Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Election Aftermath - Thoughts on the Future

Good morning
"And the beat goes on........................."

"It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times."  

I am still trying to process this election. I can't seem to wrap my brain about the reality, nor what it is going to mean for the future.  "President Donald Trump" - I say that every morning and it still doesn't register.  The past two weeks of appointments and GOP talk of their "agenda" haven't inspired confidence or optimism for me.  It's hard to even consider the notion of healing the country, or reaching out to build bridges when someone is stabbing you with a knife.  The only thing you need to reach out for in that situation is something with which to defend yourself.

At first, I was genuinely surprised I had got it so completely wrong.  Now I believe I understand why I was so far off the mark. First, I relied on the pundits and pollsters.  Not since the "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline have the so-called pros been so wrong.  Second, I think I simply projected a result I wanted and in that conceit, I misread and misunderstood the breadth and scope of the feelings of those who voted for Trump.   Like the Paul Simon lyric: I heard what I wanted to hear, and disregarded the rest."  And third, I have spent virtually my entire life in California, and it is painfully clear that California is an isolated, oasis, fantasy land that has little relationship to the reality of the rest of the country.  My world, my America is not the reality.  The Trump people are the reality right now.  For the moment anyway, it's their America.

What Happened?
The Monday morning quarterbacking as to why Hillary lost will go on for years.  I think the obvious reasons are now apparent.  The Blacks who stayed home and didn't vote in the same numbers as they had come out for Obama, and the protesting group of Millennials who rallied around third party candidates because they "just couldn't vote for Hillary", including those Bernie supporters who were bitter at his loss, were arguably the statistical difference.  (And Bernie was marginally helpful to Clinton as his support was little and late).

She lost the three key states of Wisconsin (by about 20,000 votes), Michigan (by about 20,000 votes) and Pennsylvania (by about 90,000 votes); in the aggregate less than 150,000 votes. Assuming the recounts will not change the result, nor will anything come of various charges against Trump before he is sworn in, then the Millennials, who will likely be most impacted by many of the proposed Trump and GOP priority changes, will pay the price.    Welcome to the school of hard knocks kids - your votes to make yourselves feel cool may be the hammer that drives the nails into the coffin of climate change response.  Way to go.

And then there is the far right wing element - the American Taliban - the racists, bigots, homophobes, anti-semitics, sexists who have been unleashed by the Trump success.  Nobody in either party really wanted to believe this group was anything other than a fringe anomaly.  Nobody understood how how deep and wide this endemic and systemic prejudice ran.  While likely not a majority of the Trump camp, it was, and is, a far larger presence than imagined.  Now we know.

But its too simplistic to assign blame and point to just one cause for her defeat.   Beyond the failure of those who had every reason to support her, but did not, was the James Comey last minute release of meaningless information that amounted to no more than specious innuendo.  The GOP is superb at crafting a message and universally staying on that message - in this case, the basically, in  reality, inconsequential Clinton email probe.  That message wasn't really that Clinton had done anything illegal, but that she was somehow "untrustworthy".  The Republicans successfully pounded home that message relentlessly, and it struck.  That cost Clinton votes.  How many, we can't tell.

Americans, of course, like frequent change.  Nixon after Kennedy and Johnson.  Reagan after Carter. Clinton after Bush.  Bush after Clinton.  Obama after Bush.  It's almost predictable.

A core of Trump's supporters clearly fit into the category of "deplorable".  For them, in my opinion, this was not about Making America Great Again, it was about Making America White (and Christian, macho, straight) again.  It was about a rise to power of the white dominant structure and a rebuke and refutation of the last five decades of moving the country to a greater tolerance and acceptance of every corner of our society.  Born out of fear that their privileged position, racial superiority and clearer relationship with God was being threatened by people different from them (different looking, different thinking, different acting), they invested that fear in Trump and, he, unfortunately played to it for his own self-aggrandizement and personal gain.

