Chris Ladd used to be a Republican.
Actually, not merely a Republican. He was a precinct committeeman and campaign volunteer and worked his rear off to get John McCain elected president in 2008. He ran a website, GOPLifer, that was a regular read by Republicans looking for insight, understanding, verification.
Then Chris woke up. Eh, scratch that. He didn’t wake up, so much as he was stirred to awareness and anger by a once-great political party going, in his opinion, batshit crazy. The GOP Chris loved was one of fairness, economic principle, a willingness to engage and compromise. But with McCain’s defeat (and, oddly, Sarah Palin’s simultaneous rise), Ladd experienced a shift that horrified him. Reason was discarded, replaced by religious fundamentalism. Contemplation found itself tossed into the waste bin, overtaken by gut feelings and racially-charged decisions. In short, he felt abandoned.
Hence, Chris—a longtime political journalist who blogs for Forbes—started Political Orphans, a site for those who feel left behind. He has been a vocal critic of President-elect Trump, who he calls a “walking, talking cancerous mass,” and attributes much of the recent election results to a white America resisting diversity.
Chris Ladd, you’re Quaz No. 283 …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Chris, ever since the election I’ve had trouble sleeping, trouble staying positive. I keep reading these essays on the destruction of America; keep hearing about the awful future of the EPA; keep thinking about Muslims, Mexicans, etc. You’ve been around—is there any good here? Can this possibly work out?
CHRIS LADD: To be clear, there is no way this is going to be “OK” in any conventional sense of the word. We will, however, adapt. We will develop a new definition of normal. I am reasonably confident that the majority of your readers will survive to the end of the Trump Administration. So, at least there’s that.
Two forces are still working in our favor. The first, perhaps surprisingly, is bureaucratic inertia. The second is the fact that Trump won with barely 47 percent of the vote.
As Obama discovered after being elected with a massive Congressional majority—it is very difficult to make the US government do anything under any circumstances. Legislating is hard. And worse than legislating, getting a change of direction implemented by our dense, almost impenetrable deep-state institutions requires remarkable skill and insight. Trump’s ambitions will be limited by his own incompetence, disinterest, inattention to detail, and the blundering high jinks of the dumb, venal bastards in his entourage.
Whatever damage can result from inaction (think: climate change) could be severe and lasting. On the other hand, any potential damage that would depend on his effective use of executive or legislative power (think: a Muslim registry or mass deportations) probably will never materialize. Chances are, the bureaucracy will continue to do all the things it was already doing. New Trump and GOP initiatives will probably be slow to launch or fall apart under the weight of their own stupidity.
His historically weak electoral mandate plays into this inertia. At every step he will be dogged by legal action, silent resistance from bureaucrats and noisy resistance from a newly energized (and furious) American middle.
I still wake up some mornings and get a minute or so into my day before I remember what happened and my heart sinks. This is a tragic situation. Whatever hopes we may have had for ourselves and for our lives in the near term that depended on an effective, responsible central government should probably be … let’s just say, modified. I doubt we will be getting competent leadership in Washington anytime in the near future.
J.P.: There have been approximately 8,223,221 attempts to psychoanalyze the rise of Donald Trump, and I want to give you No. 8,223,222—because I’m at a loss. How do you explain Donald Trump, political phenomenon? Like, why do people listen to him? People with brains? And do you view him as some odd quirk in history, or as a scarier truth?
C.L.: In pursuit of an answer that makes sense, people seem to be sorting into two blocs. One blames the rise of Trump on pigheaded racists. The other pins the blame on the economic travails of blue collar and rural workers. I’m of the opinion that there is a little of both at work here, but it all rolls up into the meaning of race in America.
I wrote about that nexus between economics and race here. Race is the larger factor here, and not just in some kumbaya, ‘let’s all learn to love each other sense.’ America is built from the ground up on the assumed supremacy of white people—their culture, their religion(s), and their economic priorities. People will tolerate all kinds of “others”—including a black president—so long as they feel secure in the core supremacy of white culture. When that breaks down, they freak out in violent, catastrophic ways. The ‘economic insecurity’ logic for Trump is disastrously flawed unless we recognize the role of race in that insecurity.
Trump is not getting the bulk of his support from “the poor.” His hardest of hardliners are aging, lightly educated white people earning modestly above middle incomes. They are, however, pretty consistently “left behind.” These are whites who for reasons of choice or circumstances did not participate in the great boom of the past 30 years, the largest expansion of wealth in human history.
