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  • Glenn Sonnenberg

Musings from the Bunker 1/13/21

Good morning, THE ZEITGEIST FAVORS DISORDER The most dangerous person in America today is not Donald Trump. It’s the next wannabe autocrat. It’s a more sophisticated and savvy version, a version with thicker skin and not prone to erratic behavior. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley are betting that they fit the bill. They both were educated at the finest institutions, steeped in the law, well-versed in the lessons of history, and sophisticated in the understanding of power and how to wield it. That makes them more dangerous and more capable of manipulating the levers of power to achieve their goals and consolidate their power. Yet perhaps they’re too “mainstream” for the armed resistance and just don’t yet realize it. In that case, who might the person be to fill the vacuum? The greatest leaders in our history have mastered the ability to inspire. Each did so by mastering the medium of the time. When public speaking was the primary way to reach voters, the gifts of Lincoln and TR thrived in that medium. When radio was in vogue, FDR mastered the fireside chat, taking presidential communication into people’s living rooms for the first time. Kennedy mastered television, starting with the first televised debate; Reagan and Clinton built on that mastery. Obama used the internet to communicate and raise money. Donald Trump figured out how to make social media work for him. But in addition they were able to utilize their communicative skills to tap into the zeitgeist. In a sense, they fed off of a symbiotic relationship with the electorate—giving voice to the anxieties of the time and articulating prescriptions to address those and then “lead” the very movements that elected them. Today’s zeitgeist should concern us all:

  • Washington can’t be trusted

  • Economic disparity has widened

  • People are living on the margin, with more than half the population unable to cover a $1,000 emergency expenditure

  • College is expensive, pushes people into long term debt and its value is questioned

  • Jobs have moved offshore and many will never return

  • People whose jobs have become redundant as a result of globalization and technology are not afforded the means to shift careers and provide for their families

  • There is a sense that the pie cannot be grown; it’s more about each interest group grabbing its own piece of the pie

  • There is a sense that our “way of life” through the expansion of rights

None of this is good news. What the zeitgeist does suggest is that the economic disparities, sense of despair, and the inability of the government to deliver solutions animates many of those on the right and the left. My fear is that some of this suggests that the “old ways” of dealing with these problems cannot be relied upon. It suggests that “drastic times call for drastic measures.” PRINCIPLES MAY NOT MATTER Our leaders get the vote because of their ability to use the media and provide an answer to the anxieties of the populace. Jimmy Carter was a response to Watergate, Reagan a response to Carter, George W. Bush a response to Bill Clinton, etc. The winners in most recent elections did so because they could speak to the people in a believable manner, promising a change. Of course it’s not all personality and policy was wrapped up in each of these campaigns. But what happens if policy is no longer the motivator? When it isn’t, then it’s all about giving voice to the angry, destruction for destruction’s sake, abandonment of proven systems of stability (e.g., international accords and free trade), and retributive legislation against perceived excesses. What’s interesting with Mr. Trump is the complete absence of principle or philosophy and instead a focus on the visceral—feeding into the feeling of abandonment, of being left behind, of the lack of hope. His campaign was based upon being the only leader who “hears” them. Policy isn’t relevant. If it were, where are the conservative principles that Republicans ostensibly stand for? Which Republican senators really favor massive deficit spending, pulling troops from areas that have preserved the peace for years, not entering the Trans-Pacific Partnership, etc.? There are no “conservative principles” in this form of Republicanism. George Will, David, Frum, Max Boot and others have pointed this out repeatedly. Sure, some people were driven to Trump by a few simple policies that resonated with them—keep immigration down so they don’t take American jobs, stop the threats on our God-fearing way of life. But what we have learned of late is that the supporters of this angst-driven politics aren’t necessarily tied to any ideology—or even any individual. They also are willing to abandon anyone who makes even a sound that falls outside the narrative. Look how quickly Mike Pence has been thrown to the wolves. I don’t think Donald Trump will maintain the deification he currently enjoys with the far-right. There is a video of a New Mexico State Republican party leader stating that they will be coming after a list of people and, if necessary, Donald J. Trump too. The real “leader” may be the anonymous, shape-shifting Q. That is, after all, the “ultimate leader.” One who is anonymous and all-knowing. Trump is today’s proxy for this sort of leader. Tomorrow, others will emerge. We can’t just sit around and wait for them. WHAT IS YOUR BEST CASE? Often when I’m negotiating with someone and we seem at loggerheads, I ask, “tell me your best case and let’s see how close we can get.” Not everything they want but what would a reasonable result look like to them. Once the “ask” is defined, one can work toward a resolution. I’m pretty sure I know some of the social issues but I’m unclear of the economic or foreign policy ones. Are there any concrete proposals, short of “stop the steal” and armed resistance? Unless there are clearly defined “asks,” not tied to an individual or a tribe, we can’t really respond directly and substantively. THINGS WE CAN DO Even in the absence of a formal declaration of reasonably achievable goals, we must act to shore up our democracy—and that means not only security measures but concrete legislation that can reduce the economic malaise. This means enfranchising D.C. It means Congress reasserting its prerogatives and limiting the President’s powers (it will be curious to see the first administration in 100 years arguing to weaken the president’s authority). It means beefing up our educational system so that civics and critical thinking skills are on the curriculum. It means modifying the tax code to provide the economic (and more important, optical) benefit of taxing capital at the same rates as labor. It means a major infrastructure bill. It means we need to invest in job creation and job retraining (more about many of these ideas this later this month). And we need to crack down upon each and every group that advertises itself as insurrectionist or that threatens our safety or the safety of our public servants—quickly and decisively. While not typically a believer that prison sentences will deter generalized lawlessness, in this case I believe that’s precisely what it will do. JANUARY 6, 2021 WILL LIVE IN INFAMY We have been warned, in comments on social media, in statements to the press and in the dark places where these people communicate with each other on the web, that this is the first, but by no means the last, of such attacks. Remember that there were vigils held throughout the country in memory of the insurrectionist who was killed last week—not the police who died, but the rioter. Chew on that… We have quite a chore ahead of us controlling these heavily armed insurrectionists who are trying to “take back their country.” They threaten protests at all state capitals. The challenge is how to ensure the safety of all of our legislative leadership throughout the country all the time. Sooner or later the crazies will tally casualties. January 6, 2021 will live in infamy. But its lessons must also live on and will require continued vigilance. Good morning! Glenn

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