But to conclude that every voter for Trump fits that narrative continues our misunderstanding of how this happened in the first place. For many (and maybe even most) Trump voters, their vote was a last straw as it were; their vote was a protest that the powers that be - both public and private - had for too long ignored their plight.  Things the Democrats thought were important to the country, simply weren't that important to them.  Climate change, the shift of wealth to the one percent - those were too remote and conceptual to be threatening.  Jobs, paychecks, the future their kids might have, healthcare were the important things, and they simply did not make the connections the Democrats tried to make that all those things were linked to things the Democrats were bent on fixing.  What the Republicans and Trump in particular succeeded in doing was playing on fear - the fear of injustice and unfairness and of relevance and control, for these voters believed that it simply isn't fair that the country's scarce resources and attention is paid to illegal immigrants rather than them as citizens.

Americans like simple, direct answers to even complex issues.  They don't want to dig deep and analyze.  They want villains and heroes.  So Trump's promise to stop jobs from disappearing overseas hit the mark.  Never mind that the real reason jobs are disappearing in traditional corporate America isn't greedy unions, isn't flawed trade policies  - though that sounds right.  The real reason may have more to do with the pressure the hedge funds and private equity firms put on companies to squeeze out profits and cut expenses so as to enable the companies to buy back more stock, for that process instantly raises the stock prices and benefits the funds.

This group of Trump Americans don't believe themselves racist or homophobic or anti-semitic or even intolerant.  They genuinely believe they have gotten the short end of the stick from everybody and the only recourse they had was to vote for an outsider who seemingly sympathized with them and promised to do what they believed would help their plight:  refocus on Americans - from our immigrant policy to our policies on trade with China and the world.  This was about a universal value:  Self interest.

And very likely the biggest reason she lost, was that her campaign, and the Democrats, misread the sense of the rust belt, white middle class, for whom the election was both a protest and about their futures.  This group felt ignored, abandoned, isolated and that America was turning its back on them. Except for Trump, who seemed to understand their plight.  It was though he was saying, clumsily and inelegantly, what Bill Clinton had said in 1992:  "I feel your pain."  Hillary and the Dems simply didn't get that this large bloc of voters weren't really overtly racist, nor leaning supremacist bigots, but those who held their noses and voted for Trump because he promised to: 1) go after those who were sticking it to them (Wall Street); and 2) understood and gave voice to the resentment and fear in this group that the country (and Hillary) were focused on providing for the segment of the population whom the rust belters believed didn't play by the rules.  The welfare cheats, the illegal immigrants, the Wall Street crowd.

So , for example, when Hillary thought she was talking to these people by assuring them she would tax the rich, raise the minimum wage and address the issue of the wealth shift to the one percent - her message didn't play the way she assumed it would.  No, what the target audience believed was that even if she taxed the rich in a move for more equity, that new money to the government would only be spent (again) on programs and services for the very segment that were cheating the system.  The tax on the rich wasn't likely to in any way benefit them - the money would only be spent on immigrants, welfare cheats, minorities, or otherwise end up in the pockets of the rich - like the Clintons.   Most of those in this group made more than the minimum wage. That wasn't an issue to them.  The issue was that their jobs didn't pay enough for them to keep pace with even reasonable expectations.  Minimum wage talk was again about providing for the very poor (immigrants, those who refused to better themselves etc.).  So the message Hillary thought she was sending, was construed (with ample help from the GOP) as something almost entirely different.  That reinforced her image of untrustworthiness and the allegation that she was in the palm of Wall Street.  Once again, the Democrats were inferior in both crafting and delivering key messages to target audiences.

Some of these Trump voters may have actually voted for Obama in 2012.  They are not necessarily ideologically wedded to the right wing oligopoly, nor are they necessarily devotees of Fox News spinmasters.  We didn't see them, in part, because we didn't want to.  In many ways, like the right wing, we see what we want to see. We too disregard the rest.  These are the people we need to reconnect with.

Finally, Trump superbly played the media - which loves dirty laundry.  In part, his success was attributable to the constant media attention on him as a phenomenon - and not on his, or anyone else's, policies and positions.  True investigative journalism seems dead.  What media isn't clearly aligned with one side or the other, has little interest in truth.  What we have in its place, particularly in the case of broadcasting,  is unabashed and unapologetic entertainment - for the bottom line is ratings.  Trump understood the media and the Kardashians as a cultural reality far better than did Clinton.