What these people have lost over the past few decades is not so much factory jobs or middle-class incomes. Much more importantly, political and economic liberalization has badly weakened the shadow social safety net that used to insulate white people, especially lower and middle income white men, from conditions everyone else had to endure.
If you actually listen to Trump supporters describe their reasons for supporting him, you get some version of this:
Nothing these people say about Donald Trump makes a lick of sense, from the Clinton email narrative to the claim that Trump “tells it like it is.” Their arguments make no sense because they aren’t going to talk about their genuine motivations. In fact, they probably don’t even understand their own motivations. Pretending that race doesn’t matter is more central to the American identity than baseball. That denial runs very, very deep.
For the Bernie wing out there looking for validation for their narrative, the nonsense spouted by Trump supporters is an invitation, a blank canvas. These Trump Whisperers are determined to translate this gibberish into a neo-Marxist story of working class angst. It takes a lot of work and a soft focus to pull this off, but they are trying.
For someone raised blue collar in East Texas who has listened to Trumpers when they feel comfortable enough to tell the truth, a clearer picture emerges that has nothing to do with “economic anxiety.” You’ll hear clarity from Trump voters under one circumstance, and only one circumstance—if they feel safe enough (or drunk enough), to tell you “What I think about The Blacks.” Sometimes they’ll substitute Mexicans or in a rare case even The Jews. And increasingly, you might hear what they think about “radical feminists,” which is code for their wives (or ex-wives).
Want to see an antidote to the Trump Whisperers? Read what people from white working backgrounds say once they’ve escaped that world. Kevin Williamson at the National Review drew fire for his cold assessment of the Trump phenomenon back in March. Williamson is no alien to Trumplandia. A native of Amarillo, a place where I spent my holidays and summers in a trailer park, he sees this scenario pretty clearly. Speaking of the Trumpsters, he explains:
“Nothing happened to them. There wasn’t some awful disaster. There wasn’t a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign occupation. Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence—and the incomprehensible malice—of poor white America. So the gypsum business in Garbutt ain’t what it used to be. There is more to life in the 21st century than wallboard and cheap sentimentality about how the Man closed the factories down.”
There’s a clean, mathematical test available to determine whether white angst is about economics or race. Voters in the primaries had an opportunity to nominate a Democratic candidate who devoted his entire campaign to a Rooseveltian program of democratic socialist economic outreach. Alternatively, they had an opportunity to vote in the Republican primary for a race-baiting Fascist. Look closely at primary results from smaller counties across Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. Guess which guy white voters picked in greater numbers in the primaries?
Stories written by soft-core sociologists about the plight of white people hit me in a particularly personal place. I grew up white trash in one of those forgotten hellholes in Trumplandia. Most of these places were hellholes decades ago in their imaginary prime. They were hellholes 80 years ago when writers like James Agee came to ogle their inhabitants and muse on their simple virtues. Now they many of them remain hellholes with fewer people and less going on.
Nothing about these places has changed apart from the fact that the rest of the world got better, a lot better. And most importantly, the world has gotten better for people like African-Americans, Hispanics, and women; people whose suffering and enforced weakness used to give Trump voters some relative comfort.
These voters chose Trump because regardless of the outcome, this election wasn’t going to change much of anything about their lives. The place where they live would continue to be left behind under a president named Trump or Clinton. Trump isn’t offering them a chance to improve their town, he’s offering a chance to destroy better places; a chance to turn everything into the kind of rundown, abandoned places they are content to inhabit.
Mealy sympathy-pieces about backwater towns in thrall to Trump offer a certain comfort to everyone else. We would all be relieved to discover that this national nightmare was just a big misunderstanding, another example of “elites” failing to listen to the common people. We could just hug it out.
Sorry. I’ve been listening to these people my whole life. We are not facing some new problem born of globalization or capitalism or trade. We are facing America’s oldest problem.
When white people feel their hold on power slipping, they freak out. And it always starts with the folks lower down the economic ladder, because they have the highest relative investment in what it means to be white in this country. There’s not a damned thing we can do about it other than out-vote them and, over time, out-evolve them until this crippling and occasionally lethal national glitch is slowly worked out of our bloodstream.
