The rise of Donald Trump, as a former Democrat, now born-again Republican presidential candidate comprises a national political phenomenon so shocking that the media, including social media, cannot explain it. Some, in fact, many, rail against it. Others speak of it as if the end of days has come upon the GOP. I am a lifelong Democrat, a delegate to the most recent Democratic National Convention. I know something about this sea change in American politics that we are seeing. It is a kind of end but also a kind of beginning. It has happened before.
Over a hundred years ago in America, the aftermath of the Civil War was still playing out in American politics. The Democrats were, on most all issues, the Conservatives and the Republicans, the more liberal party. How? Well, what greater use of government power than using the national army to prevent states, that had voted to join the union, to remain in that union despite their vote to leave it? The equal rights amendment was a platform of the GOP for over half the twentieth century. The Conservatives were the Democrats.
In 1900, Theodore Roosevelt was nominated for vice president on the GOP ticket headed by William McKinley. When McKinley was assassinated in the first year of his term, Theodore Roosevelt assumed the presidency and is remembered as a progressive who founded the National Park Service, championed conservation, began the Panama Canal and won the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating and end to the Russo-Japanese War. He remains one of our greatest presidents in any listing of the greats. His branch of the Roosevelt family was always known for their progressive views and ideas. He called his program for Americans “The Fair Deal.”
The year Teddy Roosevelt became president, his cousin, Franklin Roosevelt was at Harvard, studying Economics. He went on to hold various posts in government, including governor of New York. It was from there that he became president when Herbert Hoover stumbled badly in handling the Great Depression. Hoover, at first, thought things would right themselves. The people, he believed, would persevere. Hoover was raised poor. Roosevelt was raised rich. By the time he took office , he had in place “The New Deal”, which consisted of large public expenditures designed to employ the unemployed and feed the starving. No one alive remembers it now, but there were food riots in Toledo and other industrial cities and banks were being robbed daily when the New Deal began. Communism was described as inevitable by the left of the day. The New Deal was not perfect. But it’s main outline remains the structure of American society today. It is underlain by the idea of opportunity for all, not just the rich.
Enter Donald Trump, rich beyond the Roosevelts, into American politics at a time when there is almost no way for average people to make a living in this country. The bankers and the corporate officers, the MBAs, have run the country for the last twenty five years. The richest of the rich and the money changers in the banks, have profited enormously from the politics of lower taxes for them and the same or higher for the working poor. They have become so arrogant and puffed up that they see their own ideas as not just good ones but as unassailable. There is an incredible arrogance on the left that manifests itself as a smug assurance that is you disagree with them you are unintelligent. They offer more poverty to workers in return for more hours. Working people are dying young. Their children have little chance of doing better. The stores are full of part time workers with college degrees. Everything made by hand, sewn or assembled, is made somewhere else where there is no workers’ compensation. Often, it is made by convicts or children.
There is nothing great about exploitation of the poor in this nation or another. The dirty story about the illegal Hispanics in America is that both parties have used them for leverage and neither party will cease exploiting them. The Right wants them as semi-slave labor. The Left as a group of voters whom they can protect. And count on.
It is not xenophobic to care for our own citizens. It is not un-American to have borders, to bring piecework back home, to require trade partners to trade fairly and to be a dependable ally. The last 16 years have seen us lash out in the Middle East, against perceived enemies, and destabilize governments once friendly to us. In each case it was as President Obama said of Libya, “Well, we went in there without a plan.” America needs change. We need to be America again. It begins to look to working Americans as if the Republicans might be better able to effect that change than my own party. Sanders sensed the problem and brought it to the discussion in that party and while some see it, the majority wants to dance to the old records from times gone by. They ignore the death of the American dream. The Republicans see it in larger numbers.
Theodore Roosevelt passed the Democrats on the left. FDR did it again a few years later. Now, a hundred years later, the bankers are nauseous but Trump has passed them on the right on trade and left, on immigration. The closer it gets to an actual choice about the future course of the nation, about doing and not just talking, the more electable he becomes.