Jim Sleeper

Trump's war on democracy is bad for business — but corporate leaders are getting what they paid for

The latest news out of Michigan — in which the current occupant of the White House has not only summoned Republican legislative leaders to meet with him but pressured two members of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers into attempting to rescind their votes to certify the election outcomes, potentially disenfranchising thousands of legitimate votes — makes clear that Donald Trump and his minions have opened a trap door in the foundation of democracy and are diving into an abyss of raw power and violence that none of us may escape. Joe Biden's administration will have to grow brass knuckles to deal with what's coming. Business and civic leaders, in the large corporations and the elite universities, should grow some brass knuckles, too. Other news of recent weeks makes one wonder if they will.

Thirty important CEOs of major corporations logged into an early morning, off-the-record Zoom meeting on Nov. 6 to explore responses to Donald Trump's defiance of democracy. One of those was Robert Iger, the 69-year-old executive chairman of the studiously apolitical Walt Disney Company. He and the other chief executives, including three former U.S. cabinet secretaries, convened with Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, the peripatetic maestro of confidential executive conclaves and business-leadership programs who is a professor of management at Yale and a founder of the Chief Executive Leadership Institute.

The virtually assembled CEOs had been shaken by Trump's delusional White House briefing room pronouncements about the election. So they listened intently as Yale historian Timothy Snyder, a scholar of 20th-century authoritarianism and the author of "On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century," explained how business elites' inaction and prevarications about rising fascism in Weimar Germany and other countries had wound up facilitating Nazi and other fascist coups whose tactics Trump has been emulating, with eerie if somewhat loopy fidelity.

But after Snyder signed off, Stephen Schwarzman, billionaire CEO of the Blackstone private equity group, a key Trump confidant and mega-donor, and a Yale College alumnus whose $150 million gift to his alma mater prompted it to rename and repurpose its semi-sacred civic complex for him, defended the president's legal right to challenge the election outcome. Schwarzman urged the CEOs to be patient, and not publicly critical of Trump's refusal to concede defeat.

Although Disney's Iger and most others at the meeting had no connections to Yale, the university's background role in these conflicted reckonings isn't a coincidence. It's an emblem of the crisis itself.

First things first: Iger, born in Brooklyn and raised as a Democrat on Long Island — he co-chaired a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign — switched his voter registration to independent soon after Trump's victory. In a videotaped interview on Nov. 10, 2016, Iger praised the smooth transition then underway from Obama's presidency to Trump's, noting his hope for "a new tax policy" with lower corporate rates and better incentives to competition. "I think it's too soon to say" whether Trump would deliver it, he added, but on Dec. 2, 2016, he joined the president-elect's Strategic and Policy Forum, a business advisory council led by Schwarzman.

Yet Iger resigned from that group only six months later, when Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement, and expressed discomfort with Trump more generally after the Las Vegas massacre (in which a Disney employee was killed), saying that, "In this day and age, we get outraged when an athlete doesn't stand for the national anthem — where's the outrage here?" This year, he donated more than $250,000 to Joe Biden's campaign.

Having worked for 25 years at Disney's helm to expand its entertainment offerings and media properties, Iger and other CEOs were "alarmed," Jeffrey Sonnenfeld told the Financial Times, by Trump's duplicitous, nearly deranged remarks in the White House briefing room just after the election. Such behavior, compounding the COVID crisis, endangered corporate efforts to expand their markets and profits "intelligently," by their lights, as demagogue-addled mobs destroyed the consumer-friendly, democratic comity that steady profit-making requires. CEOs "don't want fractured communities. They don't want hostile workplaces," Sonnenfeld told the FT, and, the very next day, Nov. 7, the influential national Business Roundtable, some of whose members had logged into the Yale meeting, congratulated the Biden-Harris ticket on its clear victory.

But, echoing Schwarzman's sinuous advice, the Roundtable statement also commended Trump "for a hard-fought campaign that has garnered over 70 million votes. We know the outcome is disappointing to his millions of supporters. While we respect the Trump campaign's right to seek recounts, to call for investigation of alleged voting irregularities where evidence exists and to exhaust legitimate legal remedies, there is no indication that any of these would change the outcome."

