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The best conversation I’ve had about the election, with Molly Ball

“I feel like that’s been one of my learning experiences — that elections were, maybe, never about ideas.”

Donald Trump Holds Campaign Rally In Bangor, Maine Photo by Sarah Rice/Getty Images

“It feels in a lot of ways like America is having a nervous breakdown,” says the Atlantic’s Molly Ball, one of the sharpest political reporters in the business, on a recent episode of The Ezra Klein Show. (You can stream the episode here or subscribe to the show on iTunes.) “These candidates are epiphenomenon of a bigger national thing that is happening.”

In a conversation this September, Ball and I tried to make sense of the discontent that appears to be roiling the American electorate. Is fear of what’s changed in America driving the craziness we’re seeing in the 2016 election, or is it the election itself what is driving people crazy? Or is it neither — and we just got a series of freak accidents that led us to Donald Trump?

In a wide-ranging conversation, Ball and I also discussed if this election proved political consultants are useless, whether policy ideas ever matter in campaigns, and what Trumpism would look like without Donald Trump.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. For the full conversation, subscribe to the podcast.

Is the election a result of America’s nervous breakdown, or is America’s nervous breakdown a result of the election?

http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2016/presidential-election.pdf American Psychological Association

Molly Ball

The bigger question is, “How did we get to a place where something as crazy as this even came to pass?” And there are a lot of deeper reasons for that.

I think we are seeing, number one, what you and I have been writing about for a number of years: the falling apart of the Republican Party and the internal tensions reaching a breaking point where Trump could exploit the specific situation with this many candidates and the general situation of a party so divided against itself and confused about what it ought to stand for.

But the larger sense — and liberals hate comparing Trump supporters to Sanders supporters — but what I found talking to voters for both of these candidates, voters who were angry and wanted to not just enact new policies but tear down the whole system, there’s a sense of crisis. There’s a sense that things are so bad that extreme times require extreme solutions. And there’s a hunger for radicalism in the face of what people see as a corrupt and unsustainable status quo.

Ezra Klein

Let me push on that a bit.

Consumer confidence is where it was in 1996. If you back up and look at how people are feeling outside of presidential politics, things look really normal. Unemployment is under 5 percent, wages are going up, the uninsurance rate is going down. People in polling are not looking particularly strange. The president’s approval rating is above 50 percent.

Molly Ball

On the rosy statistical picture you paint, I think you can cherry-pick an opposite set of statistics that tells an opposite story.

Growth has been sluggish for quite a while, and people are still discombobulated from the recession and financial crisis. You have a world that feels like it’s on fire with terrorism and conflict abroad. You still have a very high number of Americans saying the country is on the wrong track.

And people are still really fearful. The level of fear in the electorate — fear of terrorism, fear of crime — is at a 15-year high. People have not been this afraid since just after 9/11. And it’s gone up 20 points in the last year and a half.

People are angry. They’re also afraid. And that sense of instability is what’s being felt in aftershocks in the political system.

Ezra Klein

All of that makes sense. But I think it’s hard in these discussions to know which way the causality runs. Fear is spiking, but is it spiking in part because of politics.

Am I afraid? Yes, I am definitely fucking afraid. But not because of the world. Right-track/wrong-track, questions of fear — people in a fundamental way feel the system they’ve trusted is failing them.

Molly Ball

I do think you’re right that the failures of the political system scare people — and that some of this is being produced by the gridlock in Washington that we’ve seen.

It will be an incredible irony if Trump, the deal-breaker who could shake up the system, was actually a reaction to Mitch McConnell and the obstructionism in the House and Senate and the inability of the two parties to work together.

Angry America, fearful America, the America in crisis — that’s one side of things. But then you have a candidate standing for normalcy and stability and an America that is doing pretty well and is comfortable with our increasingly diverse and pluralistic society. That is the clash that is being had.

Is 2016 proving that political campaigns have never been about ideas and issues?

Ezra Klein

Hillary, I think, is running as the representative of the political system. I think that’s why a lot of the Bernie Sanders supporters were okay with Barack Obama — who is substantively quite close to Clinton — but codes as an elemental reformer, whose basic attitude toward politics is that it’s fucked up.

That signal — that “do you kind of agree this is wrong” — seems to me more important than the question of, “Where exactly does your college tuition plan wipe out debt?”

Molly Ball

Yeah, I think it’s adorable that you continue to evaluate the candidates based on the plans they post on their websites. It’s really quaint. (Laughs)

This is not an election about policy. Possibly none of them have been, and we’ve all been fooling ourselves our whole lives. I feel like that’s been one of my learning experiences — that elections were, maybe, never about ideas. Maybe they were always about issues of identity and tribe and people’s sense of where the interests of their group lie and who they identify with.

It’s bigger than the “political system” writ small. It’s the whole system — the class system of “out of touch elites” who fly on each other’s jets and give expensive systems and hobnob in the same circles and go to Davos. Trump may be the billionaire in the race, but there’s a vulgarity to him that makes him not part of that polite civilization.

