Trump Is Channeling Dirty Harry: October 2016

As a lifelong Republican (driven into exile by George W. Bush), I've spent this political season watching pundits try to explain why the Republican base chose Trump over a long list of well-credentialed, more “conservative” primary candidates – – thereby spinning this election off into uncharted territory.

Is it alarm about the movement of manufacturing jobs to China? Anger that “elites” in both parties have rigged the system in their own favor? Anger at people freeloading off social welfare programs? Distress at competing with cheap Mexican labor inside the United States? Fear of Muslim terrorism? Fear that demographic changes, especially immigration, will lock in a permanent Democratic majority? Is it, in some instances, racism? Is it anger against “political correctness?” Is it a feeling that society is falling apart? Is it explosive anger that their elected representatives have failed to stop all these things?

Yes. The answer is yes. And, when people are fearful, alarmed and angry, when they feel surrounded by enemies, when they feel that the government is paralyzed, they don't turn to laissez-faire, small-government solutions . Instead, they look for a “strong hand” who will cut through the paralysis – – a man who shoots straight, says what he means, who doesn't worry about rules, or about ideological niceties. They want a champion who will fight for them against their enemies. They want Dirty Harry.

So go watch the movie Dirty Harry , because it's all there. Harry is “politically incorrect,” but he's a good guy who puts his life on the line to save society. A psychopathic killer stalks San Francisco, and the feckless city government wants to negotiate. Harry, in contrast, does what it takes – – at one point the killer taunts Harry that he has buried alive a young girl, who will soon suffocate. So Harry tortures the guy, by stepping on his wounded leg. And when the government lets the psychopath go free, Harry hunts him down again, rescues a busload of kids, asks the psychopath: Do you “feel lucky?” And blows him away.

Donald Trump is channeling Dirty Harry. Unfortunately, Trump doesn't entirely fit the part. Harry is a man of great personal integrity, who never brags, and who puts his life on the line to protect other people. Donald Trump brags about everything, and looks after himself first, while his investors lose their shirts. Harry protects women, Donald Trump looks for the best place to grab them. Dirty Harry is a man of his word, Trump is a man of many conflicting words – – a bullshit artist. Trump makes everybody wonder if they are getting conned.

Trump voters recognize these things, but they don't care – – they are willing to take a chance on a champion who promises to take on their enemies. Maybe Donald Trump is going to swing a wrecking ball in Washington, but that's okay. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

If we are going to learn anything from the rise of Donald Trump, we need to ask why the Republican base feels so desperate in 2016. Are things bad enough to justify a wrecking ball?

It depends on how you spin the news.

The movie Dirty Harry came out in 1971, which really was a desperate time. The Vietnam War was coming to its miserable and hopeless end. Fifty-eight thousand young Americans had died in a losing war; we watched on TV as Vietnamese civilians burned in napalm strikes; protesters spat on returning soldiers; John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King had all been assassinated; and American cities had been convulsed with race riots. World communism was on a victory march, its missiles aimed at our heads. Maybe the wheels really were falling off, although in the end they didn't.

I'm not going to claim that everything is rosy in 2016 – – there are many trends which I find troubling. But there are also plenty of positive facts:

  • Unemployment is at 5%, inflation is about 1%, you can borrow money for a 30-year mortgage at under 4%.

  • The stock market is at all-time highs.

  • The federal budget deficit, which – – according to the Congressional Budget Office – – had been running at $1.2 trillion per year on the day that Barack Obama took office in January 2009, has gradually declined to “only” a bit over $400 billion in 2015.

  • World communism is dead and gone – – the biggest threat from communists these days is that they've gotten too good at capitalism. Russia, while still dangerous, is only a pale shadow of the Soviet Union.

  • Islamic Jihadism is a real and growing threat, but jihadi attacks in the United States remain numerically insignificant – – you are many times more likely to drown in a swimming pool than be killed by a jihadi in the US.

  • The Islamic State is plenty awful, but they are surrounded on all sides by mortal enemies, who are doing most of the fighting for us.

  • We have fought two long and difficult wars, one of them completely unnecessary, but the cost pales next to Vietnam.

  • Violent crime (on a per capita basis) is at about half of its peak levels.

  • No American leaders have been assassinated in a very long time.

  • While there have been some stirrings of civil unrest in places like Ferguson and Baltimore, nothing yet holds a candle to the upheavals of the 1960s.

  • And then of course there's all this amazing technology – – in 1971 cell phones were called “communicators” and you could only get them on Star Trek.

So that would be some of the positive spin. For the negative spin go back and reread my opening paragraphs. You can you can weigh up the good and bad however you want, but personally, I'm not desperate enough to take a wrecking ball to our democracy.

So why does the Republican base focus on the bad news rather the good news in 2016? Why didn't they look for Dirty Harry in 2008, when we were in the midst of an historic economic meltdown? What makes this the “Dirty Harry moment”?

Let me suggest an answer. As we all know, people on both sides of the political divide now live in their own political spin universes. Many people read or watch only “trusted” news sources – – for example at this point many conservatives would not trust any information from the “mainstream media.” Because the Republican Party has now been out of the White House for eight years, the conservative spin world has had a natural incentive to paint events in the worst and most apocalyptic terms possible, and to blame these events on enemies – – particularly Democrats (and, more recently, Muslims). Conservatives have been very effective at doing this – – their highly motivated “base” voters have dominated the midterm elections, despite adverse long-term demographic trends.