That statement exemplifies the tension between business leaders' need to acknowledge democracy's challenges to their tax-cutting, wage-cutting, public deregulatory and private surveillance agendas, on the one hand, and the public's need to limit the dangers those agendas pose to democracy, on the other. The Roundtable's statement certainly didn't illuminate what executives like Iger have worked so hard to finesse: the cold reality that top-down political derangement such as Trump's has been rising in America — at the hands of big business itself — since well before he emerged as a fake businessman on "The Apprentice" and in his many real but casino-like ventures. The Trumpism that has enveloped and devoured an entire political party is the result not only of his own pathologies but of systemic relations between the happy, confident consumerism that companies need and the accelerating decay of democratic legitimacy and comity that consumerism now promotes.

But, echoing Schwarzman's sinuous advice, the Roundtable statement also commended Trump "for a hard-fought campaign that has garnered over 70 million votes. We know the outcome is disappointing to his millions of supporters. While we respect the Trump campaign's right to seek recounts, to call for investigation of alleged voting irregularities where evidence exists and to exhaust legitimate legal remedies, there is no indication that any of these would change the outcome."

That statement exemplifies the tension between business leaders' need to acknowledge democracy's challenges to their tax-cutting, wage-cutting, public deregulatory and private surveillance agendas, on the one hand, and the public's need to limit the dangers those agendas pose to democracy, on the other. The Roundtable's statement certainly didn't illuminate what executives like Iger have worked so hard to finesse: the cold reality that top-down political derangement such as Trump's has been rising in America — at the hands of big business itself — since well before he emerged as a fake businessman on "The Apprentice" and in his many real but casino-like ventures. The Trumpism that has enveloped and devoured an entire political party is the result not only of his own pathologies but of systemic relations between the happy, confident consumerism that companies need and the accelerating decay of democratic legitimacy and comity that consumerism now promotes.

The attempt by Yale's Sonnenfeld to reconcile or at least mediate between the conflicting assessments of Trump by Yale historian Snyder and Yale alumnus and mega-donor Schwarzman reflected a crisis in Yale's and other universities' mission to temper their students' preparation for capitalist wealth-making with commitments to scientific (originally, Puritan religious) truth-seeking and to the arts and disciplines of civic-republican governance. Although Schwarzman has lavishly funded, served and defended Trump's deranged politics since 2016, Sonnenfeld defended Schwarzman's attempt to steer the CEOs away from condemning Trump. He assured student reporters at the Yale Daily News that, in the meeting, "Schwarzman never defended President Trump's assertion that this was an unfair election. … There was no parochial self-interest, no corporate strategic angles that [Schwarzman and the other CEOs] were arguing. This was 100 percent a spirit of patriotism and common concern that alarmed them." A Blackstone spokesman assured the FT that "As an American, Steve believes the electoral system is sound and that the democratic process will play out in an orderly and legal manner, as it has throughout our nation's history."

But Sonnenfeld's fervent defense of Schwarzman as a disinterested citizen, standing like Horatio at the bridge to defending the republic, can't be reconciled with Schwarzman's fervent support for and collaboration with Trump, his powerful beneficiary and benefactor. Although Schwarzman has now acknowledged that "it looks like Joe Biden" has won the election, his years-long collaboration with Trump accelerates the unraveling of Yale's and other universities' mission to balance their students' (and some professors') assiduous wealth-making with liberal education's truth seeking and its great conversation across the ages about lasting challenges to politics and the human spirit.

Although Yale recently renamed its John C. Calhoun College to cease honoring that champion of white supremacy and Black slavery, it just as recently repurposed and renamed its civic center as the Stephen A. Schwarzman Center, honoring the man who bankrolls and counsels the current champion of white supremacy and, sotto voce, of Black death at the hands of rogue police officers and COVID.

