As Donald Trump harangued against "crooked Hillary," on Tuesday, the longest-serving GOP Speaker of the House in history was on his way to federal prison in Minnesota. It was a fitting juxtaposition, worthy of a Greek play.
Trump — sticking close to his prepared remarks — didn't actually use the phrase "crooked Hillary," but he did accuse her of being "a world-class liar" who "may be the most corrupt person ever to seek the presidency." Apparently, he hadn't looked in the mirror recently.
As Amanda Marcotte noted on Salon already his entire speech was riddled with blatant well-known lies. Trump lied about Clinton being a bigger liar, he lied about starting off "with a small loan" and building a $10 billion business, he lied about Clinton's server being hacked by foreign governments, lied about multiple aspects of her immigration policy, lied about Benghazi, lied about his own support for the Iraq War... the list went on and on. Meanwhile, the visibly broken former Speaker Dennis Hastert entered prison in a wheelchair.
Of course, Trump is supposedly at odds with the GOP establishment, and in some ways he surely is. But he's Mr. GOP right now, their presumptive presidential nominee, with a long history of buried personal secrets, and devastating unanswered questions, which have only just begun coming into full public view. And Denny Hastert is a sharp, uncomfortable reminder of just how dark those buried secrets can turn out to be.
As the Atlantic noted recently in an overview of Trump scandals, “The breadth of Trump’s controversies is truly yuge, ranging from allegations of mafia ties to unscrupulous business dealings, and from racial discrimination to alleged marital rape. The[y] stretch over more than four decades, from the mid-1970s to the present day.” If Hastert avoided scrutiny by seeming to have nothing to hide, Trump has done exactly the opposite—at least until recently: he's avoided scrutiny by having so much to hide that nobody seems to know where to begin. He has as many potential scandals to consider as he has lies in his anti-Clinton speech.
But as the primary campaign ended, and the general election phase began, that's begun to change. The attacks on Judge Curiel overseeing a Trump University lawsuit were a case in point, and as Trump's lie-laden diatribe against Clinton unfolded it was only natural to wonder which of his many weakpoints would be the next to buckle under the growing strain. (And no, I'm not talking about the underage rape accusation. I will not talk about Trump being a rapist! You'll just have to click the link and read for yourself.)
Clinton herself highlighted one severe weakpoint, in her speech attacking Trump's economics the day before. “Trump Ties are made in China, Trump Suits in Mexico, Trump Furniture in Turkey, Trump Picture Frames in India, Trump Barware in Slovenia, and I could go on and on, but you get the idea,” she said. “And I’d love for him to explain how all of that fits with his talk about ‘America First.’”
It's not a scandal, in any traditional sense, which may help explain why Trump sleep-walked right into that buzzsaw in his speech. The economy was rigged, he said. “It’s rigged by big businesses who want to leave our country, fire our workers, and sell their products back into the U.S. with absolutely no consequences for them.” He was describing himself to a T—just as Clinton had pointed out the day before.
Trump also said, "It’s rigged by big donors who want to keep down wages," which also described himself, when said American's wages were “too high” in a GOP debate last November, explaining why he wouldn't support increasing the minimum wage. He reversed course — sort of — after Bernie Sanders criticized him, but he still refuses to call for a higher federal minimum wage, saying — in typical Republican fashion — that it should be left to the states. The states — which are barring municipalities from raising their local minimum wages, in direct opposition to the bottom-up Fight For 15 movement.
These are not the juicy sorts of tabloid scandals that politicians normally worry about. But in the end, they could prove to be most damaging to Trump. Recent polling showing voters trust Trump over Clinton on the economy says less about either candidate than meets the eye, despite what pundits might say. Republicans have long been trusted more on the economy, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary going back for a century. It's very difficult to get majorities to believe the truth—that Republicans are bad for the economy in general. But it's much easier to get them to believe that Democrats care more about people like them, or about the middle class in general. So when economic issues are grounded in those terms, Democrats tend to do better.
That's exactly what these issues Trump just stumbled over are all about. They haven't gotten a lot of attention right away. But they should have, particularly since they're not peripheral concerns in Trump's consciousness, the sorts of things he can easily shift ground on, even in mid-sentence. Putting his name all over everything is who he is, in a most fundamental sense. And when it comes to anything outside of real estate, that is inherently synonymous with outsourcing, firing workers, and selling “products back into the U.S. with absolutely no consequences.”
