Everyone laughed when Kim Kardashian announced her presidential campaign. It was the summer of 2019 and President Hillary Clinton was in trouble. The economy was in a tailspin. The Syrian invasion had turned into a quagmire, with 200,000 troops caught in the middle of a civil war with no exit strategy. And the Republican-dominated Congress was holding around-the-clock hearings, largely made up of live readings of Clinton’s voluminous email correspondence with Sidney Blumenthal, in the hopes of hitting some scandal that could plausibly justify impeachment.
Given these problems, Clinton had been expecting a primary challenge in her re-election bid, but was shocked when it came from the reality-TV celebrity rather than senators Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders. But with her bevy of famous pals and an ability to dominate free media, Kardashian quickly won over the Democratic Party with a radical populist message of nationalizing all social media companies and redistributing their profits as citizen bonuses.
Is this scenario at all plausible? Ross Douthat thinks so. In a piece on Wednesday, the New York Times columnist predicted the rise of a “Trumpism of the left.” He argues that the same potent brew of celebrity culture and populism that lead to Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party could happen to Democrats, too.
The anger coursing through left-wing protest politics could find a cruder, more nakedly demagogic avatar than Bernie Sanders. A Hillary Clinton administration could supply various betrayals and compromises or foul up in some disastrous way, encouraging a sense that the professional class that dominates liberalism’s upper reaches needs to give way to a revived (and larger) version of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition—a ‘real American future’ analogue to Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ appeals.
If Trump has thrived by imitating Europe’s right-wing nationalists, a Trumpism of the left would imitate the left-wing populists of Latin America and Asia—the Chavismo of ... Venezuela, or the Trumpian socialism presently being served up by the ranting, trigger-happy president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte.
The problem with this scenario is that it’s based on an implicit assumption that the two parties are structurally the same, so will be shaped in the same way by changing social forces. This is the laziest, most delusional assumption in all of political punditry. At least Douthat is honest enough to admit that it isn’t the case today. But his caveat, while admirable in its fairness, also has the effect of rendering his larger claim absurd:
The liberal elite has a level of popularity and influence with its voters that slipped from the G.O.P. leadership after the collapse of the Bush administration. The Democratic Party’s regulars—African-Americans, especially—have shown a consistent small-c conservatism in the candidates they’ve favored recently. And the multiculturalism of the Democratic coalition means that a celebrity rabble-rouser would have to cobble together support across multiple (and very different) demographics, rather than playing identity politics with a single large constituency as Trump did.
Douthat’s qualifications of his own argument could be extended much further. It’s not just that the Democratic Party is currently healthier than the Republicans. Trump is not an anomaly, but a product of trends within the Republican Party that go back decades. Since these trends are particular to the GOP, there will be no “Trump of the left” for the foreseeable future.
Trump is not just some famous clown who happened to hijack one of America’s two major parties while it was going through a rough patch. Rather, he’s a shrewd political entrepreneur who took a measure of the Republican Party and realized it could be won over because of the particular nature of the base of that party, which has its origins in decisions made decades ago. Although establishment Republicans see him as an upstart, Trump has legitimate claims to be the heir to traditions in the party that run from Barry Goldwater to Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan to Sarah Palin.
As Douthat rightly notes, the peculiar demographics of the GOP made it possible for Trump to use “identity politics” to make an appeal to “a single large constituency.” The key structural fact of American politics is that the GOP is an overwhelmingly white party while the Democrats are a multi-racial coalition. In 2012, according to Gallup, the Democrats were 60 percent white, 22 percent black and 13 percent hispanic—versus 89 percent white, 2 percent black, and 6 percent hispanic for Republicans.
The demographic difference between the parties has roots going back to the rise of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. The Republican Party became overwhelmingly white thanks to a path created by top leaders: Goldwater in 1964, with his opposition to civil rights; Nixon in 1968 and 1972, with his law and order rhetoric (which Trump echoes); and Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984, with his dog whistle racism about welfare queens. In addition to these covert appeals to white identity politics, the party grew beholden to a political entertainment culture. Figures like Rush Limbaugh and Roger Ailes (as head of Fox News) exercised an influence on the party with no counterpart on the left. It’s true that Clinton goes to Hollywood to fundraise and has celebrities speak on her behalf, but there’s no massively popular, left-wing television network spearheading the Democratic Party’s ideological message.
In a recent interview with New York magazine, President Barack Obama said, “I see a straight line from the announcement of Sarah Palin as the vice-presidential nominee to what we see today in Donald Trump, the emergence of the Freedom Caucus, the tea party, and the shift in the center of gravity for the Republican Party.” What Obama could’ve added is that Palin herself, as a celebrity demagogue, was a product of tendencies evident in the party for many years—tendencies that have only become stronger and more apparent over the past year. To suggest that similar tendencies are at work within Democratic Party is to engage in magical thinking at a critical moment in U.S. history that demands exactly the opposite.