The hypocrisy isn't confined to private universities like Yale. Christopher Newfield, a professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a trenchant critic of misguided business policies that undermine higher education, showed recently in his authoritative blog Remaking the University that liberal Democrats capitulated decades ago to business leaders' worst priorities and practices. The universities did little to offset their own growing sense of themselves as corporations in an education industry that incentivizes students to become self-marketing, indebted buyers and sellers instead of deliberating citizens. That sea-change in liberal Democrats' own priorities is symbolized by Yale's renaming of Commons, but it's also devastating to the public universities fiscally and ideologically, as Newfield makes strikingly clear.

* * *

Democracy's genuflection to plutocracy isn't hard to detect in convergences among participants in Sonnenfeld's meeting. He and Schwarzman grew up in suburban Philadelphia in the 1950s, albeit seven years apart, both attending public school in the Abington township, both working in their fathers' small businesses (the Sonnenfelds' men's clothing store, the Schwarzmans' dry goods store). Both sons went on to the Ivy League, Sonnenfeld to Harvard College and then to the Harvard Business School, which Schwarzman also attended after graduating from Yale. Both emerged as fanatical self-promoters, not only in business but also in education and public life. Schwarzman's "edifice complex," as egregious as Trump's, has driven him to put his name on countless public institutions, as I reported in Dissent magazine.

Sonnenfeld, an effusive business pundit on MSNBC and in many other venues, is almost infamously ravenous for public attention and respect from business elites. "He's the Oprah Winfrey of business schools," the late political scientist Robert Pastor told Philip Weiss, a Harvard College classmate of Sonnenfeld who profiled him for The New York Observer. Although Sonnenfeld is acutely skeptical of Trump — in 2004, he disparaged "The Apprentice" for teaching wrong lessons about business leadership — it takes one to know one. Trump's compulsive attention-getting rides more on combat than on connecting, but both he and Sonnenfeld have had to fight maniacally to restore and embellish almost-ruined careers — Trump through bankruptcy after bankruptcy, and Sonnenfeld owing to an incident at Emory University in 1997 that ended with his vindication only after an excruciatingly long fight that impels him to advise CEOs on how to stage comebacks from career disasters. It's worth noting that Trump got his B.A. and MBA in Sonnenfeld's native Philadelphia, at the University of Pennsylvania and the Wharton Business School.

* * *

Historian R.H.Tawney characterized the hypocrisies of leaders who try to put a righteous face on their uncontrollable power-lust and greed:

"Few tricks of the unsophisticated intellect are more curious than the naïve psychology of the business man, who ascribes his achievements to his own unaided efforts, in bland unconsciousness of a social order without whose continuous support and vigilant protection he would be as a lamb bleating in the desert," Tawney wrote in 1926. "That individualist complex owes part of its self-assurance to the suggestion of Puritan moralists that practical success is at once the sign and the reward of ethical superiority. … The demonstration that distress is a proof of demerit, though a singular commentary on the lives of Christian saints and sages, has always been popular with the prosperous. By the lusty plutocracy … roaring after its meat and not indisposed, if it could not find it elsewhere to seek it from God, it was welcomed with a shout of applause."

Plutocrats and their apologists don't exactly "roar" after their meat at redoubts such as Davos, the Aspen Ideas Festival and Sonnenfeld's Chief Executive Leadership Institute. Surveying the degradation and ruin of the democratic public that their own practices and premises have demoralized, they sigh sagely and wonder piously how "the people" might return to self-government, even as plutocrats like Trump show that they can barely govern themselves, let alone anyone else.

Democracy benefits only fleetingly when some plutocrats oppose others who've gotten out of hand: The historian Snyder, writing recently in the liberal Catholic journal Commonweal, contends that Trump is driven now by desperation to escape the legal and economic ruin that awaits him when he loses presidential immunity against civil and criminal indictment. Trump has come very close indeed to derailing the election with more than a little help from his Republican Party, thanks to which even Congress won't uphold the rule of law unless public resistance to current arrangements moves beyond episodic looting and assaults and beyond tweeting, texting, signing petitions and writing articles like this one.