Politics in a democracy hinges on an openness to understanding, the quest for empathy. As the Trump Whisperers are demonstrating, that quest can go wrong, especially when both understanding and empathy are stunted by cultural distance. Our drive to find common ground can end up legitimizing or even romanticizing toxic ideologies. All values are not equal. Some values deserve to be aggressively marginalized. Some values should inspire more anger than sympathy.
J.P.: I would think writing on politics would be ultimately depressing as all fuck. I mean, it’s nonstop squabbling, little gets done, it’s uglier than ever. How do you not want to stick a knife in your temple?
C.L.: Tell me more about this knife …
This may sound odd, but I sort of hate writing this stuff and I’m not completely sure why I continue. It feels like a duty I cannot escape.
This country has done a lot for me. People who came before us made enormous sacrifices to build something unique in human experience. Then they handed their work to us. I feel a duty to take what they gave me and do what I can to preserve and improve it for the people who come after me.
Serving in the military was never really an option. I’m too scrawny to march around with a backpack and I’m too ornery to take orders. Running for office is unrealistic. You need to be likeable on at least some level to win elections. However, I’m reasonably bright and I write words good. So that seems like the best contribution I can make.
The effort feels futile, it is often depressing, and it promises to earn me a lifetime total of $0, but it gives me a chance to make a payment on that debt. So I keep writing and speaking.
J.P.: How did you wind up going from Republican to largely anti-Republican? Was there a moment? A light bulb? What happened?
C.L.: This year’s RNC marked a clear bright line. The party I served as a precinct committeeman and campaign volunteer endorsed a fascist. Democracy depends on compromise and openness to ideas, but I’m gonna take a hard pass on lining up with Nazis. A lot of my thoughts on this situation are in my resignation letter to our local chairman.
For decades I have belonged to a Republican faction that lost much of its influence when Bush II became President. Pragmatic, business-oriented, pro-civil rights Republicans in the Jack Kemp mold have long felt their influence eroding. I grew up in East Texas and I was living in Houston in the 1990s when a band of religious nutjobs took control of the GOP there. Their actions split the party—literally. For several years there were two separate organizations with different leadership claiming to be the Harris County GOP. I found myself aligned with the losers in that struggle, as a particularly ugly and corrupt band of religious fundamentalists won the right to set the party’s agenda.
John McCain offered hope for a resurgence. His 2000 speech excoriating the “agents of intolerance” kept me engaged in the party. Plus, moving to the Chicago area placed me in a far more sane, tolerant and pragmatic local Republican organization which helped a lot.
I was volunteering on the McCain campaign from the beginning, making hundreds of calls into New Hampshire alone. When McCain nominated Sarah Palin it became clear that we were in serious trouble. When he lost the White House and she became the standard-bearer for the GOP it was time to start speaking out more forcefully against the party’s direction. Until last year I was still writing pieces about how the party might be reorganized to shed its dependence on white bigots and develop a sane policy agenda. Obviously, that’s over. I have no idea what to do now, hence the emergence of PoliticalOrphans as a successor to the GOPLifer blog.
J.P.: You’re the author of a book, “The Politics of Crazy: How America Lost its Mind and What we Can Do About it.” Chris, how did America lose its mind?
C.L.: In short, we won. We prevailed in the cultural, economic and military/strategic challenges of the 20th century so comprehensively and enormously that our victory changed the landscape around us. Even happy developments can produce unintended consequences. Now we face pressures to adapt to a new environment shaped by our success. So far, this generation’s response has been a humiliating failure.
To my view, The Politics of Crazy is ultimately a story about the decline of social capital, that dense network of community institutions that once played a critical, stabilizing role in filtering the craziest ideas and people from the core of our culture. A vast and relatively sudden expansion of freedom, prosperity, and technological progress ate away at the foundations of our social capital institutions in ways we never anticipated.
We are more isolated from our communities, from our core institutions, and from each other than we have ever been. That isolation has weakened mediating institutions that used to keep the culture healthy. With the mediators too weak to perform their functions, there’s nothing to stop Sarah Palin from becoming a VP candidate or some random reality TV star and grifter from becoming President.
J.P.: Chris, what can we do about it?
C.L.: Our best responses probably need to happen on two levels, policy innovation, and reinforcing a sense of social obligation.
