To Fellow Dems: Better Want What You Wish For

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I grew up in San Jose, Calif. Politically, our neighbors were a mix of Republicans and Democrats, and included a rising local Democratic activist named Al Alquist.

My parents were staunch Republicans, but they and the Alquists became good friends, well before Al was elected to the state legislature and went on to be one of its most powerful members. As a kid, and despite familial political differences, Al took a liking to me and me to him, and those boyhood interactions led to a lifetime friendship and political alliance. In 1966, during my year of graduate studies at San Jose State, Al invited me to spend a week with him in Sacramento. He said it would be a wonderful way for me to learn about politics firsthand.

He invited me to sleep on the sofa bed in the living room of his one-bedroom apartment; he said I could accompany him to every event on his schedule for the entire week. And so I did. I sat in committee hearings, and on the Assembly floor. I went to lobbyists' breakfasts and lunches, and attended late-night poker games. And each day and evening, Al provided a wide-ranging and thorough tutorial on legislative affairs and politics. One lesson learned during week was both unintended and profound.

Walking back to the Capitol from lunch with Al and two of his Assembly colleagues, Willie Brown of San Francisco and Charlie Warren of Los Angeles, the conversation was about politics and the upcoming election for governor. I listened as these knowledgeable and savvy politicians talked. And I can remember to this day their consensus view: If only that conservative, B-grade actor, Ronald Reagan, could beat San Francisco’s moderate Republican Mayor George Christopher for the GOP nomination, then incumbent Democratic Gov. Pat Brown would be assured of a third term.

Well, as Texas’ Rick Perry might put it, “Oops!”

These Democrats got their wish, or at least the first part of it: Reagan did beat Christopher in the GOP primary. But then he went on to rack up a near million-vote margin over Pat Brown in the November general election. I have never forgotten that conversation, or that lesson. I recall it now because I sense the same kind of certainty and comfort on the part of Democrats as conversations center on Donald Trump’s presidential ambitions.

I’m the first to agree that Trump is no Ronald Reagan, as was amply demonstrated in Thursday night’s debate. Moreover, Trump’s post-debate rants and insults aimed at Fox News’ Megyn Kelly have needlessly complicated things for him in the weeks ahead. Nonetheless, we should not underestimate his possibilities in the 2016 race.

There is no question that Trump has tapped into a well-spring of public anger and frustration with the political status quo. But, anger and frustration aren’t the only forces at work here. There are uglier factors involved as well, namely, alarming levels of public ignorance and sheer nativism. Trump’s bombast and simplistic “solutions” are popular in part because way too many Americans don’t have a grasp of basic civics, let alone the faintest idea of what’s going on in the world around them.

Think I am being too harsh? Consider the following:

-- The online publication Salon reported last year that a poll conducted by the National Constitutional Center in 2007 found that two-thirds of Americans couldn’t name all three branches of the U.S. federal government or a single Supreme Court justice. “When respondents were asked whether they could recall any of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, a majority could name only free speech,” Salon noted. “More than a third were unable to list any First Amendment rights [and] 25 percent believe Christianity was established in the Constitution as the official government religion.”

-- As reported by Newsweek in 2011, 1,000 native born Americans were given the same test that is administered to immigrants in order for them to obtain U.S. citizenship. Among the findings: 29 percent couldn’t name the vice president, 73 percent couldn’t correctly say why we fought the Civil War, and 44 percent were unable to define the Bill of Rights.

-- Then of course, we have utterly mindless false flag and conspiracy theories. According to a CBS News/New York Times poll, 25 percent of our citizens thought President Obama was not born in the United States. The partisan breakdown was even more telling: Among both Republicans and self-identified Tea Party adherents, 45 percent believed Obama was born in another country.

-- The terrorist attacks of 9/11 have also fueled any number of conspiracy theories. As the American Enterprise Institute has noted, “The 9/11 terror attacks caused some Americans to search for an explanation beyond the official one. Because the attacks caused a significant shift in American foreign policy, some think the Bush administration purposefully allowed the attacks to happen in order to justify war and retribution. Others go so far to claim the government actively planned and carried out the attacks.” A 2006 Scripps Howard/Ohio University survey found that 36 percent of Americans found it “very likely” or “somewhat likely” that U.S. officials “either assisted in the 9/11 attacks or took no action to stop the attacks because they wanted the United States to go to war in the Middle East.”

-- If you think people in the citizenship pipeline—native born or immigrant—will be an improvement over today’s adult population, think again. The highly regarded National Assessment of Educational Progress—known as the Nation’s Report Card—shows just how dire the situation is likely to be going forward, as people reach voting age. In the 2014 NAEP, 17 percent of eighth-graders performed at the “proficient” level in U.S. history, 53 percent performed at the “basic” level, and 1 percent performed at the “advanced” level. Add those up and you get 71 percent, meaning that 29 percent scored below basic!

So, what does this have to do with the appeal of Donald Trump as a possible president of the United States? Bloomberg News reported recently on a focus group of New Hampshire voters who support Trump’s candidacy. Keeping in mind that focus groups are not statistically valid indicators of anything, they can be instructive as we analyze what and why subsets of voters are thinking or feeling as they do.

Some of the quotes describing Trump from the Bloomberg story are telling:

“He says it like it is.”

“He's willing to tell you his opinion. So many other politicians won't take an opinion.”

“Business… we need business, and I like his roughness.”

“He carries a sentiment and frustrations that I think a lot of Americans are going through and feeling right now ... I believe him when he talks.”

But, one comment from one of the participants struck me as particularly revealing, that despite Trump’s enormous wealth, “He's like one of us.”

Indeed, he is. And that’s the scariest part of all.

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