This broadcast originally aired on July 24, 2020.
President Trump ran for office promising to represent the “forgotten American.” Has that happened? Political scientist Jacob Hacker says the opposite has taken place, that under President Trump, the GOP has become the party of plutocrats. We’ll see how he makes that case.
Jacob Hacker, professor of political science and director of the Institution for Social and Policy Studies at Yale University. Co-author of "Let Them Eat Tweets: How The Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality." (@Jacob_S_Hacker)
On the “conservative dilemma,” and how it shapes modern American politics
Jacob Hacker: “We draw this phrase from the political scientist, Daniel Ziblatt’s work. He's best known for his writing with Steve Levitsky on the threats that democracy faces today. But he actually wrote an award-winning book a few years ago on how democracy was established in the West. And in particular, he focused on conservative parties. He said that the fate of democracy really hinged on whether conservative parties could resolve a basic dilemma that occurred when they basically had to compete for ordinary working class voters, even though they wanted to stay true to their economic patrons, to the rich within society. And how these parties dealt with this dilemma, he argued, really shaped the course of democracy.
"So we describe how in Britain, the Tories actually came up with a strategy for attracting non-rich voters by playing on patriotism and other not-too-harmful themes. But the contrary story is the German story, in which the Conservative Party allied with extremists and eventually succumbed to those extreme forces, as we all know. So essentially the dilemma in the U.S. is occurring not because the franchise is expanding, but because we've become so much more unequal as a society. And that's placed the Republican Party, the party that's traditionally been more closely allied with business and the affluent, in the same position that conservative parties faced at the dawn of democracy. Trying to figure out how they can stay true to their prior commitments to those at the top, while also appealing to voters who are not winning out in a winner take-all-economy.”
"What's really distinctive about the American version of right-wing populism is that it’s been married to plutocracy, by which we mean government of, by and for the very rich. And this marriage, this bitter brew, has transformed the Republican Party over the last generation."Jacob Hacker, Political Science Professor, Yale University
On the GOP’s answer to this dilemma of “plutocratic populism”
Jacob Hacker: “We think of Donald Trump and the Republican Party as becoming a right-wing populist party like right-wing populist parties and other rich democracies. But what's really distinctive about the American version of right-wing populism is that it’s been married to plutocracy, by which we mean government of, by and for the very rich. And this marriage, this bitter brew, has transformed the Republican Party over the last generation, not just under Donald Trump. And so one side of this is the organs of money, the organized money within the party.
"And you can think of the Chamber of Commerce and the Koch Brothers network, or the American Legislative Exchange Council that works at the state level. But there's another side that I think we at least had not paid as much attention to in our prior work. And that's the organs of outrage. The National Rifle Association, the Christian right, and especially right-wing media. So the Republican Party, in response to the conservative dilemma, we say, opens a Pandora's box, if you will. Coming to rely more and more on these groups that can really mobilize voters, but which the Republicans find increasingly difficult to control.”
On how plutocracy undermines democratic institutions
Jacob Hacker: “We've seen this again and again: when those at the top pull away from the rest of citizens, they become more extreme relative to those citizens. They gain power. And as Jack was just saying, they become less concerned about democracy. I think the most obvious way in which this is undermining democracy is that because Republicans have had to lean more and more heavily on a narrow base of white voters, they've started to figure out, and used very effectively, a series of vote-rigging strategies that undermine the ability of those outside their voting base to exercise their right to vote. And that includes extreme gerrymandering and the kinds of laws that have been passed in Republican states that make it harder to vote.”
On how the GOP won support from working-class voters
Jacob Hacker: “As we delved into it, and certainly in the wake of President Trump, the victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 election, we really recognized just how central racial backlash was the story. There's a memo that we found from Lee Atwater that was written to the Reagan campaign in the night in the mid '80s. And Atwater is, as most of your listeners probably know, this legendary South Carolina hardball political operative who designed the infamous Willie Horton ad in 1988 … this is a very subtle use of the race card. Donald Trump traded in the dog whistle for the bullhorn, if you will.