Likewise, forcing his employees to compete against and undercut each other is similarly central to who Trump is. It's not just the basic logic of his Apprentice franchise, it's seen repeatedly in his business practices. He just can't help himself, it's how he sees everything. There is no escaping it. Raising the minimum wage for everyone goes against every fiber of his being.
And if that weren't bad enough, just think what would happen if Clinton chose Elizabeth Warren as her running mate. No one gets under Trump's skin like Warren does, and she's got an unerring instinct for how vulnerable he is because of who he is.
Stepping back to look at Trump's speech as a whole, two other main features stand out. The first is that there is no policy content to it. Once again he is telling us he'll make America great again, by making America great again. It's not that he doesn't have any idea how to do it. He doesn't even grasp that there's such a thing as how to do it. You just be great, right? By getting rid of all the losers!
Trump said things like, “We will build the greatest infrastructure on the planet earth – the roads and railways and airports of tomorrow.” But he said nothing about how he will do it. He's got no awareness that it's Congressional Republicans who've been the major obstacle to robust infrastructure spending throughout the Obama era — along with Trump's butler, Chris Christie, that is.
Trump also said, “Massive new factories will come roaring into our country – breathing life and hope into our communities.” But what about dragons? Will dragons come roaring back, too? Seriously, he went on to say:
The real wages for our workers have not been raised for 18 years — but these wages will start going up, along with the new jobs.
What's he going to do to make wages go up? Wave a magic wand? There is a serious, detailed policy literature on this subject, but it comes from universe far, far away from anywhere Donald Trump has ever been. Unlike Serious Congressional Republicans, he doesn't even bother with gobbledegook explanations. “Presto-change-o!” That's it!
The second feature that stands out is the one real strength of Trump's speech: his attack on elite globalization ideology. Of course, he's spent his whole life as an insider beneficiary of elite globalization—he's done deals with wealthy elites from every corner of the globe—so that strength could well be a double-edged sword. Still, it's true that the ideology has failed, on multiple different levels, and it's also true that there's a worldwide discontent which expresses itself in two main forms. One of the first economists to recognize this almost 20 years ago was Dani Rodrik. He recently wrote:
[T]he conflicts between a hyper-globalized economy and social cohesion are real, and mainstream political elites ignore them at their peril. As I argued in my 1997 book "Has Globalization Gone Too Far?," the internationalization of markets for goods, services, and capital drives a wedge between the cosmopolitan, professional, skilled groups that are able to take advantage of it and the rest of society.
Two types of political cleavage are exacerbated in the process: an identity cleavage, revolving around nationhood, ethnicity, or religion, and an income cleavage, revolving around social class. Populists derive their appeal from one or the other of these cleavages. Right-wing populists such as Trump engage in identity politics. Left-wing populists such as Bernie Sanders emphasize the gulf between the rich and the poor.
The gulf between rich and poor is a fact-friendly one, which is why folks like Thomas Piketty have had such important impact, touching off a series of wide-ranging debates. Yes, it takes mass movements in order to make anything happen—see the Fight for 15, for example. But the movements engage people in a real-world orientation. They arm themselves with facts.
Identity politics is bullshit-friendly, which is why Trump is such a natural for it. Nationality, ethnicity and religion are all fluid, contested concepts which pretend to be just the opposite. And Trump is an improvisatory master at acting out that pretense, faking authenticity at the drop of a hat. He is simply not playing the fact-based game at all.
Now Trump wants to try to reach out and grab Sanders supporters as well. In his speech, he said:
We will never be able to fix a rigged system by counting on the same people who rigged it in the first place.
The insiders wrote the rules of the game to keep themselves in power and in the money.
That’s why we’re asking Bernie Sanders’ voters to join our movement: so together we can fix the system for ALL Americans. Importantly, this includes fixing all of our many disastrous trade deals.
That's an excellent line of bullshit. Bullshit, because it has no factual grounding. In fact, it comes just before the passages I referred to above, where he talks about the system being “rigged by big donors who want to keep down wages,” and “by big businesses who want to leave our country, fire our workers, and sell their products back into the U.S. with absolutely no consequences for them.”
That's right folks! If you Sanders voters want to bring down the Donald Trumps of the world, then Donald Trump is the only one who can do it! Trust me! It's true!