Ultimately there's no substitute for disciplined, humane democratic movements such as those led by Mahatma Gandhi, Adam Michnick, Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. and the founders of the American republic. They've reconfigured and sometimes replaced national-security states and regimes built on grinding inequality and corruption. Often, as in Eastern Europe and the American South, they've done it without perpetrating violence: Even the American Revolution "was effected before the War commenced ... in the Minds and Hearts of the People," wrote John Adams.

Perhaps the clearest assessment of such movements is the late Jonathan Schell's "The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People." He recounts how leaders of such movements discovered that power flows ultimately not from the few who are daunting, dazzling or wealthy but from seemingly powerless masses who stop obeying and who reconfigure their lives together without official permission or reward, through disciplined non-cooperation that's nonviolent but all the more effectively coercive. Time and again, Schell wrote, rulers driven by power-lust and greed respond to such movements "with refreshed ignorance": A state that militarizes its police and floods its streets with soldiers, surveillance and thugs ends up displaying its impotence before massive but principled non-cooperation.

There's no revolutionary thrill in discovering that America has come to this. Elites, too, must act, but in ways that heal and empower others, not just by pouring money into Democratic Party coffers. And universities that fund institutes and programs for elite leadership and grand strategy-making should fund more courses like the one on nonviolence and power that Schell taught at Yale for years, along with programs that prepare organizers for the movements that democracies everywhere need now.

Why tens of millions surrendered their independence of mind and body to Trump

Financier and philanthropist George Soros must have seen Trump coming as early as 2011. He certainly saw where a disturbingly large proportion of American voters were going. "The United States has been a democracy and open society since its founding. The idea that it will cease to be one seems preposterous; yet it is a very likely prospect," he wrote in the New York Review of Books in June of that year.

George W. Bush's reelection in 2004 had convinced Soros "that the malaise in American society went deeper than incompetent leadership." The public had proved "unwilling to face harsh reality and was positively asking to be deceived by demanding easy answers to difficult problems."

Will the American public now reconfirm Soros' observation? This year's campaign has given us plenty or reasons to worry.

By the end of Bush's second term in 2009, few Americans denied the harsh realities of the Iraq war fiasco and of failed federal responses to Hurricane Katrina's devastation and to tsunamis of predatory financing that were throwing millions of people out of their homes and jobs. Yet Soros insisted that much of the public, reluctant to face other realities, grasped at vague, easy hopes that Barack Obama's 2008 campaign offered but that his presidency proved sometimes unwilling and sometimes unable to fulfill, especially against a Republican Congress after 2010.

The ongoing public flight from reality only accelerated with Donald Trump's 2016 campaign, when millions of voters sought scapegoats to blame for rising dangers and craved simplistic directions to safety and salvation.

Soros proposed that Americans' reluctance to face reality had been "coupled with the refinement in the techniques of deception" by Rupert Murdoch's and other right-wing media and by sundry impresarios and invaders of internet social media. But he also warned that democracy can be undone by a much older danger, inherent in human nature, that discredits the Enlightenment "assumption that freedom of speech and thought will produce a better understanding of reality." That assumption "is valid only for the study of natural phenomena," not of politics, Soros wrote. Instead of standing "apart from reality, acting as a searchlight illuminating it," reason and rational analysis were of little help in understanding how even prosperous, well-educated people think and act in society.

That disturbing proposition has been reinforced by Trump ever since 2016 and by the public distempers he stoked on the eve of this election. Those distempers won't abate even if Joe Biden wins. American history offers ample reasons why. Whenever the republic's civil society has been under great stress, defenders of its traditional values, joined by opportunistic free riders like Trump who are driven only by power-lust and greed, have ginned up public paroxysms of alarm and rage at selected internal enemies whom they've blamed for the crises.