What's Happening Now, What's Going to Happen?
Just a couple of months ago, the talk was all about the Republican party imploding and questions about whether or not it would stand in anywhere near its current form.  Today, it is the Democratic Party that is in that position.  The Republicans, to be sure, still have fundamental problems, as the rank and file established Congressional and State leaders are not of the same mind or ilk as the rank and file Trump supporters.  There is still a divide between Trump and the rest of the party.  There is still a divide between the traditional Conservatives and the breed of Trump supporter that is more clearly racist and white first crowd.  Sides are being taken, and lines drawn in the sand, as various elements of the Trump world jockey for positions and influence in his Administration.

The traditional Republican leadership has its agenda - from Paul Ryan's privatization of Medicare, to the undoing of Obamacare, from deregulation of the financial industry, to tax reform, from neocon foreign policy to immigration, and where that agenda intersects with Trump's positions - the two sides of the Republican party will work hand in hand together to realize their objectives.  And that is why there will likely be no serious investigation of anything having to do with Trump - conflict of interest or any other allegation against him - in the first two years of his tenure.  And certainly no impeachment proceedings.  The old guard wants as much of its agenda passed and into law as it can get.  Thereafter, well that might be a very different situation, and the Congressional Republican leadership, with no love for Trump, might well then see his impeachment (and the rise to the Presidency of Pence - a solid, in the mold, Conservative) as a worthy end.  The Republicans control both houses of Congress and with Trump in the White House, have a real chance to move forward long held Conservative positions - not least of which will be the Supreme Court appointments likely to come up.  They will argue that their victory gives them a mandate.  (Never mind that Hillary won the popular vote, and that Trump's victory may be in doubt - making claims of a mandate laughable).  They aren't likely to do anything to rock that boat, and despite how much many of them abhor Trump and his core, they certainly don't want to do anything that would alienate that core and precipitate an internal civil war.  The establishment wing doesn't want to change the system, they want to game it and finally win the victories they have long imagined.  The other side wants the system thrown out.  That fight looms in the future for the party.

On the Democratic side, one group wants to adopt the GOP playbook and essentially become even more obstructionist than the Republicans were under Obama - i.e., vehemently oppose everything Trump and the Republicans propose.  Fight tooth and nail against any court nominee.  Filibuster, and sanction mass protests and gatherings to send the clear message to the Republicans that they will have to fight for everything.  This wing wants the current leadership, which they see as clueless, and which they blame for the losses the Democrats have sustained over the past decade, and which they view as basically gutless and incompetent, to resign.  This wing believes the Democratic leadership basically concedes the fights to the Republicans without engaging them.  They believe the basic Democratic DNA is surrender and Kumbaya.  And they are in no mood for more of the same.  They want massive coordinated street action for the next four years.  On the other side, are the establishment Democrats, who will support Pelosi's leadership in the House and Chuck Schumer (NY) in the Senate.  This wing is traditionalist.  They play by rules set in motion decades and decades ago.  This wing is in control of the party at present,  has no intention of handing over power, and is likely to continue flawed policies.  But they will be challenged like never before.  This ideological and strategic split may well wreck havoc on the party to the extent it will shoot itself in the foot yet again and play into the hands of the GOP.  That result may well spell the end of the Democrats as we know them, because those left in the party will not, in the future, have the numbers to win elections except in the bluest of blue states.  

And the Arts?
So what about us?  How will the new reality affect the arts?

We are likely to be under attack on multiple levels.  The fights we face will be more difficult than what we've faced in the past.  All bets are off.  Virtually nothing is, at this point, predictable.

Federal Funding:
We're really talking about the budget after March and then the 2017 and subsequent budgets.

The only clue we have as to Trump's position is his campaign statement that he would consider funding for the NEA to be up to Congress.  But does that mean, he wouldn't include any funding in the budget he ultimately sends to the House, but rather takes the stance that if the House wanted to fund the agency, they could add the line item to the budget.  Such a stance makes it much less likely the agency could survive.  

