Manchester, New Hampshire — On election eve in New Hampshire, as strong winds sent snowflakes flying horizontally, the mind of Donald Trump was similarly in full, free-associational flight. “We will save Social Security,” he told the Trump faithful who’d braved a near blizzard to attend his final campaign rally at the Verizon Wireless Arena in downtown Manchester. “They want to chop away at it! Like they’ve chopped away at the Second Amendment! Like they’ve chopped away at Christianity! Very soon, very, very soon, we’ll all be saying, ‘Merry Christmas’ again!”
The progression from savior of Social Security to winner in the “War on Christmas” distills the concerns of right-wing populists down to parody—it was vintage Trump. From genuine economic anxiety to gun-control phobia to fabricated worry over Christian marginalization, Trump exploited so many fears in so little time—economic, cultural, religious, and demographic—that he put any rival demagogues to shame. H.L. Mencken, connoisseur of sharpies who conned yahoos, would stand in awe of Trump.
The “War on Christmas” and guns are standard-issue appeals for right-wing pols and media. What’s different about Trump is that he added Social Security to the mix. And trade deals. And the high cost of medications. He is the heir not just to Father Coughlin, but Huey Long as well.
“Look at what’s happened to deductibles,” Trump said. “Unless you’re run over by a tractor, you’ll never be able to use your insurance.” (The tractor reference may be a holdover from his time in Iowa.)
By a curious coincidence, Bernie Sanders, in his last rally at Manchester’s Palace Theatre a little earlier on Monday, also paused to dwell on the absurdly high deductibles that people with limited resources are compelled to accept when they purchase insurance. He asked people in the audience to tell him how high their deductibles were, evoking responses of $7,000 for an individual and $12,000 for a family.
The parallels didn’t end there. Both Trump and Sanders not only inveighed against the high cost of prescription medications, but both blamed the massive contributions to lawmakers by the drug companies. Trump’s solution, of course, was personal: He would sit down with those companies and bargain them down, using the purchasing power of Medicare as his cudgel. “Those drug companies will hate me so much,” he promised.
The problem, as Sanders knows well, is that such a move will require a change in the law to enable Medicare to drive a very hard bargain with those companies. That, in turn, will require mobilized citizens to pressure Congress to underwrite a movement for change. “No president can do this [or any ambitious reform] by him- or herself,” Sanders said. “Real change only happens when millions of people stand up and say, 'That’s not right!'”
Trump’s theory of governance is closer to Louis XIV’s: L'état, c'est moi. In fairness, he does promise to bring in some tough dudes who help him get things done. China may have snookered our pols in trade deals, but Trump said he’d assemble a first-rate team to cut a better deal. “We have great businessmen lined up,” he said. “Some are the nicest people you could imagine, some are mean sons of bitches—we need them!”
This elides the fact that there were all manner of tough businessmen lined up when Congress voted to establish permanent, normal trade relations with China: They lined up to pressure Congress to vote “yes,” because their loyalty was to their own multinational corporations, not to their country. Why they would wish to switch their allegiances, at considerable cost to their pocketbooks, is a mystery Trump left unaddressed.
To the extent that Trump’s message moves on to unfamiliar turf for a Republican, it’s because his base is that portion of the white working class that is immune to the call of evangelical religion or secular tolerance. On Monday night, Trump, like a good right-wing radio thug, prompted his adherents to new depths of depravity: Mocking Ted Cruz’s less than enthusiastic views on waterboarding in Saturday night’s debate, Trump heard someone in the crowd assembled right beneath the podium yell out, “Cruz is a pussy!” He proceeded to entertain the crowd with musings on the topic.
Well, some of the crowd. After the event, I talked to some Cruz and John Kasich supporters who’d been in attendance; they were not amused. I’d be surprised if Trump ever surpasses more than 35 percent of the Republican primary vote in a non-Southern state. But if the candidate field doesn’t shrink any time soon, 35 percent may be enough to secure the nomination. What is at stake is this: While Bernie Sanders seeks a politically-engaged citizenry, what Donald Trump seeks is a mob.