In the 1690s, the enemy was witches, hysterical women and girls said to had been taken by Satan. In 1619 and ever since, it has been African Americans and other people of color, said to be inferior and therefore all the more dangerous to their oppressors. In the 1840s, it was Catholic immigrants, said by a presidential candidate to be besotted with "rum, Romanism and rebellion." In the 1920s, it was anarchists, Reds and pushy Hebrews. In the 1950s, it was Communist spies for Stalin, the Satan of that time. In the 1960s, it was hippies, inner-city rioters, and opponents of the Vietnam War. Since 9/11, it has been American Muslims.

Trump drew some of his inspiration from another such paroxysm in 2015, when a yet another scapegoat was conjured up by another cohort of self-avowed civic champions, propagandists, opportunists and keyboard-pounding alarmists (including more than a few sensation-hungry journalists). Civil society, they warned the public, was endangered by fragile, college-student "snowflakes" and petulant, censorious "cry-bullies," obsessing, with their coddling, over-controlling parents, counselors and deans, about "safety." According to this account, their perverse culture of "safetyism" censures all who don't follow its rules.

This was all well before the real threat to safety posed by COVID-19, which certainly does require that we follow strict rules. Yet public response to safety-obsessed college snowflakes and cry-bullies society was almost as intense as it had been in response to Puritan alarms about witches and alarms about domestic Communist spies. A 7,300-word article in the September, 2015 Atlantic magazine, "The Coddling of the American Mind," garnered more than half a million Facebook shares with its claim that a new "movement" on American campuses was demanding protection from even stray phrases uttered in conversation or offending sentences in textbooks that might frighten or discomfit students and their mentors.

Introducing readers to preoccupations with "trigger warnings," "micro-aggressions" and "safe spaces," Atlantic authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt warned that "safetyism" and "vindictive protectiveness," driven by "generally left-leaning campus sensibilities," was spawning "pathological thinking," such as "catastrophizing," a malignant pessimism that turns "commonplace negative events into nightmarish monsters."

Keyboard-pounding culture warriors, many of them older white men, including some of my own college classmates, responded, often anonymously but with alacrity, raging from internet "safe spaces" at videos of black students demanding apologies for racism and sexism. Some students' demands were histrionic and destructive to civility, but residential undergraduate college campuses, at least before COVID, have been civil societies on training wheels, where young adults sometimes experiment in a politics of self-discovery through moral posturing. Some act like hypersensitive barometers or canaries in a coal mine, registering tremors of a much larger civic implosion that they can't help but carry but certainly haven't caused.

The same can't be said of their angry elders, presumably more mature but nostalgic for visions of their own youth (which they might wince to recall accurately). They exhibit "a distinctive attitudinal structure" that the political theorist Peter F. Gordon, in "The Authoritarian Personality Revisited," reminds us has a "tendency to be on the lookout for, and to condemn, reject, and punish people who violate conventional values." In 2015, conservative provocateurs, editors and reporters obliged these keyboard authoritarians by prowling campuses, notebooks and video-cams at the ready to catch the "cry-bullies" in action.

Necessary though it is to challenge wayward students' and mentors' affronts to free inquiry and expression, it's just as important to understand what's driving them. But well-funded orchestrators of grand-inquisitorial takedowns of leftish "social justice warriors" and "safetyism" developed a strategy that was embraced and adapted by then-candidate Trump: Knowing a successful marketing gambit when he saw one, he promised his followers "safety" from "political correctness" in colleges and, soon enough, from urban anarchists, feral invaders of suburbs and other "nightmarish monsters."

Trump being Trump, he couldn't stop accusing his conjured-up adversaries of sins that he himself and his Republicans are guilty of: fear-mongering and craving the "safety" he supposedly defies; fomenting violence and the swamp of corruption that submerges his own family and supporters. In this year's campaign, "Make America Great Again" became "Make America Safe Again," outdoing the obsessions about safety that the anti-"coddling" crusade had ascribed to college scapegoats.

"In Joe Biden's America, you and your family will never be safe," Trump told a Tampa audience in July. In a perfect instance of "catastrophizing," he warned that under Biden, "rioters and criminals will be totally protected, law-abiding citizens will be totally disarmed, and American families will be at the mercy of the violent left-wing mob that you've been watching on television."

