, a mountebank, a zany without sense or dignity. His career brought him into contact with the first men of his time; he preferred the company of rustic ignoramuses.

It was hard to believe, watching him in Dayton, that he had traveled, that he had been received in civilized societies, that he had been a high officer of state. He seemed only a poor clod like those around him, deluded by a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, all human dignity, all beauty, all fine and noble things. He was a peasant come home to the barnyard.

Imagine a gentleman, and you have imagined everything that he was not. What animated him from end to end of his grotesque career was simply ambition – the ambition of a common man to get his hand upon the collar of his superiors, or failing that, to get his thumb into their eyes.

He was born with a roaring voice, and it had the trick of inflaming half-wits. His whole career was devoted to raising those half-wits against their betters, that he himself might shine.

 

 

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