Hillary Clinton taking a selfie at a campaign event in Raleigh, North Carolina.
HRC campaigning in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Kainaz Amaria/Vox

Ezra Klein

Let’s go back to this idea of “what is the election about?” Trump is running an election based at least on some ideas — not Hillary’s 45 white papers with a dozen bullet points for each one.

There’s a great line from Mark Schmitt, “It’s not what you say about the issues; it’s what the issues say about you.” Trump was really good at choosing issues that said something about him — build a wall, ban Muslims travel to the US. He has ideas that he used to say “I’m willing to stand up for you” in a way others aren’t.

When I want to explain what Trump did, that was a lot of it. He understood where the electorate was, where the political elites are, and by stepping into the middle of that he can signal something the more complex plans can’t.

Molly Ball

The signature issue set of Trump is basically that of Trump from the ’90s.

I’ve talked to Pat Buchanan: He said the difference between me and Trump is that he’s succeeding where I failed. He said, “When I was running in the ’90s, I was warning people about the consequences of mass immigration, foreign adventurism, and unfettered trade. But I didn’t have the evidence for it yet, because it hadn’t happened.”

But, to him, the reason Trump won where Buchanan lost was that now people can see the consequences because we’ve done all of those things. There has been an attempt to turn this into a platform and remake the Republican Party as the ethno-nationalist right-wing party you see in Europe.

The bigger idea of Trump is a worldview idea. There has been, for decades in America, an agreement on both sides to subscribe to the polite fiction we can lift up everybody at once. And Trump says: “No, there are winners and losers. Do you want to be with the winners? It’s a zero-sum game, and you better get your piece of the pie.”

Can Trumpism exist without Trump?

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Ezra Klein

There are a lot of signals this wasn’t the country it was 30 years ago, and a lot of people feel that they are losing power. It may not be that they are upset about other people doing better, but they feel they are losing something.

I don’t know what you do with that. One problem is it keeps getting coded as a conversation about racism. And that makes people very, very defensive and very intent on winning it — and I think that’s creating an exceptionally toxic system in our informational commons, where people have to spin off into places where they’re safer from the other side of this debate because it’s such an emotionally difficult debate to be a part of and accused of.

I mean that from both sides. Trump has done that in a way that’s helping him. But what comes after him? How does American society absorb this in a more productive way than Trump?

Molly Ball

I think this is the identity politics election and I think it is true that a lot of it is reactionary. It’s reactionary in the sense that it’s a reaction to the rising identity politics of the left and of minorities.

You have a feminist movement more active and galvanized than it’s been in my lifetime. You have a civil rights galvanized and active and demanding in a forthright way not happening in the ’90s or the first decade of this century. And so a lot of the anti-political correctness sentiment Trump is tapping into, and the tribalism in his followers, is a reaction to what they see as the tribal assertions of their opponents.

The Trump supporters I’ve spoken to, that’s a lot of what they talk about. I’ve talked to Trump supporters right after he declined, briefly, to disavow the Ku Klux Klan. They said they didn’t understand why Trump should denounce the Klan if Obama doesn’t have to denounce Black Lives Matter.

To these Trump supporters, those were equivalent racist movements. So there’s a feeling — I’m not saying it’s correct, of course — but in terms of understanding how people feel, identity is a very powerful force. And a lot of white people feel they don’t have an outlet to express their identity the ways others do.

Ezra Klein

Do you think there’s a genteel form of Trumpism? A Reagan to Trump’s Goldwater?

Or is a core part of this picking these fights with the establishment, being reluctant to denounce David Duke? That is to say, is Trump’s very unusual personality — his money, his ability to command media attention, and his ability to handle conflict — what’s made his campaign possible?

Molly Ball

I’ve been trying to look at in a couple of ways. First of all, you hit on a very important point: All of these abstract explanations of Trump don’t account for Donald Trump the human being.

There’s a reason he was the one to pull this off. I wrote this piece a few months ago, “Why Donald Trump though?” and I tried to go through with my sources, “Why him?”

It’s his celebrity, it’s his money — so many of his positions are so antithetical to the interests of the donor class in the Republican Party that only someone with his own money and visibility could have done that. And, as you said, his shamelessness: He doesn’t care what people think of him.

That’s rare, particularly among rich, famous people. Most rich and famous people care very much about their image. And he doesn’t, and that’s a remarkable quality.

Look at someone like [Alabama Sen.] Jeff Sessions — you can get the anti-globalist positioning, and you’ve had a couple of candidates already try to do that. Paul Ryan had a challenger explicitly styling himself after Trump (who lost). Marco Rubio won against a Trump-like candidate in the Florida Senate race. You can talk about the specifics of their districts — it’s possible there is a 20 percent faction of the party that wants that specifically, and in a 16-way primary with an oddly charismatic figure at the helm you can get to first place. Most primaries won’t be 16-way.

I have a lot of Republicans friends who want Trump to be an anomaly. And that’s the case they make for it.