Steve Fraser says Trump is sui generis

Historians in the News
tags: election 2016, Trump

Steve Fraser is the author of The Age of Acquiescence and Every Man a Speculator among other books. His latest book is The Limousine Liberal: How an Incendiary Image United the Right and Fractured America (Basic Books, 2016).

What is the evolution of the term limousine liberal?

As many historians know, but the general public largely does not, the term “limousine liberal” was actually coined by a Democrat to skewer a Republican. That will seem odd nowadays when it is taken for granted that limousine liberals occupy pretty much exclusively the Democratic Party. However, in 1969 the Controller of New York City, Mario Procaccino, was the Democratic nominee running to displace the sitting Mayor, John Lindsay, a Republican, and it was he who called out Lindsay as a “limousine liberal.”

The times were tumultuous – the civil rights movement was at its apogee, ghetto insurrections had erupted from coast to coast over the last several years, the anti-Vietnam War movement was in the streets, the counter-culture was thumbing its nose at conventional middle class cultural norms. Lindsay seemed, oddly, to be in accord with all that. Oddly because he was after all to the manner born, his father a Wall Street banker. John Vliet Lindsay grew up on Park Avenue, was educated at St. Paul’s and Yale, had worked for a white shoe law firm, before entering politics. His first elected post was representing the “silk stocking district,” the richest in the country, on the upper east side of Manhattan. By all that was then reasonable those credentials should have made him a conservative elitist defending the status quo. But as a matter of fact, it was Procaccino who did that.

How odd again. The Controller was Lindsay’s anti-clone. He was the son of poor southern Italian immigrants, living in modest circumstances in the Bronx, educated at City College, a small-time lawyer and a loyal apparatchik who had worked his way up the slippery slope of the Democratic machine. His use of what has become one of the most famous epithets of the last half century was designed to mobilize white working and lower middle class ethnic populations in the outer boroughs angry at elitists like Lindsay. Limousine liberals, Proccacino argued, were prepared to upset the class, neighborhood, educational, and racial status quo without themselves bearing the cost, cloistered away as they were in their exclusive neighborhoods, their kids of at private school, their capital gains and dividend income shelter away from the taxman by high-priced lawyers. Blue-bloods like that had no sympathy for the straitened circumstances faced by working people as the decade drew to a close, hated labor unions, and preferred instead to stoop to conquer by ministering to the very poorest, especially African-Americans. But in that regard they had no intention of engaging in the massive reconstruction of the capitalist economy to address the plight of the urban or Appalachian poor. Instead Middle America would shoulder the burden.

Since then the image of the limousine liberal has taken on additional meanings, capturing the irreverence shown by bi-coastal elites – economic, political, and cultural – for traditional mores and morals governing sex, marriage, religion, and the metastasizing presence of big government. At its core, however, the limousine liberal has remained what Mario Procaccino baptized it as: an emblem of retro rebellion against an Establishment that for reasons of its own had become liberal.

What is its relationship to the populist right in America?

Clearly, limousine liberalism has been deployed over and over again in what has proved to be the most enduring movement of political opposition over the last two generations. Right-wing populism, if not unimaginable without the limousine liberal to kick around, has used the energy the image conjures up to lend it the passion any movement, left or right, needs to flourish.

It has also functioned as a remarkable bridge between two otherwise strange bedfellows on the right. Goldwater conservatives had mounted the first assault on limousine liberals (although they didn’t yet call them that in 1964) inside the Republican Party; people like Lindsay and Rockefeller. But Goldwater armies were hardly blue collar, hardly lower-middle class, and didn’t speak the language of the ethnic barrios and their racially inflected populism. Procaccino did.

Goldwater people were instead largely sunbelt upwardly mobile entrepreneurs, technicians, and professionals who were in love with free market capitalism. They were pious Protestants, often evangelicals. Back east and in the steadily de-industrialized heartland they were largely Catholic. Goldwater’s legions had no liking for the New Deal reforms which many a Procaccino populist was indebted to. The triumphs of the Right in our recent lifetime owe a lot to the way the image of the “limousine liberal” helped bridge that divide. It functioned as a sponge soaking up all the accumulated animosities fueled by economic decline, racial phobias, the relentless growth of the leviathan state, the shattered fantasies about national omnipotence, and the breakdown of immemorial familial, gender, and religious convictions.

How did the Republican Party elite create its own gravediggers?

Richard Nixon began the building of that bridge. What an irony. What began with Nixon’s invocation of a “silent majority,” designed to win the allegiance of working and lower-middle class one-time New Deal Democrats, has turned the world upside down and is wreaking its revenge on its creators. For the Republican high command communing with a “silent majority” that had been abandoned by “limousine liberals” was done to purportedly give voice to an old-time faith in family, homeland, hard work, and cultural propriety.

This was to some considerable measure a cynical maneuver as the Republican machine would continue to give priority to the interests of corporate and upper-middle class America But now we have Richard Nixon to thank for Donald Trump. The “silent majority” is no longer silent. Trump comes closest to articulating their anger. This is a fury which has always been to some great extent justified. It is true that fly-over Middle America has been scorned and passed over. Limousine liberalism and conventional conservatism have shared in that malignant disregard. Trump is their voice, at least for the more race conscious and xenophobic among them. They loath all establishments including the one that once deployed them as a blunt instrument. The Grand Old Party is an incoherent mess as a consequence

Has there ever been a figure like Donald Trump before?

Trump is almost sui generis in performing this role of billionaire populist outsider. While there have been many right-wing and left-wing demagogues in America, Trump’s profile is practically unique. He was born to great wealth but is loathed by many of his compeers. He is a media lord of such immense reach and a character of such extravagant bravado that he can virtually monopolize public attention without laying out a nickel. A morally dubious figure to be sure, he nonetheless appeals to the more devout. A man with virtually no political experience and despised by his chosen party’s hierarchs, he has the temerity to aspire to become the most powerful man in the world.

There has been only been one like him in the nation’s past. In every way but one Trump was foreshadowed by William Randolph Hearst: the empire, the braggadocio, comfortable in the role of Society’s “bad boy,” a serial liar, a moral embarrassment, and a lion-sized ambition (and mouse-sized experience) to become the county’s President – and a populist. But it’s the nature of their populism that was so utterly at odds and tells us something about the political evolution of the country.

Hearst rode the wave of anti-monopoly fervor that gripped the country at the turn of the 20th century. He championed the cause of immigrants and the urban poor, he defended labor unions, he denounced trusts, called for public ownership of this or that public utility, and so on. He was a demagogue to be sure, an anti-Semite, and eventually a bitter foe of FDR and the New Deal.

“The Donald” rides a different wave, one that wants to “build the wall,” idolizes the “art of the deal,” hires the lowly to work for less and fires at will. Populism can move this way and that depending on the historical circumstances. And that is true too even in the age of Trump. After all, some considerable number of working people, equally disgusted with the rule of the 1%, are instead of raising hallelujahs to “the Donald” feeing the Bern.   

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