The Professional Class Strikes Back

Column: Jon Ossoff, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and the future of American politics

Donald Trump
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April 21, 2017

Notes from realignment: A solid Republican district becomes the site of a Democratic resurgence. In the first round of a special election a thirty-something unknown outperforms Hillary Clinton's 2016 margin. A runoff looms, but the lesson to draw from this result is clear. Lawyers, doctors, managers, educators, accountants, and financial advisers—the professional class of the well off and well schooled is furious at Donald Trump. He embodies everything they loathe. He inherited a fortune (though he turned it into something more), he loves the "poorly educated" (though he graduated from Penn), he denounces the metropolitan economy of global capital and free trade and open borders (though he's a lifelong New Yorker whose most influential advisers are Goldman Sachs alumni), his manner is coarse and his language vulgar (though his large family seems devoted to him). Doesn't matter if you are a Republican or a Democrat. Trump is an insult to the meritocratic self-image.

David Brooks first noticed what was happening in the affluent GOP suburbs almost 20 years ago. "I've come to Winnetka to investigate the mystery of the Rich Republicans," he wrote in the Weekly Standard. "The mystery is that, at least on national and ideological issues, they are becoming less and less Republican." Wealth was no longer a sign of conservatism. On the contrary: the more advanced your degree, the higher your income, the more liberal you became. Ballot preferences followed. By 2016, "with the exceptions of the Phoenix and Fort Worth areas, and a big chunk of Long Island, Clinton won every large-sized economic county in the country," reports the Washington Post. Donald Trump understood intuitively that there were votes to be mined among the rural or de-urbanizing, the economically stagnant regions in the north and Midwest. He bet that the message of America First would bring victory there while retaining the traditional Republican base in the Sunbelt. Worked for him.

But it might not work for the GOP. Since Trump was inaugurated we have witnessed an outpouring of wrath and enmity and activism, from the women's march to the town hall protests to the better-than-expected results in special elections in Kansas and Georgia. Has the self-important "resistance" been organized, rehearsed? Yes. But that doesn't make the emotions it has harnessed any less genuine. The professionals, the secure, the content, the beneficiaries of the globalization want to preserve the status quo. They don't want immigration to stop, or goods to become more expensive, or the value of a college degree to diminish. They are happy. They like things the way they are. Their vision of the economy—high-tech, diverse, information-driven, and cosmopolitan—is opposed to Trump's nationalism, to his preference for concrete and steel and ore. In Washington, where the professions rule, life is splendid. Commuting to and from work, I drive alongside Porsches, Teslas, Ferraris, and Beamers. Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff is not alone when he says he wants to "grow metro Atlanta's economy into the Silicon Valley of the South." Many people who otherwise would vote Republican agree with him. What Trump wants is not what they want. He wants Caterpillar. Ossoff wants Uber.

So Democrats feel good, buoyed by the animus toward Trump. Their problem is that this energy is only negatively charged. It wants to fight the president everywhere, all the time, by any means. What's the positive aspect to the anti-Trump crusade, the depersonalized rallying cry? Ossoff's slogan is, "Make Trump Furious." What then? The Democrats benefit from the polarizing effect Trump has on voters. They suffer from the staleness, the remoteness of their policy message. The minimum wage, abortion on demand, paeans to the environment, immigration amnesty, and fixing Obamacare inspire no one but the interest groups that push them. President Obama gave this agenda cover through his charisma, presence, voice. Now he's gone.

Both parties are shaken by the global economy, the social and cultural ramifications of financial crisis, immigration, deindustrialization, war. Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota drift right while Texas, Georgia, and Colorado move left. The direction of both the Republicans and Democrats is contested: stay the course or radical reversal? I was struck by Paul Ryan's send off to congressman Jason Chaffetz, who he called "a great defender of liberty and limited government." This is standard GOP language. But it's not Trump's language. In place of liberty, Trump emphasizes solidarity. Instead of limited government, he emphasizes strong government, protective government. Neither side in this argument has reconciled itself to the validity of the other's claims. Perhaps they never will.

The Democrats are no better off. What a weird spectacle this week's "Unity Tour" with Tom Perez and Bernie Sanders has been. Since winning the chairmanship of the DNC last February Perez has tried to downplay the cold war in his party. On one side are Perez, the Obamas, the Clintons: professionals, corporate-sponsored, affluent, multicultural. On the other side are Sanders and his acolytes, the revolutionaries. The two wings play nice but their phoniness is obvious. Team Wall Street wants Ralph Northam to succeed Terry McAuliffe as governor of Virginia; the Sandernistas want former corporate shill Tom Perriello. The contempt Sanders feels for the Obama-Clinton Democrats is palpable. The most popular politician in America won't say he's a member of the party whose presidential nomination he sought. Asked about Ossoff, beloved of Perez, Sanders said he doesn't know if the young man is a progressive. Ossoff eschews "labels." Sanders opposes free trade, he's for single payer. Perez won't touch either position.

But the crowds are there for Bernie. They are the left-wing version of the voters who brought us Trump: anti-establishment, anti-globalization, more interested in assembly-line security than in Silicon Valley disruption. They have no interest in Perez, no matter how much he curses. The institutional Democratic Party has failed the voters showing up to this unity tour, just as Trump's people said the institutional Republican Party had failed them. Public disgust for the political system has not abated months into Trump's presidency. There is the possibility that it intensifies if the reaction to Trump swells and expands into the GOP base as well. A passing observer would say the professional class has struck back, has weakened the forces of populism in both the Republican and Democratic parties. That's a misreading. The GOP was turned upside down by the revolt against the professions, and the Democrats are next.