Donald Trump is the one force keeping the Democratic Party together

Donald Trump is the one force keeping the Democratic Party together, by Christopher Caldwell.

The coming weeks may see the reemergence in backrooms and boardrooms of the tensions that loomed over the 2020 Democratic primaries. Let us review the three power centers in the party as they existed then:

The new economy. Two titans of the finance world (Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer) sought to win the Democratic nomination by funding their own and various down-ballot candidacies. (Both would eventually back Biden.) There was also one impecunious primary candidate who had some original ideas about the tech world: Andrew Yang. The new economy provides wealth for so few people that it can never command the party’s rank and file. But it exercises a dizzying gravitational pull on its leaders.

Socialism. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were its candidates, the former in a doctrinal way (unions, benefits, income redistribution), the latter in a way adapted to strike more precisely at modern power relations (financial regulation, economic rights), which she denied was any form of socialism at all. Each was a more dire threat to the interests of people like Bloomberg and Steyer than anything the tax-cutting, deregulatory Republicans might produce. This is the great drama of the Democratic Party: They are the party of the 1 percent. They are also the party of expropriating the 1 percent.

Civil rights. The party’s glue is civil rights, broadly understood. Civil rights long meant looking out for the practical and principled interests of Black people — naturally a commitment on which cooperation with socialists is possible. But over the decades, civil rights has also become a regulatory and judicial system for advancing the interests of other groups, including immigrants (elite and mass), women executives, two-income gay couples, and lawyers—commitments more consistent with those of the Democrats’ plutocratic wing. The role of civil rights as reconciler-of-contradictions can be compared to that of anti-Communism in the tripartite Reagan coalition of the 1980s, which appealed in one way to Christians who thought the country ought to be more fraternal and in another to businessmen who thought it ought to be more rapacious. …

Biden belonged to [the Democrats’ powerful 1 percent wing], with some pluses and minuses: He was minus any “glass ceiling” narrative. And he was plus three or four decades in age. His rhetoric was pitched to the hard-hats who had dominated his party when he arrived in Washington during the Nixon administration but who were now either dead or Republican. …

The Trump phenomenon is still largely misunderstood by the political class and the elites:

Trump didn’t sell out his supporters. In fact, his presidency saw something extraordinary, even if it was all but invisible from the country’s globalized cities: the first egalitarian boom since well back into the twentieth century. In 2019, the last non-Covid year, he presided over an average 3.7 percent unemployment rate and 4.7 percent wage growth among the lowest quartile of earners. All income brackets increased their take. That had happened in the last three Obama years, too. The difference is that in the Obama part of the boom, the income of the top decile rose by 20 percent, with tiny gains for other groups. In the Trump economy, the distribution was different. Net worth of the top 10 percent rose only marginally, while that of all other groups vaulted ahead. In 2019, the share of overall earnings going to the bottom 90 percent of earners rose for the first time in a decade.

The reasons for Trump’s success are not yet clear. They may well have involved his unorthodox policy choices: above all, limiting immigration. Whatever the reason, this equalization must be why Trump’s economic approval was over 50 percent at election time, even as his personal scores remained low. …

Uncomfortable though it may be for many Americans to admit, Trump got extremely unlucky. It was not his election that was a fluke but his removal. Had the coronavirus not struck the country late last winter, Trump would almost certainly have been reelected. His political problem was not that he mishandled the virus, though he certainly blundered, boasted, and prevaricated. …

Some of Trump’s choices were sound (such as his prompt decision to restrict air travel from China, carried out, as he was correct to recall, in the face of Democratic and press accusations of xenophobia). …

The problem for Trump’s reelection was not that his response was too anti-lockdown and loosey-goosey. On the contrary. It was that the lockdowns imposed were draconian enough to disfigure the economy. Covid-19 not only stopped the egalitarian trend that was underway — it subjected the country to the most plutocrat-enriching trimester in its history. Plumbers and waiters were suddenly without incomes, and Uber rides dropped 80 percent. The economy shrank at an annualized rate of 5 percent in the first quarter of 2020 and by an astonishing 31.4 percent in the second. But the giant internet retailers boomed. By late summer, Jeff Bezos had added $90 billion to his wealth on the year.

The “great re-alignment” started in the 1990s when the left switched from championing the working class to ignoring them as deplorable. The left took up identity politics instead. But the alignment is still not finished, especially on the right. The parties are still molding themselves to the new fault lines and diverging economic interests within society. As the middle-class disappears, the party of the rich is emerging on the “left,” while the right is becoming the party for lower and middle class people who don’t get special protection by virtue of their identity.