On the policy side I think we need to revisit the ideas of libertarian thinkers like Hayek and Friedman. Forget about libertarian fantasies of laissez faire markets solving all of our problems. That’s not what I’m talking about.
I’m referring to approaches that leverage carefully structured markets as ways to solve problems with less reliance on government. If elected institutions are likely to suffer from a chronic vulnerability to crazy, then maybe we need to find solutions to problems that place less emphasis on central government action. Maybe our lives would be better and safer if those institutions had less direct power over our lives.
In fact, the insurance mandate that formed the basis of the Affordable Care Act started out this way, inspired by thinkers influenced by Hayek and Friedman, working at the conservative Heritage Institute in the 90s. As another example, think of the cap-and-trade approach to carbon regulation. That’s an innovation from the right inspired originally by libertarian thought on pollution control. And it could work.
The right won’t adopt cap and trade because if Jesus cared about polar bears he’d build them an ark. The left won’t get behind market-based solutions because such simple policy mechanisms deprive them of the opportunity to deliver special Easter eggs to their galaxy of tiny interest groups and community organizers. Take a close look at the politics that doomed Washington state’s carbon tax initiative as an example. We cannot continue to operate this way, with the Democratic Party’s patronage engines blocking progress from one side and raving right-wing psychos on the other side promising to pray away our problems.
Along the same lines, what if we replaced the social safety net with its hundreds of thousands of enabling bureaucrats with a universal basic income? Why not replace the war on drugs with a few simple regulations on access? What if we replaced thousands of pages of largely unenforceable and useless gun regulations with a universal insurance mandate for owners? The same dynamics that have doomed carbon regulations have blocked these useful reforms.
I wrote about this at (even) more length in a piece at Forbes. We have to get used to the idea that a society this complex, this large, this diverse, cannot rely on a massive pool of experts in Washington to manage our affairs in minute detail. Markets give us a tool to solve critical public policy problems with a lighter, less expensive, less intrusive hand. These are the ideas I used to hope that Republicans might embrace. They didn’t and now they won’t. But these concepts are still sitting there, waiting for someone to leverage them to build a better future. Approaches like this are our allies in the fight against crazy.
On the social side, I think we need all individually have to get more engaged.
Coming to adulthood in the 90s it really felt like all of the important problems had been solved. Nothing remained but administration. That feeling left us all a bit complacent and drove a massive decline in local civic engagement. One silver lining from the Trumpocalypse is that we have lost our complacency. It looks like we may see a big uptick in public engagement going all the way down to the local level. Social media has a role to play in this process, and we are already seeing its impact.
J.P.: I used to love social media’s possibilities, but I’ve come to think it’s far more awful than beneficial. In other words, I feel like ignorance and unsubstantiated gossip spreads at the speed of light, and truth crawls. Agree? Disagree? Thoughts?
C.L.: Adaptation is an evolutionary imperative. Social media is a tool and a threat, just like every innovation. It has disrupted older methods of human interaction in ways no one could have anticipated. Look, mass electrification was a pretty unnerving innovation, but I think we can say with some confidence that it worked out.
Besides, social media is nowhere near as toxic as 24-hour cable news. CNN, Fox and MSNBC are a collective brain hammer.
As funky as social media has been up to now, it is probably the medium through which a truly powerful resistance to the Trump Administration is going to materialize. Granted, it remains the main channel through which my father and his generation consume disinformation and scams. But for digital natives, people who have grown up understanding the need to filter raw information, this medium might eventually be as politically important as the first printed books. Nothing inspires me quite as much as what I am seeing develop in communication technology.
J.P.: I know it’s asking you to guess, but 100 years from now what does history say of Barack Obama’s presidency?
C.L.: At the end of the Obama Administration I tend to think that the main critique of Obama from the 2008 campaign is still pretty persuasive. He seems to be a good, decent, admirable guy who was utterly unsuited by personality and experience to serve as president.
He had control of every lever of government power for two years. All he has to show for it are a bank bailout, no Wall Street prosecutions, the failure to deliver meaningful relief to ordinary people hit hard by the financial collapse, and a cluster-fuck of a health insurance reform that did almost nothing for middle-income voters but saddle them with a mandate. Don’t get me wrong, we’re gonna miss him, but mostly because he’s a pretty great guy on a personal level and he’s being followed in office by a walking, talking cancerous mass.