Adopting a more coddling tone, Trump assured senior citizens in Fort Myers, Florida, in August that "our groundbreaking therapies have significantly ... improved our outcomes for elderly patients, but I'll not relent until all American seniors are safe. You're going to be safe — 100 percent safe." Losing his train of thought in the midst of that talk, he added, "Suburban women want security, they want safety, they want law and order. They want their homes to be protected…. You know why they like me? Because I'm saving their homes."

In a tweet reported by the Boston Globe, Trump added, revealingly, "They want safety & are thrilled that I ended the long running program where low income housing would invade their neighborhood."

The biggest irony in Trump's "safety" gambit is that it doesn't really copy the campus left as much as it picks up a strong current in conservative thought that generated campus "safetyism" in the first place. In 1972, conservative activists David and Holly Franke wrote a book identifying towns — including Holly's hometown of Wellesley, Massachusetts — that they deemed safe from the social upheavals and maladies of that time. Catastrophizing that 50 percent of Americans felt "afraid to walk the streets of their own communities at night" and that 47 percent predicted "a real breakdown in this country," the Frankes commended "only one rational route possible for the law-abiding citizen: escape."

Their book — "Safe Placessold well through several iterations ("Safe Places West" and "Safe Places for the '80s"). But to revisit the book's fear-driven, fear-inducing assessments of American society now is to uncover some instructive ironies.

The first involves the conservative turn from demanding safety for suburbs that, in 1972, weren't truly threatened by inner-city invaders, to condemning the more-recent demands for "safe places" by students and mentors, many of whom were raised in precisely the "safe places" defended so ardently by the Frankes.

A second irony lies in David Franke's history, since his student days in the 1950s, of mobilizing campus conservatives against leftist radicals. In 1970, two years before publishing "Safe Spaces," he edited "Quotations from Chairman Bill: The Best of William F. Buckley Jr." He co-founded the Intercollegiate Studies Institute to train college students to counter "liberal betrayals" of "our nation's founding principles — limited government, individual liberty, personal responsibility, the rule of law, market economy ... ideas that are rarely taught in your classroom."

So when Trump rails against political correctness on campuses and danger in the suburbs, he's forgetting or denying that imaginary escapes from nightmarish monsters have been peddled successfully for decades by conservatives to millions of people burdened by harsh realities they were reluctant to face honestly. Huge, swooning crowds followed evangelical impresarios such as George Whitefield in colonial times, Billy Sunday in the early 20th century, and a swarm of opportunistic preachers since the 1980s. Earthbound salvation was promised by demagogues such as Louisiana Gov. Huey Long (fictionalized memorably by Robert Penn Warren in his novel "All the King's Men") and the Communist-hunting Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

Trump is outdoing them all. Tens of millions of Americans have surrendered their independence of mind and even of body and property to him, mortgaging their liberties and material security for the dubious satisfactions of wreaking imaginary vengeance on false targets. Forgotten or excused are the greed and power-lust that drive both the coolest and the most impassioned dealers of such delusions.

If there's been little news lately about coddled, safety-obsessed campus "snowflakes" and "cry-bullies," it's because Trump's marketing of fear and false solutions has shifted public attention from political censure to political violence, not only by a relatively few looters, anarchists and antifa militants, but by uniformed murderers of unarmed young Black people, by militias with assault rifles converging on state capitols, by militarized riot cops, by military itself in Lafayette Square and by mysterious federal agents yanking peaceful protesters off the streets in Portland.

Eruptions of "unsafety" have also come from financialized, market-mad distortions of civil society and governance since long before COVID exposed as much devastation as it has caused directly. Trump has ridden and compounded these distortions. His efforts to project responsibility and blame for the damage onto those who are protesting it — including some protesters who, yes, have been damaged by it — were parodied unintentionally by Rudy Giuliani in his speech to this year's Republican National Convention about New York City's supposedly riotous crime and anarchy.

