Clinton, Trump, Magic, and Reality

Clinton won’t win Appalachia, the Bluegrass, or the Ozarks. That’s why she should go there.

Magic and magical thinking will never lose their allure, because life is hard — desperately and impossibly so for billions of people — and the thought of a shortcut through our problems is about as human an idea as there is. Stories like the life of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and his friends tap into this allure and provide a welcome escape from the constraints of gravity and the moral indeterminacy of human relations.

A film like Pan’s Labyrinth is differently amazing, a discussion of very dark ideas with incomparable visual storytelling through the imagination of filmmaker Guillermo del Toro. Less noted, however, is the film’s message to children and adults about the nature of magic: it doesn’t exist. Magic is no more than a metaphor for imagination itself, locked in our heads rather than a force in the natural world apart from the natural world’s laws, and the sooner we accept that fact the sooner we’ll understand and be able to manipulate the harsh calculus of life.

Politics provides a fascinating clash of these two opposing notions. Mario Cuomo said that “You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose.” That’s one (beautiful) way to put it. Another way is that candidates for high office do well to appeal to the human instinct for magical thinking during an election campaign — packing their pitch to voters with grand visions and easy answers — but once the election has been won, tell those same voters that magic doesn’t exist as a tool to solve their problems while reminding them that governing is actually slow, boring, frustrating, corrupt, even incomprehensible. The best politicians are able to do this without making the voters who elected them feel like suckers — or worse, embittered and disaffected — and instead bend their shoulders to the wheel.

It isn’t the fault of politicians that this is so. People want magic, and the would-be politician who tells voters that it doesn’t exist before Election Day tends not to be elected to anything, particularly when their opponent is performing levitation tricks in front of their very eyes. Recall 1984 and Walter Mondale’s disastrous attempt at this sort of truth-telling: “Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did,” Mondale said to a national audience. 525 electoral votes later, Reagan was sworn in for a second term.

I think about these things after reading this dispatch from Declan Walsh in the New York Times, reporting from West Virginia coal country and the support among miners there for the candidacy of Donald Trump. It might be easy for some to give into a patronizing reflex at hearing their stories, shake their heads at folks clutching to Trump’s promises to bring back the coal industry, while marveling at their credulity. But we know that magical thinking isn’t the preserve of people in Appalachia. The so-called “smartest guys in the room” who nearly cast the globe into economic depression by their self-delusion and criminality in the housing bubble wanted to believe that down was up just as desperately as any of these West Virginians longing for a promise — any promise — that the lives they’ve come to know and depend on won’t be extinct before they get too old to work anymore.

There has been a worthwhile discussion online recently about whether Trump’s support is driven more by racial animus or economic anxiety, and for what it’s worth, I think Brian Beutler has it about right. Walsh’s story is an illustration of why, and the broad path that I suggested back in April for Secretary Clinton I think basically still holds. Trump’s candidacy has opened up a huge hole for Clinton to run through, and there are few Republican or conservative defenders between her and a once-Pollyannaish goal of restructuring our politics.

Trump’s magical promises are directed at only a slice of the American electorate, a slice that Clinton was never going to win over anyway, but all the same, a slice not nearly big enough for Trump to ride to a national election victory. In fact, his appeals to that slice seem almost designed to permanently offend the much larger balance of voters he needs capture the White House.

That means that Secretary Clinton can go to those voters, visit with them, and tell them the truth, at virtually no electoral cost to her. Before Labor Day, she and Tim Kaine could take an “Appalachia to the Ozarks” bus tour and meet people where they are, listen to them vent, hear their righteous anger, even take their abuse — in town after town after town — and then lay out their plans for how they will be President and Vice-President for every American. Yes, including those who don’t vote for them. Lay out exactly what they’re going to do to help Americans struggling in these forgotten towns and dying industries. Sure, Clinton can remind voters that The Donald is the “America First” candidate who makes his Trump ties in China, but frankly that’s beside the point in this swath of states. The point isn’t to win their votes this November, but to show them respect. Respect by being there in front of them, expecting to catch hell. Respect for their contribution to America and for continuing to fight through tough times. And respect by telling them the truth: that there is no magic that will help them. All Clinton’s got is plans and a permanent commitment on behalf of the U.S. government she seeks to lead, backed by massive resources of staff time and money — and even then she’s not sure if that’ll work. Delivering that message might be a down-payment for asking for their votes years in the future.

While Trump continues his appeal to white nationalists, shifting the GOP ever farther into political marginalization, Clinton has two months to explain and sell her affirmative agenda for the country. She knows that she needs not only to beat Trump, but run up the score in battleground states where close Senate contests and even House races could tip the balance of Congress if her margin of victory is large enough. The 2018 midterm election looms just over the horizon as a catastrophic year for Senate Democrats, and she and they both need to have a positive program to run on to help stem expected losses. It is difficult to see how they do that without producing tangible results for working people across the country, and she will be hard-pressed to do that without the votes in Congress.

There’s no magic in that math. Counting to 60 and 218 is Clinton’s task, and that of her allies, today and for years to come.