And there is certainly a group of Republicans who would like nothing more than to eliminate the Endowment as symbolic of the new normal.  In a world where the GOP wants to privatize Medicare, it's hard to see how the NEA gets the necessary support to even survive the argument that public funding for the arts is unacceptable.   The arts will, of course, again mount as massive an effort as they can to apply local pressure on members of Congress, arguing the economic benefit and the direct monies to their districts from the 40% share of the Endowment with the states. But there is likely to be a long list of critical issues for which the Democrats will want to fight that will (no pun intended) trump funding of the Endowment as a priority.

Bottom line - we just don't know what will happen at this point.

But even with the Endowment under threat, there is still considerable funding in other agencies and departments for the arts.  Those are arguably somewhat easier fights to win as the issue isn't so prominent and symbolic.

I believe the loss of the Endowment is a greater possibility now than at any time since its creation.  It's end would be a major blow to our field - not just the immediate loss of the money, but as emblematic as to how the country values the arts, and as a signal to state houses, governors and local officials who are not arts supporters, that it's ok to rethink government involvement in the arts on any level.  If we can't escape by staying under the radar, I fear we are in for the biggest fight we've ever had.  But that doesn't mean we will lose the fight.  Do not underestimate our chances.

Bigger Issues:
But government funding may not be the biggest issue for the arts.

In the zeal for tax reform, and simplicity in a new code, there may be increased attacks on the charitable deduction, and its compromise or elimination will negatively impact the entire nonprofit sector.  That is a challenge that may well threaten the existence of a large percentage of arts organizations.

It is often when threats are in the air, when one side is pitted against another, that artists are most motivated and active in using their art to push for increased awareness of what is at stake.  Arguably this election with its layers on layers of challenges and issues, will herald a dramatic increase in artistic expression and public interest.  Unfortunately, it is increasingly clear from examples around the world, that this is also a time when artistic expression as a form of free speech is seen as threatening to the controlling powers and is targeted.  We may very well expect attempts to censor, curb, and silence artists, and that is a fundamental attack on democracy itself.

Yet, with issues as profound as climate change, and war - artists will have a major role to play in facilitating intelligent and reasoned thinking in the populace.  The arts may be under attack, but will likely be more relevant and important than in some time.  It will be a distressing, yet exciting time for the arts.

In many ways, the Trump victory was a aggregation of a hodgepodge of unlikely bedfellows, and was but a continuation of the global trend towards embracing the far right.  Across the planet, the number of countries living under a military dictatorship now encompasses most of Asia, Africa and the Middle East.  In other parts of the world, regimes are moving towards authoritarianism.  And even in the hallmark democracies of the world (e.g., Britain - Brexit, and America - Trump) we are moving towards the right.  These trends may be born out of fear that the world is changing and the desire of the new majorities to keep the world as it has been.  It poses a huge and unique threat to freedom.

The urge to now demonize and label all those who voted for Trump as clear racist, homophobic, anti-semitic, sexist bastards is a mistake.   And even those who deplore Trump's campaign, now have to see if there is anywhere they might be able to work with him, and if there is, then, despite the acrimony and the past, have to avail themselves of that opportunity; not meekly, nor hat in hand, but at arm's length, ready, willing and able to play hardball, and with the knowledge that there is power in the tens of millions of people who now feel disenfranchised and threatened.  Cooperate when it is in our interest and fight doggedly the rest of the time.

America is worth fighting for.  And the country is now smack dab in the middle of a titanic fight.  The future won't belong to the meek.  There are scores of ways citizens can fight for the principles of freedom on which the country is built.  Some will opt to be more political, some will be less political.   I suppose the most important thing is to take whatever action seems reasoned and worthy to you - rather than sit on the sidelines as an observer.  There is so much more to say, yet at this moment, nothing left to say.  

One hopes that the office itself changes the man and that he turns out to do the right thing.

Ah, the curse of living in interesting times.

Whatever you do..........

Don't Quit