A better American response to Trump and his Republican Party came in the NBA coach Doc Rivers' almost-plaintive, at one point tearful, lament after he'd watched the Republican convention:

All you hear is … all of them talking about fear. … We're the ones getting killed. … [We] protest. … They send people in riot outfits. They go up to Michigan with guns. … Nothing happens [to them]. … My dad was a cop. I believe in good cops. … It's amazing why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back. It's really so sad. [I]f you watch that video, you don't need to be Black to be outraged. You need to be American and outraged.

This election has shown that many Americans love the country as Doc Rivers does and that they're determined to keep the republic and all that's been redemptive in its political culture. They have voted to safeguard a pluralist, economically sane, civically rich society against its real enemies, who include Trump himself. Whatever Joe Biden's weaknesses, he said rightly that that kind of civic love really was on the ballot.

It sure seems like Trump is gearing up to blame McConnell for for blocking a new stimulus

In Thursday night's debate, President Trump skirted Joe Biden's observation that it's Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republican Senators — not House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — who are blocking the "go big" stimulus package that Trump recently decided to promote before the election.

Trump kept on blaming Pelosi. But suppose that, with Nov. 3 in sight but unable to see beyond his immediate self-interest, he shoots himself in the foot by lambasting the Republican senators for blocking the stimulus he wants, thereby prompting some of his base to "punish" them at the polls, very possibly helping to hand the Senate to Democrats.

Although that would be a self-defeating strategy for Trump, it might not be bad for hundreds of thousands of his followers who are small businesspeople or self-employed in other ways and who, along with their customers and clients, need the stimulus as desperately as Trump does, albeit for "gut" economic reasons, not his narrow political ones. A Democratic Senate would probably join with the House (and a President Biden) to pass a stimulus package even more ambitious than whatever Pelosi and Mnuchin find possible.

Trump's self-absorption and opportunism have spotlighted not only philosophical divisions between Senate Republican hawks who can't stomach a $2 trillion stimulus and the office-holders who want only to hold on to their offices; Trump's pro-stimulus move also spotlights the economic canyon that yawns between our high-rolling con man of a president and millions of hard-working people whom his Republican Party has betrayed.

McConnell, currently in his own re-election fight, assumes that enough Kentucky voters are anti-government ideologues who will keep on shooting themselves in the foot by backing him and other Senate Republicans in blocking a stimulus. (Recent polling has him leading his challenger Amy McGrath statewide across income brackets and education levels.) He may be right to believe he can count on the support of the slice of Kentucky voters who believe "a wildly misleading image of recipients of public aid as thieves bleeding taxpayers dry," as New York Times economics columnist Eduardo Porter put it in his book "American Poison: How Racial Hostility Destroyed Our Promise":

"'Welfare queens' and other racial stereotypes peddled over the years by the political foes of redistribution… convinced white Americans that people of color are undeserving moochers from the public purse," Porter writes. "White voters marginalized by the same economic forces … could not figure out that they were shooting themselves in the foot" by cutting programs they imagined were serving only non-whites.

Thus many of McConnell's supporters have embraced "welfare reform" and Medicaid rules that culled 100,000 people from the rolls in recent years, even as the state, Porter writes, has "the most cancer deaths in the nation, and the most preventable hospitalizations" and is near the top in its death rate from diabetes. (Kentucky's Medicaid program has been a rollercoaster over the last several years; one of Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear's first orders of business last December was to roll back the work requirements his Republican predecessor Matt Bevin put on Medicaid recipients in an effort to derail the expansion enacted under the Affordable Care Act.)

A Kentucky friend of mine shared with me the phrase "shame-natured" to describe the mixture of "low self-esteem and fierce pride, independence, and a sense of honor," as she puts it, which some conservative white working-class Southern voters have long carried with them into the booth. But the pandemic has up-ended much in their lives, and a parsimonious response could put McConnell on thinner ice with GOP reliables whose incomes have shriveled due to the virus. Perhaps McConnell hasn't yet heard the concerns of Republican voters like the Corbin truck driver who told the Washington Post back in August that he's "scared to death of losing everything" and angry at GOP leaders for failing to authorize another round of stimulus payments.