And 100 years from now? I suspect whatever remains of “history” that far out will recall little if anything from this period more significant than the development of the iPhone, the Cubs winning the World Series and Beyonce’s Lemonade. It feels like we are seeing government and politics eclipsed as a matter of importance in our lives and a vehicle for improving the human condition.
J.P.: Is it possible that this is merely a blip in American history? That Trump sucks so badly that, four years from now, a progressive Democrat trounces him and a more united, more diverse America emerges stronger? Or is that the spewing of a crack addict?
C.L.: Well, sorta. It seems likely that we are witnessing a phenomenon larger than Donald Trump, and even larger than the low-rent fascism he has fostered. We are probably living through the dawn of the idiocracy. Once upon a time, it was unusual to have a President who didn’t have a degree from a prestigious university. Over the coming decades I doubt we’ll have a single president who doesn’t own an Oscar, Emmy, Grammy or Heisman, or at least have their own TV show.
That’s not to say that we won’t adjust or that life in American won’t get better while this carries on. I just suspect that the presidency is likely to decline in relative importance after four unstable years of Donald Trump followed by the glorious eight-year reign of President Kanye West (Hail Pablo!).
We might be witnessing the end of government and politics as the main engine of human progress in the world. For the past 20 years, politics has given us almost nothing valuable, while markets and corporations have developed usable solar energy solutions, reusable rockets, a hand-held device with access to almost all human information, and made that device cheap enough that 12-year olds are carrying it around.
The death of politics as anything more than a persistent threat to more meaningful human endeavors might turn out to be an okay development in the longer run.
J.P.: You Tweeted something interesting: “To be clear, we didn’t underestimate Donald Trump. We overestimated American voters.” Are the American voters simply ignorant? Callous? Dumb?
C.L.: A lot of this came out in the lengthy, earlier answers, but basically Americans voters care a lot more about white supremacy than almost anyone in mainstream politics wanted to believe, including yours truly. A truly stunning number of American voters are outright assholes, willing to doom the entire national project because hipsters or celebrities or people who say “Happy Holidays” triggered their delicate little feelings. It was a mistake to imagine that a majority of voters care about things like patriotism or sacrifice in any sense that actually applies to their lives. We shouldn’t make that mistake again.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH CHRIS LADD:
• Five most noteworthy Ladds the world has known?: We are not a famous bunch. One uncle describes us as a band of vagabonds and renegades, which has largely been continued into the present. There are, of course, the actors, Alan and Cheryl. The world has yet to know five noteworthy Ladds. We’ll see what the future holds. My kids are awfully promising.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Andy Moog, The Cranberries, Pierre Trudeau, Anthrax, Super Glue, Jackie Chan, Emily Blunt, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” Don Cheadle, Pac Man, Paul Ryan: Jackie Chan, Super Glue (you gotta love stuff that works), Emily Blunt, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Pac Man, Andy Moog (I Googled him), Don Cheadle, Pierre Trudeau, The Cranberries, Anthrax, Paul “Vichy Republican” Ryan
• One question you would ask Herschel Walker were he here right now?: How much money do you figure you gave up in the end by betting your career on Donald Trump and the New Jersey Generals?
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Yes, and it was a remarkably calm moment. I felt deeply sad for my wife and my kids, but I felt like I had done what I could for them and they would be OK. I leaned back and prepared to go hurtling into some suburban Appleton backyard. Then the little plane leveled off and life carried on as normal. It was a strange experience.
• The most important thing a kid needs to know when it comes to learning to engage in politics?: Elected officials are surfers, not the wave. Don’t ever expect an elected official to be a “leader.” That isn’t how this works. If you really want to change things, stay away from Washington. Work in community organizations changing conditions on the ground. Washington is where change ends, not where it starts.
• What Whitney Houston song most moves you to tears?: Perhaps the remake of The Greatest Love of All by the underappreciated geniuses, Sexual Chocolate.
• What happens to Donald Trump in four years?: He’s wandering around his penthouse, the last property he still owns, alone, in a soiled bathrobe, with Kleenex boxes on his feet and jars of his own urine stacked up on the windowsill, shouting orders to invisible generals and aides, waiting for the sweet embrace of death which each day refuses to close around him.
• Coolest NHL uniform? Ugliest NHL uniform?: Having lived in Chicago for a while now, it has come my attention that there is a thing called hockey. That’s the most I can offer there. Apparently it involves ice and sticks or something