Emmett Rensin wrote an extremely insightful article that struck a raw nerve and cost him his job at Vox some months ago. Since then, an electoral earthquake shook up the country (and the world) and it now has become fashionable for those claiming to be speaking for the “have nots” to lecture to those who are presumably smug.
Without dismissing the smugness of the originals, this attitude of “have-not-splaining” is itself becoming a bit smug. This is not the first time that I’ve seen this. I’d seen this in context of South Korean politics, when left wing demagogue Roh Moo Hyun unexpectedly rose to presidency using much the same tactic as Trump later on–by relying on the support from underappreciated and marginalized segments of the society, especially undermployed young to young-ish people who were resentful of the rigged economic and political institutions, combined with thuggish, outlandish, and often very colorful use of political rhetoric that bordered on incitement for violence and chaos (“war on press,” including arrest and harassment of opposition journalists on flimsy technicalities, violence and intimidation of both opposition legislators AND his presumed political allies, mobs on streets encouraged by the Blue House, etc), and use of unrefined, crass, and even “ignorant” patterns of speech. On the other hand, he broke up the regional basis of the South Korean politics and actually drew in many working class voters from the regions historically friendly to the allegedly “right wing” parties while retaining traditionally pro “left wing” voters in other regions. (“left” and the “right” in old South Korean politics were largely meaningless, other than their self-identification as “left” or “right.” In a sense, Roh was indeed the first bona fide “left winger” in South Korean politics) What exactly his program was not very obvious: amidst a lot of chaos, some very ideological extremists with peculiar agendas–that may or may not have worked if they were seriously implemented–became prominent in his administration and sought to force through their schemes through the same sort of bullyboy tactics that Roh so loved. It goes without saying that the status quo bit back, most programs, good and bad, were lost in cracks, the leftist parties that tried to ally with Roh were discredited and left in chaos, and while a significant minority remain enamored with Roh-ism, most of the rest of South Korea got sick and tired of such crazy antics, while the actual social and economic problems that gave rise to Roh-ism remain unresolved. Indeed, it has become essentially impossible to seriously and credibly deal with these issues without stepping on many wrong toes precisely because of the divisive and chaotic effect of Roh-ism.
Other than Roh’s alleged leftism, all these characteristics show up again in Trump’s path to presidency in 2016. As such, it provides a dangerous clue as what is likely to happen in the Trump administration. The anger of the discontented masses will be largely unaddressed, while some non-mainstream ideologues will find platform for yelling aloud, without actually going anywhere, if only for the lack of political skills and willingness to engage in dealmkaing and compromise. The root cause for the discontent among the average supporter–of Roh or Trump–will be left unaddressed as they would be conflated with the nutty demands by the ideologues who presume that all their supporters share their worldviews.
Of course, this is not necessarily new in recent American politics. We’ve seen this before, and I had specifically mentioned the phenomenon earlier–the Tea Party and its sub-tribes. Too much political science, I think, was wasted on trying to figure out the “ideological” underpinnings of the Tea Party phenomenon, and that much of the Tea Party was fueled by somewhat directionless, certainly ideologyless, discontented people. The people whom Tom Frank identified in What Is the Matter with Kansas. The ideology-less supporters of the Tea Party movement, precisely because they were lacking in a direction, even if full of discontent, could be co-opted by the more coherent, even if rather non-mainstream, ideologues as fodder for their agenda, by creating a somewhat fictitious front that many millions of people wanted to cut government supported health care for themselves, get rid of Social Security and Medicare, etc. Certainly, there was an upswell of discontent at particular forms of health care reform put forward by Obama administration, but more due to the widespread distrust of those implementing the reforms, not necessarily the basic idea itself: the oft-ridiculed statement “get government out of my Medicare” captures this sentiment perfectly. The idea that government should be involved in health care is a good thing, at its core, for many casual Tea Partiers–contrary to the fiction spun by the Tea Party “leaders”–the guys who had a political agenda. But the grassroots Tea Partiers did not trust the government controlled by a man in whom they had little trust to keep their interests in mind. In other words, the grass roots Tea Party was fundamentally a different creature from the Tea Party “leaders.” The Democrats and Republicans alike erred by conflating the two, sometimes to the point of self-delusion, as Eric Cantor found out when he was defeated in the primaries.
In a sense, this is the sentiment that Trump tapped into: that many in the electorate that supported the Tea Party movement (or, indeed, even the Obama candidacy) were skeptical of the institutions that they had voted for, that they felt that they were duped, used as props to support ideologues’ agenda, only to be cast aside when they were no longer necessary. (Doubtlessly, a sentiment shared by many erstwhile supporters of Roh in South Korea, and possibly, of Chavez in Venezuela too). But a crowd that is discontented but lacks a clear sense of direction is the toughest crowd to manage. The leaders themselves have to gauge what it is that will satisfy their supporters without an input from the latter, for the discontented masses themselves do not know what exactly it is that they want. As the saying might go, we all want to be happy, healthy, wealthy, and wise, but none of know how to get there, and asking them the specifics of what they want beyond the somewhat vaguely defined goals is absurd. Even more absurd, perhaps, would be being frustrated that the discontented are still discontented, even after they were given television and eyes of blue, complete with plans for everyone. For this, you cannot survey people. You need an understanding. Does anyone actually have the necessary understanding? The critics of smugness seem as short of the necessary understanding as the people whose smugness they attacked and continue to attack. We are facing interesting times.