Or perhaps McConnell is hoping that party-line voters who are hurting economically will give him a pass, especially in the rural parts of his state, or at least let him ride Trump's coattails as the President rails against "Democrat-led cities" and other dog whistles in his rallies and tweets. McConnell knows that whites' anger and resentment can shift easily, with a little prompting from the right, into blaming minorities for the many little increments of humiliation and loss that have accumulated in their own lives. The more obvious it becomes that their racism is hurting not only Black people but also themselves, the more furiously some people deny it, like philosopher George Santayana's fanatic, who redoubles his energy when he has forgotten his aim. Trump's demagoguery channels their hurts into cravings for scapegoats — not only Black people, but also the "elites" — and for revenge.

We have to hope that COVID is bringing a different set of priorities and calculations home to Trump's and McConnell's bases. The state's recent election of Beshear may signal the beginning of a slow shift in that direction (though recent polls suggest that approval of Beshear isn't necessarily boosting McGrath's chances in her race against McConnell, and Trump is projected to win Kentucky handily, if by a slimmer margin than 2016).

Opportunist that Trump is, he seems poised to seize on a shift in the wind if he deems it advantageous. McConnell may not sense it, or he might have too much invested in his own image as the power-broker and conservator of right-wing ideals to switch lanes now. With or without a big pre-election stimulus announcement, we'll see soon enough how much of the national Republican base is shifting and fragmenting as COVID cases rise and economic destitution sets in, and how much of it still resembles Santayana's fanatics after this election.

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White supremacist violence is a dangerous symptom. But our corrupted and corroded public life is the disease

Whenever American civil society has been under great stress, if not indeed falling apart, self-appointed champions of conventional wisdom and traditional values have ginned up public paroxysms of alarm and rage at internal enemies who politicians, propagandists, and pundits leap to blame for the crisis.

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Billionaires can't solve the higher education crisis: Here's how to reclaim college from market ideology

Nobody needed to wait for billionaire Robert Smith to relieve this year’s graduates of his alma mater, the historically and proudly black Morehouse College, to know how heavily higher education has indebted millions of students for years now. It wasn’t always this way, and we can’t rely on a few rich people to relieve it. To understand what’s at stake for democracy as well as for individual students, the Yale historian Matthew Frye Jacobson conducted this conversation with me just before the 2015 upheavals on some American college campuses were spotlighted and condemned, as part of the long conservative crusade to rescue liberal education from liberals.

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The truth about the 'campus free speech' crusade and its myths that won't die

Let’s not let the controversy over the Mueller Report’s reception eclipse what President Donald Trump is doing to advance the long-running conservative crusade against liberal arts colleges, that helped to elect him in the first place. His recent executive order to deny federal funding to universities that his agents and allies deem unfriendly to “free speech” reinforces a false narrative, abetted by many in the media, that has already damaged not only higher education but also the American republic.

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The death of the Robert Mueller myth and the liberal 'field of dreams'

As the news broke that special counsel Robert Mueller has no more indictments or “bombshell” revelations about Donald Trump’s winking collusion with Russia or, possibly, anything else, it took some courage for Vox senior analyst Dylan Matthews to throw cold water on Spike Lee, the New Yorker’s Adam Davidson, Vanity Fair’s Rachel Dodes, reporters at NPR and others who craved a quick, dramatic takedown of Donald Trump because, as Matthews sees it, they had succumbed to “a yearning for something, anything, to end the death loop that American democracy appears to be trapped in — for a big, dramatic blowup to fix the system’s ills. In the liberal imagination, that blowup typically takes the form of Trump’s removal from office, an event that sets us back to a path of normalcy and sane politics.”

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How we can rebuild democracy — and America's civic culture — with a progressive new national myth

The 18 Yale students who crowded into a seminar room one September morning in 1999 for a course entitled “New Conceptions of American National Identity” didn’t know what they were in for. Nor did I, their instructor. Nor did most Americans know what the nation itself was in for, as we know now, 20 years later.

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