In re: Donald Trump as crazy person.

Three months ago, Paul Krugman pointed out that Donald Trump is the only Republican candidates who is willing to raise taxes on the rich and who has something to say in favor of universal health care.[1] While Krugman goes on to denounce Trump for “his implicit racism” what is really interesting about Krugman’s analysis comes later in the column. Krugman argues that, when it comes to economics, Trump is voicing what a lot of the Republican base actually believes. However, their views have never been articulated in recent years because the Republican Party’s elected representatives are chained to a demonstrably failed economic ideology. The chains are campaign donations from wealthy donors.[2] The Republican politicians have been living in a fool’s paradise. Trump is rich enough in his own right to run for president while speaking his own mind. Even if Trump doesn’t capture (Please, oh please) the Republican nomination, his campaign is likely to shift the terms of debate inside the party, and not necessarily in the way that Democratic pundits have been predicting.

What if Donald Trump is also articulating what a lot of Americans think on other issues?

Opinion polls in October 2015 revealed that almost half of Americans (46 percent) supported building a wall along the border between the United States and Mexico.[3] A slightly larger share (48 percent) opposes building a wall. Six percent aren’t sure. While the core of the base for building is Republican (73 percent of them approve it), there are also a good number of Democrats (perhaps a third) and fewer than half (less than 48 percent) of Independents. Nothing in the polling reveals how much voters assign primacy to this issue in comparison to other issues.

In 2011, 47 percent of Americans thought that Islam’s values were “at odds” with America’s values. By November 2015, 56 percent of Americans thought that Islam’s values were “at odds” with America’s values.[4] In late November 2015, 56 percent of Americans were against allowing Syrian refugees into the United States. In contrast, 41 percent favored accepting Syrian refugees.[5] That leaves only 3 percent who “aren’t sure.” In sum, on these issues at least, America is divided into two big and solid blocks. To my mind, President Obama is right in his belief that Muslims and America are compatible and in his willingness to accept Syrian refugees. However, right at the moment, he isn’t with the country on these issues.

Well, he doesn’t have to be. He’s a lame-duck president facing a Republicans opposition in control of both houses of Congress. He isn’t going to get any legislation passed unless it’s in line with what Republicans want. He is likely to rely on executive orders and regulatory changes that get tied up in the courts, and on public excoriation of the voters for not “getting it.”

What if the Republican Party isn’t the only party whose leaders are tied to an ideology that its voters really don’t accept? What if, just for the sake of speculation, there are a bunch of Democrats who are social progressives, but economic moderates? Bernie Sanders appeals to social and economic “progressives.” In November 2016 that seems likely to be a small slice of the pie. It’s easy and comforting to think that Hillary Clinton would defeat Donald Trump. Can she?

[1] Paul Krugman, “Trump Is Right on Economics,” NYT, 7 September 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/07/opinion/paul-krugman-trump-is-right-on-economics.html?_r=0

[2] This suggests that Republican voters have supported people who don’t share their economic beliefs because the alternative would be to vote for Democrats who might share some of their economic beliefs, but whose views on social issues they reject. So much for Marxism.

[3] This is a separate question from who should pay for such a wall.

[4] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 27 November 2015, p. 17.

[5] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 4 December 2015, p. 19.

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Some context for the shift in the American attitude toward Muslims.

Recently, commentators have contrasted the public discourse at the time of 9/11 with the anti-Muslim discourse today.  How can we explain this shift?  There are a couple of things to think about.

First, 9/11 produced national unity.  Events over the fourteen years since then have produced deep polarization.

The Presidential elections in 2004, 2008, and 2012 included vicious debates over national security and the Middle East, as well as many other things.  In light of his subsequent wholesale adoption of Bush Administration policies, Barack Obama’s first Inaugural Address(with its blistering critique of Obama’s predecessor, who was sitting on the platform behind the President-Elect) looks particularly gauche.  On the other hand, the right-wing denunciations of Obama as a secret Muslim and a traitor are vastly worse.  They remind one of previous conspiracy theories (like the de-monetization of silver–dear to the hearts of Democrats as the “Crime of 1873”–or that FDR knew in advance about Pearly Harbor–dear to the hearts of Republicans for several decades–to take but two examples).

Then the illegal immigrants issue actually does bear on this.  The southern border of the US turns out to be incredibly porous.  Inflows of people from Mexico dropped after the beginning of the “Great Recession.”  No one thinks that this is because the border has been tightened up in a significant way.  If Hispanic-Mexicans wanted to enter the US, then they could.  But this is also true of Middle Eastern terrorists.

Second, after 9/11 it was possible to argue that Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda were a numerically insignificant element within the Muslim world.  President George W. Bush emphatically made this case.  Now, years of terrorism and conflict with Muslims may have produced a much deeper fear of Muslims as a group.

The Iraq insurgency revealed that lots of Muslims didn’t welcome Americans with bouquets of flowers.  Instead, we had the appalling reports of IEDs and traumatic brain injuries.

The Iraqi civil war between Shi’ites and Sunnis had a lot of horrible things happen.  (See Dexter Filkins’ observation that you could always tell a Sunni killed by Shi’ites because a power-drill had been used.)

Zarkawi.  Lots of suicide bombers who came from all over the Muslim world.  There were bombings of NGOs like the UN Mission in Baghdad that killed Sergio de Mello.

Then there is the basic weaseliness of Pakistan.  Whose side is our “ally” actually on?  OK, Americans got sold a bill-of-goods on this.  All the worse then that it is apparent that Pakistan is an Islamist state armed with nuclear weapons and cruise missiles.

Then, there were terrorist bombings in Madrid (2003) and London (2004).  The basic lesson was that Islamist terrorists could reach out to Western capitals.  The “Charlie Hebdo” massacre (January 2015) and the recent attacks in Paris (November 2015) added more examples.  Most of these terrorists were “home-grown” radicals, instead of emissaries from some other place.

“Well, at least they can’t get to the United States.”  Except that a truck bombing of Times Square in New York City failed for technical reasons rather than from having been prevented by national security organs.  The “shoe bomber” and the “underwear bomber” who tried to bring down airliners failed because passengers and air crews stopped them, not because the government prevented them from boarding the air planes.

Then there is ISIS.  On the one hand, there is the savagery of its methods.  Captives get beheaded (without recourse to sending to France for a headsman as happened with Ann Boleyn) or burned to death in a cage.  On the other hand, there are the tens of thousands of young Muslim men–and woman, if today’s New York Times is to be believed–who flock to Syria and Iraq to enlist in the jihadist cause.  They come from Muslim countries in North Africa and the Middle East mostly, but also from Western Europe and the United States.  They are all evidently bent out of shape with Western countries for reasons that we do not well understand.

People seem happy to spin this state of mind as either “just being realistic” or as “more xenophobia.”  Thinking about it as a historian, rather than as a polemicist, it seems to me that we should all try to reduce the recriminations.  We have hit a lot of emotional chuck-holes. We haven’t fully absorbed or understood them. That is probably not going to produce a good policy outcome.