But if people marinate in dire, alarmist, apocalyptic spin for long enough, they are likely to have a dire, alarmist, apocalyptic view of the world. Here's an interesting quote from an expert on persuasion:

“You can convince anybody of anything if you just push it at them all of the time. They may not believe it 100%, but they will still draw opinions from it, especially if they have no other information to draw their opinions from.” (Charles Manson, as quoted in Vincent Bugliosi, Helter Skelter , page 628.)

At this point conservatives will want to argue that the problem isn't spin – – the problem is that the Obama administration has been so awful that Republican voters are more desperate now than they have been in the past.

But the spin really does color everything. If George W. Bush had been a Democrat, I think that conservative pundits would have latched on to the events that happened on his watch – – the most spectacular terrorist attack in American history, the failure to kill bin Laden at Tora Bora, the unnecessary and incompetent Iraq invasion, the development of a serious nuclear weapons program in Iran, the actual development of nuclear weapons by North Korea, the doubling (almost) of the national debt during a time of prosperity, the creation of the largest unfunded entitlement program in history (Medicare part D), the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression – – as evidence that the Democratic Party was a disastrous menace.

If Bush had been a Democrat, conservatives would have heard about all these things thousands of times, “Charlie's Law” would have kicked in, and they would have “known” in 2008 that their country was spinning into an abyss. They would have been filled with overwhelming anger and alarm, and perhaps the “Dirty Harry moment” would have come then – – especially if they believed the Republican establishment had failed to deal with the threat.

But instead the conservative spin universe staunchly defended Bush for 7 ½ years, only gently distancing itself from him as “not a true conservative” when he became an impediment to the 2008 election campaign. This is why Donald Trump's observations – – that George Bush did not “keep us safe” from terrorism and that the war in Iraq had been a “big fat mistake” – – sounded so shocking to conservatives. Those things aren't “politically correct” in the conservative universe.

Whereas negative characterizations of Barack Obama, as a failure and an agent of cultural and economic decline, are everyday occurrences in the conservative media universe. Lots of conservatives “know” that Obama is a socialist, a closet Muslim, and an anti-colonialist Kenyan. Hence the Republican base is angrier and more anxious in 2016, after eight years of negative spin than they were in 2008, after 7 ½ years of positive spin.

In addition, Republicans have done their best over the last eight years to paralyze the Obama administration, to prevent it from accomplishing much of anything. This strategy has resulted in gridlock and paralysis, which some conservative pundits think is a good thing. There have even been suggestions that – – if the government fails – – the party which is ideologically opposed to government will benefit.

But these strategies have backfired against the conservative movement's intellectuals and the Republican establishment. Because when you convince people that the situation is desperate, the wheels are falling off, the enemies are at the gate, and that the government is paralyzed – – it turns out that they don't give up on government. Instead they look for somebody who can cut through the paralysis and make the government work.

They want Dirty Harry – – but they settle for Donald Trump.

The Republican establishment paid for, and created, much of the political spin which paved the way for Donald Trump. But Trump's rise doesn't benefit the business powers behind the Republican Party – – people like the Koch brothers and Rupert Murdoch – – or the conservative intellectuals at places like the Weekly Standard and the National Review, who genuinely believe in small, constitutionally restrained government. And it may be hard for establishment forces to put the genie back in the bottle.

The Republican establishment is caught in a bind. If, as seems likely at the moment, Hillary Clinton wins the election, then we will have another four years of apocalyptic hype, fueled this time by anti-establishment propaganda outlets – – like Breitbart – – which are as hostile to business and trade as they are to the Democrats. While if Donald Trump wins, the Republican Party – – and the government – – will spin off in a new direction, in the hands of a strong man whose instincts are to create great, “yuuuge” things that he can hang his name on. Like infrastructure spending, support for working mothers, and maybe a “great” replacement for Obamacare. And this strong man gets most of his information from TV, has a short attention span, doesn't take advice, holds grudges, encourages violence at his rallies, gets cute about David Duke, suggests “second amendment” approaches to political problems, has a strange fondness for authoritarian rulers, can be easily baited, and makes lewd comments about women while wearing a live microphone . Democrats might like some of his policy initiatives, but the Koch brothers won't like any of this package.

Conservative “spin and paralysis” strategies have also backfired against the spin machine itself. Fox News, for example, is basically an establishment, pro-business organization, but it has lost control of the conservative spin universe. Fox cannot afford to alienate the Republican base, and the spin business has become increasingly entrepreneurial on the conservative side, with outlets like Breitbart now having the power to push their own messages. There has also been speculation that if Donald Trump loses the election he might ally himself with Roger Ailes and Steve Bannon to start a new cable news network dedicated to the anti-establishment, anti-trade, anti-immigration, Trump worldview. Sounds profitable, so why not?

I would find this payback against the Republican establishment and conservative ideologues more satisfying if I didn't have to live with the consequences myself.

So, do I feel “lucky?”

No.