"But it really showed how Atwater had his finger on the pulse of this broad sort of cultural and racial backlash that was occurring in response to the civil rights movement and the rise of crime, as well as the rise of the evangelical movement that was pursuing more conservative social policies. And so Atwater says to the Reagan team, he says there is a group of voters we need that we can't get unless we understand them. And he says this: these are populists. They're conservative on social and racial issues, but they're there on the left on economic issues. And so we have to make the subject these social and racial issues.
"And though Atwater didn't say it then, some of the more incendiary things he said and that had been made public show that this was really about race, using race in somewhat subtle ways to activate white backlash and thereby get voters who are left on economics to support a party that is that is siding with those at the very top and conservative on economics.”
On the uniqueness of modern American conservatism
Jacob Hacker: “You don't see this variant in democratic nations, so you see maybe it with Bolsonaro in Brazil, but in most rich democracies, right-wing parties tend to be anti-immigrant. You know, pro-white citizens and also pro-welfare state. They tend to be right wing populists, but not plutocratic. So that is a very distinctive feature of the American experience, and I think it's reflective of the degree to which inequality in the United States is still much higher and has grown so much more dramatically than in other rich democracies.
"And, you know, one thing that I think is a mistake and you can get pulled into it is to think, well, if you're going to focus on inequality and economic changes, then you can't focus on race and racism. But in fact, what we're arguing is that rising inequality really allowed the Republican Party, or encouraged the Republican Party, to activate these kinds of this kind of racial backlash, because, of course, the Republican Party, as I said, was facing this dilemma.
"It also is the case that the long term decline of the regions that Jack was talking about is activating a lot of this kind of right-wing populist backlash. We see it outside of major urban centers in many rich democracies. And, you know, you don't need the kind of inequality we have, but with the kind of inequality we have, you get a much more extreme form of left-behind regions that are very ripe for this kind of right-wing backlash.”
From The Reading List
Excerpt from "Let Them Eat Tweets: How The Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality" by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson
Copyright © 2020 by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson. Used with permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
The New York Times: "What Keeps America Divided?" — "This book makes its appearance in the thick of a golden age of political journalism. Each Oval Office tantrum has been recounted in graphic detail, every booking at the Trump Hotel given close scrutiny. Never have we known more about inner-sanctum happenings in the White House or about the corruption that can pervade power. Yet such a gusher of scoops makes this a good moment to counterprogram with a solid work of political science."
The Washington Post: "It’s time to bust the myth: Most Trump voters were not working class." — "Media coverage of the 2016 election often emphasized Donald Trump’s appeal to the working class. The Atlantic said that 'the billionaire developer is building a blue-collar foundation.' The Associated Press wondered what 'Trump’s success in attracting white, working-class voters' would mean for his general election strategy. On Nov. 9, the New York Times front-page article about Trump’s victory characterized it as 'a decisive demonstration of power by a largely overlooked coalition of mostly blue-collar white and working-class voters.' There’s just one problem: This account is wrong. Trump voters were not mostly working-class people."
Financial Times: "Why Billionaires Are Backing Trump" — "I was at a well-known financial industry conference in Florida last week and came away feeling highly ambivalent about the future of the world. Most people, including Lloyd Blankfein, the former Goldman Sachs chief with whom I conducted an onstage interview, agreed that Donald Trump was an excrescence, an embarrassment, a disgrace to the nation, and so forth. Without blinking they added that he was better than the alternatives, particularly Elizabeth Warren. I asked Blankfein, a life-long registered Democrat, whose father was a postal office worker, whom he would choose in the privacy of the polling booth: Warren or Trump? He refused to say but added: 'At least Trump has been good for the economy.'"
Forbes: "Here Are The Billionaires Backing Donald Trump's Campaign" — "Nearly five years ago Donald Trump descended an escalator inside Trump Tower and announced a long-shot bid to become president of the United States. Standing on a stage in the building’s lobby, in front of eight American flags, he spoke to a gaggle of cameras. 'I’m using my own money,' Trump said, indicating that he would self-fund his campaign. 'I’m not using the lobbyists. I’m not using donors. I don’t care. I’m really rich.' How times have changed. Now in the midst of his reelection campaign, President Trump has accepted donations from 80 billionaires and their spouses, according to a review of Federal Election Commission filings."
This program aired on August 14, 2020.